Over the last few days I've played through all the available content in the closed beta for Diablo-like MMO, Marvel Heroes. And throughout there was one thought in my head: why did they let journalists look at this now? It's possibly not the most positive thought.
Marvel Heroes, in its current beta form, is dreadful. Let's be clear - it's not finished, there's no release date yet, and there's clearly lots of work yet to be done. But they invited the press to have a play of a very limited portion of the game so we could report on it. And it's currently a giant, dreary mess, a clash of woefully weak combat, and lacklustre delivery, so barren of ideas that I kept wondering if I was doing something wrong. Looking like it was made in 2002 (which is no mean feat with the Unreal Engine), and playing like it was made in 1986, this ARPG MMO feels like one of those '80s half-arsed movie tie-in arcade games that would be ported clumsily to home computer.
In this limited version, I was able to pick between a small range of Marvel heroes - I picked Ms. Marvel. And was immediately disappointed to see she was in her old costume, and indeed still called Ms. Marvel. But we'll get back to that. I then began staring in surprise at the peculiarly tedious world of clicking and clicking with little reward and no motivation.
Huge, flat, featureless zones stretch repetitively for acres in each direction, fogged out on your minimap such that you're forced to lamely wander throughout until you stumble on the entrance to a lair or warehouse. These can be enormous, entirely non-distinct city blocks, the same assets repeated over and over, with just one doorway to find in amongst it all. On your way you meet hundreds and hundreds of identical spawning enemies, popping into existence immediately in front of you, and dropping the same six items of bland loot over and over and over. Reaching a base opens up more of exactly the same, usually ending in a "boss fight", which involves briefly left-clicking on a known Marvel enemy until he or she falls over.
And that's it. You can sell loot to people back at Avengers' Tower, but they don't yet have anything to sell you back. You gain new powers through levelling, but they offer little that your first two abilities don't cater for. And you can unlock other Marvel characters with virtual currency, but they appear at level 1 no matter what level your first character's at, so are completely useless.
Another mystifying aspect of why we were so enthusiastically invited in at this point is that there are no graphics options in the game yet. Meaning it plays at a default crappy resolution, and looks absolutely awful. (It's worth noting that the screenshots you see on this article were not taken by me. Part of the agreement to play this closed beta was that we wouldn't take our own. The pics you see here were not representative of the dreary, grey world that dominated most of the available game - I put the most realistic one at the top of the article.)
City Of Heroes, which came out 2004, looked better than this on release - better models, better heroes, and indeed was a proper MMO. This is not. This is a stripped down ARPG, top-down, fixed camera, and almost featureless, with other people trapped in the same wasteland. While I'm hopeful it will look better at a sensible resolution and with some graphics options switched on, that isn't going to change the fact that you're mostly playing on grey streets and brown warehouse districts, without a glimmer of careful design or detail.
I had a further reason to be interested to take a look at Marvel Heroes. In the last few months I've gotten into Marvel comics for the first time. Influenced by my chum and RPS co-owner Kieron Gillen now being one of their main writers, and his having written long stints on Uncanny X-Men and Journey Into Mystery, and now writing Iron Man and Young Avengers, I've really clicked with superhero comic fiction in a way I had no idea I would. And so it is that I'm tapped into the news that Marvel has or is about to relaunch a huge swathe of their biggest titles. The Marvel NOW endeavour sees books like Iron Man, Thor, The Avengers, X-Men and Hulk restarting their numbering at 001, reintroducing the ongoing stories of their most famous characters. So what better time to launch a Marvel MMO that includes all these heroes?
What better indeed. But it's not this. I know that Nick Fury isn't currently in charge of S.H.I.E.L.D. He is here. I'm aware that Carol Danvers accepted the title of Captain Marvel about six months ago, losing the Ms. Marvel mantel along with completely changing her outfit. But Marvel Heroes hasn't heard. It simply bewildering that a project so closely related to the House Of Ideas should be so wildly out of touch with it. Sure, it's not out yet, and no, there's still no release date for the F2P game, but they surely must have access to Marvel's plans for the forthcoming year? This could have been a game to reflect forthcoming events, or at least sensibly tie in to the newbie-welcoming NOW notion. Instead it adds archaic content to its dogged design.
Instead the result, at this point in development at least, is the least appealing aspects of a Diablo Clone placed into an entirely unnecessary MMO setting. The endless clicking that a Torchlight or a Diablo can make so compulsive is currently utterly unrewarding here, as you fight literally hundreds of identical enemies in each map (one sidequest asks you to kill 100 Mole peeps, then a couple of boss characters, and then amazingly pops up asking you to kill another 100), for no appreciable reward. Each new power I've unlocked has been far less effective than the two I started with, and there's no nuance in enemy attacks that would require you to ever employ a tactic. Over the last week the press have had access to the game at all times, but the servers have only been populated by testers in very short, very awkward timeslots (2am to 4am, for instance). So while I didn't spend time on busy servers, I did team up with other hacks and found nothing improved for doing so.
Of course I have no idea how many more months of work are due to be put in here. I hope it's an awful lot of them - and perhaps if other previews echo my thoughts, more will be added on. But it's also hard to see how this skeletal game could be fleshed out into something special. Intended as free-to-play, it's going to need a hell of a lot more motivation to get people to fork over cash, since right now there's no perceivable motivation to carry on playing for free.