Marvel Heroes screenshot
When I first heard that Marvel Heroes, by Gazillion Entertainment, was not going to allow players to make unique, customizable heroes to fight alongside classic Marvel characters, I felt the same as many of our readers did. I was shocked, hurt, and then angry. What on Earth would inspire a developer to skip not only one of the most important aspects of an MMO -- character customization -- but skip it in an IP that is begging for character customization? Instead of checking the game out, I walked away and played other titles.

But I've given it a chance over the last few weeks and had a discussion with Jeff Donais from Gazillion, and now I realize that the developers were never attempting to make an open-world sandbox with infinitely customizable characters. Instead they have made a linear story-based romp with tons of loot, plenty of explosions, and more classic Marvel characters than you can shake an adamantium claw at. Getting over preconceptions and imagining a dungeon-crawler that is set in the Marvel universe will bring you closer to understanding Marvel Heroes.

Marvel Heroes screenshot
So, about those iconic characters. You'll start the game by picking from one of nine characters in classic gear: Colussus, Hawkeye, Human Torch, Storm, Punisher, Luke Cage, Captain America, Black Widow and Black Panther. I chose from an previous lineup, so I went with Thing because he seemed like an easy-to-solo powerhouse. When you log in to the game, you will come across other players who are piloting Thing as well. Heck, you might stumble upon an entire gaggle of Things. It is a little jarring to see multiple copies of yourself, but it didn't bother me nearly as much as I thought it would. The fact that my character was being sent on specific missions that followed a specific story path meant that everyone was sort of on his or her own chapter of the story. I jumped into different zones to destroy hordes of baddies as I attempted to find lost tablets of power, gather information, and shut down iconic villains. So did they, but we could help each other as well.

Each zone is huge and has plenty of room for as many characters as want to show up. Each zone has four evil encounters that will spawn in the form of bad guys. All of the players in the zone will be warned when it happens, and a simple indicator appears on screen to show where to go to fight the evil doer. In one zone, I fought The Shocker. Joining me were Spiderman, Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye, and another Thing. There was so much chaos and destruction going on during the fight that I didn't really care that there was a carbon copy of myself fighting next to me. I just wanted to kill the baddie and get the goods. Occasionally more "random" events, like a Hydra beach-landing, needed to be stopped. These events broke up the linear story grind that permeates the entire game.
Experience and loot drops like crazy as you fight. I often had issues with inventory control, but at any point I was able to run back to a way point and teleport to a safe zone (marked by unlocked chapters in the story). The Avengers Tower, for example, gave me everything I needed from a crafting store to an NPC who sold me other heroes. Unloading loot was not a problem.

Marvel Heroes screenshot
Although I rarely found the need to switch heroes, I could buy new ones through an NPC by turning in Eternity Splinters, drops that are found in game. According to Donais, heroes are easy to obtain simply as you play the game, but if you feel lazy, you can just spend several dollars and buy a new hero in the item shop. I played quite a bit and barely had enough Eternity Splinters to afford even a basic hero like Black Widow. According to Donais, costuming your hero (the game's version of customization) is how the studio makes money. I saw obtaining new heroes more important than buying new looks for your heroes, but I might not be skilled enough to grind for the hours it would take to get new heroes through in-game means alone. For the record, all heroes are basically the same as far as power level. Each has eventual access to about 25 different active and passive abilities through an ability tree that opens up as you level. Some heroes cost more in the shop simply because they are... cooler? Iron Man, for example, costs 1450 points, while Black Widow costs only 450.

When you look at the costumes available for each hero, you can see just how much passion the developers have for the characters. Marvel has given Gazillion free rein over any character from any section of the Marvel universe for the next decade, and it shows in game. You can buy amazing-looking costumes for your Iron Man, for example, from his zanier Silver Centurion armor (complete with very '80s shoulder-pads) to the suitcase Mark V he used in Iron Man 2. Black Widow can be outfitted with her classic comic look or with the movie outfit. It's quite impressive.

There are cosmetic items, like flaming skulls, that will give players a slightly different look from others. On top of the different costumes for characters and the sheer number of characters that can be picked from, I saw many different character looks and never felt as though the game was just a series of clones. The characters are very well animated with individual fingers and costume pieces, and each one has a unique set of voice emotes. My Thing would say something different to each hero he came across. When he met Spiderman, he said, "Hey Spidey, how's it hanging?" but then warned Wolverine to point his claws somewhere else. I also saw Spiderman tell The Scarlet Witch, "With your hexes and my spider sense, we should hit Vegas." All of the voice work and sound effects are crafted to match the incredibly well-done graphics.

Marvel Heroes screenshot
I spent a good deal of time just smashing my way around the different environments to see which little pieces would break. During fights I gleefully smashed the ground or used a super-punch to send bodies flying, thanks to the in-game physics. Sure, you'll spend most of your time with the camera in isometric mode, but zoom in close and you'll see just how much love went into the graphics.

Combat is pretty basic. You can click or press W to move forward, "drive" your character by pointing your cursor, fire off abilities by pressing keyboard shortcuts, and loot goodies by clicking on them. Experience and health dots are acquired simply by running over them with your character, but they do fade over time. You'll fight your way through a zone with other players, find your target location on the map, and make your way into an instance to destroy your target and move on to the next chapter of the story.

Between objectives you'll be treated to semi-animated cutscenes. They feature a simple story and classic characters. It's all very linear, but that's the idea. If you do happen to want some more free-form action, make your way into mid-town Manhattan. There you'll be able to fight muggers or Hydra villains. It's more open than the standard gameplay, but it is nice to smash heads willy-nilly without a goal in mind.

Marvel Heroes screenshot
Loot is pretty standard stuff. I use a simple guideline for loot and pretty much stash or sell everything I come across until I start getting beat by enemies. When that happens, I tweak my character until he feels tougher. Thing takes a ton of damage, so I rarely upgraded his equipment. But boy, will you find a lot of loot. Most of it will be garbage, but keep an eye out and you might come across something really useful. You'll occasionally nab medals or special gear that is named after a villain you just dispatched. That's generally the good stuff, and the rest is sold off. You can also do some crafting by donating loot to NPCs or having them craft items from recipes for you. There is some real time involved, but most lower-level crafting doesn't take much time at all. Some of the crafted items have some real use and can be added to your character to beef up his stats or abilities. It's a decent system, but I rarely took advantage of it.

There is no gamepad controller support for the game yet, and PvP is just now being introduced. Once you complete the linear story (including the brand-new Asgardian content!), then you can repeat it on a harder mode. The events that pop up in each zone, combined with mid-town Manhattan, crafting, collecting heroes and grinding out experience, gives the game many, many hours of gameplay.

Is Marvel Heroes an open-world MMORPG? No, but it's never tried to be. It is a silly, awesome-looking romp through the Marvel universe that is chock-full of the proper set of hero designs from just the right eras. Sure, you can play as the newer, modern Iron Man, but why would you when you can play as the classic gray metal behemoth?

I grew up on Marvel in the '80s and '90s, and I have to tell you that seeing some of the characters in game, like Cyclops and his amazing animations, gave me a thrill that easily overcame my distaste for the lack of customization. I never found myself needing to spend any money in the item shop, and I found myself enjoying the game even when its patterns of play started to show.

Marvel Heroes is a fantastically made game. It's hard to believe that it's free.

Massively's not big on scored reviews -- what use are those to ever-changing MMOs? That's why we bring you first impressions, previews, hands-on experiences, and even follow-up impressions for nearly every game we stumble across. First impressions count for a lot, but games evolve, so why shouldn't our opinions?

This article was originally published on Massively.