Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order for the Nintendo Switch is a true throwback game, transporting players to a time when the majority of the world outside of comic book circles didn’t know who most of these characters are.
When Raven Software and Activision debuted Marvel Ultimate Alliance for previous-gen systems in 2006, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) wasn’t even a thing. Only old school comic fans knew who Iron Man was, and Robert Downey Jr. was still battling his reputation as a drug addict while trying to make a comeback in Hollywood by doing indie films, and even a classical music album.
Despite the odds, Marvel Ultimate Alliance (and its sequel) were both amazing four-player co-op action RPGs that respected the material and made comic book fans everywhere swoon with epic stories that hit upon all of the major Marvel heroes and their iconic villains. In fact, I still think the first MUA is the best comic book-based game I’ve ever played.
13 years later, the franchise is back with Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order, now developed by Team Ninja. This new adventure hits all the right notes to create a new story that borrows the best from mega-popular MCU films, TV shows, and comics, with the Mad Titan Thanos and the Infinity Gauntlet at the center of the 15-20 hour campaign. All of the features that made the first two games great are here, including the ability to create four-member teams from the vast number of characters, and Alliance bonuses, which are awarded by grouping like-minded heroes together.
Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, and Hulk constitute the core Avengers set, naturally, and the grouping gives various bonuses to strength, synergy, and unity attacks. Spider-Man (Peter Parker), Miles Morales, Spider-Gwen, and Venom make up the Spider-family, which also comes with another set of bonuses. There are a staggering number of possible alliances, including Marvel Knights, Women of Marvel, Mutants, and Marvel Royalty, among others. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order opens with the player taking control of the Guardians of the Galaxy — Star-Lord, Drax, Gamora, and Groot and Rocket (those last two are a duo) — which gives the team a Cosmic bonus.
The combinations are limitless, and with 42 confirmed characters (there will be future DLC drops as part of a season pass), there is truly a superhero team for every taste — it’s what makes Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 such a treat to play.
As mentioned, the game opens with the Guardians of the Galaxy making a typical Guardians-esque mistake by putting the fate of the galaxy at risk after losing the Infinity Stones. Star-Lord and his team track the stones to Earth, and they learn that Marvel’s villains have gotten ahold of them, prompting Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. to call in every hero to help get them back before Thanos and his Black Order can assemble the Infinity Gauntlet. And we’ve all seen how that can turn out.
The story dances between various iconic comic book-inspired locations, from The Raft to Avengers Tower, and even Xavier’s School for Gifted Students. The maps are pretty straight forward, funneling the player from skirmish to skirmish, with boss battles thrown in to break up the monotony. There are hidden chests offering various upgrades, and rifts can be discovered that open up special Infinity levels, which we’ll get to in-depth shortly.
Each chapter introduces a new collection of heroes that add to the Alliance, and characters can be switched out at various points in each level. One downside is that benched heroes don’t earn XP, so any ignored character essentially becomes worthless after a chapter or two. If you were benching Daredevil until The Punisher joins the party (via DLC) in order to create a Marvel Knights team with Luke Cage and Iron Fist, you might be disappointed. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order does have a way to address this, but it doesn’t make the grind any easier.
Players are given a surprisingly deep character customization mechanic. You can upgrade skills, attacks and more, and there’s even a skills grid with upgrades that can be “purchased” as the game progresses. The Lab mode offers the skills grids and ISO-8 crystals that can be deconstructed and mixed to create even more powerful upgrades, such as more vitality or strength, and ISO-8’s can be swapped out depending on the mission and individual need.
The hidden rifts and unlockable Infinity levels are special challenges that can be played and re-played to earn XP, cash, and upgrade crystals, and if certain objectives are met — like beating a level in a set time or reaching a certain score — players unlock important gems and powerful ISO-8 crystals, which give stat bonuses to each hero. This is how you can level up weaker players quickly, but be warned, these challengers aren’t easy. Even at full strength with a complimentary team of high-level mains, they will give you a run for your money.
It pays to read the description on how to take on an Infinity level. If a level calls for synergy attacks, use them, as regular attacks will do nothing, and may even heal enemies. Finding the right combination of characters is key to succeeding, especially when it comes to the Infinity challenges. There are also co-op opportunities for groups of up to four friends to come together to take on the challenge. Multiplayer can be done with online or couch co-op friends (better bust out your Joy-Con).
Considering that Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order is a Switch exclusive, it might not come as a surprise that the visuals and art design are pedestrian at best. The cel-shading character models of the original MUA games return, but the maps don’t offer much variety or inspiration. Every room looks the same in a given location, and the few puzzles scattered in each chapter are not very challenging.
What does shine is the sense of fluidity and character animations. Captain America will swing and jab his shield in melee combat, and after a combo, he’ll end it with a cool flip-kick that sends his iconic weapon at an enemy, only for it to return to Cap’s arm with a neat ending pose — a move that would fit right at home in an MCU movie. Other characters have equally-as-stunning moves while engaged in combat, which makes button mashing more fun than it should be. This is the trade-off for what might be seen as lackluster gameplay variety, regardless of which characters you pick.
It’s because of this that Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order has to rely on the strength of the fantasy team-building mechanic, as creating these sometimes off-the-wall dream teams is, by far, the best part of this game. But even with the 42 known characters, there are still some head-scratching omissions — like Howard the Duck — that could have been an amazing addition to the franchise. And if you’re wondering, Howard would qualify as a Defender, Cosmic, Martial Artist, and more. The forlorn fowl has been around for over almost 40 years and has had his webbed foot in the door of a great many of Marvel’s iconic heroes and their stories. Just sayin’.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order is a welcome return to form, and by borrowing themes and characters from the mega-popular MCU films, this game fits right into the franchise, which boasts a much bigger fanbase. The grinding and constant button mashing does get old, but the story keeps you engaged as you unlock more and more characters, and the Infinity levels offer new challenges — just wait until you unlock the ability to play as Thanos! The customization and alternate costumes help sell the idea that you have total control of your team, and all of this makes Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order a worthwhile experience for all fans, old and new. Just be sure to keep your expectations tempered.
This review is based on the Nintendo Switch exclusive version of the game. A copy was provided to us by Nintendo.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order is a welcome return to form for the 13-year-old franchise. Creating superhero dream teams is definitely the selling point here, but the execution does fall victim to a few stumbles.