The Amazing Spider-Man #300. Double-sized 25th anniversary issue with an all-out brawl between the webhead himself and Eddie Brock-turned Venom, who had just made his first appearance in the vengeful symbiote suit two issues previous. This book was a holy grail of sorts for me and my group of comic-obsessed friends when we were kids, clamoring to see it hanging in protective plastic on the wall of our neighborhood graphic novel store. Similarly, the MMO genre, young in comparison to video gaming in general, is still searching for its holy grail Marvel MMO. Sure, we've got several fully competent superhero MMOs, including Champions Online and DC Universe Online, and a host of comic-based single-player ventures, like Ultimate Alliance and Batman: Arkham City. But Marvel fans have had to wait quite a long time for a fully-featured massive online game that allows them to play as their favorite superheroes, and we hopefully won't have to wait much longer if Marvel Heroes has anything to say about it.
I got to meet with Gazillion Entertainment's team this week to take a look at the new Marvel-based MMORPG, with a short playthrough of the build that will be shown at this year's San Diego Comic-Con (SDCC). Gazillion's President and COO, David Brevik, is well-known for being one of the lead developers behind the original Diablo, and led us through our first look preview.
Marvel Heroes is based on Diablo-style action loot-fest gameplay with significant MMO and RPG elements. In the game, you'll play as Marvel characters themselves, customizing them with different costumes, equipment, and powers, clicking mouse buttons furiously in combat, looting like crazy, and joining with friends to take on quest objectives and dungeons. Marvel Heroes goes far beyond action RPG games like Diablo, however, as it will allow for thousands of players in the game world at once, with 3 types of MMO areas. First, there will be "town" areas like the Xavier Institute of Higher Learning, which are non-instanced regions with quest-givers, vendors, and the like. Second, the game will feature public combat zones, randomly generated semi-instanced areas where other players will be running around you and your party doing their own combat and quest objectives. Third, Marvel Heroes will have private instanced areas for things like bosses. Additionally, there will be public missions for the community to tackle, like the Sentinel that we took out in our demo. More on that later!
The core gameplay of Marvel Heroes works in some ways that you'd expect from an online action RPG, and in other ways that are pretty innovative and expose the game's MMO trappings. You'll be left-clicking to move and attack, and right-clicking or hitting one of the A, S, D, or F keys to activate one of your four active powers. Your powers will use a rage or mana meter that fills up as you attack enemies, and you'll collect all kinds of loot that's generated just for you, meaning that you won't be competing with others to need/greed a new piece of equipment.
Sound familiar? These aspects of the game are things that we've seen before in similar titles, but Marvel Heroes is taking a different approach with many of its features, chief among them with how you choose, customize, and level up your characters, and with how powers work. Rather than creating your own character from the get-go and sticking with her/him for the entire experience, you'll be able to collect a number of different Marvel superheroes that you can switch out at any time. These heroes, for which Gazillion has access to the entire Marvel suite, will play very differently from one another and can be customized through their equipment and costumes and outfitted with different powers.
Both the costume and power systems are much deeper than they may seem at first glance and require some explanation. You'll be getting a lot of loot drops like you'd expect in an MMO, with the ability to gear up with better versions of your gloves, body armor, belts, and so on. You'll also find hundreds of alternate costumes in the world that become unlocked in your costume library and can be accessed at any time. Furthermore, Marvel Heroes has a crafting system that allows you to create your own costumes and outfit them with slotted items to boost your attributes.
You'll also be able to customize your heroes from your library of powers, which will be in theme with the Marvel intellectual properties and can be gained through leveling and picking up loot drops. Although you can only have four of these powers active at any time, you can switch them up to change your play style whenever you'd like. Moreover, while there are some shared powers - like Headbutt - that all heroes can do, some will be more specific - only the big green guy can Hulk Smash. These powers have ranks as well, which you can unlock by getting loot off baddies, and you'll also get upgrades for your base attacks.
Marvel Heroes will also have a points allocation system to further specialize your heroes, although Gazillion is mum at the moment about how that's going to work. Still, the team is clear that even with all of the different ways to customize your character, leveling is not the "point" or singular focus of the game. Rather, leveling is a side effect of players experiencing the quest system and storyline, which involves Dr. Doom and is based on the 1980s cross-over story arc Mutant Massacre. The story is being written by Brian Michael Bendis (Ultimate Spider-Man, New Avengers, House of M) and is told through a series of motion comics. The quest system is different from what you'll find in most other MMOs, in that it's more linear and doesn't involve running to different quest hubs and grabbing objectives from various NPCs. It's more what you'd expect from a single-player RPG, with other fun things to do along the way.
We were given a short hands-on gameplay demo with Marvel Heroes, with the option to try out Hulk, Iron Man, Scarlet Witch, or Wolverine. Spider-Man, Venom, Nightcrawler, and Deadpool not being included in the demo, I went for Wolverine, and found myself in Xavier's Institute for Higher Learning with the Beast, Professor Xavier himself, and other NPCs available with which to chat or from whom to grab the demo quest. I had a basic Slash attack equipped, as well as my four active powers of Jump and Slash, Whirlwind Attack, Regeneration, and Quick Slash, which pretty much worked as described. Having gained our bearings a little and gotten our first quest to go out into the world, we headed through a portal to take on some (presumably) anti-mutant agents as a group, including a pretty epic Sentinel fight. This area was followed by a small instanced boss fight with Magneto, which required some coordination to avoid his varied forms of harassment, including an AoE forcefield and a grab-and-smash type of attack.
My impressions with the brief gameplay demo were very positive overall, and the build that we played ran very smoothly and looked more than decent graphics-wise. The combat was appropriately crunchy and felt the way that an action RPG click-fest should, with fun Wolverine whirlwind and dash powers and some destructible environments like cars, which apparently heroes like the Hulk can pick up and throw around. Over the course of the demo, I probably picked up about 20 different items, including a Furious Lunge power and an X-Force costume. I have to say, seeing 5 or so items ALL FOR ME spring from the defeated Sentinel was particularly satisfying, and the Magneto boss fight was fun and appropriately epic.
It helps that Marvel Heroes looks pretty good and has the superhero aesthetic down very well, with a minimal but elegant UI and good combat sounds. If the newly released screens give you any idea, the game is a little less stylized than, say, Ultimate Alliance, and while it's no Diablo 3 in terms of visuals, Marvel Heroes has a functional graphical style that works well and is pleasing to the eye. The Gazillion team wants the game to run on a lot of different machines, so hopefully the graphics will be fully scalable. The motion comic sequences that we saw were very tastefully done as well. The voice acting is performed by pros that have experience playing Marvel characters, and hearing Wolverine insist that he's "the best there is" at what he does while tearing into agents during our demo was a nice touch.
We were also privy to some information about Gazillion's design philosophy behind Marvel Heroes and the kinds of things that they're working on, and what they're not yet ready to disclose. On the design front, the game is being made with the same mentality as when Dave co-created Diablo, in that there are multiple approaches to playing the same character. Just as switching out weapons for an Amazon in Diablo II will change her playstyle, so too will changing powers, costumes, and other customization options for Wolverine create a new gameplay approach. Additionally, while it's pretty easy to switch between your powers, Gazillion is working on implementing systems that support different types of builds for your heroes.
As for collecting and leveling heroes, Dave and his team think that some people will likely play one hero all the way through the story, and then go for another one, while other players will level up several at the same time, like all of the Fantastic Four. It's an alt-friendly game, and while you level heroes individually, there will be some incentives and help to progress several heroes rather than just one. Interestingly, Marvel Heroes doesn't presuppose a "trinity" system for group content, meaning that you won't need a tank, healer, and DPS class to attempt the game's dungeons. There will be incentives to have a variety of characters in especially endgame and higher difficulty modes, however, so it will make sense to level up several heroes as you play through the story.
In terms of the endgame, Gazillion is happy to say that there is one for Marvel Heroes, but they're not yet willing to talk about it. They're also not yet talking about team factions, PvP, or how monetization will work in the game. We do know that the game will be entirely free-to-play, with no zone restrictions, but we weren't given any info about whether there will be microtransactions, optional premium subscriptions, or both. Additionally, the team is talking about the possibility for an auction house - the old-school kind, not the real-money type - and will be tinkering with party size, which is currently at 5 players. They'll be talking more about their launch lineup of heroes at SDCC, and are planning to release more heroes post-launch.
Marvel Heroes will launch "when it's ready," and while there will most certainly be closed and open betas for the game, Gazillion is not ready to make any announcements on those fronts just yet. They did mention slyly that they have a shorter timeline to launch than most MMOs, so read into that what you will.
Will Marvel Heroes achieve holy grail status among the comic book and MMORPG faithful? It's hard to say from a brief first look preview, and such a grail is almost by definition elusive. But, just as I spent a good amount of cash purchasing an Amazing Spidey #300 when I had the means - and EBay - so too am I looking forward to getting my hands on Marvel Heroes when it launches.
Thanks again Dave and Gazillion Entertainment for showing us Marvel Heroes!
Are you looking forward to playing Marvel Heroes at Comic-Con? Let us know in the comments below!