First Impressions: Marvel Heroes isn't a heroic marvel

HYDRA, for when you need a villainous group whose motivation lies solely in villainy.
Despite my best efforts, I couldn't get into Diablo. I tried several times, but whatever strange alchemy kept turning me off from other roguelikes was still in full effect. Despite that, I can respect that the game has made an enormous impact on gaming as a whole -- even disregarding the effect it had upon MMOs and RPGs in general, we're currently amid a glut of Diablo derivatives (including Diablo III itself).

This is relevant because Marvel Heroes is very clearly meant to be Diablo: Online With Superheroes Edition.

So I'm not fond of the design style. But I'm very fond of superheroes, and especially fond of the Marvel universe. A well-done Diablo-style game could have easily won me over and convinced me that while this wasn't the Marvel game I necessarily wanted, it was good enough. The trouble is that the game doesn't have the marriage of playstyle and source material that it needs; it wants to be Diablo with a superhero skin, and it misses both marks.

You can give the Hulk a crazy beard, which is sort of cool?I started out with what honestly seemed like a pretty anemic initial selection, and from a glance in the cash shop, I could see this is sort of how it goes. There are 11 heroes available right now, and on the one hand that's a lot, since every single hero is essentially a completely different class. But on the other hand -- and this is the important element -- the entire point of the game's existing setup is that you can play the iconic hero you want instead of playing alongside that hero. Assuming, of course, that said iconic hero is one of the 11 on the list.

While I can understand that some of my strange niche favorites are unlikely to be on that list (odds were always low of having Chamber, Nightwatch, or MACH-1 in the initial outlay), there are some strange choices. The Punisher over Captain America? Black Panther over Namor? I like Deadpool, but why is he present in lieu of Cyclops, Silver Surfer, or freaking Spider-man?

Some of this is probably because this is a beta. (Heck, some of these characters are known to be available by launch.) But it's endemic of a problem with the game's very setup: Every new hero will have to be created from scratch, meaning that it can't possibly model everyone you might want to play. The game even tacitly acknowledges this by placing some heroes around as NPCs... except that some of these are people you might want to actually play further on down the line.

Actually, scratch that: If you're the sort of person who cares a lot about playing a specific character from comic books, you are probably also the sort of person who would pick someone obscure. I certainly am.

Moving along, I decided to run with Ms. Marvel, as I have a growing fondness for the character in light of a recent essay. (I don't think the analogy totally works, but to be fair, having a child travel back in time to impregnate his own mother is halfway to a Silver Age Superman story.) I was subsequently dumped into a lobby and told that HYDRA had assaulted a SHIELD prison, so I needed to go fly over there and beat up a bunch of criminals.

I'm sure that Hawkeye's attempts to not kill anyone will fit well with the Punisher's attempts to kill everyone.Then I went into the dungeon, and I started slaying demons on my way to face Diablo. Or something. I'll confess that this was about the part where I started to feel a sinking feeling; Ms. Marvel very quickly just turned into "tank class with ranged attacks." If someone had swapped the HYDRA soldiers for anything else, up to and including goat-headed devils, the practical difference would have been nil.

It's not about story here, although that's an issue. It's about the fact that the gameplay is not notably different from countless other games. There's nothing to make the game feel anything more like a superhero game. You level up, you collect loot dropped by enemies, you keep killing things along several corridors and hope that the next guy drops something even better. It's clever that the loot corresponds to parts of your costume, so I'm picking up new bodysuits and gloves for Ms. Marvel, but it doesn't make a tremendous amount of logical sense.

Not that wolves dropping broadswords makes a lot of sense either, but it's one of those elements we accept from years of games that work this way. The "doesn't make sense" part sticks out much worse.

The talent trees currently in the game are underdeveloped, but it's a known fact that this will be expanded in the future, so there's space to improve. I did notice that Ms. Marvel could lift and throw cars, which was cool. It's even advantageous to do so. I suspect I'd find the same thing if I played as Hawkeye, though, which is less cool.

After punching and blasting my way through the SHIELD facility, I came up against my first boss, the Living Laser. That made sense; the Living Laser is a chump villain among all chump villains. What made less sense is the following boss fight, which pitted me against the Green Goblin. Oh, his abilities make sense, but taking a highly iconic villain and offing him in the tutorial mission provokes a raised eyebrow or two. He also seemed a bit... undertuned at the moment. There were some parts of the fight that were more awkward than necessary, in other words.

Once he was back in his cell, I was informed that my next destination was Hell's Kitchen. For those of you unfamiliar with the Marvel universe, here's the deal: Hell's Kitchen is usually featured in stories with characters like Hawkeye or Daredevil. Its major threats come in the form of muggers with guns. Ms. Marvel is a nigh-indestructible, super-strong heroine who can fly and shoot blasts of energy from her hands. She generally does not punch her way through Hell's Kitchen for the same reason that an Army Ranger does not generally play dodgeball with seven-year-olds.

It's an iconic location, but it's an iconic location that makes sense only for certain characters in certain situations at certain times. There were some pretty good Cable stories in Hell's Kitchen, but they focused on him as a person instead of him as a superhero. It's part of a larger issue with the game's use of the IP. I'll save that for later.

This leads to the hilarious image of these two being beaten up by a bunch of guys whose powers start and stop with fashion sense.Next, I was dropped on the roof with Misty Knight and Dagger, both of whom I would actually like to play and probably won't be able to, and then I was told to go downstairs and start looking for a subway entrance to go beat up another terminal chump villain, Shocker. I don't know where the entrance is. There's no indicator on my map where it is, and it becomes clear that I'm meant to just search around, roaming the streets and beating up thugs until I find the entrance.

And the thugs keep spawning, and I keep wandering, and I gain levels, and I'm still looking for the darn entrance, and I realized that this was the entire game. You know, exactly like the games that this one is taking its inspiration from. Go into an area, kill everything that moves, and search for an exit. Continue until you get bored, I suppose.

There are two problems that I see with this approach, and the first is that it's a game without much to recommend it. It's a Diablo clone in a time where Diablo III and Torchlight II are both readily available for purchase among countless others, and I can't for the life of me see anything it's offering that those other games don't do. Except for the fact that it's technically an MMO, if you ignore the fact that the social interface seemed rather clumsy from my (admittedly limited) groping about. The one distinguishing feature are the Marvel characters.

But that's the other problem: This isn't a Marvel game. Marvel has a big superheroic cast, to be sure, but Marvel has staked its reputation on the idea that these are superhumans first and foremost. Superman doesn't have a boss who hates him or a question of how he's going to eat for the week; Spider-man deals with that on a regular basis. The Avengers consist of several heroes who don't always agree about the best way to deal with villainous threats and often have deep-seated emotional issues. Deadpool is a wisecracking snark-machine, but that's an emotional wall he puts up to hide his state as a disfigured professional assassin of dubious morality.

None of this exists in Marvel Heroes. It's a coat of paint over a completely different skeleton, one that doesn't feel superheroic in the least. There are quests, but there's nothing to contribute to the sense of being a hero instead of someone in a suit beating up thugs.

Maybe the game just isn't for me. Maybe it's being aimed at people who have never picked up anything approaching an MMO before. But instead of getting the rush I get from a good issue of a comic book, I was mostly just bored. Even with all of the stuff that I know is going to be changed through development, I suspect that at its core, the game comprises two totally separate ideas melding into one space.

Right now, Marvel Heroes doesn't feel like a game about superheroes. It feels like a game that wants to be yet another riff on Diablo that's being built with a well-known IP to boost recognition. And I don't know how much further development will really fix that.

Justin Olivetti

This article was originally published on Massively.