I've spent some time in the game, along with my two young testers, to find out what the buzz is all about. We formed up a squad and set off to check out missions, the card game, our headquarters, and the opportunities for exploration out in the world, and our first impressions are found below. If you've ever wanted to know what the little super heroes eat or what holiday treats are available at the Parker household, you'll definitely want to read on!
Speed of entry -- the "mom, I want to play NOW!" factor
Super Hero Squad Online is free-to-play, and there's an easy, six-step process to get started. Registering requires the usual information for MMOs, including creating a user ID, password, and email. Next, you choose a name for your squad, but you're limited to a random offering of names, and this was actually a little frustrating to my two young testers, who wanted to use their favorite names from other games. Luckily that was mitigated by the fact that we were able to get done with registration quickly and get right into the game. You have the option of downloading in advance or letting the game download as you play. That does mean you might not be able to go shopping or do missions immediately, but the tutorial and general exploration tends to keep kids busy in the meantime.
When you first enter the game, you're asked to choose one of two heroes, but over time, you can collect several different superheroes to add to your squad, and you can swap them in and out at will. The heroes themselves are based on the art style of the show, with stocky bodies and oversized hands and feet. Each one levels up independently and gains special superhero powers, emotes, and HQ items as they gain experience.
There are currently four "worlds" that heroes can explore in game, and there's lots to interact with in each one. The worlds are completely safe, and even though there are enemies for heroes to take care of, players won't take any damage in return. There are special tokens to find and collect, clickable portals that allow your characters to fly to certain locations, and oodles of objects to click on for stars, which give silver that can be used when you're shopping.
It's very easy for kids to figure out general gameplay. Almost all of it can be done with the mouse, although you can use the keyboard to move if you prefer.
In addition to missions, players can play the trading card game and visit their squad's headquarters. The trading card game is the usual fare, and players can choose to do card-based quests, battle other players, or enter the daily battle. There are also special card quests available in the store; these reward players with rare cards.
The headquarters is basically player-housing, and all of your heroes reside there. You can place decorative items, move your heroes around, and purchase extra rooms in the store. Once you've got everything where you want it, you can hit the play button and watch your little heroes move around and interact with everything in the HQ.
While there is an option to type in chat messages and talk in game, it's refreshingly quiet overall. That could be because the chat window itself is generally not visible unless you click the keyboard icon or hit enter, or it could stem from the fact that players are simply too busy overall to bother with it. There are also emotes and the usual friend feature, although again, I didn't feel as spammed with friend requests as I have in other games.
Missions and the Nemo-factor
Even though the game is based on the children's show, I was surprised at the challenge of the missions. Combat is easy to figure out, but my little superhero had a tough time in the later stages of the missions, particularly against the "boss." There are power-ups and objects that you can pick up and throw at enemies. Also, as you defeat enemies, you see the stars under your health bar slowly light up, and when they're all lit, you can activate your special hero-up ability. The boss fights are tricky, and I had to back out and dodge attacks at times just so I could live long enough to get the health-berries that occasionally drop during the battle. I did get knocked out a few times, and that affects which medal I receive at the end, which in turn affects the rewards I receive and experience I get.
One of the rewards at the end is tickets, which can be used at the prize wheel. Each spin of the wheel rewards you with silver, gold, or a chance for special food, trading cards, or decorations for your HQ. I have to admit that I with all there is to do in the world, I was a little surprised to see a prize wheel because of how much it resembles gambling. Now, I'm certainly not saying that young players will suddenly be hounding their parents to board the bus for Atlantic City, but tickets seem to stack up quickly, and that can translate to a long time spinning the wheel during a game session.
Super Hero Squad Online is free-to-play, but you can upgrade to Jr. S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent status, which gives you 500 gold each month, exclusive heroes, and an increased chance to win gold every day. The in-game store offers dozens of different heroes, HQ decorations, trading cards, and missions to purchase, and it can take a long time to earn enough currency to purchase things if you stick with free-to-play. However, there's still plenty to do if you don't upgrade, and you don't feel like you're missing out if you don't start opening your wallet immediately.
Overall, SHSO is a lot of fun. It's quick to start playing, it's easy for younger players to pick up, and it offers a colorful world that runs very smoothly. And it's got all of the fun little details that make for a fun game session. My son got a kick out of visiting Spider-Man's home and watching his hero eat a candy cane treat, while my daughter laughed at her hero consuming an entire pizza in one bite at the local pizza shop. There's plenty of the usual gameplay, like the card game and combat missions, but kids will equally enjoy finding out where a certain door will lead or where a flight path drops off your hero. You can get a first-hand look at the game over on the Massively Twitch TV channel, where I showcased the game last week. And now is a great time to try out the game because the worlds are decorated for the holidays and there are some fun little activities to do in game.
The MMO Family column is devoted to common issues with families and gaming. Every other week, Karen looks at current trends and ways to balance family life and play. She also shares her impressions of MMO titles to highlight which ones are child-friendly and which ones offer great gaming experiences for young and old alike. You are welcome to send feedback or Wonka Bars to firstname.lastname@example.org.