One of the great mysteries in the world of video games is the question of why almost every single video game licensed from an alternate medium is at best very dull and more often than not about as entertaining as... Actually I wasn't sure what to put here, so I did a quick google and picked the first few metaphors that amused me - please choose your favourite - about as entertaining as: root canal surgery; an episode of 'Saved By the Bell'; a bout of dysentry; a used condom; watching a stalk of asparagus sitting on a kitchen counter. Comic book licenses should be perfectly digestible in game form, yet there are an awful lot of really crappy comic book character-based games. Still, Raven have somewhat bucked the trend in the last couple of years with X-Men Legends and its sequel. But the X-Men alone weren't good enough for Raven's next game – instead they seem to have bought a blanket license for Marvel characters, delivering dozens of heroes, villains and henchmen from the whole Marvel universe in one game.
The basic game is much the same as X-Men Legends, or the slightly older Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance games – it's an overhead (I'm not sure whether isometric is the correct term, but you'd get the idea if I called it an isometric view) hack 'n' slash game where you spend most of your play time running up to bad guys and pummeling them with various melee or ranged attacks. Actually that's pretty much it, but it's a lot of entertainment, especially for comic book lovers. You have a party of four for most parts of the game, starting off with Thor, Spider Man, Wolverine and Captain America, and can switch between the characters at will during the action. After the first section of the game you get a few more characters you can swap in and out of your party, with the roster growing throughout the game as you meet other characters. I think there's something for most people in the roster, although there are quite a lot of big name absentees like the Hulk. Mad.
As I've already said, the game's mechanics are quite basic – most of the moves are simple sets of button presses with very little finesse required. What keeps the game interesting and varied though is the sheer variety. First of all there's the crazy number of characters. Then there's the ability to make up your own team of super heroes (certain characters give each other bonuses when teamed up, such as picking four X-Men or the Fantastic Four together, but you can also create your own team from fairly early on in the game that will get its own character bonuses). Finally, there's the number of ways you can improve each character – each has a large range of skills and abilities, further augmented by whichever costume you choose to wear (four for each character) and as you play you can choose which stats or special attacks to improve or add as well as finding other items to equip that add further stat bonuses. That's a lot of variation there. Of course if you can't be bothered with all of that the game defaults to automatically upgrading the characters for you, so you don't have to get into that if you don't want to.
I think that the graphics should keep most people happy – although the characters don't look great up close (certainly not Xbox 360 levels of detail there), the game looks good enough, just don't expect to be wowed, especially when you've just watched one of the excellent pre-rendered cut-scenes. Although the cut-scenes look nice, they're really bought to life by the excellent scripting and acting for the characters in them. You only get a little dialog outside of the cut-scenes, but what you do get is excellent - I found myself regularly dropping Spidey out of my super team just so I could go talk to him as another character and hear his wise cracks.
One of the best features in the game is the co-op play – not just with multiple people on the same console, but over Xbox Live too. One person uses their save game and others can hop into the game with you. Simple and effective, and makes up for the bone-headed AI that the characters on your team have (when you're not controlling them, of course). Now you can have a friend distract the bad guys with melee attacks while you stand off and attack them with a ranged attack. Personally I would have liked the game to be a turn-based RPG, just so I could control all of the characters and leverage all of their powers to the best effect. But a friend will do instead.
Whether you like this game or not will likely depend on how much you can either get into the theme or the management of your characters. Despite the variation in everything, it is going to be touch and go for some people as to whether they can take the repetitive nature of the game. Ultimately, the game is limited by its very nature – hack 'n' slash games are simple and repetitive – but Marvel: Ultimate Alliance does everything possible to distract from this – I don't think it could be done much better without changing the very nature of the game. Also, playing with a friend or three over Live (or even on the same machine) will almost certainly make the 20 hours of the game's campaign fly by.