I went into the Marvel Heroes demo fully expecting the game to reflect the design influence of David Brevik, the esteemed co-founder of Blizzard North (of Diablo and Diablo II fame) and now Gazillion's president. In that, I wasn't disappointed.
Though the game proudly touts a stable of MMO buzzwords -- grouping, instances, shared worlds -- it's easy to see Marvel Heroes as a sort of spiritual successor to Diablo, and Brevik's influence shines through. It might be massively multiplayer, but it's a loot-based brawler at heart. And it's going to be free-to-play.
The game's pedigree isn't the only thing worthy of note. Marvel Heroes is the first iteration of Gazillion's new 10-year contract with Marvel, which hands the studio the rights to a potentially staggering number of characters from the extensive Marvel mythos. Though some players might be disappointed that the ability to create their own heroes has been entirely passed over in favor of the chance to play as existing Marvel characters, it's likely that the IP will allow for an almost unlimited selection of mutants, misfits, Norse gods, and cocky inventors. Additionally, Gazillion intends to patch in new characters and skins on a regular basis post-launch, a la League of Legends.
The demo followed a linear path. Our motley crew of Logan clones plus Tony Stark began by speaking with Professor X (not voiced by Patrick Stewart, but it was a decent impression), who sent us off to slaughter anti-mutant extremists. Story scenes unfolded in a "motion comics" format. I found it appealing, and it drew me into the story as much as any CGI cutscene might have. Though the dialogue can seem over-the-top at times (it is a superhero MMO, after all), the writing seemed solid enough; as the story is penned by Marvel Comics writer Brian Michael Bendis, it seems safe to say that the story will at least remain consistent with Marvel canon. We also killed a Sentinel along the way without much trouble before rescuing the ever-bigoted William Stryker from Magneto (this last scene left me wishing for faction-based gameplay -- I admit, I wanted to defect to the Brotherhood of Mutants).
That said, gear is an interesting beast in Marvel Heroes. There's no auction house; everything you get will be something you loot or something another player sells to you directly. Additionally, new powers can drop off of mobs, supplementing your character's array of attacks acquired via the normal leveling path. As in Diablo III, you can have only four abilities slotted at a time (plus left- and right-click bindings). All in all, the gameplay is standard Diablo/Torchlight fare, but with superheroes -- certainly not a bad thing. Brevik even admitted as much.
"It's a Diablo-like game," Brevik told us during the demo. "We're taking a Diablo-like game and making it into an MMO."
But just how MMO is Marvel Heroes? It plays like Diablo, but instanced content does not a world make. Brevik clearly felt the same way.
"Diablo games have been very insular [in the past]," said Brevik. "There's been a strong hub and spoke model."
"It's the same kind of mentality as Diablo," Brevik continued. "It's like how you could have a bow Amazon or a spear Amazon in Diablo II."
It's a nice idea to have a stable of characters to choose from, and it should go a long way toward ensuring that players can feel like unique super-powered snowflakes. Additionally, it was clear from the demo (and from the developers) that any sort of holy-trinity model was not planned for the game; you won't have to keep a geared and leveled healer or tank hero in your roster.
Marvel Heroes will be playable at San Diego Comic-Con. As of press time, there is no release date. An open beta is planned, but it is also as-yet undated.
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