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Marvel Heroes preview: Suited and looted

The latest superhero MMO on the scene is channeling Diablo. Excelsior?

I was wandering around the nightclub district the other day when I suddenly found myself knee deep in ninjas. At first it was just one or two, but they quickly started to swarm and multiply.

Inevitably, I commenced with a good shoeing. After a few seconds, a dialog box popped up on the screen: “Defeated 7/100 ninjas.” That's cool, I thought. Marvel Heroes has some kind of achievement tracker for killing 100 ninjas over the course of the game. Nope: guess again. I had to defeat 100 ninjas right there and then. My ninja century was pretty much mandatory.

It took less than five minutes, mind you, and that's because, while Marvel Heroes is loosely speaking a free-to-play MMORPG, it's probably best to think of it as a superhero-themed Diablo-alike. Blizzard North co-founder Dave Brevik's the man behind the project, for starters, and the game has the same isometric perspective, the same tray filled with punchy hot key skills, the same red and blue gauges on the UI keeping track of your health and the mana - or rather 'spirit' - that powers certain attacks, and the same wonderful cruise-control structure as you shift back and forth between large overworlds and complex, randomised dungeons. (The latter are party instances in this game, I gather, while the former are more social areas.)

And you're still killing just about everything you encounter, too: ninjas, chain-wielding thugs, huge plastic-coated robots and stompy green-metal mechs. Whatever the forces of evil send your way, knock 'em all down and then hoover up their loot, be it gear, XP orbs, health orbs, or in-game credits to spend at vendors.

Loot is hero-specific, which is a clever means of advertising the other characters, really: you can be playing as Hulk, when suddenly you've got a pair of Wolverine's claws in your inventory - and Hulk can't use them. Alas.

It's big stupid fun, really. Each iconic character you control comes with their own bespoke power tree of attacks and perks for you to pick through: the Punisher likes to blow people away with heavy weaponry and controlled rifle blasts, for example, while Storm tends to attack with the elements. They all work the same way, though, when you really get down to it. Click to move. Click to attack. Click click click.

The Diablo model, with its overpowered player characters, its dazzling attack unlocks, and those endless, low-level threats that require constant violent attention, works well for superheroes - and particularly for a superhero MMORPG that has taken the decision to allow you to play as some of the funny book business's most famous faces. Load up the current Marvel Heroes closed beta build for the first time and you're allowed to pick between the likes of Ms Marvel, Hawkeye, and Scarlet Witch from the off, while favourites like the Hulk, Deadpool, and the Thing are yours forever for the price of a small microtransaction once you access the in-game shop screen. God, I love the Hulk.

More on that microtransaction stuff in a minute. For now, though, it's worth saying that this starring-role approach feels like another good fit for Marvel - albeit with a few caveats. It's nice to be able to play as Wolverine, say, instead of just accepting quests from him (or asking him to use his adamantium claws to remove a rune from a socket), and when you're then bumbling around in a public area and you cross paths with another Wolverine, it doesn't feel that weird or that jarring. It's not a continuity-shredding tear in the fictional universe. It's not even like encountering a colleague at an office party who's wearing the same glad rags as you.

That's probably because Marvel's heroes are so well defined by this point, that they instantly start to feel like game classes as much as storied characters the minute you drop into their boots. The points only reinforced by their implementation here: while the branches of those power trees are pretty thin compared to the kinds of riches you'll find in Diablo 3 or Torchlight 2, you won't have to level for too long before you've unlocked one or two options that help you define each superstar.

Spend an hour or two with the Hulk and you'll have a lovely jump-and-slam area attack to go with your two-fisted smash, for example, while Ms Marvel allows you to cobble together some neat combinations of melee moves and beam blasts. Elsewhere, Wolverine comes with a nice dash-and-slash, and Deadpool can smack people around up-close or fill them with lead from a distance. Although the game's been tailored to run on fairly low spec machines - and although the locations, along with the background music, are often a little bland - the team's spent its graphics skill points wisely, crafting bright, chunky character models that animate with surprising charisma. You'll feel like you're the center of the hectic and dangerous world - as well you should.

Fans of the Ultimate Alliance games will be right at home.

The license gives, but it also takes away. On plus side, there's preloaded lore and lots of lovely stuff for Marvel fans to enjoy, from the game's stash, which has been renamed the Starktech Armory and Supply Hoard, to the realisation that the next dungeon boss you might be sent up against isn't just going to take the form of some stupid giant demon with flaming horns - it could be Doctor Octopus or the Vulture. On the minus side (is the minus side even a thing?), a day's play suggests the loot game is rather compromised by all of those famous costumes knocking around. This isn't one of those MMOs where you'll be picking between gorgeously designed armour sets as you rise through the ranks, so far as I can tell. It's one of those MMOs where the IP holder has very strong feelings about the exact nature of Hawkeye's boots, say, and so every time Hawkeye picks up a new pair of boots, while the stats may be different, they're definitely going to look exactly the same as his current pair. Ditto his mask, his belt, his heroic Hawkeye trousers.

You can buy a range of legacy and spin-off costumes at the in-game store, of course, and you can even craft identical variants that come with better perks, but it seems that the appearance of each character's threads will be set in stone from the off. It's a cosmetic difference, perhaps, and the mix-and-match approach would hardly be a good fit for Marvel in the first place, but it does still seriously diminish the fun of picking through all the crap you've collected over the last few hours and weighing up sartorial matters alongside buffs. In the end, while you can appreciate the logic at work, and while the designers have done their best to enliven a series of seemingly identical gloves and belts and boots, allowing certain items the power to boost specific attacks, or grant you early access to higher-tier powers, the Marvel Heroes inventory screen isn't as thrilling a place as you'll want it to be.

All told, the game's still looking like a fiercely entertaining, if rather lightweight, action RPG, though - so what about the MMO part? This is a bit harder to judge at the moment, given the fairly empty closed beta servers I've been playing on. Chatting and partying up with strangers definitely seems very easy, however, and the UI is nicely pared back and doesn't really get in the way. Marvel Heroes feels extremely solo-friendly, based on what I've played of the first act, but each zone you move through boasts 'group bosses' with huge health bars, and every dungeon's sufficiently swarming with foes to provide everyone on your squad with something to do. (The story that ties everything together is written by Brian Michael Bendis, incidentally, and while the plot, which revolves around Doctor Doom and a horribly powerful artefact he's after, feels like little more than an excuse to link all the enemy encounters, it's no surprise that the finer detailing and the NPC dialogue really captures that glib and rather knowing Marvel humour.)

There are two currencies - one for items and health packs and another for the likes of new characters and costumes and boosts.

Riddled with side quests and lacking obvious paywalls, Marvel Heroes represents a good-natured approach to free-to-play gaming, too. I gather you'll be able to work your way through the entire campaign without spending any money at all, while the shop currently caters for buying new heroes to try out and shopping for those alternate costumes. There are a few other greyed-out tabs on the interface, one of which is for boosts, which could be worrying from a balancing point of view, but so far I've only encountered one boss fight - against Madame Hydra - that seemed artificially prolonged, and the chances are that she was simply conceived to give large parties something to really get stuck into.

Buying new heroes feels like a smart idea: they're ideal impulse purchases, they change the action in systemic rather than deeply structural ways, and you can switch between your growing roster in-game at the tap of a button or two. Both inventory and stash are shared across all your characters, and while new heroes will need to be levelled up from their starting stats no matter the point at which you drop them into the campaign, the constant flow of weak enemies on offer throughout the first act at least suggests that this will rarely pose too much of a problem. Besides, they're superheroes, so their initial builds seem to be fairly sturdy when it comes to health and spirit.

Marvel Heroes feels like an ideal MMO for providing moments of quick-fix action, in other words. Compared to the grand scale of something like DC Universe Online, it's definitely a more modest undertaking - it's Spider-Man: The Animated Series rather than The Dark Knight Rises on an IMAX screen - but it's also leaner, pacier and more direct with it. Get the right heroes in the right setting - let the Hulk loose amidst the destructible screen walls and feeble ground forces of a Hand Ninja skyscraper HQ, for example - and it's all almost shamefully entertaining: you can sense that powerful Diablo DNA shining through, binding together with Marvel's cast to create a scrappy, entertaining and generous piece of hack-and-slashery.

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