For years - ten of them, to be exact - the Marvel Ultimate Alliance games have retreated into the kind of obscurity only wistful nostalgia can occasionally dispel. They weren’t particularly outstanding games, but they were packed full of characters, lore, and storylines pulled straight out of Marvel’s vast archive. This was back when superhero properties spawned a good game once in a blue moon, and before Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man turned comic book geekery into a billion dollar industry.
Since then, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has come to rule the silver screen, while DC has held a firm and unyielding grip on caped video game heroism. With Avengers: Endgame having made more money than the Queen, God and JK Rowling combined, there’s never been a better time to tap into that mainstream love and brand recognition for Marvel’s sprawling cast of characters. So while it isn’t a shock to see Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order touch down in 2019 - complete with its own, more traditional take on Thanos and the Infinity Stones - it is surprising to see it eschew its old multiplatform ways in favour of Nintendo Switch exclusivity.
With Nintendo now on publishing duties (Activision is clearly focused purely on guaranteed money makers like Call of Duty), development duties for this third entry now sits in the hands of a Japanese studio for the first time. Unlike Raven and Vicarious Visions before it (they of CoD and Skylanders fame), Team Ninja brings years of experience working on some of the best hack ‘n’ slash games of all time in Ninja Gaiden and, more recently, the Dark Souls-esque Nioh. Which is interesting, because unlike those two series - which placed success on your speed and accuracy - The Black Order is much more of a loose arcade experience geared towards rewarding group play than punishing solo gauntlets.
Boiled down to its basic metahuman ingredients, The Black Order is a co-operative arcade brawler that enables you to fight hordes of enemies as some of your favourite Marvel superheroes and villains. When you start off you have access to only a small group of heroes (including The Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy and a few extras), but you’ll gradually unlock more as you progress through the main story. The real fun comes from choosing the best team of four to unite, and experimenting to see which ones work best as a squad. For instance, having a ranged character such as Scarlet Witch provides a great means of support, while Wolverine’s speed makes him deadly in the middle of a crowd.
The synergy attacks from Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 return, and with more characters to choose from than ever before, selecting your team also poses the question of how well each hero/villain will link up with another. Thor’s electrical prowess makes him a perfect accompaniment as he increases the intensity of his thunder strikes, while Black Widow can utilise explosives to creatively control crowds. These attacks are really easy to initiate too, so all you have to do is hold ‘R’ and press the relevant direction on the D-pad. The only caveat is that you need to be relatively close to each character in order to successfully perform these group attacks, which will force you to fight a little smarter in co-op. In terms of single-player, you’ll often have to be more aware of where your other teammates are and dodge over to them to initiate the correct manoeuvre.
In practice, The Black Order plays and looks a lot like the modern LEGO Marvel Super Heroes games, what with the large roster of interchangeable characters and levels that span multiple locales from Marvel lore. There’s even the occasional environmental puzzle - such as traversing a Takeshi’s Castle-style maze full of switches and force fields - and the odd bit of platforming. But, for the most part, you’ll be running from one room to the next, smashing up a load of goons and before taking on a boss or two. It’s proof that the developer has nailed the formula that served the previous two games so well, but the wild melee nature of its combat does leave it feeling a little soulless.
In terms of finesse, The Black Order isn’t quite up to the standards of Ninja Gaiden, but the inclusion of more powerful enforcers (who possess both rechargeable armour and health bars) alongside regular goons, does introduce some semblance of tactics mid-battle. The key here is to utilise heroes with powers more suited to draining armour at a faster rate (such as Thor) or having one member of your team utilise heavy attacks. Boss fights are often quite inventive, such as battling Doctor Octopus while riding down a lift shaft or taking down a symbiotic amalgam of Venom and Electro. While very few of them are that challenging, they’re nonetheless an entertaining way to plunder Marvel’s deep well of foes.
One issue that dogged the previous games returns for The Black Order in the form of one very unpredictable camera. For a mostly linear arcade brawling experience, the game’s camera too often lets the action spill out of frame, forcing you to dodge or run back into view, even if it leaves you open to attack. This can be a real issue when you’re playing in co-op as the camera zooms in and out at random as it struggles to compensate for the players spread across the screen (although the game will warp players who stray too far back to the main group, which can be just as annoying). However, the problem is just as present when playing solo with the AI at your side. Perhaps it’s the over-reliance on corridor-set locales, but it can be a very frustrating niggle.
It’s also very easy to lose track of what’s going on, especially when you and three other characters are battling 30 or more enemies on-screen at once; with impact effects on-screen and objects shattering here and there, tracking the chaos on-screen can be a challenge even at the best of times, a problem that’s all the more apparent when playing in handheld mode. After a couple of hours it does become easier to discern where you are on the battlefield while 20 ninjas are trying to slice your head off, and you can manually select a more zoomed in perspective, so it’s an issue that Team Ninja has clearly tried to address.
However, for all these little issues, The Black Order is a really enjoyable throwback to the days of SNES/Mega Drive classics such as Captain America and The Avengers. It hasn’t done anything particularly new to the core gameplay, but being able to play solo, locally with a friend or online with up to three other like-minded super strangers does help this familiar formula fit the remit of gaming in 2019. As a Nintendo Switch exclusive, it also runs very smoothly, even when four players are clobbering away together on-screen. Character models do get a little jaggy in places, but the cartoonish visuals help counter that. It might be an unusual choice as a platform exclusive, but it’s a must for Marvel devotees and a silly and over-the-top arcade brawler that’s going to tick many a co-op box.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order isn’t a groundbreaking, narrative-heavy reinterpretation of the comic characters you know and love, but then again neither were the first two games. In that regard, it’s a very faithful sequel that mines the vast roster of characters from the comics while including plenty of nods to the current state of the more modern Marvel Cinematic Universe. While it doesn’t do anything particularly new or outstanding, it embraces the brainless fun of its brawler combat with gusto, and it’s at its absolute best when played with a team of player-controlled supers.