Few gamers would question the impact the Diablo franchise has had upon PC gaming. Many of us fondly recall staying up late into the night bashing demons as we plumbed the depths of Hell, and since then, we've tried unsuccessfully to recreate those memories by playing other games. Good news for us—David Brevik, the man behind Diablo and Diablo II, is currently hard at work at Gazillion Entertainment, crafting yet another unforgettable gaming experience. The game is Marvel Heroes, a free-to-play MMORPG that promises to do for superhero-dom what Diablo did for the infernal.
Earlier this month, the press got a taste of what how well the game's shaping up when Gazillion opened the doors of its San Mateo studio and allowed them a few hours with its hero-packed role-player. Before jumping into the blow-by-blow, it's important to note that aside from a talented development team and Brevik's undeniable pedigree, the game's main strength is its writer, Marvel Comics master, Brian Michael Bendis. Known for his dynamic storytelling in the Daredevil, Avengers and X-Men universes, Bendis has penned an all new storyline for Marvel Heroes in which Dr. Doom plans to use the Cosmic Cube to wreak world-wide destruction. We had a brief conference call with Bendis at the start of the demo, wherein he spoke with self-effacing good humor about the experience of writing for the game:
“I looked it as a grand opportunity to create a Marvel event comic unlike anything you've actually seen in publishing. The next step of the worldwide community of comic book fans is to create something that lives and breathes like the Marvel universe. As a fan of Marvel as a little kid, and knowing what it's like to live and breathe this stuff with every fiber of your being, I know how important this game can be. And as a writer of many Marvel comics and always having people telling me what they want to see and what they want to do and now to be able to give them—here, here you can do that. Anything you ever wanted to do in the Marvel universe, you can now do. It's fantastic. In fact, I would like to put on the box, “The Marvel universe. Here, now leave us alone!” (laughs)
Post-conference call, we were thrown into the game somewhere in the middle and the time spent with it clearly demonstrated its impressive graphics and fun, fast-paced combat. Marvel Heroes wears its relationship to Diablo on its shiny spandex sleeve. The orthographic point of view will be immediately familiar to Diablo players, as will the game's approach to looting and crafting. Further, targeting and movement are accomplished by left clicking while attacks are executed via the keyboard. Then there's the familiar dungeon-crawling feel that in this case, is transposed to labyrinthine office buildings and murky subway tunnels.
IT’S DANGEROUS TO GO ALONE
Anyway, despite the many Diablo comparisons, Marvel Heroes is definitely its own thing. When we saw it, the interface had just undergone a revamp and looked much cleaner and more streamlined. The ability point system had also been rebalanced with the intention of making each level and ability point gained that much more significant. Our group began at HQ where were given our choice of a range of high-level superheroes. I started with The Thing and couldn't wait to get clobberin'. I teleported down to the city's Lower East Side and started slugging my way through wave after wave of enemies. Although inflicting blunt force trauma was some good fun, the draw of trying the other hero characters was just too much for me. Marvel Heroes lets you switch heroes on the fly, but to avoid getting walloped while staring at skill trees, I went back to HQ.
I tried Spiderman, Deadpool, Black Widow, the Hulk and Scarlet Witch. I settled on the last, since she functions more or less as a ranged magic user. I popped into the store to browse the alternate hero costumes (There were some great choices ranging from 90's era X-Men to some goofily dated classic get-ups). I bought a Roman costume for Scarlet Witch and then spent a minute or two checking out the bank (which is cleverly called the Starktech Armory and Supply Hoard or “S.T.A.S.H.” Storage is one thing that raises questions for me; all your heroes share one bank and one inventory. For a hoarder like me, that could quickly become a problem.) After buying a boatload of health packs from uber butler Jarvis, I decided to get back to the action.
The rest of the crew was already there, battling their way through the streets. The goal at that point in the story was to track down Kingpin, who was in possession of an artifact called the Tablet of Life. Powerful as we were, it was pretty hairy mowing down a veritable mob of bugs and thugs in order to get to him. (Except for the journalist who chose to play Thor. He tore through enemies like a shotgun blast through tissue paper.) We took out the annoying Green Goblin, fought our way through the subway, into the police station and up the towering Fisk building. It was definitely challenging, and while this might disappoint the solo-players out there, I have to say it—teamwork in Marvel Heroes is essential. There's just no way you can get through the insane enemy stampedes or defeat the bosses all by yourself. At the same time, grouping's a bit of a different experience since the usual tank/DPS/healer arrangement really doesn't apply. In this unique atmosphere, teamwork is more about understanding where you're needed, as well as how to walk the line between offense and defense. That concept was hammered home for our group once we came face to face with Kingpin and he handily kicked our muscle-bound butts.
WHY NOT PLAYER-CREATED HEROES?
In Marvel Heroes, each hero basically serves as its own class. Each does a lot of damage and each is responsible for sustaining itself. Let's face it; fictionally, it just doesn't make sense for the Hulk to hang back healing while Iron Man knocks heads together. It follows then that with an all-hero setup, group mechanics are necessarily affected, not to mention gameplay as a whole. And what happens when everyone wants to play the same hero? Unless you're a Marvel purist, lots of silly, over-the-top fun. True, if you neglect to bring enough health packs, you're probably not going to last very long, but still, as chaotic as it is, there's something satisfying about watching a gaggle of Hulks pound the villains into submission. Creator David Brevik had this to say about it:
“For us, we felt that the right answer was to be able to play as the Marvel superheroes. It's a little different than say, the Star Wars universe where there are only a handful—say five—characters that are far and away more popular than others. Marvel has hundreds of characters. Eight thousand, as a matter of fact. Marvel's spirit doesn't come from creating your own guy, it comes from the relationships the characters have with each other. That's what makes the Marvel Universe interesting – not the characters' powers. If someone goes out and creates ‘The Herk’, it's not very exciting to me. I don't know who that is or how he fits into the story – it diminishes the world in my opinion. Here's a world with great characters and the only way to make a product that really feels like the Marvel Universe is to use the Marvel characters.”
LOOT AND CRAFTING
Though our press group didn't fare so well against Kingpin, we had a lot of fun trying and we did score a respectable heap of loot. As in Diablo, beaten enemies drop items: more than you can possibly carry. Loot is specific to you, which eliminates the possibility of kill stealing or ninja looting, and the Gazillion team told us that buying gear isn't necessary since every item in the in-game store can be acquired via loot drops. In addition to providing good gear, loot comes in handy when you want to start crafting. Once I'd received the “inventory full” message, I headed back to hero HQ to sell and check out the game's crafting system.
Anyone who's played Diablo will have a leg up when it comes to Marvel Heroes' crafting. As you fight, you collect materials, and when you have enough of certain ones, you go to a crafting vendor (I went to scientist-slash-bug man, Hank Pym) and combine them into better ones. Those better items can subsequently be combined into even better ones and you can use these to upgrade your costumes (you can even create multiples of the same costume with different stats). Crafting vendors are leveled up as you donate raw materials to them (Note: I'm hoping they insert an “un-donate” button into the crafting vendor interface for those of us who tend to get a little click-happy.) and this in turn, unlocks better recipes. At this point, the whole process is a tad un-user friendly, but Gazillion says they're still working to make the interface more intuitive.
Despite the work-in-progress aspects of the game, Marvel Heroes plays well and looks pretty darn good. In addition to hours of play, we were treated to a brief tour of the character art pipeline, from character modeling, to texturing, rigging, animation and special effects and were shown how many of the heroes were derived from movie-grade models. The game's urban environments also look pretty sharp and are a welcome change from the usual dungeon/medieval village settings. Marvel Heroes features three types of areas: town/safe zones, randomized combat PCZ's (Public Combat Zones for 25-50 people) and Private Instances; these last will have story quests and optional events for players to enjoy cooperatively.
As of press day, some things in the game weren't yet active, such as the store's Chests and Bundles (bundles are what they sound like—groups of goodies bundled together—but Gazillion wasn't ready to talk about Chests) but overall, the game looks ready for prime time. Of course, we won't know for sure until launch day but at this point, not only does Marvel Heroes seem the perfect title to scratch the Diablo-itch; it's also an MMO to please the most discerning Marvel fan.