Not quite heroic, but still a good time for Marvel fans.

Imagine for a moment that you’re Spider-Man. You wake up, have your coffee, and look out the window. What you see before you is utter, inexplicable chaos. If you’re a modern comics reader, you probably recognize this as an early moment from Age of Ultron. If you’re a gamer, this is a perfect analogy for the experience you’ll find in Marvel Heroes.

Created by Gazillion Entertainment (a company currently headed up by Diablo creator David Brevik), Marvel Heroes promised to channel Brevik’s hack’n’slash RPG formula into a free-to-play superhero MMO. It’s like they put Diablo and the Fantastic Four into a blender just to see what would happen, and then poured the contents into a F2PMMO mold.

The end result is everything you were hoping for, and yet nothing to get excited about.

Marvel Heroes

The core of the gameplay is solid, even though it’s nothing more than what you’d expect from a Marvel-themed Diablo-a-like.  You’ll left click to move, right click to attack, and map all of your fancy superpowers to different keys, making it easy to bust them out in the heat of battle. 

Different characters feel unique, and unlocking new powers for each character feels like unwrapping a new present on Christmas morning. In terms of fan service, Marvel Heroes knows exactly which buttons to push.  Sure the game has plenty of A-listers to choose from, but why pick Iron Man or Wolverine when you could just as easily go with Cable or Rocket Racoon?  Alternate costumes also managed to make my inner comics nerd squeal with delight, allowing me to purchase a Joe Fixit costume for the Hulk, or the current rebel leader version of Cyclops.

“Purchase” is the key word here – asides from a few early characters, you’ll find yourself in need of cold hard cash if you want to expand your roster. But since the game is free to begin with (and can be enjoyed to its fullest without spending a dime), it’s not hard to see why such costs have been built into the game.

What’s hard to understand, though, is why switching between the characters you buy has to be such a burden.  Each character comes with their own levels, XP, etc – so if you’re a level 15 Thor and you just bought a level 1 Deadpool, he’s not going to be much good to you at this point in your quest.  You can go back to the beginning with your new character, but it would have been much nicer if there was a single XP pool that was shared between a player’s characters.

Marvel Heroes

As much of an annoyance as this might be, it’s a minor problem at best. Where Marvel Heroes really begins to struggle is when those three damning little letters come into the equation: MMO. Marvel Heroes is a game that’s played with others – a lot of others – and all of the time.

It’s not hard to see what they were going for here – much like the aforementioned Age of Ultron, Marvel Heroes feels like a hectic end-of-the-world scenario where every superhero is in a frantic melee to survive. On paper, it’s a cool concept. Unfortunately, the reality of this scenario can lead to a number of frustrating situations.

Let’s say there’s an event going on where you need to kill 30 or 40 of something in a time limit. When you get there, you’ll find a few dozen superheroes all camped around that something’s spawn point, endlessly shooting energy beams and unleashing hi-ya karate kicks.  Good luck getting your kills in, bub.

The game will also automatically group you with nearby superheroes. Again, cool in theory – but I had one instance that showed why this is a complete flop when implemented poorly.  After working my way through one of the game’s sizable environments, I’d finally reached the boss battle. Marvel Heroes decided that I should be grouped with three other nearby players, even though I couldn’t seem to find any of them.  “Whatever,” I thought, knowing that the game has felt like a zillion simultaneous solo campaigns rather than an MMO, anyways.  As I worked my way through the villain’s boat, killing henchmen left and right, and was within spitting distance of the boss lair… I got kicked back to the very beginning of this huge environment because my group quit.

It was as infuriating as it sounds.

Marvel Heroes

To make matters worse, the game combines these big environments with a total lack of direction. Yes, there’s a map, and yes, you’ll be told things like “on his boat,” but there’s no marker to indicate which direction to head in or where that boat might be.  As a result, you’ll often find yourself wandering in circles, spamming the chat to ask someone for help.

It’s also worth noting that, at the time of this writing, the game is suffering from some launch window jitters. This isn’t something I’m going to hold against Marvel Heroes (Gazillion will no doubt address issues as quickly as possible), but there’s no denying that you may have trouble getting the game going, even once you’ve sat through the massive 11GB download.

Marvel Heroes is a game that I find myself torn about. On the one hand, the combat is great, the visuals are terrific, and the fan service is the best I’ve seen since the days of X-Men Legends and Marvel: Ultimate Alliance. On the other hand, the multiplayer execution is terrible — and this is an MMO. That’s kind of an important element here.

If you’re a diehard Marvel Comics fan you owe it to yourself to give Marvel Heroes a try. There’s enough here to love that you’ll enjoy it despite its shortcomings, and you really can’t beat the price. For everyone else, Marvel Heroes earns a “fair/good” comics grading at best.