David Brevik, one of the key figures behind Diablo I & II, is the man responsible for Marvel Heroes, and those classic games inform much of what is done here. In terms of gameplay, a lot remains the same. Players control a character and drag them around the screen from their isometric perch, clicking on enemies to initiate attacks, picking up loot as it drops to the floor, and leveling up characters once enough experience has been accrued. For those expecting a continuation of Diablo's themes and ideas, there's a reassuring amount of similarities to be found.
There's two ways to play Marvel Heroes. You can either assume the role of one of the free characters offered to you at the very beginning of the game, or you can purchase a hero of your choice via the in-game store (you can, if you're feeling extravagant, purchase a Founders Pack that includes four characters, costumes, and some in-game currency, but these aren't cheap).
I initially picked Storm from the selection of b-list heroes offered at the start (it also includes Thing, Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, Black Widow, and Daredevil), and proceeded to click through the game's earliest levels. It's content I'd already played during the beta, so I was familiar with the setting and story. Additional heroes can be earned on your journey via randomised character drops (I was awarded one early on, another at the end of the main story - both were from the list of above, so maybe these characters appear more frequently than the popular offerings do, but that's speculation on my part), but otherwise you'll likely have to pay to get the one you want. It wasn't long before I felt the need to put my own stamp on my adventure and so I visited the store to pick out a new character (the best ones - Iron Man, Spiderman, Hulk, Deadpool - all cost slightly more than the others). Wolverine was duly purchased and my adventure began properly.
There's several sub-plots floating around, but they're all underpinned by an over-arching narrative penned by Brian Michael Bendis. It's delivered by a series of entertaining comic-style cut scenes that fit the overall tone perfectly, and the voice acting is pretty good too. Dr. Doom has acquired himself the Cosmic Cube, and by wielding its power he intends to take over the world (or destroy it, perhaps). Between the start and the game's final battle, we meet a plethora of different Marvel heroes, and fight a wide selection of super villains. Comic book fans will love the selection on display, and many obscure characters have been included in the game, so much so that casual players will likely never have heard of many of the heroes/villains that they encounter along the way.
It kicks off, as these things often do, with a jailbreak. It explains the reason why so many evil-doers are roaming the streets, and gives us purpose during the game's first set of missions. It's not long before we're stalking the game's various environments in packs, beating down henchmen aplenty, and grabbing as much loot as possible as it falls from the bodies of downed foes. The screen is nearly always busy with characters, enemies and explosions, and whilst there's plenty of detail, there's also some rough edges in there too. On the whole it looks nice, even if it never really dazzles.
There are lots of other players in the same environments as you, and this can be slightly off-putting for a couple of reasons. The first one is purely cosmetic, but the amount of Hawkeyes and Scarlet Witches zipping about is staggering. It one point I was in a party with three of the former, all wearing the same costumes, all firing the same weapons. It gets boring quickly. The second reason is down to the visual effects, as the animations for some character's attacks obscure the screen somewhat, making it harder to see what you're doing in the midst of battle. Whilst a screen full of these effects might be impressive, it can also be confusing.
Boss fights appear regularly, and straight away you'll be battling iconic villains. When taken on in smaller groups they're quite enjoyable, but again the experience is soured by having too many players on the same server at the same time. A couple of the fights I was involved in were utterly ridiculous, with two dozen heroes swarming around one villain, chasing them around the battlefield like a crazed pack of paparazzi, hammering them continuously as their health bar depleted. There's literally no challenge when this happens, it's just a case of getting involved in order to receive the loot and experience that'll drop when they inevitably go down.
The smaller, more intimate (if that's the right word) instances are much more enjoyable, and more challenging. Here you party with up to five players and take on more focused challenges. Load times are quite substantial, but the rewards for waiting range from quick hauls of loot, to tricky boss fights. Playing with friends is definitely the best way to enjoy the game, though it's worth noting that the challenge doesn't scale up or down - so if a friend with a lower rank joins you further in the story they'll die regularly, and if you take a levelled character back a few chapters, taking down opponents is like running a hot knife through butter.
Failure is rarely punished in Marvel Heroes. From time to time you'll have a long walk to make after falling a long way from a checkpoint, but most of the time you can respawn just around the corner, or an ally will pick you up off the deck so you can go again. I actually didn't mind this too much, as it meant I was nearly always involved in the action, and was able to rejoin battles quickly.
The highlight of the game is undoubtedly building up your character through the game's leveling system. There's a nice selection of heroes to choose from, and each has a unique skill tree that can be approached on an individual basis. There's not masses of customisation options, but there's enough there for you to tinker with your build and get your character working the way you want. For example, my Wolverine has incredible healing skills, a potent basic attack, and a couple of powerful special moves to be used in a bind. Not a lot of variety, but a solid core to rely upon.
Health bars are plentiful, especially as one levels up, but it's stamina/spirit that determines just how many special powers you can use at a time. This meter replenishes fairly quickly, so it's easy to feel like a badass superhero as you scythe through enemies and bosses. When you do take out an opponent they drop orbs, and these refill health (red), stamina (blue), or both (purple), and experience (yellow) is earned in much the same way.
There are three main hubs in the game, where you can trade items and take a breather from the action. Avengers Tower is the starting area, but before long you'll have access to Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters and the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier. You can stash your loot here, and equip your character with items, such as medals picked up from fallen villains that grant bonuses, or costume pieces that improve defensive abilities.
The loot itself is a bit hit and miss. There's plenty of it, so there's always new and improved items available to dress your character in, but most of it isn't particularly interesting. There's always loads of different options, but the choices they present the player are more in the way of refinements, and don't make a huge overall difference to the way you play. You can also do a bit of crafting, if that's your thing, and utilise items picked up during missions by taking them to the crafters located in the three hubs. These crafters must be levelled up too, by gifting them items you find on your adventures, though it takes a long time to get them to the level where they'll sell you anything better than you'll find on your own.
Once you've marched through the main story (I did so in about 15 hours, though admittedly I didn't stop for some of the side-missions) you'll be presented with the end-game content: Daily, Group and Survival challenges, and PvP battles. It's here that the game will get much of its longevity, and there's plenty to keep players involved.
PvP is very much a work in progress, as its beta status clearly points out. Games are horribly unbalanced, and unless you've got a high rank you'll be on the receiving end of a lot of pain. High level players camping on enemy spawn points can remove all traces of fun from this mode as it stands, but hopefully it'll evolve into something more meaningful given time and updates.
Many of the Daily, Group and Survival challenges require Cosmic Shards in order to gain access (each a part of the Cosmic Cube destroyed after the battle with Dr. Doom, and earned after battling bosses in available end-game missions), and which hub you enter them via determines the level of challenge. Daily challenges are pretty standard fare, more of the same but perfectly enjoyable none-the-less. Group challenges task you and four friends with shutting down rifts, before fighting a boss, and with a finite amount of lives. Survival games are also tricky, with hordes of beefed up enemies chasing after you - definitely not to be tackled alone. Here you must keep on top of the threat, because failing to do so will see an increased challenge and a much harder boss encounter.
Overall Marvel Heroes is a solid action-RPG. It's a bit of a grind at times, but that's down to the game's free-to-play model. That said, I feel that it's been well implemented, and you could happily enjoy the game without paying a penny. Playing with a hero of your choice costs a bit, but given the amount of content available, and the fact that there's a nice selection to choose from, you can't argue with the way that it's been presented. If you've got people to play with then all's the better, as it's a game best experienced in the company of friends. There's loads of content, dozens of fantastic characters, and more fan service than you could shake a stick at. Our advice is give it a try, after all it's free, and if you enjoy the first hour or so then don't be afraid to invest a little to get the best out of the experience.