For better or worse, Marvel Heroes delivered the experience I expected. As an MMO, its launch was an expected mess, and as an action RPG, it was Diablo starring super heroes. Is there anything deeper to it? Does it reach beyond its roots, breaking from the well worn path that was originally laid by it's creator to become something “heroic?” In short... no. It's problems aren't mechanical but thematic, as it's the license, and it's need to keep so close to it, that ends up dragging it down.
Funny saying that when the best part of Marvel Heroes are its titular stars, the Heroes themselves. Offering a choice of 21 different heroes (with a few more mentioned as “promised” and the possibility of adding whatever is wanted) you begin with a choice of 1 of 5. This starting character (I chose Daredevil, also on offer were Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, Thing, and Storm) is thrown into the tutorial, an escape/breakout attempt by inmates of the Raft, a super villain prison located of the coast of New York.
Upon completion, you are flown to Avengers Tower (read: hub world), where Maria Hill, senior SHIELD agent, gives you a second hero (I ended up with Thing, though the result my vary depending on which hero you chose to start as), and you're also gifted another hero upon completion of the main storyline. With this being a free to play though, it should come as no surprise that the rest of the heroes are locked behind a pay wall, ranging anywhere from about $7 - $20 to unlock.
Visually, the heroes are all accurate to their comic book counterparts, with only a few liberties taken to more fully flesh out the art style. I was also very impressed with the sound effects. Things like Cable's rifle use the same sounds that were found in the 90's X-Men cartoon, and every swing of the Hulk's fists sounded like a truck connecting with a brick wall. Everything booms and cracks when the Hulk jumps, the air crackles with lightning when Storm passes, and Spider-man's web shooters thwip with authority.
Multiple costumes are available for purchase per character, with some, like Iron Man, sporting almost every version of armor worn in the Iron Man movies. With prices normally in around $10 per costume no matter the hero, completing your favorites can be a pricey proposition.
I got lucky, and as part of my review copy, I received the “Avengers Assemble” pack. Consisting of four heroes, four additional costumes, and a few xp/loot boost potions, I was saved having to spend money on multiple heroes. Appreciating characters like the Barbarian and Engineer in other similar games, I quickly found the Hulk and his Smash/Crash/Dash power set to be right up my alley.
While I went through the story mode with Hulk, I had a lot of time to experiment with some of the other heroes, and I can say that there's no real dull choice in the bunch. Most are split between ranged and melee, with a couple in the middle (like Deadpool and Spider-man) able to serve either role. All have a selection of skill trees to put points in upon leveling up, and while it doesn't offer the depth of Torchlight, there is a decent amount of choice in which ones you chose to level and develop.
Out of the gate, there was a real sense of awe, especially when I started leaping into groups as the big green monster, slamming my fists into the ground, and knocking baddies through the air and even up and off the screen. The feeling doesn't last though.
You see, unlike other loot driven games, the armor pieces/weapons you pick up and equip don't actually change the outward appearance of your hero. I'm sure it has something to do with the license, and preserving the integrity of the characters, but the end result is a bland pile up of starting characters, with the occasional sprinkle of paid heroes. I can't tell you how many Hawkeyes and Scarlet Witches I passed during my playthrough, but I can tell you that, because he was only available for purchase, there were significantly less Hulks running around.
A scenario where four Daredevils attack Venom in the shipyard creates a massive case of ludo-narrative dissonance, something these types of action RPGs are normally immune to. In Diablo, there is a chance you will run into another Demon Hunter for instance, but the chance that you look exactly the same is rare, and the difference between the characters adds to your sense of place in the world. I normally have an easy time rationalizing things like this, but as the chapters wore on, and the combat remained mostly static, I found myself constantly reminded that I was not the hero, just a hero.
So, getting over the fact that I am not the only Hulk, I can report that beating on legions and legions of the generic henchmen that make up the game's normal baddies was entertaining. Some areas, which are all fairly massive to account for the increased player population, packed the numbers in tight, while others allowed for a bit of space between packs. Enemies aren't overly threatening, and most fall within one or two swings. Occasionally, you run into a pack of champion mobs, who glow and have different effects tied to them. Well, their names say that they have different effects, but in reality, you'll be hard pressed to notice since they drop as fast as their regular brethren.
The one exception, are the Bolas Hunters of the Stun Lock tribe (this is not their official name, but as I never plan to run into them again, I didn't bother to properly learn it). Found en masse in a certain super villains lair around chapter 6 or 7 (I can't remember which as it all eventually blended together), these horrors fire movement/power impairing bolos. Their effect lasts about 2 seconds, which, when there are only two or three, is annoying but doable. However, when in a group of close to 10, all firing at different intervals, it produces a beautiful stun-lock effect, rooting your character in place, sapping some health, and making it impossible to do anything but die.
While I am on the subject of dumb things that happen in games, the depiction of super villains in Marvel Heroes is downright ridiculous. While most are well represented in looks and personality, all are buffed health wise to enormous proportions to make them difficult to fight. Now I understand that there has to be a certain amount of...game-ification to make them a match for the players but when there are 15+ heroes beating on a villain like Electro, interest quickly fades into not caring, which quickly escalates to simply skipping those encounters.
The story does nothing to really help explain anything either. It would have been great had their been even the most ridiculous of explanations as to why there would be multiple heroes running around the same world. Thanos could have sundered reality after having again acquired the Infinity Gauntlet, or another version of the Secret Wars could have started, pitting hero against hero, and villain against villain. Instead of these or numerous other possibilities, the story revolves around Dr. Doom gathering items of power so he can rule the world and rub it in Reed Richards' stupid, stretchy face.
Mostly told through motion comics in between “important” boss fights and after chapters are finished, it might not even star the character you have chosen. By the end of it, I was aware of what was happening, but couldn't bring myself to really care. It's ending leads right into Marvel's endgame, a series of daily missions in repeatable dungeons to collect shards of the Cosmic Cube which was destroyed in the final fight. Most of these require the purchase of cosmic keys to enter, so if you want to continue, you will eventually end up spending money.
Level progression is also handled awkwardly, as your heroes level separately from each other, but keep the same story progress between them. The game provides a way for you to reset the story for newer characters, it even prompts you to do it whenever you bring in a character you haven't played before, but it's quick to remind you that doing so also does it for the rest of your characters. It's a hard line to have drawn, and while it's possible to grind your way through the open areas of early chapters, there has to have been a more elegant solution then simply dumping all your progress.
If it can hold your interest long enough, and if you are enough of a fan of the action RPG to overlook its low points, there is an enormous amount of free content to take advantage of. With up to three characters earned through the game, and a story that took me about 14 hours to play, there is enough to keep you busy but necessarily entertained the whole way through. Whether or not you want to invest any money is going to be a judgment call on your part. I can say, quite easily, that were it not for the pack that came with my copy, I would not have purchased any additional heroes. With generic content and a lack personality to the loot, there's nothing pulling me back in to push further and level more heroes. While not broken, it's simply not that much fun past the initial “OMG I'M PLAYING AS A SUPERHERO!!!!!!” moment. It saddens me to say, but even for free, I can find better things to do with my time.
*Note: Originally had Cable mentioned as a starting character. Thanks to the eagle eye of reader @Nyght5150, this has been corrected. Thanks for keeping us honest*
Reviewer and Editor for Darkstation by day, probably not the best superhero by night. I mean, look at that costume. EEK!