Super Hero Squad Online: No more "nameless sidekicks"

These days, it takes a lot to impress me. Oh sure, I love MMOs. But sometimes I feel I'm in a rut, waiting for something new and different. Something that doesn't just have a "new" sticker, but actually has some new hook that will keep me happily playing -- not grinding -- more than a month. Something that will make me feel good about being a gamer again. Something cute and friendly that actually relieves stress rather than creating more.

That's why I was so surprised by Marvel Super Hero Squad Online, the official premiere of which I was lucky enough to attend yesterday in downtown San Francisco. (The folks at Gazillion Entertainment and The Amazing Society put on a great show!) I certainly didn't walk into the event expecting SHSO to pique more than my passing fancy. Comic book-themed games are definitely something I love, and Marvel couldn't be hotter right now, but let's be honest -- SHSO's press release and early screenshots suggest an overtly family-friendly, even kid-oriented, cartoony romp. I figured the game would be Free Realms in capes, and that Massively's readers would probably be more interested in the other Marvel MMO (simultaneously in development by Gazillion with Gargantuan Studios).

Well, I'm pleased to report that my preconceptions about Super Hero Squad Online were mostly wrong, and now I've got a new upcoming game to add to my "gotta buy" list. Join me on the flipside of the break and find out why SHSO seems poised to *POW* *ZAP* *BLAMMO* the casual MMO sweet spot!%Gallery-93313%

Which Marvel MMO is which?

Let's ward off any confusion right up front: Gazillion Entertainment is currently producing several MMOs and games, most of them still tightly under wraps. At least two of them dip into the vast Marvel IP, one of which is the upcoming Marvel Universe Online, which will likely compete with other top-tier superhero MMOs like City of Heroes, Champions Online, and the unreleased DC Universe Online. Super Hero Squad Online, due for release first, is the other, and that's the title we were fortunate to preview. Early hints and press releases have suggested that SHSO would target a younger playerbase, and act as a gateway game to introduce the children of aging comic fans to the Marvel world and characters, and then, eventually, lead them to the more mature MUO.

To some extent, that's a fair assessment. Gazillion's demo certainly gave a family-friendly, kid-friendly impression. Combat is gore-free and bloodless. Enemies can be kicked, punched, zapped, and sent reeling, but no one ever dies. Even the baddies are restricted in their arsenal (ninjas, for example, occasionally lob fish, not shurikens, at the heroes.) Chat will be tightly monitored and we were assured that parents would have tools for locking down various parts of the game. The game ties in directly to an existing Cartoon Network program, The Super Hero Squad Show, as well as an action figure toy line. Gazillion clearly expect, and want, kids playing this game, and they're preparing on all fronts.

But kid-friendly doesn't necessarily mean kid-only. SHSO may not be overly violent, but it's a superhero game -- it's very much about combat. It may sport stylized graphics that look more like toys than cartoons, but anyone with an open mind will be impressed by the buoyant art design and splashes of bright, cheerful colors and crazy particle effects. It may be a browser-based game, but it's taking advantage of the meaty Unity engine. Keep reading, big kids: this game has plenty for you.

Focusing on the combat demo

SHSO is absolutely clear on this point: this game is about the player taking on the role of specific, (mostly) canonical Marvel superheroes -- not "nameless sidekicks" -- so naturally you're wondering: how does that work? Well, you unlock individual heroes by completing their individual quest lines, and then add them to your squad -- that is, your pool of potential characters. You can then enter a social gathering area, an instanced hub which features shops and meeting points. The gathering area we saw spotlighted several iconic locations like the Daily Bugle, but we can expect even more. Positioned selectively all over the town are launchpads for super travel, more like WoW flight paths than CoH-style free-form travel, so heroes can fly and leap to the tops of buildings for a better view. And of course the hubs contain newspaper stands which initiate the mission lobby for creating a party. Missions themselves are meant to be consumed in short spurts; they're generally 5 to 10 minutes long, joined together in storylines not unlike the comic books which serve as their inspiration. To start a mission, you'll form a party of up to four friends or (eventually) pugsters, each choosing a hero and jumping into the fray.

Four players aren't required, however. Missions can be accomplished solo or in smaller groups, as well; they will simply scale in difficulty based on your party size. Don't worry about balance either -- all heroes (even those whose focus is more on crowd control, like the mesmerizing Ms Marvel) have at least one attack move to make soloing a breeze. In fact, Gazillion have turned the typical risk-vs-reward paradigm on its head and replaced it with this motto: losing sucks! Perhaps to be expected in a modern kid-friendly game, there are no player death mechanics in SHSO. If your hero is knocked-out, he'll pause briefly, then get right back up and rejoin the melee. Of course, since you're rewarded with experience and currency (to purchase undisclosed perks and trophies back in town) at the conclusion of a mission, and since those rewards are based on your performance along the road to victory, it's in your best interest to play to your ability rather than just slop through it. Make sure to hit those personal and team combos! But if you can't, oh well -- better luck next time, since missions and storylines are repeatable.

And you'll want to repeat them. You've got a whole squad to level up, if you choose. And each of those heroes has his or her own set of special moves and combos to keep combat fresh. The Amazing Society's Creative Director Jay Minn indulged me by showing off some of Storm's iconic powers -- I watched her floating along, shooting lightning bolts and wrapping herself inside of a summoned rain cloud to fend off swarms of enemies as well as a supervillain boss. The various skills and combos didn't seem terribly difficult to pull off -- a young player can probably muddle through just bashing keys -- but in the 4-person group, strategy becomes more attractive, especially when you're aiming for that elusive high score.

But not too much strategy. Ultimately, SHSO is a game about bashing baddies with buddies, not planning a 6-hour raid. It's a co-op action game that recaptures the feel of something like a good-looking superhero Diablo, or some bizarre hybrid of multiplayer Torchlight-cum-Lego Star Wars. It's meant to be fun and light, humorous, and exactly as casual and social as you want it to be, in a "frictionless experience" that lets you log in and play without fuss. Even a hardcore gamer can get his fix here -- he need only reorient himself around developing a diverse squad rather than the single avatar of perfection expected in other games. SHSO encourages a broad experience, and a deep bench, instead. Altaholics will be in heaven!

Two Iron Men walk into a bar...

If you happen to play as Spider-man when going into the gathering zone, then yes, it is possible to bump into other Spider-men, but Stephen Reid, Community Director for Gazillion, told me that's not a great concern. Younger kids will love seeing half a dozen copies of Spidey, and more hardcore players will channel their desire for individuality into seeking out rare or obscure heroes to play (look at me, I'm Squirrel Girl!) or alternate versions of their best-loved figures. Inside missions, however, there can only be one copy of any given hero, so you won't need to worry about anyone breaking your immersions while actually playing through content.

You can continue customizing your heroes with a couple dozen emotes per toon, earned as the character levels up, and the team were only too happy to show some of them off. I witnessed Wolverine using his claws to carve up a topiary; Invisible Woman blowing bubbles; Jean Grey bending spoons; the Thing making snow angels -- in cement! -- and I swear at one point I saw War Machine pull a pineapple out of his butt. (I'm not sure what that was about!) Every emote we saw was cute, well-animated, and above all else, funny. Sure, these emotes don't offer any combat advantages, but they do give players an adorable way to strut their status -- and a reason to keep playing for more and more toons and emotes. Presumably we'll see more of the "collection" aspects of the game as the team get closer to launch.

The first rule of Super Hero Squad Online is...

Of course, we're only just getting our first taste of the game, and even though it's being developed on an impressively short timeline, there's still a lot that's unfinished or unknown; consequently, the Gazillion reps were understandably unable or unwilling to talk on several key topics. That means we're just going to have to wait to learn whether SHSO will be subscription-based or free-to-play, whether we'll see any crafting or auction mechanics, or whether we'll eventually be able to play as villains. We were told about plans for a PvP system but not given details; likewise, the team were visibly proud of their housing system (referred to as a Super Hero hangout in the press release) but they just couldn't be coaxed to talk about it on the record. (I guess I need Professor X on my squad for that!)

Then there's the trading card game hinted at in trailers on the SHSO website -- nope, the devs couldn't chat about that either, but given those trailers and the success of similar card games from direct competitors such as Free Realms, it seems a likely inclusion. The real mystery is just how tightly woven into the fabric of the game such a card game might be -- throughout the combat demo, we saw nothing to suggest cards would be necessary to complete missions. Time will tell!

I was unable to pin anyone down on the exact number of playable heroes, either, and perhaps that's for the best. I saw at least a dozen during the demo, and even more throughout promotional materials. With 5,000 characters to pick from, the team could feasibly keep adding new heroes far into the future. Even Squirrel Girl.

You had me at "15-minute missions"

Ultimately, Super Hero Squad Online is a long way from launch, even on The Amazing Society's speedy production schedule. Plans change; mechanics prove unwieldy. And I can certainly see the game's limitations -- many gamers play superhero games to create their own heroes, to feed their customization and creativity needs, something intentionally lacking here. Then again, other superhero games lack SHSO's streamlining and opportunity to play all the classic characters. But the philosophy behind the game is sound, the music is still running through my head, and I'm really wishing I had my hands on that combat demo to play around with myself. It certainly looked a lot more vibrant and fun than anything on my hard drive right now, and at the very least -- especially if the pricing model is right -- it could just be the perfect snack while waiting for Gazillion's more traditional Marvel MMO.

In the meantime, keep an eye on the official SHSO website -- the team have put up a trailer and are promising previews of some of the most popular squadmates before the day is out!