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Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order - Nintendo Switch

Any game that has local co-op, and drop-in/drop-out play as an ARPG immediately shows up on my radar.  Having played MUA2 I was beyond excited for this installment.  My excitement faded bit by bit as I progressed throughout the game.  Finally I was left with no alternative but to depressingly turn it off forever, as I lamented about what could have been.

I headed into this one with 3 other people from the start, and the fun we had playing a game together on the couch was the only saving grace.  MUA3 drops you into a story about the infinity stones, and we each got to play one of the Guardians of the Galaxy.  We had to sit through a lot of boring opening cutscenes and painful exposition.  The voice acting was abysmal, the writing was decrepit and uninspired, and the pacing was horrendous.  The plot itself was trite and simple, but good enough for a comic book game.  We were so bored by the introduction scene we all jointly elected to skip it before it was finished.   The first level does a horrible job of explaining things.  It's a very simple combat system, yet you are still not told enough.  There are light and strong attacks, special abilities, synergy and EX attacks.  There is a red health bar and a blue energy bar surrounding your character portrait on the HUD.  The special abilities consume energy, but the game never tells you that.  You regenerate energy by hitting enemies with light and strong attacks, which you are also not told.  If two members of the team have special abilities that combo together, you use them at the same time to increase the effects and damage of the attacks.  All four team members can synergize their special abilities together if they are compatible.  Stronger enemies have a "stagger" mechanic.  After dealing enough stagger damage they will get stunned and take more damage.  There is an additional, yellow bar around your character portrait that fills up as you do damage, called the EX meter.  Once it is full, you can press the bumpers together to perform an EX attack.  Any team member who also has the full bar can join and synergize with your EX attack for a massively damaging combo. The core gameplay loop is to dunk on the trash mobs and then team up on enemies with stagger until they are stunned.  Once they are stunned, combine special abilites to deal heavy damage before their stagger meter comes back.  Rinse and repeat.  Some bosses have special things you need to do, or corny gimmicks to complete.  The execution of these mechanics is boring, the action is mostly automatic, and the game suffers for it.  We had a blast for most of the playthrough only because there was four of us.  We delighted in getting to control some of our favorite characters, but the charm came from our joint fondness, and was not provided by the game itself.  The enemies never felt like a real challenge, and we often beat them very quickly or accidentally.  We didn't figure out how to trigger our EX attacks for a large portion of our playtime, or why not everyone could always do it.  It has a very "arcade" feel to it, especially when all the character portraits flash on screen for the EX attack.  There is a buff system where you apply points you earn into a grid system for passive increases to stats across all characters.  It was a gigantic grid, and most of them felt pointless or unnecessary.  It was a strange juxtaposition to the fast-paced action and arcade feel of the gameplay.   The roster is massive, but imbalanced.  Some characters have synergies and ability combos with many other characters, and others with very few.  Some character abilities do huge AOE damage, and others are uninspired and cheesy.  Star Lord can summon a whirlwind, fire, and lightning, while all of Wolverine's abilities are claw attacks that hit right in front of him.  Colossus has body slam moves that hit all around him, while Nightcrawler has all of his moves using his tail as a weapon for some reason.  There were clearly some characters that were far stronger and easier to use than others, and I never felt like I could pick up and play someone who I enjoyed or liked as a character.  Playing Hawkeye felt slow and weak, and I was laboriously shooting arrows at enemies from afar while watching my friends use Thor and Hulk combos to blast people off the screen.  Spider-man, Miles Morales, and Gwen Stacy are three separate characters to choose from, and it was a weird design choice.  There were a lot of characters that just didn't fit in.

Since the story was so unbearable, we would skip a lot of scenes just to get to the action.   It felt hollow to play as Iron Man and Captain Marvel, and then a few missions in, unlock Daredevil or Luke Cage.  Later progressing to a different dimension and joining up with Elsa Bloodstone (Who?).  Going from super strong, top-tier superheroes to a guy who can punch good or a girl with a gun was a huge let down.    The game felt like it was playing itself at times.  Some abilites are hard to aim, and some you don't have to at all.  Some dash you across the screen, and others will auto-target.  Some you can use indefinitely until your energy runs out.  If you use the right ability, you will perform a synergy ability with your teammate, but you can't really tell what it does or how much better it is.  It just feels really good and looks impressive and interesting.  You can also join in a synergy by pressing a button, but it chooses your first ability in your list and combines it with how your allies attacked.  I often found myself getting surrounded by enemies, and, wanting to help out the most, would just spam the button to join an already started synergy attack.  I'd be stuck doing one ability over and over because it did more damage and hit more space when used as a team move than by itself.  If I wanted to switch to another character so I could combine abilities better, they had to be a character we recently unlocked or they would still be low level and therefore not have many abilities.  When we would hit the EX attack in a large room, we didn't know what would happen.  Would it hit all the enemies on screen?  Would it target the boss instead of the henchmen?  I still have no clue.  We were in awe of the animations, how cool the attack looked, and the awesome damage we could do, but it felt like when your older brother gives you the unplugged controller and you pretend to help.   There were a ton of technical problems as well.  The camera was a mess.  It would often spin, forcing us to run down a hallway without seeing where we were going.  There were fixed-camera hallways that required us to fight enemies on a 2D point of view, even though we were walking and interacting on a 3D map.  Several times the camera zoomed in too close on a fight in a huge room, and we were getting hit by ranged enemies off-screen that we couldn't see.  We had to follow each other around to get the camera to move to a position where we could find these enemies.  Often we'd have enemies disappear during a part where you had to defeat all enemies to continue.  We would have to go to their position on the minimap and attack nothing to finish them off.  In later stages, you have to run into the distance to advance the stage, and the camera never pulled up close enough to see.  We had to run past groups of enemies to get the camera to catch up, and decided to just keep going since it was pointless to go back and fight by then.   There are also rifts, which are special challenges to complete for bonuses, that are separate from the story.  Several are just story missions or bosses but with a caveat or increased difficulty.  They were uninteresting and similarly unbalanced.  We wanted to have fun together, and these rifts were designed for single players that wanted to grind dull and inane content for worthless item drops.  It should have been left out of the game. As the difficulty increased, so did our frustration.  There was a recurring problem of having your attacks interrupted.  It was annoying, but somewhat understandable, when a boss would do it, or it would happen infrequently.  There came a point during a rift battle where every single enemy could interrupt your attacks.  There was no proper balance to this, so one enemy would interrupt you, and a different one would hit you with an attack.  You had to dodge melle and ranged attacks incessantly to find one quick opportunity to attack.  We were playing with four level thirty characters in a level 25 rift, and we could not complete it.  Only a few short hours into the game, we already had the only fun part of it stripped away.  Not being able to frequently use our superhuman powers was the nail in the coffin.  After having the enjoyment sucked out by a goofy interrupt mechanic and not wanting to grind to complete a rift five levels below us, we realized we weren't having fun and shelved the game for good.

We played this game for several hours, and still don't know how or why several things work the way they do.  We fought a boss that had a gigantic health bar, and it was taking forever to take down.  We chose characters that did high stagger damage, so we would knock his stagger down quickly.  Normally a stagger lasts a few seconds, and we could all pound on the enemy for big damage, or hit a synergy for even more.  For some reason, this boss' stagger lasted only a split second.  His bar would shoot up to full as soon as we knocked it down, often times not even allowing us to get a hit in.  Meanwhile, he had several phases of unavoidable attacks, that you had to move into a "safe zone" provided by the story-driven temporary 5th team member.   In spite of the lack of polish, the half-baked systems, and the overall shallow feel, the game has a sort of enjoyment underneath it that has potential.  Unfortunately this potential is entirely wasted as the game is already finished and has had DLC.  We loved combining our moves and the feeling it gave when our enhanced spells, magics, and abilities crushed a huge group of foes.  It felt great to have our character's voice lines and pictures fly onto the screen for the EX attack, and then a massive 4-person wave of desctruction show a huge damage counter and be left with only defeated opposition.  Once that solitary fun aspect was compromised, it gave us no reason to continue playing.  The allure of the characters couldn't save it from the lackluster, droll gameplay.  I came into this game a fan of its predecessors, and wanting to love it with my whole heart.   Even in the face of the unbridled 4-player optimism, it found a way to make a superhero beat-em-up feel lame and disappointing.  My fingers are crossed that Ultimate Alliance 4 comes out and gets back to its roots, because this dud is not worth the time it takes to cripple itself.

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