Monday, September 16, 2013

Heroically Free - Marvel Heroes after patch 1.2 (review)

I was really excited for the launch of Gazillion Entertainment's Marvel Heroes. Helmed by David Brevik, one of the chief architects of Diablo, and promising to allow the player to control iconic superheroes in a modern ARPG seemed like a couldn't miss combination. Unfortunately, the June 4, 2013 release of Marvel Heroes was an unrefined product that was marred by server instabilities. After a few extra months to bake, the game is substantially better but still exhibits some rough edges. Today I provide my review of Marvel Heroes as currently patched (1.2).

The Short
+a ton of content for free
+ARPG formula works well with Marvel license
+each hero feels unique

-looks pretty ugly
-lackluster endgame
-brings nothing new to the genre


The Long
I must admit that I didn't give Marvel Heroes a fair shake when initially launched. Early server instabilities made sustaining a connection incredibly difficult and the first major open world boss fight I encountered (Venom) was so buggy that I ultimately opted to skip past it rather than wait for the loot. As such, Marvel Heroes represented an ARPG in such a poor state that even the promise of fabulous loot wasn't enough to hold my interest. After about three hours of struggling, I decided to shelf the game with a close eye on the ensuing patch notes to see if it would be worth picking up again later. Since my disastrous first experience, Marvel Heroes has seen some dramatic improvements. The server issues and major bugs have been cleaned up, additional tutorials have been implemented, and numerous mechanics and playable heroes have been refined, The game is certainly in a playable state and, for me, now represents the product that should have been released a few months ago; it still needs some work but no longer feels like it is in beta stages.

The mechanics of Marvel Heroes should feel intuitive to anyone who as played an action RPG like Diablo before. Controlling your iconic hero as they decimate hordes of faceless nobodies is easily accomplished with a streamlined mouse/keyboard setup. The game boasts well over 20 heroes to play as and each sports a skill tree to help define a playstyle and super powers to use. Most of the abilities are true enough to the comic source material and each hero feels varied. For example, while Cyclops and Hawkeye both cover the role of ranged damage, both do so with completely different powers and playstyles. This is probably the greatest feat of Marvel Heroes; despite the massive cast, every character feels like a unique experience. The game allows you to swap between heroes on the fly but each one levels independently so it is entirely possible that your back rank hero will simply be under-powered for the area you are currently traipsing through. I suspect that the intention never was to promote swapping mid-zone but is rather a convenience added to avoid a hero-select screen for such a large roster.

The main story takes around 10 hours to complete the first time and should bring a character up to about level 24. The remaining 36 levels can be quite a slog of end game daily dungeons and retreading the same story on higher difficulty levels. Leveling is a slow process but not difficult. Once you hit the cap, their isn't much of an end game to speak of beyond gearing. Unfortunately, most heroes have a build capable of tackling the most difficult content in fairly average gear. Of more concern is that many top builds only make use of one or two powers which can become quite monotonous.

Loot, a big draw for ARPGs, is handled a bit oddly in that it is hero specific. You have a higher chance of finding gear appropriate to your current hero but will occasionally find items usable only by others. This setup feels a bit restrictive to the robust gearing options we have come to expect in modern ARPGs which is further exasperated by the fact that each piece of gear feels more like a collection of bland stats instead of a collection of unique properties. Compared to Diablo 2, a decade old game, whose gear design allowed for a myriad of builds and theorycrafting, Marvel Heroes seems like it is in the stone age. The design decisions for loot are puzzling and the game is worse off for them.

Graphics and Sound
Marvel Heroes is pretty ugly. Polygon counts and texture resolution are both so low that the graphics almost seem like they could operate as a browser-based game. The superheroes are recognizable but do not feel detailed, it is almost as if they could just as easily be background characters. Further, while acquiring new costumes for each hero is the only way to visually customize them, it doesn't feel satisfying when each costume makes clear compromises from the source material to accommodate the low polygon count. I understand that the game can display all 20+ heroes on screen at once and sought a way to not be overly technically demanding, but it definitely comes at the cost of immersion. On the plus side, powers are bright and colorful even if it all looks like a Jackson Pollock painting when a bunch of heroes are focusing on the same target.

The sound is serviceable with a veteran cast of voice actors constantly quipping one-liners with decent aplomb. Low points include an across the board weak base which make the thundering footsteps of the Hulk being more evocative of squishy mud then impending smashing. Also, the few gunfire sound effects come off as weak fire crackers. On the other hand, treble ended effects like lasers and most powers pop well and do a good job of matching the visual on screen representation. The music is forgettable and serves primarily as background filler; I never once felt my blood pumping from some amazing track in the background, Saturday morning theme songs this is not. Overall, nothing in the sound department will make you cringe but a few points fall flat.

Gazillion has done a pretty good job with the story. It is as campy as comic book stories go but ensures that the player is taken across a wide variety of familiar settings and faces off against a stable of well known villains. Each chapter is crescendoed with a who's who of super villains and the story seems to have a good feel for knowing when to stick in lesser known villains to keep things interesting. The plot is primarily told through voiced vignettes of a couple minutes each in length. Overall, the focus is on getting back to the action instead of weaving a classic arc and this fits perfectly with the ARPG formula.

Marvel Heroes is free to play and supplemented by a real money shop. Everything that can be bought is obtainable through normal gameplay. I feel that the pricing is a bit much with new heroes and costumes costing around $10 each and various convenience items such as re-specialization tokens run around $5. Many people will be compelled to buy a hero given that the free starting options are a B-roll of lesser known heroes and, $10 is definitely on the high end for virtual goods. On the other hand, hero sales are the primary source of income for the developers and $10 is a bargain price if you never get bored of your hero. Unlocking heroes without real money is done through the accumulation of a regularly dropped resource called 'eternity splinters'. These splinters drop at around 10 per hour and heroes cost between 200 and 600; so about 20-60 hours of gameplay to acquire the hero of your choice for free. For the price of free Gazillion provides a good deal of content and gives players a good chance to determine if they want to invest in the game. One issue I had with the pricing model, however, is that it implementing through virtual currency (G) which is intentionally designed to always leave you with a few extra points in the bank which are not enough to actually buy anything thus enticing you to buy more currency. It's an outdated system and one that should be abandoned in favour of real world prices.

In the end, at the price of free, I feel that Marvel Heroes in its current form is well worth a look. I would recommend running through the main quest once before making the decision to invest real money. I personally felt that the game was worth about a $15 investment to play as my favourite hero but nothing more. There are still a few rough edges here and, if you gave the game a fair shake when it launched, your opinion is unlikely to have changed with the patches.