Marvel Heroes hands-on preview

SNIKT! Few sounds in the history of pre-battle auditory cues are as satisfying in terms of the promise of imminent carnage as Wolverine's adamantium claws springing from beneath his regenerating flesh. Which is why I'm always filled with gleeful bloodlust when I hear them in a game that allows me to control the path of their wanton destruction. I got to get my hands on Marvel Heroes' take on good ol' Wolvie as well as some other iconic characters in the free-to-play, Diablo-style beat 'em up. Read on for details on powers, loot, boss fights, and more.

The brief demo I played through with two other intrepid journalists (a condensed version of what the devs said would be hours and hours of content in the final game) pitted us against William Stryker and the Purifiers: a group ripped straight from the pages of the comics on a holy crusade to destroy all mutants. As a mutant, I took issue with this mission. And by take issue, I mean I took my claws to the copious, crimson-clad baddies. After a brief warm-up at Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, the Professor himself gave a brief monologue, which transitioned into a motion comic explaining the story. Gazillion says there will be a bevy of these throughout the game.

The story (as you might recall, being written by Marvel all-star Brian Michael Bendis) seems interesting, but chances are you didn't read this far to hear me talk about what Dr. Doom is doing with his doom cube to doom us all. You want to hear detailed, graphic descriptions of how I took apart Stryker's cronies with my razor-sharp talons, am I right? The game plays very similar to Diablo and its ilk, with left click being bound to a basic weapon attack, and right click, along with the S, D, and F keys (by default) holding slottable skills, such as one that caused me to whirl in place, creating a "clawnado" that damaged all enemies in a ring around me. Other abilities included a swift, directional leap for getting into combat, and a self heal-over-time representing Wolvie's regeneration capabilities.

The most interesting thing about these powers is that, in addition to cosmetic costume pieces and "enhancements" that add stats to said pieces, you get them from loot drops. I started out with a mid-level Excellent Slash as my default attack, but it's possible to loot different powers, and more powerful versions of existing ones like "Super Zomygod Clawmageddon Pwnzurface Slash" (not an actual in-game power name). Some of these, such as punches and grabs, will be equippable by almost anyone. Others will be restricted to a small number of heroes (such as a lightning bolt for Thor and Storm), and some will be specific to one particular hero (such as Hulk Smash!).

Similarly to Diablo 3, different heroes use different resource systems. While not finalized, I got to play with three of them. Wolverine uses Rage, which starts low and builds up as you do damage with your basic attack. The Hulk and Iron Man use Endurance, which starts high and replenishes as you take damage. Scarlet Witch uses Focus, which behaves like standard mana--starting high and building back up over time. Especially in the case of Rage, resources felt more restrictive than in similar games, forcing you to think about what attacks you were going to use going into each fight. This may be tweaked before launch, but I liked the tactical element of having to plan and budget abilities.

The four characters available to us were Wolverine, Hulk, Scarlet Witch, and Iron Man. Wolverine was a sort of glass cannon scrapper, with high melee DPS and prone to dying if you didn't time your regeneration carefully. Iron Man was more of a ranged tank type, with missiles, lasers, and an AoE charge ability. Scarlet Witch had the most visually impressive power set, dishing out huge AoE damage and dazzling red sparklies. Unfortunately, it was confirmed that she can't use her probability manipulation to get better loot. And Hulk was, well... he was the Hulk. A brick wall with a nifty enrage power that battered his way through enemies with abandon.

We fought our way through Purifier-occupied Mutant Town, a dilapidated city street with presumably sub-par property values. The waves of thugs went down with little difficulty, but we did struggle when we came up against a 40-foot sentinel. These guys are sort of minibosses that can spawn in different places in the game's randomly-generated levels. Luckily, we discovered that certain super strong characters (including Hulk and Iron Man) can pick up and throw cars off the street, causing a large, damaging explosion. For the most part, the normal enemies just felt like they were there to get blown away spectacularly by our awesome power, but we were told that the game does get progressively harder the further you are in the story, and enemies and bosses are balanced to your group size.

Speaking of bosses, who did we run into at the end of the demo but our old friend Magneto? He'd captured Stryker and had his own nefarious plans which we didn't think were going to be too helpful for mutant-human relations in the long run. The fight was about what you'd expect in this type of game. We beat up on Magneto until he started gathering metal shards to himself, at which point we would have to keep our distance or else be caught in a hazardous field of swirling debris. He would also occasionally trap one of us in a cage of bent girders and support beams which would have to be broken. Coordination came in handy, as the cage could be DPSed down much quicker if everyone attacked it at once.

When Magneto went down, we were rewarded with some boss-appropriate loot, and the demo ended. It was an almost disappointingly short look at what seems to be a promising game to a Marvel and action RPG fan like myself.

Some other notes I took about the game...

  • Your gear slots and your equipped costume are independent of each other, so you can look however you want without sacrificing stats. In the case of Wolverine, I found a sleek, black and grey X-Force costume. According to the devs, alternate costumes will have to be looted in pieces and assembled in the final game. You won't be able to mix-and-match pieces from different costumes, unfortunately. My condolences to anyone who was looking forward to making Rainbow Brony Iron Man.
  • Gazillion kept emphasizing that the game will be totally free. You won't have to pay to start playing, there will be no subscription, and you'll never have to pay to unlock the core content. The entire story can be completed, the level cap reached, and the most amazing gear set possible acquired without spending a dime.
  • Efforts are being made to get a hold of as many Marvel veteran voice actors as possible. Specifically, it was confirmed that the actors portraying Wolverine and Spider-Man had "done the characters before," but they weren't able to give us specific names. Here's hoping Steve Blum is one of them.
  • With alternate costumes being a big deal in a game where you want to differentiate yourself from every other Thor or Thing on the block, Gazillion has been given the okay from Marvel to design totally new costumes for the characters, in addition to using ones based on popular iterations.
  • A lot of the items that dropped were labeled as crafting materials. We're not sure what will and won't be craftable yet, or if there will be an auction house-like feature, but when asked, the devs said they "will have MMO-like features" in the game. Which seems to me to suggest that the answer is probably yes.

We don't have a release date for the free-to-play beat-em-up yet, but those who are lucky enough to be attending San Diego Comic-Con this week will have the chance to play the same demo we did.