Peter: For the last week or so, Tim and I have had access to the Marvel Heroes closed beta. This is the title David Brevik (co-founder of Blizzard North, influential figure in the creation of Diablo and Diablo II) and the rest of Secret Identity Studios/Gazillion Entertainment have been constructing in their underground game-creation base since 2009.
Tim: Apparently, our world’s superheroes don’t consider videogames all that evil as they’ve yet to blow up Brevik’s lair and stop his plans to make this game. Take that, Jack Thompson.
Peter: That man Brevik’s influence on Marvel Heroes is evident from its latex-masked opening to the tips of its Adamantium toes. This is the original Diablo formula wearing the costumed trimmings of Marvel’s huge array of comic-book characters. You select a familiar (or unfamiliar, as some of the lesser lights of Marvel’s catalogue are playable too) character, strap yourself in for several chapters of plot and then click-click-click-click your way to levelled-up abilities, a bulging stash of credits and all the loot you can eat.
It’s not original. There won’t be too many prizes given out to Marvel Heroes for innovation. But by the great hammer of Thor it’s refreshing to be playing an action-RPG that’s set anywhere other than goblin-filled dungeons and demonic caverns. I’m no Marvel aficionado (sure, I recognise the X-Men and the Avengers; that’s about as far as it goes), but the mere removal of this genre from the clutches of high fantasy feels as liberating as being released from a Hulk bear hug.
Tim: I dunno, the tutorial dungeon is kinda goblin-filled. Green Goblin-filled, anyway.
Peter: That’s true, but he was also holding on to a pair of The Thing’s pants as loot, and you don’t see that level of kinky weirdness every day.
Anyway, in Marvel Heroes you’re performing the exact same mechanical actions and processes as ever – but a strong theme can be a formidable snare, and Marvel have a near-endless supply of character references, meta-narratives and interesting locations to draw on. The opening chapters smartly dispense with the Obligatory Subway Level™ and Necessary Construction Yard™ early on, so I have no doubts that as the story accelerates it’ll be taking your heroes to ludicrous underwater bases and inter-dimensional planetoids. I’ve already seen the sprawling Raft prison and a top secret base built underneath a barber’s shop.
Tim: Yeeeeah, the early appearances of the most boring and generic videogame locations possible is a bit of a downer, but we’ve only really had access to the first few areas of the game and there’s such a wealth of possibility that I’d be astonished if that trend continues. We’re dealing with the entire Marvel universe here. That means everything from the X-Men, everything from the Avengers, alternate dimensions, alien planets, the realms of Norse gods, dinosaurs, snake men, aliens, subterranean humans… which is why I suppose it’s also slightly surprising that we’re still pissing about in subways and docks and cargo freighters every now and then. But hey ho, there’s a lot we have yet to see.
Peter: It’s also far too early to talk about specialist concerns like power tree balances and the fine tuning of loot drops, but I can at least give you an impression based on the characters I tried out. After I got over the fact that Black Panther was not an alternative universe version of Malcolm X, he turned out to be a tough but nimble melee character, able to slash away at health bars with twin daggers, acrobatic flips and rapid dashes. Scarlet Witch, meanwhile, was primarily geared towards controlling enemies with weakening hexes or magic shackles, backed up by ranged attacks and scorching area-of-effect powers.
Tim: I spent a fair bit of time with the Punisher. He’s pretty much exactly what you’d expect from a psychotic vigilante, in that he has guns. Many, many guns. At this point, his basic attacks and the majority of his abilities revolve around blasting one or more people with assault rifles, rocket launchers, shotguns, grenades, and just about everything else you could possibly want when you’re a lunatic with a grudge and a skull shirt.
But I actually spent more time with Ms. Marvel, who basically won the superpower lottery in terms of having flight, super-strength, nigh-indestructibility, and the ability to shoot energy blasts from her hands. I’m pretty sure you can guess at what a lot of her abilities are in gameplay terms, but this combination also results in a few hilarious attacks, like uppercutting someone into the sky, flying up next to them, and blasting them away with an energy wave. And, yes, that’s one single button press.
Tim: I’ll also note at this point that there’s a huge amount of collateral damage. I laughed out loud when I had Ms. Marvel punch a thug (and that line originally read “punched a thug as Ms. Marvel”, but that brought up too many horrifying cosplay possibilities) and said punch also knocked down a pillar in the subway.
I’m happy to report that, in true superhero fashion, you can lob objects at your foes as well. Just about everyone can hurl chairs or bins, but the stronger heroes – like, again, Ms. Marvel – can use cars as projectile weapons. I can honestly state that this is absolutely my favourite thing in the part of the game to which I have access, because cars explode like controlled nukes. Nothing survives them. Marvel supervillains, stop trying to clone superheroes or build death rays or create genetic supersoldiers or marry Aunt May for her nuclear plant inheritance. Just strap a load of cars together and threaten to drop it on whichever target takes your fancy.
Peter: Rather than picking enemy pockets for Swords of Ak’l’ki’h’otep +3, much of Marvel Heroes is about improving your character’s super-outfit. That means masks, boots, capes and (in my experience so far) more pairs of gloves than the Goddess Kali’s winter holiday suitcase. The goodies follow standard loot procedure in being colour co-ordinated (from boring old normal white items, to exotic purple rarities called things like “Stalwart Boots of Flip Kick”), and, at the moment, appears in relative abundance. Most of it will be disposable, but that’s what the town porta … sorry, ‘Body Slider’ function is for. A quick hop back to Avengers Tower to flog your ill-gotten gains to Ant Man is all it takes to lighten your pockets. Which is handy, because most of the superhero outfits seem to be too skintight to house pockets in the first place.
Tim: I still don’t think I’ve seen a better item name than “Boots of Punch.” Ever. In anything. I also find it slightly weird that all these thugs and supervillains are carrying around what are, essentially, bits of superhero costumes. Green Goblin, why do you have a pair of the ever-lovin’ blue-eyed Thing’s pants? And why are all these thugs carrying around Scarlet Witch’s boots? And why is Ant-Man giving Ms. Marvel money for her old bodysuits? This raises worrying new questions about the Marvel universe.
It’s also perhaps worth saying that these various bits of equipment don’t change your look at all – cosmetic customisation is reserved for the alternate costumes you buy (or make) using the real-money store and the crafting system.
Peter: Marvel Heroes is intending to be free to play, so it should come as no surprise to learn that new heroes (whom you can switch to at any point in the game), costumes and miscellaneous experience ‘boosts’ will be on sale in the in-game store. It’s not entirely clear how the non-paying route to fresh characters will work just yet, other than that a route will exist, and the costumes too can be stitched together from various in-game items without having to put out any actual cash. In short, it appears that Gazillion is travelling the right road with its model: optional, cosmetic purchases that can also be ‘earned’ in-game. Sure, someone might pay for an experience boost and level up a certain character before you, but as the title isn’t competitive that should hardly matter.
Powerful companions could in fact help you out, as the exterior chapter locations (places like Madripoor’s beach or Hell’s Kitchen in New York) tend to feature super-villains who require a right old heroic pile-on to defeat. Those exterior bits function like an MMO, so you’ll see others running around the place, but the quest-specific areas act more like ‘instances’ for soloing or attempting with a selected party. So while you see everyone belting around Hell’s Kitchen, the subway trip to beat up Shocker is a solo or party affair. Don’t worry about people outside stealing your loot like vulturous dicks, because Marvel Heroes employs a rigorously sensible system whereby the only ‘shared’ items that everybody sees are things like abundant health and spirit (think mana) orbs.
Tim: Which is excellent! As far as I can tell, there is literally no downside to just helping out other people unless you’re the sort of jerk who complains whenever someone helps you out without your asking for it. There’s no tagging system so anyone who gets a hit on an enemy gets full experience for the kill, and item drops are entirely individual. Even the experience orbs that occasionally fly out of enemies when you beat them like the loot piñatas they are can’t be seen by others. And did I mention that grouping not only makes enemies tougher and appears to add more, but also gives you a general bonus to experience earned? SUPERHERO TEAM-UPS, PEOPLE.
Peter: I do have slight concerns that some of the Marvel personality is going to be lost in a game translation of this kind, because while a lot of a superhero’s character is tied to his or her abilities (and thus their punching power), some of it is based on stuff external to bashing villains. The Iron Man films would’ve been rubbish if it’d all been suited guys hitting each other with none of Tony Stark’s mumbling, alcoholic narcissism. Gazillion have done their best to include a few barks and quips for each hero, but there’s no getting around the fact that 90% of the game is going to be clicking buttons to unleash powers on people. I hope that doesn’t dilute the charm too much.
Tim: This is an entirely viable concern, although it’s clearly a concern that Gazillion have noticed. Chapters are broken up by fully-voiced motion comics, and this little nod to to the Marvel universe’s traditional medium is a really nice touch that adds a lot of charm – even if they do appear to focus on particular heroes and not necessarily the ones you’re controlling.
Still, considering the wealth of playable characters, the focus is almost certainly going to be on the villains and the overarching Evil Plots. I doubt we’re going to see subplots with Tony Stark drifting into alcoholism or Daredevil being completely broken by the Kingpin. This seems to be more about pleasing the fans with overwhelming variety and continual nods, than it is about in-depth character plots.
Peter: To be astonishingly glib about it, Marvel Heroes is looking like what it always promised to be: Diablo II with Marvel characters. That’s a trite generalisation (and there’s no way of predicting at this early point whether the game will end up as tight as Blizzard’s aRPG opus), but in this particular case it’s also pretty accurate.
The way the game handles loot distribution and party levelling is really encouraging, and the store doesn’t look like it’s going to be too intrusive at this point. I think we’re both eager to see if the mission locations start drawing on the more fantastical elements of the Marvel universe, but that’s an issue for another time. It is also imperative that Squirrel Girl is unlocked as a playable character as soon as possible. This could make or break the game.
Tim: If I don’t get to play as Squirrel Girl soon, I’ll certainly break something.
But yes, there’s a lot to like about this. As Peter noted, it’s way too early to state whether or not it’s “good”, but there’s certainly promise. The mechanics seem fairly solid, there are some unique touches – as with the partying, open areas, and lack of enemy tagging – that will hopefully add a sense of community, and the smörgåsbord of references to just about everything Marvel will doubtless be enough for some fans. And hey, because it’s free-to-play, even those Marvel fans who aren’t big on games might give it a shot.
There are still areas where it could go as horribly wrong as a supervillian’s master plan, but right now, all the elements needed for a success seem to be hovering somewhere near the right place.