It's some time past midnight in Hell's Kitchen. The streets are dark and the air is clammy. Somewhere down a forgotten side street, the mutant, lightning-wielding crime-fighter Storm stands in wait for her colleague. The minutes tick by until, finally, he strides into view. He's the Thing, a towering man with skin like rock.
"I found backup," he announces, jabbing a thumb behind him. To Storm's surprise, three more Things stomp up. He grins. "I've managed to recruit Hawkeye, Hawkeye, and even Hawkeye. Also two more Storms. I think, finally, we have enough muscle to take Shocker down. Oh, I even found us a Spider-Man," Thing continues, as the costumed student swoops onto the scene.
"lol!" says Spider-Man.
The abundance of identikit superheroes that populate - or even clog - the levels of Marvel Heroes aren't even the most absurd thing about the game. I can handle the idea of half a dozen Iron Men dashing about the place because, in the finest traditions of video gaming, I'm quite used to overlooking hordes of homogeneous heroes as long as I'm having a good time. So what is the most absurd thing about the game?
Let me begin by explaining what Marvel Heroes wants to be. It's an action RPG in the vein of Diablo or Torchlight, doing little to deviate from the conventions of the genre: lots of clicking to kill things, lots of loot drops and two pools representing hit points and a special power reserve.
The difference here is that a roster of superheroes replaces the usual selection of wizards and warriors, while vast swathes of criminals and supervillains must be punched aside. Also, Marvel Heroes is a massively multiplayer game, its levels packed with other superheroes who are playing through the same plots that you are, fighting beside you every step of the way. Imagine multiplayer Diablo 3, but much busier.
So while it's not very original in its execution, Marvel Heroes has both a perfectly good premise and a rich universe to draw from. It's a terrible shame that it fails to do credit to either.
First of all, it's just not very much fun to play. Combat is rudimentary and doesn't consist of much more than clicking on enemies until they've expired. Gaining levels unlocks a suite of special powers that might include stun attacks or area-of-effect strikes, depending upon the hero you've chosen, but there's not a great deal to be said for combining these abilities, for dodging or for any sort of tactical play. There's also a lack of variety amongst the enemies you face; while a giant snake might look very different to a mobster with a machine-gun, many are pretty similar.
The game's massively multiplayer aspect falls somewhere between bizarre and outright broken
The game's massively multiplayer aspect falls somewhere between bizarre and outright broken. Each new area that you pop into is already bursting with other players who are felling enemies all over the place and, critically, completing all your quests for you. Entering a new level, it's common to discover that a quest is already under way, but you're given no clue as to where or how you can take part. Fail to find the currently engaged gang of heroes and a pop-up soon lets you know that, well done, you've completed that quest anyway.
This leads to all sorts of strange behaviour, such as respawning enemies popping into existence at random, often all around you, in an effort to replace those who are constantly being felled. It can mean that, when you're knocked out and awaiting a revive, you might suddenly gain a level because someone you've never met whacked a goon the head somewhere else. It can also mean that, if you enter an area that features a critical boss fight, you're automatically assigned to a party who may well do the work for you before you even find them (though I should add that this auto-join can be disabled).
At its worst you end up with battles like those I had against Rhino, a boss who mostly charges at a single opponent while the rest of you bombard him with attack after attack. There were more than a dozen of us and I can only imagine that he'd been boosted in strength to account for that. With only one person in danger at one time, the rest of us simply held our attack buttons down for several minutes, watching as the screen filled with superheroes, as the frame rate plummeted and as the four of us who were Storms repeatedly lost track of who was who. This identity crisis was more challenging than the fight itself.
Then there are the loot drops. Marvel Heroes gives you a choice of one of five heroes to start as, unlocking some of the others as you progress and asking you to pony up for the rest. Enemies generally drop items that are relevant to your hero, such as capes for Storm or shields for Captain America, though occasionally items related to other heroes do appear. The thing is, very few of these are actually exciting or have any distinguishing features.
Some of those capes and shields will have a slightly higher defence rating than others, while a few will boost an ability here and there but, other than a few quest-specific rewards, there's no diversity. There are no difficult choices about what to keep and what to sell, a lack of interesting sets or combinations and, surprisingly, absolutely no visual distinction when you slip on something new. Nor is there very much to buy from the vendors back at base, even as you donate many dozens of items for free in an attempt to level up those vendors and widen their selections. This means that so much of what you find is little more than useless tat - a strange concept in an RPG and one of those more absurd elements of the game.
And yet not the most absurd. While I'd be tempted to put all of Marvel Heroes' strange multiplayer behaviours forward for that title, there's something even more ridiculous lurking at its core.
Marvel Heroes is a free-to-play game that earns its keep by charging you to unlock other heroes and their costumes. The game is entirely free, allowing you to plough your way merrily through the whole campaign, but you put your money down for the privilege of distinction: for a chance to be Spider-Man, Black Widow or a different sort of Storm.
Donning that Spider-Man suit will cost you 2,000G, the game's currency. One G translates to one cent at the $5 and $10 tiers, unless you start spending over $20 in one go. New heroes often cost 600G or 1,200G, which puts them just above the amount of G you'd gain at the $5 or $10 tiers, forcing you to purchase more. New costumes for heroes are similarly priced, typically between 600G and 1,500G. So, buying Spider-Man and making him look like a different Spider-Man will cost you around $35.
There's little reason to unlock any of these heroes as they are expensive and largely cosmetic. There's also little reason to play this game
If the pricing doesn't seem cynical to you, consider this: you don't get to try these new heroes out before buying them, and so you have no idea how different they may be. And they're not very different. Punching things as Ms Marvel doesn't feel any different to kicking them as Black Widow or thumping them as Thing; shooting things as Iron Man is a lot like shooting things as Hawkeye; many heroes have a generic rush ability that just sees them dash forward through enemies.
Furthermore, each new hero begins at the first level and the game immediately suggests you replay it from the start or be woefully underpowered. This sends you back through the plodding prologue and every other bit of uninspiring pugilism that you've had to slog past. That's your reward for your $10, $20 or $30, and you'll have to pay again if you want a similar experience with Hulk or Deadpool or Thor. If you're very lucky, you may obtain a new hero as a random drop, should you want to invest the time playing. But you shouldn't.
There's little reason to unlock any of these heroes as they are expensive and largely cosmetic. There's also little reason to play this game, as it is lacklustre and uninspired, and there is even less reason to replay it. Even as a free game, Marvel Heroes is poor. When it comes to value for money, it's terrible.
The most absurd thing about this game - where all the scenery explodes, where one of the characters is big and green, where you can hurl cars at people - is that it thinks it deserves either your time or your money.