The slew of MMOs on today’s market is dominated by the three Clans of Nerdom - sci-fi (EVE, Star Wars), fantasy (WoW, Guild Wars 2) and comic book (DC Online, Champions Online). Enter Marvel Heroes, a potential leviathan of the genre with the backing of (perhaps) the greatest comic industry player of all time. Who wouldn’t want to play as Wolverine, Hulk or Iron Man? The bevy of hugely successful Marvel films in the past decade has helped introduce Marvel lore to new a generation, and better yet the entire game - bar some features as we’ll see later - are free to play (F2P). The result is a solid game which is free to try and, if you like, buy.
The Marvel canon provides a fertile, if slightly generic, ground for Marvel Heroes’ storyline. The prosaically named Doctor Doom, in possession of the Cosmic Cube, attempts to conquer the world. Phase 1 involves releasing hordes of incarcerated supervillains, to distract the world’s do-gooders from the larger plan. The outer layer in the Onion of Evil, if you like. As you progress through the game, the storyline is developed through charming comic-book style cutscenes, such as this recruitment video from hooded baddie The Taskmaster:
As a F2P game, Marvel Heroes reserves its A-grade roster - Spiderman, Deadpool, Cyclops etc. - for paying punters, so at the start you have some B-list characters to choose from including The Thing, Hawkeye and Storm. These give you a good introduction to the Diablo-esque game mechanics and character classes which mitigates the risk of paying for a character, only to discover you hate the way they play. Characters handle well and animations ably convey their superpowers. Thor’s thunderous hammer attacks light the screen up in flame and resonate with weighty thumps while Cable’s psychic attacks emanate crackling energy at nearby mobs. Using powers drains your “Spirit” bar which recharges over time, and equipment and loot can boost your recovery abilities as well as other passive benefits (such as dodging ability or striking range). It’s pretty standard MMO stuff.
Character classes - which cover the RPG archetypes of tank, ranged DPS specialist and so on - can be tailored as you like by allocating points across three different class trees. For example, Spiderman can focus on agile melee attacks, ranged damage, evasive manoeuvres or a mixture of all three. This means that players using the same character can have complementary playing styles and skills but, if you change your mind about a build, you can repsec your skills by obtaining a “Retcon device” either as a loot drop or through the shop (for around £3).
This touches on a key aspect of Marvel Heroes - most things you’ll want to do will cost money. Loot doesn’t alter your avatar’s appearance so you’ll probably be keen to obtain new costumes. These may drop but most will be bought to avoid the grind. Characters drop very rarely so all but the meanest or luckiest will have to fork out - Spiderman’s around £20 to unlock and the Hulk around £10. Packs are available for bulk-buying heroes and their costumes, but they come in at an eye watering £60 to £65. Characters cannot be created from scratch, ostensibly because you’re in the Marvel universe but, perhaps, to stop you making a clone of your favourite hero in place of opening your wallet. This may come as a major disappointment to fans of DC Online and other MMOs where character creation, and the role play that comes with it, is half the fun.
Instances - as MMO dungeons are often called - are a mixed bag. In one memorable boss encounter, another gamer playing as Storm and I (as Spiderman) used our complementary powers to tackle a prototype battle mech. I was able to slow it down with a web-trap power and nip in and out with agile attacks I’d unlocked from levelling. My ally zapped it with lightning from afar, occasionally boosting away with a wind dash power to avoid its attacks. Overall the teamwork mechanic and feeling of achievement was pretty rewarding, including my revival by her when I died (something I was able to reciprocate in a later stage). The massive onus on combat missions runs the risk of Marvel Heroes becoming stale, but rapid levelling and the ability to quickly select other characters from your roster stops this becoming a serious issue.
In a less favourable battle, I tracked down Venom - a notorious Spiderman villain - to be greeted by the sight of thirty other players who had done exactly the same, all chasing him in a Pied Piper dance around a nondescript port environment. The maelstrom of plasma fire, eye-lasers and explosions made the whole thing a giant, unintelligible mess. I could barely see myself, let alone my enemy, and all semblance of tactics went out the window.
Some instances require parties of players to take on their bigger monsters. You can generally get away with solo play at lower levels but need help for the tougher encounters. Marvel Heroes helps you out here with NPCs who will advise you when a party is needed. It also automatically creates parties of players who happen to be in the same area at the same time, and shows (and drops) loot separately for each player to avoid any spats. Although automatic party creation makes questing easier, by reducing the need to find people for a balanced team it does make the process slightly random as you’re not really in control of creating or leaving a group. You can mitigate this with a friends list, which indicates where your mates are questing (if they’re online). Some of these quests are a little buggy (one had me walking around an empty warehouse which clearly should have been full of goons) but happily - so far - many niggles and errors have been patched successfully.
When you’re done with the main storyline Marvel Heroes opens up PvP, but not before. You can also access daily challenges of ranging difficulty from the Avengers Tower, which acts as a hub for missions and storage. Both of these features are part of the F2P game. Crafting and trading make an appearance; NPCs provide shops for cashing in unwanted gear in exchange for either in-game credits (the currency for items but not heroes or costumes) or access to higher tier items for trade. In truth these won’t form the backbone of anyone’s strategy but you might get the occasional bargain or boost if you’re lucky.
Marvel Heroes is by-the-by a solid game. Although somewhat repetitive, and with a big reliance on unlocking its best features with your hard earned cash (binding the shop to a hotkey? Really?!), it fits well enough in the Marvel universe that old hands will enjoy the storyline. Anyone just looking for an MMO will enjoy the levelling and questing, and even if you never pay-to-play you’ll still get to experience many of the game’s best features.