Marvel superheroes belong in a hierarchy that’s well understood but rarely written down. It doesn’t matter how many double-decker buses are needed to calculate their strength, or what class of mutant they are. The formula is this: have they starred in a movie recently? Was that movie popular? It was? Great! Welcome to the front of the line, Mr Stark.
Gazillion Entertainment’s Marvel Heroes is a free-to-play action-MMORPG that codifies the popularity of Marvel characters with ruthless precision. When you first load the game, you’re presented with a selection of five free costumed crimefighters – Daredevil, Storm, Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch and The Thing – that even dedicated comics fans would concede qualify as B-listers. You then travel to the Raft, a superhero prison under siege, and learn the basics of clicking on villains until they burst into a shower of loot, experience and credits. A boss battle later, you’re returned to Avengers HQ and given another random hero from that pool.
If you’d like to play through the rest of the eight-chapter campaign as Iron Man or Spider-Man, it’s time to pay up. We’re not talking chump change either, with big hitters setting you back around £14 ($20), and character packs of famous Marvel teams – well, four members from them, plus appropriate skins – costing £65. You can slum it with a cheaper option, of course, and it is possible to receive heroes as loot drops, but the chances of a decent one tumbling into your lap are low. Expect to be directed to the cash store at every turn.
On top of the cost of each hero, there are costumes: items that determine your character’s appearance, based on comic book designs and movie appearances. Want to look like Iron Man in the Avengers? Then pop out that credit card again. Marvel Heroes’ costly unlocks are problematic because they invite a value comparison that it struggles to live up to. Torchlight II has four hero classes, costs a fraction of a character pack, and it’s a better action-RPG than Heroes in almost every regard.
Gazillion’s rendition of the Marvel universe is thorough and detailed, but the action-RPG formula actively fights any attempt to create a meaningful sense of place. The streets of Hell’s Kitchen swarm with gangsters, who die by the hundreds to roving mobs of superheroes, respawn, then die again. The story’s the same in the New Jersey docklands and approaches its nadir when you find yourself blowing up hordes of Mafiosos in New York’s swanky Upper East Side before taking a break to punch out a nearby Mole Man.
This dissonance is compounded by the sight of a dozen heroes identical to yourself running around everywhere you go. A given event boss – multiplayer encounters that trigger periodically in the game’s open zones – is likely to be downed by a great many Things, some Hawkeyes, the odd Hulk, and perhaps a Spider-Man if anyone’s feeling flush. There’s a footnote in the backstory to explain why everyone has a dozen or so doppelgängers running around, but that isn’t the issue. It’s the pang you feel every time you bump into another you and realise you’re not special, a feeling that eats away at the value of your investment in a character.
The game fares better when it embraces its sillier side. Beating up ninjas and HYDRA goons in the fictional city-state of Madripoor has a matinee adventure charm, and Gazillion’s work on each character’s animations and ability effects is of high quality. There’s a decent sense of impact, particularly with heavy hitters such as Thor. The kinetics of combat don’t quite reach Diablo III’s high bar – Blizzard’s Barbarian still feels more like The Hulk than Gazillion’s Hulk ever does – but do a great deal to mask the adventure’s repetitiveness.
The fantasy is less well-realised when characters are defined by their mobility, a form of play that the isometric action-RPG doesn’t readily support. Spider-Man and Iron Man both fit this pattern: web-slinging and flight are present but hamstrung by the format. Watching an expensively outfitted Iron Man jogging across the street to blast a goon is an object lesson in the difference between expectation and reality.
The campaign takes around eight hours to complete and there’s a thin layer of repeatable endgame content to see you the rest of the way up the level tree. For the most part, you’ll be spending the skill points you earn on incremental improvements to abilities, but there are some more entertaining mechanics tied to particular characters. Jean Grey can transform into her Phoenix form with an alternate set of capabilities, for example. Stat-boosting loot is hero-specific and has no visual impact, with the exception of unlockable particle effects that can entirely spoil a character’s visual coherence, as in the case of the player who added a flame effect to Captain America’s head.
Despite all these gripes, Marvel Heroes isn’t a disaster. Good overall production values make it a passable way to spend time, and there’s legitimate depth to some of its underlying systems. What it isn’t is a passable way to spend money. This is the version of the free-to-play model that invites reckless impulse spending far in excess of the amount you are likely to pay for a full-price game, or even a full-price MMOG with a subscription. The game is also lumbered with a tragic split personality. On one hand, there’s a lot to do, and if you like the look of one of the initial five heroes you can do all of it for free with a little grinding. On the other hand, Marvel Heroes is so eager for you to spend – and so keen to extract the most out of your wallet when you do – that the price tag of the game in real-world terms can soon become astonishingly disproportionate to its quality.