The heroes of the Marvel universe have had some success when transposed from their comic pages to the click-fest of the action RPG (ARPG) genre. X-Men Legends and Ultimate Alliance -- both of which spawned sequels -- provided hours of simple fun in both co-op and single-player, with excellent, fluid combat and lots of customisation.
With Diablo's David Brevik at the helm, Gazillion's first addition to the list of Marvel ARPGs, Marvel Heroes, could have been something special. Instead, it's one of the most insipid examples of the genre, and one that inexplicably throws in a bunch of poorly implemented, totally unnecessary MMO features that only lead to irritation.
It might be free, but if time costs money, then you'll be wasting a lot if you bother downloading Marvel Heroes.
Marvel Heroes (PC)
Developer: Gazillion Entertainment
Publisher: Gazillion Entertainment
Released: June 4, 2013
MSRP: Free with micro-transactions
Rig: Intel i5-3570K @3.40 GHz, 8 GB of RAM, GeForce GTX 670, and Windows 7 64-bit
[In the spirit of full disclosure, I should mention that Gazillion gave me the X-Force pack which contained several extra characters and resources to spend in the cash shop.]
Hawkeye, Storm, Daredevil, Scarlet Witch, and The Thing: this is the motley crew from which players choose their initial [free] player character. You've got your controller, your magical and non-magical ranged classes, your tank, and your damage dealer -- yes, when I put it like that, it all sounds a bit boring.
The eponymous heroes have been boiled down to traditional MMO roles, but their abilities are at least fairly representative of their comic book sources. The Thing punches stuff, Hawkeye has a variety of special arrows, Scarlet Witch is a one-woman light show, and so on. The rather simple animations and horribly bland art direction made their abilities less than impressive, however.
So, with Hawkeye in tow -- what can I say, I love his fabulous costume -- I delved into the game. The first mission is an entirely unremarkable adventure involving hitting things until they are dead. Occasionally a piece of furniture blew up. It was as simple as an ARPG could be, but at level one, my expectations were not particularly high. Little did I know that it would only go downhill from there.
The first sign that things were off was when I finally arrived in the sterile Avengers Tower, only to confronted with no less than eight Hawkeye's standing right next to me. Storm, Storm, and their buddy Storm were off in one corner selling loot, and three differently dressed versions of The Thing were staring right at me. It was like some nightmarish clone scenario.
This was the first hint that Gazillion had made a terrible mistake by adding MMO elements to the game, but unfortunately the hints would continue throughout the game until there was only one conclusion: nobody thought this through.
The MMO aspect feels so shoehorned in that it seems as if it was merely an afterthought -- it's far more worrying to think that it had been planned all along. For the entire first half of the (bizarrely short) game, other players are rarely anything other than a nuisance.
Upon being dumped in Hell's Kitchen -- the first in a long, long line of uninspired, ugly locations -- I saw players running around everywhere, and most of them looked like me. By the time I reached some villains, twenty other Hawkeyes had dispatched them. Then, all of a sudden, behind me spawned a veritable army of henchman, which of course necessitated every bloody player in the area to charge at them and fill the screen with brightly colored special effects that blinded me.
The result is that the game immediately devolves into an absurd free-for-all brawl and a race to kill as many villains as possible before you either die or a horde of clones descends on your location. Quests basically amount to just going to places and killing things, and there's simply no nuance to a single element of the game.
There's little joy to be found in the employment of the powers these heroes are known for, either. You're just clicking on things and tapping a couple of buttons until something dies or explodes, but without any sort of tactical depth. Combat is a tiresome slog of repetition and mind-numbing boredom, with only the flashier attacks reminding you that you are indeed playing a super hero game. Enemies only pose a challenge through their numbers, and rarely do tactics or quick thinking come into play.
Even the joy loot found in most ARPGs and MMOs has been stripped away in Marvel Heroes. Yes, there is loot to be found, but it might as well just be a bunch of statistics. Gear doesn't change the game in a meaningful way, and it doesn't even have a physical presence. It might as well not exist at all -- it certainly didn't need to, as we saw in X-Men Legends and Ultimate Alliance.
New gear and items can be crafted, and existing gear can be augmented in a similar fashion. The entire system is lamentably half-arsed, boiling down to combining elements that drop from enemies into other elements which you attach to stuff. It simply fails to be engaging in even the most basic of ways.
Instead of having crafting levels, earning more experience through actually making things, the only way to get new upgrades is by donating loot to the character Hank Pym. So the player isn't really involved in crafting at all -- one is merely giving junk to Ant/Giant Man and he's doing it for you, and one cannot progress without bribing the annoying scientist.
Progression is felt more strongly through leveling up characters, but even then it's half-hearted. Each character has three ability trees and you can pour points into them. There's little depth, almost no customisation, and it never seems like you are building a character. Occasionally you might unlock a new, interesting ability, but since the combat is so overwhelmingly dull, it never feels like a reward.
Mission areas are broken up into a needlessly large open areas devoid of character, where the clones run free, killing everything, and smaller instanced areas -- essentially dungeons. It is in the latter where you'll do most of your teaming up, but when I say teaming up, what I really mean is that you'll be sharing the dungeon with a bunch of other people.
There're few moments where teamwork is important, at least for the first half of the game. By the second half, the challenge is ramped up, and going it alone ceases to be a good idea. Marvel Heroes is undeniably more fun with friends (though less so with strangers), but that's hardly a reason to torment your chums by dragging them into this generally humdrum affair.
The instances -- like almost every aspect of the game -- are poorly implemented. You may jump in and find nobody else there, or you might appear just as the dungeon is almost over, or you might simply get kicked before you even get inside and find yourself not by the dungeon entrance, but all the way back at Avengers Tower. They do, at least, scale to the amount of players present, so at least you can just go through them on your own. The downside of this is that if any players leave during a multiplayer instance, the dungeon remains scaled to a full group. Everything seems to have a downside in Marvel Heroes, even the downsides.
One of the draws of Marvel Heroes is that players can control a huge roster of Marvel icons, and there is indeed a substantial number of them. Don't get too excited, though. Free players only get access to the initial five characters, and must unlock the other four that they didn't choose at the beginning. Once in a blue moon, other characters do drop as loot (which isn't particularly clear), but if you actually want to play as them, you'll need to go through the whole tedious game again.
It beggars belief that Gazillion has touted the ability to switch characters on the fly when the entire game is built around stopping this from being viable. If you keep switching characters, then none of them will be a high enough level for the next chunk of content.
If you don't want to have to wait for lady luck to grant you a new character or a new costume, then you might be tempted to spend some money in the cash shop. Let me give you a piece of advice: don't do it. The items in the cash shop are ludicrously priced, with many heroes costing up to $20, as do some of their costumes. That's right, a completely useless appearance change could cost $20.
Many of the costumes are, I'll admit, pretty groovy. Deadpool, who I got access to via the X-Force pack can wear a pirate costume, for instance, and if you can get over the fact that everyone is going to be laughing behind your back for wasting all that money, it's rather neat. Well, it is for the first hour, but after that you'll wish Deadpool didn't have regenerative powers, because you'll want to kill him for repeating the same canned pirate phrases over and over again.
The only thing that kept me playing -- beyond the fact that I had to -- was the narrative. It's nothing special, but it is very much your classic Marvel crossover scenario with a veritable rogues gallery of villains, magic, alien technology, ninjas, dinosaurs, and everyone's favorite Doctor Doom making a nuisance out of himself. The story segments are presented as motion comics, and watching them represented the few moments where I wasn't trying to stop myself quitting the game.
The story is over pretty quickly, however, and all that's left are the MMO trappings. Daily missions, PvP, and group events round out the content, but without the plot driving things forward, they are only really worthwhile if you like the rest of the game. If it's not already clear, I did not.
Marvel Heroes is a substandard ARPG with the greasy veneer of a really bad MMO lathered over it for no discernible reason. The only draw is its non-existent price, but with the plethora of far superior F2P MMOs out there, and much better ARPGs (including ones set in the Marvel universe), then there isn't much of a reason for you to waste your time here.