Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order is a virtual playground where Marvel stans can live out all the scenarios that used to be the sole domain of action figures and imaginations. It couldn’t have arrived at a better time.
It’s been almost an entire decade since the last game in the series, not to mention a leap to a new publisher and developer. It’s also a Nintendo Switch exclusive, and it’s releasing in a world that’s more Marvel-obsessed than ever. And yet, for all these changes, this is still the Ultimate Alliance fans know and love.
But what if you’re not a fan? The “MUA” games (pronounced “MOO-uh”), as longtime players fondly call them, take the best aspects of Marvel Comics — the heroes and villains, and their range of powers and colorful costumes — and fuse them with an action role-playing game that’s basically superhero Diablo.
So you run around Marvel locations like Avengers Tower and the Dark Dimension, using a mix of light/heavy attacks and energy-consuming powers to beat up an assortment of super-villains and their lackeys. At frequent intervals along the way, you meet up with familiar superheroes who join your “Ultimate Alliance” of playable characters.
As your alliance grows, so does your power. Beating the stuffing out of villains gets you XP, which levels you up and gives you access to new abilities. You can also eventually collect ISO-8 crystals, which replaces gear from the previous games (and works just like armor in other RPGs); equipping these crystals confers a variety of stat boosts.
Image: team ninja / nintendo
Even under the guidance of new developer Team Ninja, all of those series basics are intact and just as pleasing as they were 10 years ago. This is a Marvel Comics dream-team simulator; you pick a foursome of heroes from your deep roster, which mixes together familiar faces like Captain Marvel and Star-Lord with deeper cuts like Elsa Bloodstone and Crystal. Then you go out and fight foes like Thanos, Kingpin, M.O.D.O.K., and more.
For all those similarities, Ultimate Alliance 3 is filled with improvements to the formula. The ISO-8 crystals aren’t just swappable stat modifiers. You can also upgrade them, investing earned credits and other crafting materials into souping up the bonus they provide when equipped.
Leveling up your powers has also been streamlined. Where before you had a measure of choice in guiding your hero’s development, now each hero fits into one of several archetypes based on their abilities. They have a fixed set of four powers that unlock at levels 1, 10, 15, and 20, and those powers can all be further upgraded to boost their damage or reduce their energy cost.
Upgraded powers are also more effective at staggering enemies, which in many ways defines the flow of combat in Ultimate Alliance 3. As you beat up certain enemies — the tougher ones that have a purple power bar — you deplete that bar. Zero it out and the enemy is “staggered,” at which point they stop attacking briefly and take more damage. Most of the game’s boss fights are built around figuring out the most effective way to stagger each one.
This is a Marvel Comics dream-team simulator.
These changes, taken all together, force you to pay more attention to individual stats and give careful consideration to team composition, especially later in the game and at higher difficulties. There might be situations where assembling a foursome of brawlers — let’s say Hulk, Drax, Luke Cage, and Venom — makes sense, but it’s best to let the task at hand dictate your choices… even if that means trying and failing a few times until you get your team right.
You’ll still inevitably settle on “favorites” that you lean on again and again; Wolverine and Psylocke were regulars for me. But because each hero is a little more focused in what they can — and, importantly, can’t — do, I found myself trying out different team make-ups more than I’m used to in MUA games.
Ultimate Alliance 3 features an original story that riffs on familiar elements from both the comics and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it stands as its own creation. In 2009, Ultimate Alliance 2 capitalized on the popularity of Marvel’s Civil War and Secret War storylines with a story that blended elements of both. For The Black Order, the inspiration is — you guessed it — the MCU scramble for Infinity Stones.
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The Stones are scattered and have found their way into an assortment of evildoers’ hands. Thanos and his Black Order — the four generals from Infinity War and Endgame who all had bit parts to play before one or several heroes squashed them — are on the hunt, but so are you. That premise serves as a perfect excuse for visiting different corners of the Marvel universe and battling their trademark villains.
We start, for example, in the Raft, Marvel’s high-security prison for superpowered baddies. The Guardians of the Galaxy end up getting zapped into the prison’s confines while a Green Goblin-led riot is underway, and they have to fight their way out. They eventually end up in the heart of New York City, chasing a lead on one of the lost Stones to the Kingpin’s rooftop Shadowland fortress, occupied by the Hand’s forces.
In a welcome addition, Ultimate Alliance 3 isn’t over after you finish the story. A new Infinity Trials mode gives you a way to level up mid-game, if, say, the story’s progress outpaces your own leveling, but it’s also built to be a post-story pursuit. There are high-level challenges that go well past the final chapter’s level recommendation, and they let you unlock things like bonus costumes and new playable characters.
Image: team ninja / nintendo
Most of the trials are re-dos or remixes of boss fights or notable moments from the story, but with one key exception: the trials add rule modifiers. One early trial, for example, pits you against Doctor Octopus, but makes it so only Synergy Attacks — when two heroes combine their powers for added effect — do real damage (but your regular attacks also refill energy faster).
There are so many little rules around energy generation, stats, power attacks vs. Synergy Attacks vs. Extreme Attacks, and more that it’s not the most approachable system initially. The MUA games are button-mashers to their very core, but there’s definitely more mashing and less thoughtful preparation in the early hours of this new one, thanks to limited tutorials and a downright laughable number of different crafting currencies. (I haven’t even mentioned “Team Enhancements,” which let you buy universal stat boosts for your whole squad.)
I quickly realized that the most effective way to deal with this deluge of unclear information was… ignore it. Everything became clear over time, especially as the difficulty ramped up and I felt the need to actually explore the systems a little more closely. I didn’t spend a single upgrade point until I started unlocking some powers and seeing the differences between one and another.
A new difficulty unlocks after you finish, along with more Trials and some surprising unlockable characters.
That’s what I’d recommend for everyone: dive in and play, and forget about all the rest. Mess around with different heroes and squad configurations and just have fun until the going gets too hard. That’s when you’ll want to start digging into the menus.
There’s also an adjustable difficulty, and no shame in turning it down if you’d rather just blow through the story. Some players will probably find the default Mighty difficulty just a bit too tough about halfway through the story, especially those who haven’t spent a bunch of extra time on Infinity Trials. The lower Friendly setting is great; still fairly challenging, especially later on, but smart button-mashing will get you through most of it.
Remember: this is a game that’s meant to be replayed, and more than once. A new difficulty unlocks after you finish the story, along with a whole new set of Infinity Trials and some genuinely surprising unlockable characters. There’s a lot still to reach for at that point, and plenty of reason to dive back into either the story or older trials, just to try out your new toys.
Taken together, the whole package feels like a Marvel-themed virtual playground. You’ve got your set of action figures, a whole mess of familiar places to visit, a rogue’s gallery of Marvel villain favorites, and a high-stakes twist on one of the most popular stories in the publisher’s archives.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order is technically more of the same. But in this case, “the same” is both a monument to fan service and a vast improvement on the 10-years-gone MUA series. It’s as exciting and as fresh as it ever was.