"Marvel Heroes" is a massive undertaking, and not just for its players. Gazillion Entertainment have been developing the free-to-play MMO for years, with studio head David Brevik referring to it as the spiritual successor to the widely popular dungeon-crawling loot-fest "Diablo II." The game had its public launch this week, and frankly, Gazillion's dedication to detail shows, from the design of each costume to the environments chosen and the balanced stats on each piece of loot.
While the thoughts below are mainly my first impressions of the game, it should be noted that -- like any freshly-debuted online game -- "Marvel Heroes" has had its fair share of launch problems, from slow download speeds to players being unable to access the game resulting in servers being taken offline to fix those problems. It's likely these issues will stabilize in the coming weeks as Gazillion's servers are tweaked to handle the stress and the player base levels out. While my initial reactions to the game were certainly influenced by these technical issues, they did not significantly impact my ability to experience everything the first few hours of "Marvel Heroes" has to offer.
Gazillion and Marvel have worked closely together for two and a half years in order to make the game feel authentically Marvel in a way that other licensed games do not. The characters and the environment are lovingly crafted to showcase the best of what the Marvel U has to offer gamers, which is refreshing. Frankly, there's a lot here for those who have patiently waited for this game to latch on to.
The item crafting system is especially genius, giving players the opportunity to do almost anything with objects they find, whether the items are intended for their current character or not. Crafting stations like Hank Pym in Avengers Tower allow players to upgrade equipment to the next rarity, attach special bonuses to their favorite costume and more, with more options opened up by "donating" unwanted items to crafters.
The Marvel neophyte should expect to have a lot of information thrown at them during the game. Side missions between the game's chapters task players with researching the history of the Avengers, sometimes via assignment from Ben Urich. Speaking to the appropriate character nets a giant wall of text summarizing some of the biggest events in Marvel history, like the Kree-Skrull War. There are also more subtle nods to continuity for those who spend enough time exploring.
Story-wise, "Marvel Heroes" is a lot like reading a first issue of a comic. Characters and concepts are all introduced with a bit of background to begin with, and cutscenes are replaced by motion comic-like sequences. I'm not personally a fan of the motion comic genre, but it seems to work for the purposes of this game. The voice acting is decent and writer Brian Michael Bendis' story is good for an online game of this magnitude, tasking players with taking down Doctor Doom powered up by the Cosmic Cube.
There are many things that work well thematically in "Marvel Heroes," but being a free-to-play massively multiplayer online game keeps it from being a truly excellent Marvel experience. Gazillion's choice to include only actual Marvel heroes as playable characters is commendable and understandable -- after all, fans would rather play as Wolverine than Has-Claws-And-Healing-Powers-Man -- but the structure of the game is a full-on MMO. When going to the first area beyond the tutorial, players will see half a dozen Hawkeyes, Scarlet Witches, Things and Daredevils all running around an open map, which cheapens the experience somewhat.
Part of the reason online loot-fest RPGs like "Marvel Heroes" work is because players have the choice of completing a game on their own or with their friends. "Diablo II" is widely regarded as one of the greatest games in the history of the genre, and so much of its strength came from customizability -- not just when it came to the build of a character, but in how players experienced the game. As a stand-alone, offline product, "Diablo II" allowed players to succeed on their own, feeling more and more invincible as the game went on, experience points were accumulated, levels gained and better equipment found. Taking the game online to play with three other people was an option that increased the difficulty of monsters and gave a higher chance of getting better loot. The party limit of four was a smart choice, as it still seemed like it was a few against the massive hordes of monsters. Understandably, "Marvel Heroes" is best when players are forced into smaller dungeons where one player or a party can go through it by themselves. Enemies don't respawn and it's easier to see this is a Marvel experience, rather than an MMO, as you take down much more manageable bosses.
The problem with "Marvel Heroes" is that there are, quite literally, thousands of recognizable heroes running around the public maps with faceless goons spawning every few seconds. When I hit the first massive map, there were bodies everywhere, making the game's repetitive nature of killing faceless henchmen and muggers all too apparent while emphasizing the realization that your character is never really, truly unique -- at least, not outwardly. While there are at least three different costume options per character, the cosmetic differences aren't generally enough to truly distinguish one player's version of Iron Man from another; eventually, players will run into another character that looks exactly the same as they do. Even the extremely difficult bosses that pop up on all-public maps -- one of the games most fun and interactive features -- becomes tedious and out of place after you realize it takes 10 Things, 7 Scarlet Witches, 3 Deadpools, 12 Hawkeyes and 20 Daredevils to take out Electro.
Again, this is partially due to the free-to-play nature of the game, which allows anyone to download the client, create an account, jump in and start knocking heads. However, it's nigh-impossible to nab a non-starter character without shelling out some cash. In order to monetize the game, there are quite a few micro transactions that give in-game benefits, be they completely cosmetic (alternate costumes or pets that follow players around while adventuring) or gameplay-centric (New characters, Rare Item-find boosts or Experience Points boosts -- be careful with those boosts, though. They only last for an hour and the timer ticks down even during the incredibly long loading screens). However, as long as you're happy playing one of the starter characters (Hawkeye, Daredevil, Storm, Scarlet Witch, Thing), it's an incredible amount of content for free. There's more here than a lot of Triple-A console or PC games have to offer, and there's a high replayablility factor to max out your character's stats, go on daily missions and find or craft the best loot possible. Plus, Brian Bendis implied that expansions are likely to come, and more content can be patched in at a moment's notice. There's an incredible value here for Marvel fans in terms of content.
Calling "Marvel Heroes" a spiritual successor to "Diablo II" is accurate. It definitely takes what was great about "Diablo II," puts a Marvel spin on it and furthers the ideas and concepts. However, successors aren't necessarily better than the original. There's a place for free-to-play or freemium games, and "Marvel Heroes" would have done just fine as one that allowed for a single player or more contained experience. The ability to play as an actual Marvel character online quickly loses its luster as soon as there's no real indicator that your character is unique. All that said, the game is still enjoyable for those that are a fan of the genre, but in the first few hours, be aware that its repetitive nature becomes exhaustingly apparent.