The Good: Free-to-play | Motion comics received the love the rest of the game should have
The Bad: Boring gameplay | Odd design choices | Extremely overpriced microtransactions that most times will disappoint | Many standard MMO features are broken or just not included
The Groovy: Who knew Taskmaster had a sense of humor?
There is a run-down local breakfast restaurant not far from where I lived for several years called Pancake Circus. I avoided eating there in my youthful pretentiousness because I couldn’t get over the name. Eventually, driving past it daily, my resistance wore down. I’d tried every other place in my neighborhood. I asked several longtime locals and the answer was universal: order the pancakes but avoid the other menu options like the plague. [ Ed: Are you sure? Those liver and onions sure sound good. ] Marvel Heroes is the Pancake Circus gaming equivalent. The Marvel bits are amazing but there isn’t much else to recommend in it.
The majority of the Marvel Heroes story is told in motion comic style to great effect, drawing you in to the world like the first time you picked up The Uncanny X-Men or The Fantastic Four. Doctor Doom is determined to master the Cosmic Cube in another bid to take over the world and has unleashed mayhem to distract our heroes from his nefarious plot. You’ll visit the Savage Land, Madripoor, and Hell’s Kitchen while encountering enemies from The Hand, AIM and HYDRA (the latter’s minions updated look remarkably reminiscent of Kick-Ass). Random lines thrown out by your hero as he or she encounters other players and NPCs help with the immersiveness, while world events seem to unfold (mostly) naturally around you. You’ll also find touches of humor, such as the Taskmaster Institute cut scene you may come across as a drop - worthy of a few chuckles.
Unfortunately none of this can save the mostly dull, and ultimately boring, game play. The pitch for Marvel Heroes must have been something along the lines of, “Imagine a mash-up of Diablo, Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, and an MMO! Oh, and we’ll make it free-to-play! It’ll be freakin’ rad!” Except it isn’t.
Usually you’ll be using a couple different attacks or powers though you have access to seven at any given time. Your main is attached to the left mouse button which you also use to move in a point and click manner, so be prepared for finger fatigue if you spend any amount of time playing. Each character has three different skill trees, but you’ll find quickly that most of your choices are irrelevant and hardly used. Boss fights, whether taking on Venom, Kingpin, Doc Ock, or Lady Deathstrike, require almost no strategy other than trying to keep the mouse pointer on them. This minimal level of strategy involved drops quickly if other players are participating.
A Diablo-style loot system combined with negligible character inventory space means you’ll be popping back to base every few minutes to get rid of items you don’t need, even while ignoring vendor trash. You can sell them for in-game currency or “donate” to upgrade the level of a vendor, but the only one worth bothering with is the crafter as all the others are pretty much useless. Med kits are the only thing that stacks, including crafting mats. You’ll end up wanting to bash your face against the keyboard unless you’re willing to part with real world money to buy extra slots at a base’s STASH (Starktech Armory and Supply Hoard), shared between your various heroes (yes, Gazillion really tried to shove the name of your personal bank into a cheesy acronym). Being able to upgrade your character’s on-hand inventory would have been a smarter development choice as it would at least reduce the amount of time you had to break from having “fun”.
You would think Marvel Heroes being billed as an MMO would mean it included staples of the genre like guilds (supergroups in this case), a group finder, an auction house, and an easy-to-use friends list. You’d be wrong. Supergroups were active during beta but removed shortly before launch, with no indication of when they’ll be back, so you’ll have to manage to make do with your friends list. But wait, you can only add people to that list if they are online and you manually type in their name, unless they are in your party but not in the same location (huh?). No easy clicking of someone on your screen or in the chat window for you! Looking for a group? You’ll have to spam general chat as there isn’t a group finder. Forget an auction house. All of these are expected standards in today’s MMOs so their lack of inclusion is a serious detriment as well as a constant, unneeded hassle.
All of this might be overlooked if Marvel Heroes were just free-to-play, but the game’s microtransactions make a holiday at Disneyland seem cheap in comparison. You’ll pay $6 for one of the starter heroes that you didn’t pick when you first logged in, but most of your other choices outside the B-list you’re provided (sorry Storm) run in the neighborhood of $12-20. That won’t be enough to make you stand out on-screen with the other 20 odd Jean Greys, Hulks, and Deadpools running around on your screen so you’ll want to buy your new hero a spiffy new costume at another $10-20 pop. Sadly, since most of the available costume choices are unappealing, you’ll feel like you’re shopping at Goodwill while paying Gucci prices. Almost mandatory extra STASH slots will cost you another $3-6, unless you prefer dropping the money on replacing keyboards you’ve thrown against the wall in frustration.
Gazillion is in the business of making money, like most developers and publishers, and that can’t be faulted. However, their design decisions are more freemium than free-to-play. Players are purposefully crippled in order to force them to spend money. While there are six starter heroes to choose from, you won’t get much more information about your choice other than whether they are a tank, controller, etc. You’ll receive another random starter hero as a reward for completing the intro mission. Hopefully, one of these two fit your play-style because you’ll have invested at least 20 or so hours before there is a marginal chance of a new hero dropping. Add to that the possibility of it being one you already have or have no desire to play coupled with an inability to trade or sell it at an auction house and you have a frustrating experience. Should you choose to purchase one, you’ll receive no information on their strengths or weaknesses, skill trees, etc. Even the Marvel Heroes website scarcely illuminates most of your choices. There is no refund or the possibility of a switch if you made a poor, uninformed choice. Think dropping $20 on the beloved-by-all Spiderman, whose Marvel Heroes version is woefully underpowered, was a mistake? That’s just too damn bad.
Have I mentioned the extremely limited inventory and lack of stacking? Thanks Gazillion, I needed a better keyboard.
Graphically, there are occasional moments you’ll appreciate the environments but otherwise prepare to be underwhelmed. Hero models lack detail even at the highest resolution which, other than a single slider for quality, is about your only graphical choice. Power effects of your hero and the others around you seem cool at first but you’ll quickly want to turn the VFX Obscurement Level off, or almost so, as it quickly becomes impossible to see bosses and mobs with more than just a couple players on screen. The user interface is grossly oversized, taking entirely too much real estate for the minimal amount of information it imparts, particularly with the constant NPC text pop-ups. The latter can easily get you killed the first couple times taking down an instanced boss until it becomes second nature to rapidly click them out of the way.
Other than an occasionally humorous one-liner thrown out by a hero there aren’t any sonic surprises. The music, seemingly written by a tone-deaf amateur porn composer, will quickly be turned off. There is very little spoken dialog other than in the motion comic cut scenes within which you might recognize one or two voices from their animated counterparts.
Overall, Marvel Heroes displays a severe lack of polish and strange design decisions. A hero’s buffs are deactivated when returning to base for no discernible reason, forcing the player to be constantly vigilant about reactivating them. This might not be so bad if you weren’t forced to return to the base every ten minutes to empty your inventory, again killing the limited amount of fun you might have been having. Also, you’d be wise to download through Steam and not through the Marvel Heroes website as the latter uses Bit Raider. A 20 MB patch through Bit Raider can frequently end up resulting in a download and re-install of the entire 11 GB game and at a fraction of your available bandwidth! Though this has been reported quite frequently on the Marvel Heroes forums and is obviously a major frustration to players, Gazillion still links to Bit Raider instead of Steam. These are only examples of the many, many small and large hindrances you’ll encounter in-game.
Marvel Heroes may find a tiny, vocal following but the majority of people will quickly become bored by the lack of interesting game play and poor design. Its “free-to-play” pricing and model are outrageous and unsustainable as they are, providing very little bang for the buck. Though Marvel Heroes has some potential, at the moment I can only recommend the pancakes.
By James Mitchell, Contributing Writer