Friday, June 11, 2010


Having finished Skies of Arcadia (59 hours put into it) I was casting about for my next 'big' game.

I usually have one sort of long-commit game I play (big racing game, RPG, or FPS) surrounded by several shorter games (STGs, fighting games, etc). While I'll still plug away at Keio and Ketsui as the 'small games', I think I've settled on Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 as my next biggie.

Hyped up from seeing Iron Man 2, and the continual coverage about the various Avengers movies in the future, enthusiasm is high for me and my children to dig into this game. We played the PS2 prequel and despite all the knacking around with the characters that must be done to make a playable game, it was really enjoyable.

There's just one problem.
MUA2 is fucking ugly. I mean seriously fucking ugly.
The environments are alright, but the in-game characters are borderline grotesque. Wow.

Originally I wrote a version of this post prior to my ever having booted the game. I went on a rant about the manual and guidebook artwork. I allowed as to how that might have nothing to do with what was presented in the actual game, but having played the game now I know that I was wrong. So I've rewritten this to bitch about ALL the character art associated with the game, since all printed illustrations are just shots of the in-game models, sometimes treated with Alex Ross-esque effects for the printed page.

I'd like to think I'm not the total graphics snob (read whore), but the visuals DO matter. Even to really old school shooter players who say dumb shit like 'the play is the thing, not the graphics'. The truth is that if graphics did not matter at all to shmup fans, then one game with nothing but a square ship shooting different size triangle enemies against a black background would suffice. I'm not saying visuals all need to be cutting edge. Some genres can benefit from older-style sprite-based graphics, or there are games where abstract objects are aesthetically pleasing. And intelligent players put the graphics presented in the proper chronological context, or the era being emulated if it is a current but retro-styled game. 8-bit games can have great visuals, but they need to be judged by the standards of their day, not some new PS3 game.

Simply put, graphics offer interest (and possibly immersion). And that frequently leads the player to wanting to experience the 'nobler' aspects, the mechanics. Shadow of the Colossus wouldn't be nearly the game that it is if it was just an exercise in climbing up moving towers of Lego-like blocks. Anyone who REALLY believes graphics have no bearing on the quality of a game is a soulless asshole. It is possible for a great game to have merely serviceable or even shitty visuals-- MUA2 may be such a game-- but it still has a deleterious effect on your game experience even if only in providing a distraction that you have to get around to find out the game is actually good.

So here is Ultimate Alliance 2, an action game drawing on one of most visually dynamic fantasy worlds ever created, and it looks a bowl of sick. WTF Activision?

Like the movies, the Ultimate Alliance games seem willing to hit up the Ultimate line of Marvel comics for a lot of their inspiration, or recent innovations and experiments within either line of books to update uniforms, ie the Captain America of MUA2 is clearly inspired by John Cassiday's visual update to the character introduced a few years ago. Also like the films, there have been some alterations to distance the heroes from 'mere' comics and make them seem more substantial and badass. Film's track record with this is really hit-or-miss. So it seems really odd that Activision (or developer studio Vicarious Visions) would even think that this was necessary given the considerable latitude for graphic style that video games have... almost as much as comics frankly. Do they think Marvel vs Capcom games should've done it this way? And the first MUA, that looked more comic book accurate, was just fine anyway.

It isn't just the costumes. The figures themselves are either bland or repellant. Like they stuffed any old schmoes in the costumes. Or they tried to use life models like Alex Ross, but have no sense of tuning the looks of the images to make them larger-than-life as Ross does. I'm not expecting incredibly lifelike figures in this game. Hell, no film has managed to do CG humans in full roles and make them believably real (the technical reason the natives of Pandora are huge and blue). People are just too complex and we are all too familiar with them for our current tech to manage this yet. So maybe not lifelike, but characters in games don't have to be distorted and gross either. These are. Whether this was an effort to real it up, or just some sort of stylistic decision it really rubs me the wrong way. They have an incredibly serviceable example of a realistic superhero in the Iron Man films, but the one in MUA2 is as grotesque as all the other characters. He wound up resembling some sort of vinyl model of a man-shaped insect. Or a Guyver. He's recognisable as Iron Man, but only because of the iconic red and gold coloring.

Whatever the reason the choices blow. I think whoever had final say on the visuals had their judgement impaired by thinking this was a chance for them to stamp their imprint on these beloved characters. Y'know really make a difference, and show something inspired. They shouldn't have bothered.

Fortunately, during actual play, the characters onscreen are rather small. Even on a big screen TV you don't really see tons of details in the heroes. Its an angled top-down view with the camera backed quite a ways out, to encompass lots of enemies attacking your party. You see their shape and coloring, and their moves are still pretty cool. You only see the yucky details during the menu screens and when the camera zooms in for the cutscenes and story sequences.

THAT's when I'm going to have to fight down my gorge.

(image cribbed from someplace on IGN)

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