In some circles, free-to-play is a dirty term, uttered with a distaste similar to the one that usually accompanies phrases like “movie tie-in” or “escort mission.” It’s easy to understand why: once upon a time, the free-to-play model was reserved exclusively for disposable shovelware that wasn’t high quality enough to warrant charging money for it upfront. It’s also a concept tied in some rather nasty ways to social and mobile gaming, where its heritage is one of exploiting the addictions of the lowest common denominator of casual players through microtransactions.
All that is changing, though, and titles like Gazillion Entertainment’s Marvel Heroes are proof of how a free-to-play model can produce a top-tier product without feeling exploitative.
Setting the tone
The game opens with a beautifully rendered cinematic that features the mysterious celestial entity, The Watcher, squaring off against a Cosmic Cube wielding Victor von Doom (Doctor Doom to his friends and foes). Doom has acquired the Cosmic Cube, a device that grants its owner a staggering surfeit of power, through (surprise!) nefarious means and The Watcher, sworn to neutrally observe the machinations of the universe, has broken his vows to intervene before Doom can do untold harm. The power of the cube proves too much, however, and a triumphant Doom is left to weave his sinister plots unmolested.
Immediately we were impressed by the nods to Marvel lore. The Watcher is a fairly obscure character with a strong comic pedigree, and the Cosmic Cube has a history in the pages of Marvel that goes back as far as 1966. Counter-weighting these slightly more obscure elements with a heavyweight like Doom, one of Marvel’s most recognizable supervillains, is a great way to inspire instant curiosity about the game’s narrative.
Selecting your hero
After the intro, players are given a handful of free characters to choose from. After a splash screen that features comic giants like Thor, Spiderman, and Wolverine, the selection of free characters is pretty underwhelming. The menu includes Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, The Thing, Daredevil, and Storm: not exactly an A list of Marvel superstars. Interestingly, the premium characters on offer are not being sold for a single, flat rate. If you want to pilot the robot suits of a certain alcoholic multimillionaire, for instance, you’ll end up paying more than the majority of the other premium heroes, like Deadpool or The Punisher.
We selected Hawkeye, mostly because of the descriptive text that listed him in game mechanics as a “ranged blaster”, and were treated to a motion comic detailing a crisis at The Raft, a maximum security detention center for super-powered criminals. Seems Doom had been busy, blasting apart prison walls with the Cube and freeing a handful of his evil peers. Our Hawkeye was dispatched by paramilitary super-cops S.H.I.E.L.D. to try to contain the situation and take down the escaping villains.
Into the breach
Our first taste of the action-RPG style gameplay was very satisfying, and we were quickly reminded that Marvel Heroes is a David Brevik joint, one of the minds behind Diablo. Heroes plays a lot like a Marvel themed Diablo, and whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing will depend on how you feel about Diablo’s oft-imitated brand of point and click action. For us, the heavy coat of Marvel paint on practically every element of the game (down to exceptional minor touches like the character attributes system being modeled after the old Marvel tabletop RPG) was enough to make the well-worn combat feel fresh and interesting.
After battling our way through a horde of Hydra thugs and also-ran supervillain the Living Laser, we were treated to a showdown with The Green Goblin complete with pumpkin bombs and his signature glider. The action combat really sings in these bigger boss encounters, necessitating careful dodging and timed attacks to succeed without burning through an excessive number of S.H.I.E.L.D.-branded medkits. Because areas like The Raft are instanced, the designers are able to make the combat snappy and responsive and allow players to dodge and counter attacks in real time.
Home sweet home
After defeating the Goblin, a S.H.I.E.L.D. quinjet spirited us off to StarkTower, headquarters of the Avengers and our first hub area. Here, Wonder Man and Hank Pym (a.k.a. Ant Man) introduced us to the subtleties of the crafting system and we were able to offload all the junk we picked up fighting our way through The Raft. Marvel Heroes has a full inventory and paper-doll equipment system, but sadly the items that you strap on your character don’t alter their appearance.
We also took this opportunity to look through our tree of available powers, which you add points to as your character levels, in more detail. Hawkeye has access early on to a wicked arsenal of modified arrows with effects ranging from paralyzing electricity to freezing ice, and can also unlock a dodge maneuver that makes slipping away from enemy attacks much easier.
Frying pan AND fire
After briefly exploring the tower, we were informed of trouble brewing in Hell’s Kitchen in New York City. Apparently some of the former Raft inmates were stirring it up, amongst them Electro and costumed bruiser The Rhino. Meanwhile, lurking in the shadows, pulling strings from behind the scenes, the maestro of organized crime The Kingpin was making a play to expand his underground empire. We were shuttled off to investigate, and found ourselves battling street gangs and the Kingpin’s henchmen, culminating in a showdown with Doctor Octopus and his eight deadly metallic limbs.
Thus far, the game has been consistently entertaining and polished, and the Marvel lore has set its hooks in us deeply enough that we’re already contemplating which of the premium heroes we’re going to plunk down money for first. We can only hope that other free-to-play endeavors take their cue from Marvel Heroes and continue to provide quality entertainment options for budget-conscious gamers, minus that oily sensation that they’re trying to slip a hand into our wallets while our heads are turned.
Marvel Heroes: The First Taste is Free
Join us on a spandex-clad joyride through the first few hours of the new Marvel MMOWhat Our Ratings Mean