Comics are a simple combination of ideas that result in something varied and complex. The many possible permutations of image and text provide a huge amount of freedom for creative people to express themselves, and the superhero genre neatly encapsulates this idea. The best superhero comics manipulate the medium to serve their star character, be that a depiction of Spider-Man where the wall-crawler's never quite the right way up, or the world of blind vigilante Daredevil rendered as directional sound.
Action-RPGs like Marvel Heroes are a complex combination of mechanics that result in something deceptively simple: an isometric button-basher where you punch thugs until loot and experience fall out. Unlike comics, the action-RPG doesn't permit much variation on its core formula, and this makes it a singularly poor way to express the personality of characters designed for a more flexible form.
As a realisation of the superhero fantasy – particularly, the fantasy of playing as one of Marvel's iconic characters – Marvel Heroes falls flat. Every character has been boiled down to an essential set of powers, split between ranged nukers, crowd controllers, melee brawlers and so on. Having chosen your first character from a set of second-tier heroes, you proceed to click-click-click your way through twelve or so hours of multiplayer-ish campaign split across eight acts.
The format has a chilling effect on each character's identity. Until you unlock your movement power around level 14, there's no flying, web-slinging, or jetpacking across each area – you'll run like everyone else. Given how crucial the vertical dimension is to the fantasy of being, say, Spider-Man, the mismatch is immediate and obvious.
Marvel Heroes tries to bridge the divide with special abilities that take into account each character's skillset – a web-swinging strike, for example, or Thor's hammer-forward dash – but the sense is always of a three-dimensional peg being rammed into a two-dimensional hole. You're stuck with Horizontal Spider-Man, which turns out to be far less sexy than it sounds.
This is a serious problem for Marvel Heroes because, as a free-to-play game, its payment structure is built around the idea that you'll always be coveting the next new hero. You'll get two for free, and after that you're asked to look to the in-game store – unless you want to wait for an incredibly rare, it-never-happened-to-me drop. Heroes are priced by popularity, the range running from £4 / $6 to an astonishing £14 / $20 for an A-lister like Iron Man.
Marvel Heroes' MMO component manifests as open zones where players can roam in packs dispatching endlessly-respawning enemies ad infinitum. This compounds the deep unsuitability of the Marvel licence: the excitement you feel after you drop a tenner on Thor is likely to last about as long as it takes you to run into another five identical Thors out in the wilderness. Furthermore, character appearance is almost entirely tied to your costume, a premium single-slot item: the equipment you hoover up from your enemies simply provides a stat boost. If you've ever enjoyed showing off your wicked new pauldrons in Diablo, well, you can't do that here.
The game attempts to patch some of these issues with a plot involving Doctor Doom and multiple dimensions and etcetera, and in this regard it's at least true to its comic heritage – but as comics have slowly learned over the years, piling on a load of cosmic wiffle can't transform a bad idea into a good one.
Under-delivers on the promise of the licence. A middling action-RPG that you’d have to be a Marvel fan to love.