When it was released three years ago, Marvel Ultimate Alliance was the first game that truly took advantage of the vast texture of the Marvel Universe, delivering on literally decades of back-history and fan-favorite moments. Ultimate Alliance 2 promises to take it to the next level by focusing on a specific event from a few years back: Civil War, the Mark Millar-penned tale that pitched hero against hero after the US government institutes the Superhero Registration Act in the wake of a hero related tragedy that killed over 600 people. Arguably one of the finest universe-wide events to come out of the House of Ideas since Secret Wars or Mutant Massacre, Civil War featured our favorite heroes in situations that often compromised their core beliefs while fighting for their ideals. MUA2 follows this epic storyline…up to a point. You will eventually be forced to choose whether or not you are Pro-Registration and side with Iron Man and S.H.I.E.L.D. to hunt down those who refuse to sign up, or go underground with Captain America’s group of Rebels. Hero fights hero over the course of several very well executed levels, which differ according to which side you choose, resulting in a very distinct and fresh approach to the usual ‘fight the bad guys’ paradigm that is typically present in superhero themed games. When the game finally reaches the climactic battle between the two sides, it takes off in a completely unexpected direction. Obviously, the game cannot hope to encompass what unfolded over dozens of issues of several titles, but this significant divergence halfway through the game takes it into new and much tamer territory. It isn’t bad, it just isn’t Civil War proper, and those expecting the game to be a faithful adaptation with it’s bittersweet outcome may feel the plot comes up short.

That said, MUA2 is in many ways a much better experience than it’s predecessor. Graphically, it is firmly in the here and now of current-gen systems, with beautifully rendered character models and animations. The first installment was saddled with cross platform assets that really drug down the overall quality when looking at it on the PS3 or 360, but that is not an issue at all here. While I did experience a few in-game glitches (such as a mysteriously dancing boulder), the overall quality and framerate were very good. The realistic physics, better lighting, and vastly improved textures up the visual bar so significantly that it’s hard to believe the two games are even related. The comparison falters a bit when it comes to the CGI cutscenes, however, as I felt that Blur Studios efforts in the first game outshone their work in this one (which, ironically felt more out of place in MUA1 due to the disparity of the in-game graphics). Wolverine, in particular, looked a bit odd, and several times I noted lip-syncing issues that made me wonder if the scenes were translated from another language.

The series’ newest game mechanic is also it’s most visually striking: Fusion attacks. Vicarious Visions knew these were so good that the game was actually subtitled ‘Fusion’ when it was first announced. These fall into one of three categories- Clearing (area of effect), Targeted (single enemy attack, perfect for boss battles), and Guided (player controlled maneuverable attacks). Anytime an energy caster gets paired up with Wolverine, for instance, his claws fragment their beams and spray enemies with an ‘clearing’ area effect of destructive force. My personal favorite was matching up Thor with Iron Fist, creating a guided chi-empowered cyclone that can cut a destructive swath through countless enemies. All of the powers have additional commands that augment the outcome, such as widening the area of effect or moving to a specific target. Additionally, optimum success in the execution of these powers results in bonus healing drops (of which two can be stored up at a time) that enable you to either heal a team member to maximum health or revive them if they get knocked out, solving one of the bigger gameplay issues of MUA1. Fusion attacks are made available once a meter is filled through the defeating of enemies and damaging the environment, and initially you can only have two of these charged up at a time as well.

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 continues the RPG-like aspects of the series, giving the player the ability to upgrade and unlock additional powers through leveling up and gathering ability orbs. As in the first game, selecting certain team members in your party of four yields additional boosts and bonuses, though it seems there are less variations available this time due to the nature of the the storyline (during the Civil War levels certain characters are made unavailable depending on which side you pick. Don’t worry, you’ll probably fight them later). A definite improvement is the medal system, which confers bonuses team-wide and replaces the forgettable gear customization from the first game. There are tons of these medals, and they are awarded for everything from defeating bosses and mini-bosses to utilizing specific powers a set number of times. Boosts conferred cover a wide variety of resistances and bonuses, but by far the most useful one I came across added a third Fusion gauge to the screen, effectively ramping up my team’s ability to stomp down those harder to beat enemies.

One of my favorite aspects of both Ultimate Alliance games lies in the Gauntlet-esque co-operative gameplay, enabling me to play with my Marvel Zombie-in-training son. Of course, up to four people can play at a time, but even with just two we often found the amount of activity on the screen to be a little confusing at times, perhaps an unintended sacrifice to the upgraded graphics. Two players certainly worked better than one for the most part, however, as the teammate AI could get pretty hit-or-miss. More than once I found an ally staring at a wall while I was in the thick of a huge battle- one would think Wolverine would get a little more involved. This malaise seemed to extend to the lesser enemies as well as I would often find large clusters of them hanging out in a corner of the room just standing there as if their comrades weren’t getting mowed down systematically in front of them.

With two different story paths to follow, a healthy collection of standalone challenge levels, literally hundreds of boost medals and collectable items, and several combinations of unlockable characters and alternate costumes, Marvel Ultimate Alliance offers quite a bit of replayability. Once you complete the game you can of course play through again at a higher difficulty while maintaining your advanced levels and powers, and it is certainly compelling enough to go through a second or even a third time. I particularly like how three characters were handled: Thor, Hulk, and Phoenix. In the Marvel Universe of the comics, these three are considered ‘omega-class’ powerhouses, characters that are significantly more powerful than the rest, and that is portrayed considerably better this time around. Watching Thor swing his hammer, flinging enemies left and right and commanding incredibly destructive and visually impressive Fusion attacks really brought home the fact that an Asgardian God of Thunder had entered the field of battle. I can only imagine what The Hulk and Phoenix bring to the table, and finding the remaining collectibles that unlock them is at the top of my list for my next go at the game. I am, however, a little disappointed with most of the alternate costumes I managed to unlock as they took considerable liberties with the character designs. I’m just not sure why anybody thought Iron Fist would look good in a turban.