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Diablo III gets it. Torchlight gets it. Marvel Ultimate Alliance gets it. Titan Quest gets it. Borderlands gets it. Path of Exile doesn’t get it. Van Helsing doesn’t get it. Krater doesn’t get it. Dungeon Siege doesn’t get it. Sacred doesn’t get it. Hellgate: London didn’t get it. Try as they might, many RPGs don’t get it, including some of the good ones.

Marvel Heroes totally gets it. Totally.

After the jump, gets what?

An important part of an action RPG is the gleeful hack-and-slash of the moment-to-moment combat. If it’s something you’re doing just to level up, the game isn’t doing it right. But if it’s something you’d thrill to even if the game had no levels and no loot and no skill tree, if it’s something inherently joyous, if it’s got kick and sparkle and videogame panache, if the thousandth kill is as joyous as the first, you’re well over half way to making a good action RPG.

Sometimes it’s the clatter of skeleton bones, or the bass thump from a punch, or the ragdoll from a bullet impact. Sometimes it’s a swirl of purple energy or the thwip of an arrow or the shockwave of a groundpound. Sometimes it’s a reloading animation. Sometimes it’s as simple as fire and sometimes it’s as weird as frogs. It has to be interactive, varied enough, and flashy. You can make a good action RPG without all this, but you’re going to have a hard time of it.

This glee is where Marvel Heroes has enough pull to make up for its various shortcomings. It might take time. You get further into the game and earn more powers and group with higher level characters using higher level powers. Marvel Heroes really starts singing when you’re with a group of characters around level 20. Oh, that red death ray must be Cyclops’ uber eye power. Ah, that’s Iron Man’s chest beam at work. Sweet! Teddy bears, Hulk dolls, and Spiderman plushies strewn around? That’s gotta be Deadpool’s aggro ability. Hey, Storm, why don’t you leave some of the bad guys for the rest of us? How disappointing that Marvel Heroes doesn’t offer any ingame feedback on what other characters’ abilities are actually doing. I’m still not sure what benefit I get from standing next to the little obelisk that cartoon raccoon drops. And why is Sly Cooper in a Marvel game?

One of the smart design choices in Raven’s X-Men Legends and Marvel Ultimate Alliance action RPGs was sending out superheroes in packs instead of singly. You never played just one hero, the way you might play Diablo or Torchlight. You always had a group of four characters, one under your control and three more tagging along to help out. A fundamental tenet of havoc is the more the merrier. This is also how Marvel Heroes works, since it’s always and only online and multiplayer. There can be literally dozens of people in the same area, which you’ll discover to sometimes comedic effect. You come across a public event boss mobbed by fifty players, twenty of them Hawkeye, ten of them The Thing, five of them Storm, five of them Deadpool, and the last ten obscured under a tsunami of spell effects. Sometimes the havoc is overbearing.

But sometimes it’s perfect. In some instances, you’re automatically put into an available party. The endgame group challenges and survival challenges add satisfying new gameplay with an entirely different kind of challenge. At one point, I got into a groove with a Hulk during some nondescript mission. My Jean Grey had been leveling up a power called telekinetic implosion, which damages anyone in a large radius and then drags them into the center of the area. I was mainly using this so I could then bash several bad guys at a time with my ranged psychic hammer. But with the Hulk — a tank, obviously, with no recourse for ranged attacks — I discovered the trick of casting the telekinetic explosion right in front of him, where his big green Hulk fists were pummelling away wildly. He eventually figured out I was doing this and we got into a positioning dance, where I would basically feed him hapless victims without him having to chase them around the screen. He was a meat grinder. I was a telekinetic shoveller, slinging meat into his maw. Who knew The Hulk and Jean Grey were such an ideal match?

This is another major selling point in Marvel Heroes. I have no idea who that guy was playing The Hulk. I didn’t look at his name and I probably wouldn’t have remembered it anyway. That’s how it works with most online games, where you’re looking at random character models. In DC Universe Online, Sony’s free-to-play action RPG/MMO that has a lot in common with Marvel Heroes, you made your own superhero. You might be grouped with a guy in black spiky armor, a spandexed chick with a glowing head, a caped doofus with a laser gun, and some sort of crazy pink costume concoction obviously intended to grief Metropolis’ aesthetic integrity. It was like any other MMO: a madding crowd of disjointed player creations. But in Marvel Heroes, you might barely even notice other players’ stupid names and clans. You’re grouping with Hawkeye, Daredevil, and Captain America. I wonder if this is why the chat channels are so quiet. Everyone is shutting up and enjoying the theming.

The characters are a big part of the draw, and developer Gazillion knows it. The idea is that instead of a handful of hearty classes with unique gameplay and deep varied skill trees, you get about twenty characters with shallower skill trees. Licensed characters, of course. Opening up my roster and seeing all those greyed out options for the characters I don’t have taps into the corner of my brain that collected Star Wars figures as a kid (depending on your age, you can rework that reference to be about Transformers or Pokemons). Since it’s free-to-play, you get two free Marvel heroes from the get-go. You don’t have to remit anything other than your email address for the registration. Now you’ve got all the game content, with no limit on level or loot or social interaction.

But if you want to play the character you want to play, developer Gazillion is going to milk you for it. Single characters cost as much as $20. Characters have very few options for visual customization without spending more money, including some outrageous prices and crass pandering. Deadpool’s goofy pirate outfit is $20. There are about a dozen different Iron Man skins. Iron Man, as you might guess, costs $20. Don’t think I’m not tempted. I held out until I finished the game, when you’re given a third character. Oh, look, The Thing. Big whoop.

The thinking seems to be that players will want to freely swap among characters as they play. On one hand, you want to level up your main. On the other hand, Gazillion has done a solid job distinguishing these characters from each other within a relatively simple set of gameplay systems. I’ve only got a handful of characters, and only one of them has been leveled up significantly. But they feel distinct enough to me. And the other characters I see running around are doing things I kind of wish I was doing too. I mean, seriously, who wouldn’t want to play Deadpool throwing around superhero dolls to draw aggro? Gazillion’s game does a fine job selling itself even if you’re not buying.

But the early goodwill for two free characters might not last. The dollar is in the details. As the game progresses, as you load up on crafting materials and items for a couple of characters, as you collect medallions from the various villains, your storage space fills. Want to buy more room? $5.50. Want a separate tab for crafting items? $3. Want a locker for a specific character? $3.50. It’s the sting of bad interface management made worse if you’re not going to pay to make it convenient. Marvel Heroes doesn’t even have a sort button. Maybe that’ll be available in the future. I predict $6.

Whatever my complaints about the business model, I’m grateful Marvel Heroes doesn’t nickel-and-dime me for leveling and performance boosts (although those are in there) and that it’s not trying to sell me more quests. For now, with one character grinding away at the drawn-out endgame and a few more alts clamoring for my time, it feels like a fair enough business model, but with the outrageous prices allowed by the success of The Avengers. I mean, seriously, $20 for Iron Man and Spiderman, the two characters with enormously successful ongoing movie franchises? And when will something appear in the online store’s tab for special deals?

Marvel Heroes feels a bit half-baked. If I’d spent $40 on Iron Man and a Mk. I suit, I’d be pretty pissed to discover the endgame PvP was still in beta and entirely lacking any incentive to play. Furthermore, whatever bank is being made from the $20 Iron Mans isn’t translating into a stable game. Marvel Heroes, built from the commonly licensed Unreal engine, suffers from some serious technical difficulties more than one week and one big patch after its release. On the two computers I’ve used, my higher end system has serious stability issues. I have to dial the graphics all the way down if I want to play for any length of time without the entire computer locking up. Speaking of which, Marvel Heroes has a terrible excuse for graphics settings. It’s literally a slider with five settings. That’s it. If you want to fine tune anything — the official forums seem to think turning off dynamic lighting is a big help, but it didn’t help me much — you have to edit an ini file. My other system, which clears the system requirements, is nearly unplayable, with the sort of frequent stuttering that kills an action RPG and ungodly long loading times that will make you want to dump all your loot rather than take the time to portal back to town and sell it. At this point, with a house full of PCs, I don’t have any reliable way to play this game.

Another way Marvel Heroes resembles DC Universe Online is the endgame. Most of Marvel Heroes’ storyline takes place in the open world, alongside the other players, with occasional instances where you’ll get thrown in with a pick-up group. DC Universe Online worked similarly, with the wide-open city as a grand playground. But both games get to their endgame content pretty quickly, at which point all the action is squirreled away in instances. All that grand rough-and-tumble with all those other players goes by the wayside. Now it’s a matter of trying to find a group, and then hoping your group doesn’t break up before you reach the instance boss who will drop the cosmic shard you need to get credit for the dungeon. And good luck trying to get people together for group challenges. Time was your character could just wade out into the world to make stuff happen.

Maybe it’s time to start anew with a fresh level one Iron Man. I mean, it’s only $20, right?

4 stars
PC