Free to play games have developed a bit of a “complex” over the past couple years. They usually come across more as “pay to win” than “free to play”, which sort of detracts from any appeal that they might have. Don’t get me wrong, I get that even the simplest game has costs to recoup, but you shouldn’t have to pay in order to access the enjoyable aspect of a title. With that being said, Marvel Heroes is one of the most complete free-to-play experiences that I have played yet.
When the crew at Gazillion said that you could play through the entire experience without spending a dime, many assumed that referred to an absolutely bare-boned experience. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Even by sticking with one (actually two) of the free, base characters, you will get a chance to see everything that there is to see in the world that tells Brian Bendis’ original tale.
Players are out to stop Doctor Doom from obtaining the Cosmic Cube. He is out to get it at any cost and has enlisted nearly every supervillain in Marvel's rogues gallery to run interference for him. To stop him, you get to choose from five different free starting characters when you begin the game. While these aren’t top-tier Marvel personalities, the selection is enough to entertain even the most casual of fans. While there aren’t really character classes in the game, these five starts show off the various fighting styles that the game’s characters possess. Daredevil is finesse brawler, similar to Captain America or Spider-Man. Storm and Scarlet Witch show off how those with magical abilities play. Hawkeye is a ranged fighter who can inflict major damage from a distance, much like Cable and Black Widow. The Thing is the Marvel Heroes’ version of a typical tank, along with the Incredible Hulk.
Once you complete the game’s opening mission, you will be awarded an unlock token for one of the other starter characters at random, so really you get two from the outset of the experience. With those two characters, you are free to explore this massive world of Marvel fan service across eight distinct chapters that will take you through a whose-who of the Marvel universe. Players can switch between these characters, and any others that they obtain, at any given time, which helps to keep the experience varied. If and when you join up with a party online that needs a specific role filled, you can swap to a character to fill that role in a matter of seconds.
Being free to play, there are a number of add-ons available for purchase which help to keep the lights on at Gazillion. These range from additional characters and costumes to expanded equipment slots and specialized storage lockers based on each character. This is a Diablo-esque adventure, so the core of the entire experience is recovering loot from the battlefield.. Loot varies from a variety of equipment, most of which is character equipment (which we will discuss here in a moment) and power ups but may also include rare drops such as character unlock tokens and additional costumes.
The pricing of these additional items ranges from being incredibly reasonable to ridiculously expensive. The game store’s operate using a “gold” currency which breaks down to roughly $1 being equal to 100 in-game gold. There is no “set” price for additional characters or gear; the pricing is all based on popularity. You can easily get a new character for either $6 or $9, but expect it to be a second tier character like Black Widow or Colossus. If you want the heavy hitters from the Marvel universe, like Deadpool, Iron Man, or Spider-Man, expect to drop close to $20. The same pricing mechanic exists for the costumes too; expect to pay for the cooler ones. Other things you can purchase include stat and experience boosts which are reasonably priced. You can get a few hours of double experience for a dollar or so, which makes it a viable option for someone who isn’t willing to throw down a large sum of money on the experience.
Pretty much all of this stuff is purely, and rightfully, optional. These aren’t things that you need to enjoy the game, but they are what you will need if you want to stand out in this massive world. This is where the game struggles. This genre, which includes games like Diablo and Titan Quest, has always had an uncanny level of customization. Gamers have always seemed to appreciate that aspect and took the experiences as opportunities to craft their own visions of a hero. Being set in a universe that is already as defined as Marvel comics, Marvel Heroes places serious limitations on that.
You won’t be developing a unique ranger that stands out in a crowd of players. Instead you will find yourself playing as one of 50 (and sometimes more) Hawkeyes or Wolverines. I still get a laugh when I see a band of six Incredible Hulks running around together looking like a cloning project gone awry, but the reality is that it detracts from there being any sense of individuality in the game’s world.
All of the loot and equipment in the game is purely stat based; they alter your defensive and offensive statistics drastically but will make absolutely zero alteration to the look and feel of your characters. There are small attempt made to do that, with special “flair” items that might add flames to your character or a lightning effect when they walk, but these are all slight visual alterations. Storm is Storm is Storm, no matter how you paint her, or anyone else for that matter. If you want your character to be different, than costumes are your only choice is to spend a few dollars.
While I found Marvel Heroes to be a fun experience, it spends too much time fighting with itself to ever turn into a great one. The problem is that it makes an attempt to appeal to two completely different classes of players and it never really succeeds in appeasing either one. Diablo fans will find the most basic of gameplay elements from a genre that normally appreciates and prefers extreme depth. Sure, there is minor crafting, an in-game economic system driven by trading, and individual, character skill trees; however they are incredibly shallow when compared to similar games in the market.
On the other hand, they also try to appeal to lifetime Marvel fans by giving them a huge world filled to the brim with references and cameos from every corner of Marvel lore. In this aspect, I would say that things work out a little better, but they still aren’t great. The game just throws too many references at you at once, coming across as if they simply wanted to see how many recognizable people and places they could squeeze in the experience. There is a certain joy to be found in grouping up with your friends as the entire Avengers or X-Force squads and raging war against infamous villains like Doctor Octopus and a legion of towering Sentinels.
As long as you keep your expectations in check, there is a lot of fun to be found in Marvel Heroes. It just so happens that the game does more to serve as fan service to veterans of the comic book world than it does to advance the genre for action-RPG gamers. Die hard Diablo fans will walk away less than impressed with the experience but comic fans will likely find plenty to love as they step into the shoes of their favorite heroes. If nothing else, it will provide you with a couple of hours of entertainment, at a minimum, at absolutely no cost to you. That isn’t a bad deal if I say so myself.