From Star Wars: The Old Republic, to Rift and The Secret World, subscription-based MMOs transitioning to a free-to-play model has become a common occurrence over the past few years. With so many options and little variation between them it’s no wonder fewer and fewer people are willing to fork over a monthly fee. Marvel Heroes, on the other hand, has adopted a free-to-play model from the initial launch, but its MMO elements are more questionable than most. With David Brevik at the helm it’s more Diablo than World of Warcraft; an ARPG seeped in the Marvel universe, replacing Barbarians and Monks with Thor and Iron Man. But its MMO design is completely unnecessary and at odds with the genre it has inhabited, doing little to help a game that already struggles to consistently entertain.
“Being able to play through the entire game without spending a penny is certainly enticing”At the start you’re given one of five free characters to choose from: Daredevil, Storm, Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch or The Thing. They may not be the A-tier characters most would want to play as but with the promise of unlocking more as you play they’re a good starting point. Unfortunately, loot drops of new characters are extremely rare; during one full playthrough you’ll most likely only receive one as a reward for completing the game. Being able to play through the entire game without spending a penny is certainly enticing, but if you want to play as the likes of Captain America, Deadpool or Rocket Raccoon you’ll need to lay down some real-world cash.
As one might expect, Marvel Heroes has microtransactions galore, from extra characters to new costumes, pets, in-game items and so on. It’s an increasingly common business model but it’s rare to see one with prices quite so ridiculous. If you want to play as a character at the height of their popularity, like Iron Man for example, be prepared to spend $20 on him alone. If you consider this the price of the game because he’s the only character you’re going to buy it becomes more reasonable, but superior alternatives like Torchlight 2 still offer more value for money.
With its on-the-fly character switching, Marvel Heroes also encourages you to have a roster of heroes available so you can fluidly switch to particular characters depending on the situation and employ a variety of play styles. In practice this concept falls at the wayside since each character levels up individually. You’ll have to keep playing through the same areas over and over again with each one to maintain any level of synergy, and it further loses its appeal when you consider character pricing and the amount you would need to spend to deploy a relatively healthy team. There’s no way to even test out a character before you buy.
“Loot is purely stat-based, removing any sense of visual progression or individuality”It’s unsurprising then, that when you jump into the game world you’ll find it populated by multiples of Scarlet Witch, Daredevil and the other free characters you could choose from at the start. Costumes are priced much the same way as the characters – the most expensive going for $20 – so it’s rare for players to significantly differentiate from one another. Being a Marvel game there are strict rules on character appearance, too. You won’t see Punisher adopting Cable’s outfit, or Wolverine wearing an amalgamation of different bits and pieces of his own costumes. Loot is purely stat-based, removing any sense of visual progression or individuality. This wouldn’t matter too much in a traditional ARPG, but when you throw in these MMO elements it looks absurd seeing the same few characters populating the same space. It’s understandable considering the restrictions in place, but as a compromise costume drops should be more frequent than their relative no-show, and their shop prices considerably lower, too.
Once you get past the sight of seeing the same heroes repeated ad nauseam you’ll encounter other frustrations with its MMO structure. Normally when you enter a new location in an ARPG your mind is filled with wonder and promise. With a blank map ahead of you it seems like anything is possible. You’ll explore your new surroundings, discover and fight new enemies, find more loot and experience a sense of progression as you complete quests and level up your character before moving on to pastures new. All of these elements still exist in Marvel Heroes, but you’re joined by countless other players in a chaotic battlefield of annoyance and disappointment.
Those new enemies you were excited to fight have already been killed; your first sight of them is a pile of corpses as a group of identical players sweep through the area ahead of you. Then, suddenly, those same enemies respawn before your very eyes, their vast numbers hardly suited for a solo player like yourself – this was clearly designed with multiple players in mind. Within no time you’re completely surrounded, unable to move through the sheer numbers. Your only course of action is to spam Area of Effect attacks until you eventually die or some other Hawkeye shows up to lend a hand. There’s no nuance to combat like this, it’s either a mass free-for-all or inevitable death. It ends up being easier to forego any experience points you might earn and run through these areas without fighting anything.
Fortunately things improve once you reach an instanced dungeon, although problems still arise here. For one, Marvel Heroes’ first half is tediously dull. Locations range from New York subways to nondescript warehouses and simple city streets, and the enemies you fight are usually the same assortment of basic goons; some will fight hand-to-hand, others with guns. The artistic design comes across half-arsed and it’s instantly forgettable. Enemies are no challenge either, although your limited starting powers still leave you feeling weaker than you probably should. There’s no panache or excitement to the combat, just a monotonous slog of repeated attacks until you eventually reach a boss fight.
“There’s no panache or excitement to the combat”The second half eventually picks up, however, introducing more varied and challenging enemies, and sending you to exciting locations like the dinosaur infested Savage Lands and Hydra Island. As a consequence this also makes playing solo nigh on impossible unless you enjoy dying a lot, but it’s smart about grouping you with other players – an option in the menu allowing you to drop into a group whenever you enter an instance alone. Unfortunately the execution of this feature is poorly handled, often dropping you into groups that have already completed the majority of your chosen dungeon, sometimes facing the boss at its conclusion. You can leave and attempt to find a more useful group, but lengthy load times do little to alleviate any grievances this situation causes.
Once you do find a suitable group the mechanics reveal themselves to be quite enjoyable, though still bettered by its peers. There still isn’t much in the way of thoughtful play but seeing everyone’s powers converge in a colourful concoction of destruction has its own satisfaction. You actually start to feel powerful when you have other people to help you out and the enemies put up a considerable challenge, even if you might not be doing too much damage on your own. For some reason, however, it’s quite common for other players to leave an instance before it’s fully complete. This leaves you to fight a boss that has scaled for up to five players rather than one, exponentially heightening the difficulty. You can leave but then the instance restarts, so you either have to suffer through a repetitious boss battle, dying over and over again and re-entering the fight, or replay the whole dungeon over again.
Issues like this persist throughout Marvel Heroes, whether it’s the inherent lag that occasionally crops up with this many players or random disconnects from the servers – at the time of writing there’s no warning when maintenance is about to occur. As an ARPG it’s average at best, but its MMO trappings only compound the frustration. There’s certainly a lot of content here for a free game with plenty of endgame quests – though some of these can only be accessed with an item you have to pay for – and fans of Marvel will revel in its reverence for the universe’s lore and intimate details, but if you don’t spend a penny are you really playing it with a character you would want to? That’s debateable. Either way, Marvel Heroes is a disappointment; a needless enforcement of multiplayer proving misguided, but perhaps doing its part to cover underlying issues that would hold it back no matter what. Not even Nick Fury could sort out these troubles.