Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order is a joy to play. It’s what happens when you take a franchise that’s lain dormant for nearly a decade and bring it back with just enough improvements to make it feel like a better-executed version of what came before.
It stumbles far more than I would like on several fronts, such as the AI and the cluttered visuals, but Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 proves to be a treat for action role-playing game fans and Marvel aficionados alike.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 comes to the Nintendo Switch courtesy of Team Ninja, the developers behind Hyrule Warriors and Fire Emblem Warriors. It retains much of the same structure as its predecessors, where a large cast of Marvel superheroes traverse through iconic Marvel locations, beating up thugs and more powerful villains along the way. This time, it’s all in the service of preventing Thanos and his Black Order from collecting the Infinity Stones and using them to — you know the drill.
I would be lying if I said that the story mattered because in truth it is just used as a vehicle to smash iconic Marvel heroes (as well as some notably less well-known heroes) against iconic Marvel villains. In that regard, it succeeds wonderfully. New characters join the alliance at a breezy pace, ensuring barely twenty minutes go by without someone making their grand entrance. It’s not always well-paced — one chapter features two back-to-back fights that you must lose to progress that come up swiftly and without warning — but Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3, much like a big comic crossover, keeps things moving without sweating over the details.
This is all to ensure that the actual fighting, which makes up the bulk of what you do, takes center stage. Like previous entries, you’ll select a party of four heroes that can be switched between at the press of the d-pad if you’re playing single-player or have less than a party of four in multiplayer. There are two primary buttons you’ll use in battle; one dedicated to light attacks and another to heavy attacks. You can mix these ups to create combos of your own, though different characters will have different uses for each button. Playing as Iron Fist, your attacks mostly consist of straightforward, no-nonsense punches and kicks. As a ranged character like Star-Lord, however, your heavy attack can be charged to deal more damage. Characters are broadly sorted into different categories of fighters, so some may have similar styles of attack to others.
The abilities are ostensibly what makes each character unique, though again, there are similarities between what different special attacks do. Each hero has four upgradeable abilities that can be activated by pressing the right shoulder button and a corresponding face button. Interestingly, these abilities can be used alongside your teammates’ abilities to unleash Synergy attacks, which combine two characters abilities for a ton of damage. This adds another layer to team compositions, as you’ll want to pair characters who can bounce off of each other’s power sets. Thankfully, you can see what heroes work best with others via a tagline system that gives each hero four to six descriptors, such as ‘Original Avenger’ and ‘Web Crawler’. It also makes creating interesting teams fun, as you mix and match characters to see what works best for you (Iron Fist and Spider-Gwen are a great tag team combo).
All of this is interesting and would be perfectly fine in and of itself. But what makes Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 so much better is how enemy fights are constructed. Normal minions just need to be punched a lot to be defeated. But bosses, as well as bigger minions, have Stagger bars that must be depleted in order to stun them and open the door to higher damage moves. You’ll need to make use of characters that have abilities that can break stagger in order to succeed in fights. While this could be a constraint, each character typically has at least one ability that can serve this purpose, even those heroes like Psylocke may be best suited to the role.
On top of this, bosses in Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 cannot be defeated by spamming moves and punches over and over again. Much like an MMO, bosses telegraph their attacks before using them, either by dropping circles that must be avoided or making use of long wind-ups before they unleash a powerful attack. If you don’t dodge some of these, you’re going to lose fights. You need to understand their attack patterns in order to win, and patience is key to waiting for the right moment to counter-attack. As you progress, bosses will start featuring more and more complicated mechanics that must be dealt with. This isn’t frustrating; it’s invigorating. You have to be quick on your feet to deal with multiple mechanics at the same time, and it creates such a rush when you finally vanquish a boss. Team Ninja has not only made Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 faster, but it’s also made it better through these changes.
Which makes it all the more enjoyable when you play multiplayer. This is meant to be played with friends, not only because that’s a better way to play, but because the AI of your fellow heroes all too often drags down campaign itself. When I mentioned bosses required dodging and patience in order to defeat them, your AI companions will routinely stand in the path of attacks, swiftly killing them. When you must break an enemy’s stagger bar before they unleash an attack that will knock off half of your health, the AI will stand around for seconds not doing anything. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 is still fun to play by yourself, but you’re going to have to grit your teeth and bear it far more than you should.
In addition, if you regularly switch up the heroes on your roster, you’ll inevitably fall behind level-wise as the fights get tougher and tougher. You can either switch chapters and run through earlier levels, or you can take part in Ultimate Alliance 3’s optional challenges. Called Infinity Rifts, these are trials that give both experiences and upgrade materials if you can fulfill certain objectives. They’re straightforward, challenging if you complete at the appropriate level, and give rewards that are pivotal to growing the cast. There are also upgradeable and equitable artifacts called ISO-8 that you can slot into your characters to boost certain traits, which are as poorly named as they are tangentially useful.
Visually, characters and backgrounds alike are vibrant, mixing designs from both the comics and the Marvel Cinematic Universe to create its world. This is best illustrated when you’re not fighting, however, as combat is very hectic to the point where it’s difficult to tell what’s going on. When over a dozen minions, a boss, and four heroes are all unleashing attacks at once that all too frequently cover the screen, you’ll often be at a loss as to what is actually happening, particularly when played in handheld mode. And don’t ask me what goes on when characters use their Extreme attacks; there are a plethora of particle effects for each Extreme attack, which makes it hard to see what else happening on screen. Coupled with a camera that often changes the view to angles that are unhelpful, and figuring out what’s going on at any one time is half the battle.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 is comfort food. It retains the multiplayer dungeon crawling and love of the source material that made the two previous titles enjoyable, but it also elevates the action just enough to make it better and more entertaining than what came before. Not all of it works as well as it should, yet it’s vision isn’t compromised by the missteps it makes. You’re going to have a good time when you play Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3. And sometimes, that’s all you really need.