Marvel Heroes preview: balancing gods

The greatest strength of Marvel Heroes is one of its biggest challenges. The Marvel brand, for all its iconic larger-than-life characters, comes with the weight of expectations and lore behind it. The game is prioritizing pure mechanics over canon, and having spent some time with it at PAX East, it seems to be pulling it off beautifully.

I chose to play as Cyclops, having been a favorite of mine in the classic TV cartoon, before his more obnoxious recent character developments. His attacks, naturally, focused on ranged power, striking enemies with blasts of energy or creating a wider arc of when they got too close for comfort. That did make me wonder, though, how a game in which mortals like Hawkeye share a stage with demigods like Scarlet Witch can possibly feel satisfying for everyone.

The answer, according to Gazillion's community director Stephen Reid, is that it's a game first and foremost. "If you're a huge Daredevil fan, who is basically a normal human, you should be able to play at the latter end of the game with someone like Thor, who is an Asgardian god," he told Shacknews. "Obviously in the Marvel comic they solve that very easily with story, but we had to balance it. Our objective was to make sure you feel powerful. We make sure their powers feel right, but in theory, your Daredevil can even be more powerful than your Thor if you have the right gear."

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Meanwhile, the constantly shifting landscape has created an additional challenge for Gazillion, since Reid noted that there have been "very radical changes" in the universe. "We try to go with the classic representations, so they feel right."

The sample level I played was on an island rife with living dinosaurs--at least, living until the Marvel crew showed up. None of the basic enemies seemed particularly threatening, and even a roaring T-rex was child's play after I had taken down my first. The Marvel heroes feel appropriately powerful, but I did have to band together with some other players for a more difficult boss encounter.

The story was introduced by a short motion comic that starred five of the most iconic heroes, like Wolverine and Spider-Man. Those heroes will serve as the central story cast for cutscenes, with the various other playable characters just off-camera.

And those characters are plentiful, not only in the size of the roster, but the sheer scope of the world. The game may share visual trademarks in common with games like Diablo and Torchlight, but I immediately noticed it was commonplace to run across several other adventurers on their own quest paths. It was easy to band together against an enemy or otherwise follow along to grind for experience.

"Some of those games [like Diablo] have online modes, but none of them are fully online all the time like we are," Reid said. "So most of the game is played in large persistent public spaces. We have instances where you go in with your friends for story-based stuff, but those instances are relatively short. The difference for us is that you're in a public combat zone with potentially dozens of people at once, so it's a very different gameplay experience than the usual solo action RPG."

I wondered if, given some recent high-profile issues with always-online experiences, Gazillion was ready for a potential glut of players and the associated connectivity problems that can come with it. Reid pointed that the founders packs give them a rolling launch. The Ultimate, Premium, and Starter pack members will join seven, four, and two days in advance, respectively, and Gazillion will know exactly how many people to prepare for in each case. "Launch is the x-factor because you never know how many people will pick it up on day one," he said. "Hopefully it will be a lot. We're prepared for that kind of thing."

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The current roster was built to fulfill several aspects of the experience, from game balance to demographics. Reid said the studio was conscious of choosing a decent representation of women, and even intentionally put in characters like Rocket Raccoon to show some of Marvel's deep bench. "Though, I'm telling you, Rocket Raccoon is the break-out star of 2014," he said.

Being an MMO with such a large array of characters, Gazillion also has plenty of room for expansion. "That's the beautiful thing about being an MMO," Reid said. "We can put in more characters post launch and we fully intend to. There are a lot of characters we haven't put in yet and that we want to. We hope to really work with the community on that. We already have a pretty strong idea of what they want as soon as possible after launch. We're going to fulfill as many wishes as we can."

As for Reid, he has his own wishes for a new member of the cast. "Personally speaking, being English, I want Captain Britain." And who wouldn't want their own nation represented? That kind of personal connection to comic lore is a driving factor in Marvel Heroes. If it can safely clear the hurdles, that asset may just set it apart.