Free to play has sort of a stigma with some gamers. Some (including myself) feel that a decent chunk of games that are free to play, end up being “pay to win”, meaning they would need to dole out a certain amount of money just to obtain a sense of presence and use within their surroundings. While this might run rampant in the mobile gaming department more than anywhere else, some free to play PC games are saddled with such a structure.
Marvel Heroes (formerly Marvel Universe Online and Marvel Universe) is yet another free to play release on the PC. Billed as an MMOARPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Action Role Playing Game), developer Gazillion Entertainment is making a game that feels more like a larger scale multiplayer Diablo clone, rather than a tired and true MMORPG like Everquest. The former should come as little surprise, as David Brevik, the visionary behind the first two Diablo games, has been at the creative helm for Marvel Heroes.
It’s not difficult to envision an action RPG enveloped within the Marvel universe; in 2006 both current and previous generation consoles had Marvel Ultimate Alliance – a four player Diablo clone of sorts. Itemization wasn’t much in any sense, so it’s hard to visualize how it would be properly done. Which leads to the free to play nature of Marvel Heroes – would this be a “pay to win” scheme that many f2p games fall under? Would those Über chest pieces and weaponry be restricted to the 2%’ers, so to speak?
Thankfully, this is far from the case.
When it comes to the free to play of Marvel Heroes, Gazillion Entertainment built a game that is, according to the final open beta weekend, a true free to play; I have yet to run into any kind of stamina/exhaustion systems that would restrict how long I could play without buying some kind of replenishment, or the deficiency of the attacks I produced. The only things that seem to be locked behind the glass display case of microtransitions are extra characters, outfits and other augmentations, including the typical experience boosters for set amounts of time. These are available in Starter ($19.99) and Premium packs ($59.99), or the Ultimate pack ($199.99, which will unlock what seems like everything available at launch date, including exclusive skins that may not be dropped in game). They are themed packs (excluding the Ultimate), which range from character/costume purchases to groups, so there’s little to no random nature in purchasing a pack. Even more encouraging to players who might be weary about plunking down a bit of cash for certain characters or outfits, most of them can be found just by playing through the game. So for those who have the patience of a saint, they can grind out new characters to play as and level up.
With the curtain of the free to play structure being pulled back now, the overall experience in Marvel Heroes is rather addicting. Have you ever played Diablo, Marvel Ultimate Alliance, Champions of Norrath, Baldurs Gate: Dark Alliance or one of the myriad of other action RPG’s out there? If you have, you’ll easily feel at home with Marvel Heroes.
So far I’ve had some hands-on time with two characters primarily – Thor, who is a default selection, and Rocket Raccoon, who was obtained by in game currency (beta players were gifted 2000 credits. It’s been the perfect mix of utilizing Thor’s close range game (with a pretty potent long range thunder attack that players will be able to learn) and Rocket Raccoon’s keep away game with his ballistic approach to battles. With each level unlock, new skills become unlocked and skill points become available to spend. There are no stat boost allocation points (genre staples such as constitution, dexterity, luck, etc) so the only boosts comes form the aforementioned item drops and skill points. It simplifies things out of the gate, though how simplified it makes the overall game in the end has yet to be determined. A few characters, such as Daredevil and Punisher, don’t feel as if they are gaining significant advantageous boosts with each level they gain, though it could be more in line with how underwhelming their skills are.
Equipment is streamlined overall, though not to the extreme, like Marvel Ultimate Alliance. Weapon slots and limited body equipment for each character can be found throughout the players journey, with each item having certain stat boosts that one would expect to see from the genre, some even boosting the skill level of certain skill that may or may not yet be unlocked. If they weren’t unlocked previously, so long as that character dons that pieces of equipment, they can utilize that skill, but once it comes off, that skill grays out. From what I’ve experienced so far though, there are no items items that can be equipped that will outright change the characters appearance, leaving costume unlocks and purchases the only way to stave off the army of Iron Man and Hawkeye clones. It would be a bonus to see Rocket Raccoon’s handguns change styles with some of the later drops, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Even if there’s a seemingly lax level of complexity in how character creation goes about overall, there’s no denying that the gameplay is satisfying. Marvel Heroes can be played alone or with a small group of players. Adding more players to the party issues the arbitrary difficulty boost to each encounter, giving bosses and minions in instanced areas more health and damage output. Certain encounters, such as the storyline based battle against Bullseye on the rooftops, feels more manageable in a party, as one person can act as a tank of sorts, or at least serve as a distraction (though Rocket Raccoon’s turret can act as a distraction, but I digress). As with the status quo for the genre, things are relatively easy early on, though the difficulty does ramp up accordingly. At about level 17 with Rocket Raccoon, it’s a fair challenge that doesn’t bulldoze over the player, but doesn’t hold their hand either. With the right skill combination though, Rocket Raccoon does fair quite well solo, thanks to the aggro grabbing turret and his long range capabilities.
There are a plethora of little (and not so little) things sprinkled throughout each area within Marvel Heroes to either stave off the monotony of the level grind, or to encourage grouping either in a party or as a combined force outside a party. Early on I ran into Electro in the street and decided to take him on. Little did I know that this was a large scale encounter that encourages other players to work together to fell their opponent. Within seconds, I banded together with several Hulk’s, a Storm, Cyclops and Spider-Man as we all took on Electro. After a couple of minutes (where I later started to think about how it took several Hulk’s to take down Electro and one Rocket Raccoon to take down Tombstone later on), Electro fell, dropped some experience orbs and items. As with Diablo 3‘s multiplayer, everyone involved will see loot exclusive to them on their screen, which eliminates any kind of greed from the players support team, as well as guarantees a drop that they can equip. Aside from those dynamic large scale battles, there are smaller, infrequent instances all around, mostly involving rescuing a civilian from The Hand before they are killed. These successful battles net bonus experience as well, and help give the grind a bit less of a sloth.
Marvel Heroes has a more obvious focus upon its gameplay and its inner working more than anything, as is apparent with the audio and visual suite. They are, for the most part, serviceable, offering moderate quality overall in its visuals, even at the highest settings. Many of the story driven moments are presented in the form of motion comics, with comic book quality drawings (naturally). It doesn’t chop up the flow of the game whatsoever, and they are a perfect fit. The music is something worth keeping the volume up on, but most of the voice acting is cringe-worthy, outside most anything Spider-Man says. It makes those motion comics scream to be converted into actual comic panels with no voice acting.
Thankfully with this one last open beta push, Gazillion Entertainment can further stabilize their servers by the games official launch (moreover, its paid early access from the Founders packs), as this has been quite the stress test indeed. For a majority of the first day with this weekend’s open beta, my connection has been more than tolerable, with noticeable hiccups here and there. One strange oddity that I noticed was how instanced areas where it’s just my character within that instance, there’s very noticeable delays in terms of attacks landing on the enemies, though in a ore cluttered street battle against a group encounter super villain such as Venom, with all of the action going on at once, it was almost completely silky smooth. The second day met with a considerable amount of lag in both instanced and non instanced situations. It outright affected everyone that tried to play that night, making any kind of gameplay mostly unstable. This was apparently worked on throughout the day, and Gazillion Entertainment granted beta players an extra day to run through the beta, with day three being the smoothest of the three days thus far. With recent launch bombs and struggles seen from the likes of Defiance and Diablo 3, we’re hoping that Gazillion Entertainment has a much smoother launch and can eliminate as many of these beta stutters as possible.
There are only two other concerns I have at this point. For one, itemization as a whole may not hold enough pizzazz. Not only that, but the drop quality is a sea-saw of mostly okay, to completely worthless. This was an issue I had with Diablo 3 early on, where the quality of drops lacked quite a bit in the blues, and even purples. The frequency of the rares could use a tiny boost, but that’s the least of my worries on that front. There’s also that feeling that this could be an offline experience for a set price, with the ability to go online and loot drops that are exclusive to an online interactivity as an option. The online portion feels more like the necessary evil to monetize things properly. At least it doesn’t have a dedicated single player option that forces players to play online anyway (like Diablo 3).
Marvel Heroes has all the right pieces to become one of the more beloved and supported free to play games in a long time. Any fears of a “pay to win” microtransation structure and any concerns about the quality of the product at hand can be put to rest, for the most part. There isn’t an abundance of customization available, but at its root, Marvel Heroes looks to supply players with an entertaining action RPG. You won’t have to wait much longer, as June 4th is the launch date for the free to play players, with anyone purchasing one of the Founders packs having the chance to play up to a week earlier than that.
Stay tuned to Chocolate Lemon in the coming weeks for more on Marvel Heroes. For now, check out some more of these beta screenshots: