Hero up! Hands-on with Marvel Super Hero Squad Online

Back in May, I scored Massively's first real look at Super Hero Squad Online, the Marvel-flavored, kid-friendly MMO from Gazillion Entertainment and The Amazing Society. I was smitten with the game at the time, and so when Gazillion offered me the opportunity to take a peek at the newest build earlier this week, I jumped at the chance. Who can resist some hands-on time with such an adorable toy! (Answer to rhetorical question: no one, which is why you should go sign up for beta right now.) Plus, if I learned anything the last time, it was that I have a duty to relentlessly inquire about Squirrel Girl. Am I right?

Gazillion PR Manager Keith Mutzman and The Amazing Society's Director of Games Jay Minn wasted no time bringing me up to speed on the progress of the game as the team heads to PAX this weekend, so I'll pay that forward -- join me after the break and we'll dig in and hero up!

Emoticon whimsy

The very first thing Jay and Keith showed me was the emote-bar, and that set the tone for the whole demo. Instead of cramming emotes into a cramped interface, or worse, hiding them entirely and leaving the typing up to you, the team has crafted an emote-bar that allows the player to cycle through available emotes, including the special emotes. If you've ever played City of Heroes with a couple of buddies and had half a minute of downtime, you know that's exactly how long it takes for all the clowns in the group to start thumbing through emotes -- waving picket signs, eating donuts, doing that horrible monkey dance (you know the one). By making the emotes tactile and easily accessible, Gazillion has ensured that players will use them, which injects a healthy dose of whimsy into the whole game, especially in the social areas.

I was treated to a juicy preview of several new-ish characters using those emotes, too: Thor rocking out; Giant-Man directing sunlight through a magnifying glass; Wasp lassoing and then riding a pigeon rodeo-style (I am not making this up); the Human Torch roasting marshmallows over, well, himself, then juggling fire (while wearing a fireman hat, naturally). If these emotes don't bring a smile to your face, then I'm sorry: you're broken. The new additions bring the current character-total to 22, and we already know that Gazillion plans to keep adding characters even after launch, so your choices will continue expanding. Squirrel Girl-fans, don't lose hope -- I did ask for you, and the answer was a cryptic "not yet." Frankly, Wasp was all the girly-cute I needed -- as Jay put it, she's "Aggro Tinkerbell," zipping around, zapping and shrinking everything in sight. I suppose she's got to pick on someone her own size!

Flitting around town

Next, Jay gave me a far more detailed tour of the main town and social gathering area -- the one sporting the Daily Bugle and Aunt May's house. I got a chance to try out piloting around town, and I was surprised at how fluid and polished the movement feels, regardless of whether I was using the keyboard or mouse to hop around. As the Silver Surfer himself, I swooped around the city on my surfboard, making my way to the rooftops (either by hitting a teleporter that sent me skyward, or by clicking doors and running up inside the buildings themselves). Then I plunged off the side of the tower, gently floating down to the ground once again. No, it's not entirely free-form travel, but it's really fun anyway. Jay showed me another little trick that reminded me of something like Trine -- if your character can't quite make the jump, switch to a character (like Spider-Man) who can. Two quick spacebar taps later, Spidey was dancing atop the Daily Bugle sign. Clearly, this game is serious business.

Down on the ground, players will find plenty to keep them occupied -- the zone is a minigame in itself. Pick up and toss the wicked bots who are up to comic mischief. Click an ATM for a chance at free coins (it's very Mario!). Stumble into a burglar and chase him around town, picking up the coins that spill from his sack as he runs. Stand too long in Aunt May's front yard, and the flowers will provoke you to sneeze. You could easily spend hours just goofing off and finding all the Easter eggs. And this is just the "hub" zone!

Hands-on with combat

After showing off the Skrull spaceship environment (with its cratered moon and silly satellites floating by in the background), Jay let me take the reins of the Human Torch and jump into yet another environment: the streets of Villainville.

Villainville has to be my favorite; it's got a cutesy undertone of comic-seediness (it's an area of "income disparities," quipped Jay), punctuated by hilarious cheesy-70s-cop-drama music. (In fact, every zone I saw has its own music, and even the placeholder pieces were amusing.) The Human Torch has an impish little face and a super flashy, fiery animation set, so he's the perfect character for the pyromaniac in me. Any time a baddie popped up in Villainville, I'd navigate Torch to him (there's a mission arrow pointing the way, in case you're lost) and start smashing. Each character has an attack string of five animations; left-clicks will fire off each one in turn. And each attack increases your power bar (currently represented by an array of stars). That power can be used to queue up right-click special attack moves or (if your bar is maxed out) a "Hero Up!" finishing move. In Torch's case, that meant an enormous AoE fire effect that roasted all of the enemies swarming him. Each hero's moves are unique -- I particularly liked how Giant-Man got more, well, giant with every hit!

The combat system feels very much like playing a rogue in World of Warcraft, although the powers and attack strings available to each character vary greatly. Torch was smashing and burning things, and even though all I was really doing was clicking furiously, the experience was extremely satisfying. Plus, the particle effects made for some impressive eye-candy. Once I could mentally connect the mouse-clicking with the actions on screen, it struck me how very Diablo this game really is. The baddies even drop coins and power-ups to fill that insatiable need to pick up loot. Granted, SHSO deliberately lacks the gear micromanagement of a Diablo-clone, but that doesn't mean it's artless. And it's just as much fun.

Do not tap the glass... well, OK, you can tap it a little

After a long day of arresting baddies on rooftops, spaceships, and street corners, I just want to catch a little R&R. Fortunately, my squad can retire to its yacht -- well, to the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier, complete with a glass bottom to allow you to see the city below (or freak out any non-flying companions). I was honestly staggered at how cool the Headquarters system is. For starters, there's an overhead map that shows all of the different rooms in your base and lets you choose which one you're personally viewing at any given time. Many of the rooms, particularly the "dorm rooms" for each character, can be painted with character-themed color palettes and decorated with furniture and other items (purchased with tickets hard-won through combat). Since the whole game has real physics, items will fall around and move if tapped. The little toons can make food and and play air hockey in the cafeteria; listen to music and work out in the rec room; or follow your trail of cakes into the detention cells, where you can trap them and make them cry. (What? It wasn't me... blame Jay Minn!)

"Jean Grey really loves hanging out with Cyclops and Wolverine, but the two of them don't get along so well!"

All of the superheroes you've unlocked can roam around the base, if you let them. The autonomy shown by the characters seems inspired by fishbowl games like The Sims, and that's a compliment -- I was having fun just watching them do their thing, although I could easily override their default actions with directions of my own. More impressively, their autonomy is programmed individually, depending on the Marvel lore for each character -- they want to do different things based on their personalities, and they even react to other characters you've unlocked based on their entwined histories. For example, Jean Grey really loves hanging out with Cyclops and Wolverine, but the two of them... well, let's just say they don't get along with each other quite so well!

How much is that Spidey in the window?

Somehow in all the SDCC hubbub, SHSO's pricing model announcement slipped under my radar. Keith tells us that it's official: unlike its cousin LEGO Universe Online (which will use a traditional subscription model), SHSO will be a free-to-play game funded through microtransactions. Gazillion won't rule out the possibility of a Free Realms-style optional membership sub, but it can't rule one in either. As for the cash shop itself, Keith and Jay suggested that they are considering selling characters, costumes, emotes, furniture for HQs, and maybe even items for the card game we know is coming (the one I am so not allowed to talk about). But the details aren't carved in stone yet. I am pleased with the revelation myself -- I'm far more likely to keep coming back to a toy-game like this if it has no sub and I can just buy outright the things I want. I think parents will be relieved as well. Very few Western MMOs have gone this route -- that is, F2P with microtrans right from the beginning of the game -- so it'll be interesting to see a strong one tackle the problem head-on while its infrastructure is still malleable, rather than midway through its career. Everyone wins when the quality bar on F2P games is raised ever higher.


The fact that SHSO utilizes the Unity engine means that it will run from a browser on anything -- PCs, Macs, the crappy netbook from three years ago that you gave to your kids. Indeed, this game's motto seems to be accessibility; it shows even in combat. A young child can happily click-click-click her way to success in the game, and even losing incurs no harsh penalties. Just get up and try it again. An adult, on the other hand, can dig into the strategy elements -- changing targets mid-fight to take advantage of combo chains; beating bosses as quickly as possible to maximize ticket output; or bringing just the right team along to exploit the villains' weak points (and finding the secret bonus teams, like bringing all four members of the Fantastic Four as your squad!). This really is a game for all ages, with tiered challenges depending on your mood and ability.

And remember: Super Hero Squad Online is not the only Marvel-themed game Gazillion has up its sleeve. Marvel Universe Online is under development as well, and it'll offer a more traditional MMO experience. In the meantime, SHSO might be aimed at a younger audience, but it still has plenty for big kids too.
This article was originally published on Massively.