- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 8, 2009

Superhero and cartoon characters are integral parts of the electronic entertainment industry. With this in mind, I salute the meld of pop-culture character and video game with a look at Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 (from Activision, reviewed for Xbox 360, rated T for teen, $59.99).

Stan Lee’s favorite comic-book universe comes to life in this third-person role-playing brawler. Up to four friends in the same room or online can cooperatively select from more than 20 legendary heroes and villains to put together a dream team ready to demolish evil and each other.

What’s the story? From the game’s Web site: The Marvel Universe is being torn apart. A team of heroes helps Nick Fury launch a secret pre-emptive strike against Latveria and the cyborg Lucia von Bardas, only to face her retaliatory attack on New York City.

Coupled with other metahuman incidents, this turns public sentiment against the heroes. The Superhuman Registration Act becomes law, forcing them to register as weapons of mass destruction and become licensed government agents.

Lines are drawn as Iron Man leads the pro-registration side while Captain America leads the anti-registration side. It’s time to pick a side and determine the fate of humankind.

Play the role: Players find themselves in four-member squads on missions built upon Marvel Comics’ famed Civil War story line.

Sequential-art stars including Captain America, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Green Goblin, Luke Cage and even Red Hulk battle villainous luminaries such as Electro, Titanium Man, Lady Deathstrike, Bullseye and von Bardas in weapon versus weapon, power versus power and fist versus fist donnybrooks.

After a rousing attack on Dr. Doom’s Latverian Castle with help from Nick Fury (as a salty old white guy rather than the Ultimate Samuel L. Jackson version), players must pick complementary team members and in some cases battle brethren as they work through the implications of the Superhuman Registration Act.

Fans will drool over teams such as the Thing, Hulk, Venom and Thor as they fight robots, mercenaries, nanite-infested prisoners and SHIELD soldiers along with superfoes in nearly fully destructible environments found from Washington, D.C., to the Wakanda jungle to the Negative Zone.

Get to the action: A dizzying amount of customization and attacks mix with button-mashing battles and signature character power moves to deliver quite an intense adventure. Be it Wolverine’s roar while inflicting a claw kebab or Thing’s “It’s Clobberin’ Time” when smashing mercenaries’ heads with a Concussive Clasp, it always feels authentic and looks explosive.

As players accumulate experience points, heroic deeds and team boosts, they can create - with a handy on-the-fly menu system - the ultimate controllable virtual weapons.

Most impressive is the teamwork found when delivering more than 250 fusion attacks based on the members selected. With targeted, guided or clearing strikes, a pair of characters deliver the hurt on unsuspecting bad guys. For example, Iceman and the Human Torch blast each other with freeze and fire beams, creating a line of destruction that can be guided around enemy-infested terrain.

Memorable moments (in no particular order): The almost-always-spectacular fusion attacks, Iron Man deflecting pulse beams off of Wolverine claws to dispatch foes, an invincible Thing shielded in Sue Storm’s bubble as he rams bad guys, a Doomsday-like Wolverine covered in ice remaining from a frozen attack with help from Iceman, Deadpool’s trash talking, Thor’s tornado and the fury of the Hulk.

Violent encounters: This three-dimensional interactive comic book covers every moment of devastation and slaughter one might find in any action-packed issue of the Avengers or X-Men. Enemies do not bleed, but crumple over and emit health and experience orbs that help the heroes.

Read all about it: To try to understand the complex and sometimes convoluted crossover series, I suggest starting with the Civil War trade paperback ($24.99) that compiles the seven-part miniseries from writer Mark Millar and Steve McNiven. Next, select from an assortment of a dozen or so trades (averaging $14.99 each) that relay stories about key characters and teams affected by the event.

Also, get the most out of the missions with BradyGames’ Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 Strategy Guide ($19.99). It’s especially helpful for clues about team strengths and offers detailed walk-throughs locating all the unlockables.

Pixel-popping scale: 8.0 out of 10. The computer-animated cut scenes really bring the saga to life. I would love to see a full-length cartoon starring the Marvel heroes in this format. Characters such as the Tinkerer, Green Goblin and Bishop really stand out.

As far as the action goes, character models are hard to appreciate as the near-over-the-top perspective often clutters the screen. Highlights include Johnny Storm flaming; Iceman flying around with a smoky, frozen trail behind him; and any close-ups of the colorful and textured costumes.

Extras and unlockables:Hundreds of icons to collect are scattered around terrain, leading to everything from unlocking characters to hearing audio tapes to finding a biography of Pennace. Additionally, satisfying certain achievements offers alternate costumes such as Captain America’s 1942 special and Spider-Man’s stunning Iron Spider garb.

Finally, a visit to Stark headquarters or Nick Fury’s secret lair between missions offers discussion with other heroes, a trivia quiz (to add experience points) or a chance to practice powers and replay missions in a simulator room.

Star power: Marvel Comics patriarch Stan Lee makes an appearance as Senator Lieber in an underground garage near the District’s Union Station. Ya gotta love this octogenarian’s energy.

What’s it worth? Marvel comic-book fans who have stuck with the gaming franchise since X-Men Legends will find Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 a satisfying experience. It’s no Batman: Arkham Asylum, but it is fun, with a dark story and involved exploration of one of the best superhero universes ever created.

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