Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 isn’t a great game. And maybe that’s why I had such a great time playing it.
Every week at Tom’s Guide, we’d like to share a game that one of our employees actually plays. Covering the latest and greatest releases with news, reviews, and features is great, but it’s not always indicative of how people actually play. Overall, the gaming public plays what they want, when they want. After all, that’s the beauty of always-available digital downloads, extensive backward compatibility, and extensive subscription services.
Tom’s Guide writers and editors – myself included – are no different. And since I’m not reviewing anything urgent right now, I spent most of my free time with Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3, a rather unremarkable Nintendo Switch title from 2019.
I gave the game a polite review, citing its solid action/RPG gameplay, large cast of Marvel characters, and fairly good crossover story for a comic book. I also didn’t think I would particularly want to review the game, due to its uneven difficulty curve and frequent and frustrating boss fights.
But over the past few weeks, I’ve found that if you can look beyond the first part, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 is a soothing, relaxing, almost Zen-like experience that’s rewarding in short bursts and far more varied than it looks like it initially. It never aspires to be gaming’s next great masterpiece – and, ironically, feels more absorbing than many “best” games as a result.
Vampires, mutants and cosmic rays
Like many games, a DLC pack convinced me to pick up Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 after essentially ignoring it for two years. Over the Christmas holidays, I wanted to play something light and fluffy, which wouldn’t be hard to let go of if I needed to do something more pressing, like, well, almost anything. I decided to replay the Ultimate Alliance series because without the MCU, I haven’t really had my Marvel fix lately.
The first two games hold up pretty well, especially if you caught their short-lived PS4/Xbox One remasters a few years ago. But it wasn’t until I reached Ultimate Alliance 3 that I found something a bit more substantial. This is because Ultimate Alliance 3 had three DLC packs that I hadn’t touched yet. Each adds a handful of new playable characters, as well as a series of “Gauntlet” challenges and/or a new story segment. That’s not a bad deal for $20 total, especially since you’re getting fan-favorite characters like Blade, Jean Grey, and the Fantastic Four. (I don’t know who was clamoring to play as Spider-Man C-lister Michael Morbius, but whoever they are, I’m happy for them.)
Right from the start, I had a problem. Unlike many other games with DLC characters, Ultimate Alliance 3 doesn’t just unlock them automatically. Instead, you must earn them by completing a series of challenges. And those challenges require levels way above what you would earn by beating the game just once on the default difficulty. If I wanted to access the DLC I had paid for, I would have to replay the entire story, undertake optional standalone challenges, participate in Gauntlets, purchase gear from the in-game store, and hunt down powerful hidden items, and, and , and.
I had paid for my characters fair and square, and I intended to grit my teeth and go through that process. But after a few hours of work, I had a surprising realization: I was having fun. Much like the comics that inspired it, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 is great “look at all the pretty colors and don’t think too hard about it” entertainment. Should I seek deeper and more meaningful media in my free time? May be. But if your goal is to stand out – or catch up on some podcasts, YouTube series, or even TV shows that don’t require your full attention – Ultimate Alliance 3 can and will get the job done.
A virtuous circle
If you’ve never played an Ultimate Alliance game before, the call is extremely easy to explain. The series includes three hack-and-slash action/RPG games, where you build a party of four with your favorite Marvel superheroes.
Ultimate Alliance 3 has a huge roster of playable characters: 52, to be precise. Unless the characters are in your active party, they won’t gain any experience. As such, if you want to use more than four characters to achieve the game’s myriad objectives, you’ll have to switch things up and grind. However, the game encourages you to do so in several ways. As you level up characters, you earn money to unlock skills that make your whole team stronger. You can discover equipment that gives huge XP bonuses. Even if you just want to unlock optional costumes and voice lines, you’ll have to fight your way through a good chunk of the playable cast to do so.
After a while, the game builds a predictable and rewarding loop:
- Choose a team
- Play through the main story mode or a challenge mode with this team
- Use your level up team to get XP boosting gear
- Equip a new team of XP boosting gear
- Play through the story or challenge mode at a higher difficulty
After a while, you can level an entire team of characters from level 1 to level 100 in about an hour, and then you can lead that team through a whole new set of challenges, earning you more costumes and upgrade points, allowing you to tinker with a whole new team. And you can do that with about half your attention elsewhere.
Pretty good games
A while ago I had a conversation with a friend of mine about what we were playing. At the time, I was in the middle of Dragon Ball Xenoverse: a fun title, but far from one of the great games of the last decade. He replied that Xenoverse was a “pretty good game” and that sometimes it was more fun than “good” games.
I completely agree with his assessment. Every time you sit down to play God of War, Red Dead Redemption, or Halo, you know that on some level you’re playing an “important” game. Even though the game itself looks fun and breezy, it is an integral part of the gaming culture and demands your full attention. Whether you end up loving or hating the game, you need to have something consistent to say about it, because sooner or later someone is going to ask you, and maybe even ask you to stand up for your opinion.
Conversely, no one will care what you, or me, or anyone else thinks of Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3. Its sole purpose is to let you live out a superhero team-up fantasy. It has nothing to do with the culture surrounding the game or pop culture in general. It does not require deep thinking or dissection. It doesn’t even require your full concentration. It’s junk food, but we all crave junk food from time to time. And giving in to that urge once in a while is probably healthier than ignoring it altogether.
The weird thing about Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 is that a single game doesn’t show how deep the rabbit hole can go. If you’ve played the game once, with only one playthrough, I strongly encourage you to download the DLC and give it a second try. Maybe you won’t be there long term, like me, but if you are, the online co-op scene is still alive and well.