Of course Marvel Heroes starts off with a prison breakout. It’s an uninspiring way to set out its stall and present you with a smorgasbord of supervillains to click on. And yet if this Diablo-like action-RPG’s introductory hours are anything to go by, it barely even lives up to the promise of its chosen shtick.
That time, after all, is spent trudging through a gloomy, partially destroyed prison, mopping up Hydra foot soldiers and then facing a series of perfunctory boss fights with apparently randomly chosen foes – first Living Laser, then Green Goblin, then Electro. There’s little narrative infrastructure to tie all these scraps together, other than the understanding that all the villains are running wild. You’re also reminded that the flat planes of an ARPG’s levels are hardly the place to showcase the likes of Green Goblin’s glider aerobatics. He’s reduced instead to performing a series of bombing runs before hovering before you to be shot, punched, burned or stabbed until he falls over.
It’s easy to criticise an ARPG for lacking tactical depth, but Marvel Heroes’ opening struggles to demonstrate the need to use any of its heroes’ Powers (AKA skills) beyond the standard attacks mapped to the left and right mouse buttons. A lot of the problem lies in a lack of the kind of audiovisual heft that brought a sense of physicality to Diablo III.
So, while clearly part of an anxious need to maintain all-ages appeal, Hulk’s smashes do little to communicate his nature as one of the most powerful beings in the Marvel universe. His basic brawler design also fails to cash in on the character’s innate ability to become more powerful as he gets angrier, other than the scant nod of an unlockable Power in one of his skill trees that boosts his strength stat as he takes damage. The failure to fully realise such an iconic part of this character’s identity seems like a fundamental oversight. Still, Hawkeye works better, his arrows relating a clearer sense of damage, and his kick sending enemies sprawling, which even adds a little tactical choice to the action.
Marvel Heroes, as its name suggests, focuses on hero collection rather than the careful development of just one. It’s where its business model lies, too. At any time, you can bring up this free-to-play game’s shop menu to buy yourself a new hero from a large collection of Marvel’s greatest. And at any point during the game you can switch – after a short charging period – between previously purchased heroes. The payoff is never having to be locked into a specific character style, as well as plenty of fan service. But the potential downside, one that only extended play will truly reveal, is that no one hero will have a deep enough skill tree to maintain your interest over a long period.
Your heroes’ inventories are shared, meaning that anything you pick up is accessible to all. It’s as streamlined a feature as it is crafty – on picking up a pair of Hulk pants and knowing he’s just a short purchase away, you’re constantly being tempted. Moreover, your slots quickly get filled with ingredients for Marvel Heroes’ costume crafting system, which unlocks fan-appeasing alternative appearances. But these mean, disappointingly, that you’ll never see your character wearing the loot you pick up.
This design cashes in on Marvel fans’ compulsion to collect ’em all, but once they’ve tapped their favourite heroes’ collections, you wonder what will keep them going. The cynics among us might assume that it’ll be more heroes to buy, and that would be a shame.