Thanks to Stephen Reid from Gazillion, Jen and I have been able to sample the closed beta of the upcoming Marvel Heroes, scheduled to launch on June 4th.  We’ve spent a fair amount of time smacking around supervillains, and we wanted to take a few moments to share what we’ve experienced.

I’m VERY impressed with the state of the servers-  even during today’s deluge of players from the IGN promotion, I experienced very little lag.  I like the way players seem to be “sub instanced” as it were to keep the numbers down in hub areas.  I don’t know how this was achieved, but it’s pretty cool.  I also liked the fact that I could quickly and easily invite Jen into a party (once we figured out the command- which took about 37 minutes-  This should be a tooltip) via a portal mechanism.  Playing with a friend (or friends) is much more satisfying than soloing, but the fact I was able to effectively solo is welcome, especially when I’m feeling anti-social!

I was a bit surprised that once you pick one of the five starting characters that you don’t have access to the others (unless you get them as a drop or purchase them).  The promo material makes it seem like you can switch between them, when in reality you can only CHOOSE between them.  I think this should be more clearly laid out before launch.

Character models are NICE!  I was impressed with the attention to detail (lightning effects around Mjolnir, for instance) as well.  This game truly feels like a love letter to Marvel’s characters, and really is trying to do them justice.  Powers are cleverly animated, and feel, well, powerful.  Watching a group of heroes burn down a boss really makes you feel like you’re part of a crossover event.  It really needs to be experienced to be believed.  Spider-Man seems a bit off somehow-  I like his power tree, and his attacks are effective enough, but he doesn’t play quite like I expected.  He seems to be missing that feeling of speed and agility that makes him so unique.   Edit-  Spider-man has undergone considerable tweaking since my early experiences, and while he still doesn’t feel like the wall-crawler I’ve come to love, he is a very effective crowd control character.  He still needs work, but that’s why this is a beta, after all!Captain America and Cyclops on the other hand play EXACTLY like I hoped they would.  Both of them have powers that made me giggle maniacally many times.  Overall, the characters make sense for the title, are pleasant to watch, and a BLAST to play.

That being said, something clearly needs to be done about Jean Grey’s Phoenix animations.  While very cool to look at (it DOES look powerful, as it should), the current animation blocks too much useful information on the screen.  When a Jean Grey player shows up, forget about being able to avoid enemy fire (especially AOE fire on the ground) or even where your enemies are.  I’ve read a case where a Captain America player was killed multiple times by the same boss because he couldn’t detect the charge attack which killed him when he couldn’t dodge.  Jen and I found it easier to simply avoid events for the time being when we saw a Jean Grey power herself up.  This of course isn’t the best solution long term as we will eventually miss out on content we’d like to see.

Mob placement seems a bit erratic so far.  While it obviously is affected by respawn times, I ran into several stretches where there’s simply nothing to do.  Not a huge problem, as mobs show up again fairly quickly, but coupled with the enormous maps (see below), I think a bit more even spacing for their spawn points would keep the action moving at a better pace.  However, boss battles were interesting and varied, really taking into account what makes Marvel’s deadliest foes so memorable.  Mob makeup is varied as well, so it doesn’t feel like you’re just burning down the same faceless mooks over and over while grinding your way to more interesting foes.  Edit-  the map has undergone considerable changes, and according the developers is very much a work in progress-  I’ve already noticed better placement and more enemy types on maps to keep the action more constant.  Nice work, guys!

The biggest complaint I have with the game thus far is that the current map system just doesn’t work for me.  The hub levels are too large to not have an adequate navigation system to tell you where your current quest objective is located.  When you get close, an icon appears, but there can be a lot of pointless wandering trying to find that marker.  Granted, the exploring can lead you to world events, optional bosses, and plenty of opportunities to grind for XP.  The minimap’s resolution is too small to provide useful information, and the color scheme used to identify party members makes it all too easy to lose track of where they are on the map.  I understand that the maps are different every time you play, and that’s appreciated, but Avenger’s Tower isn’t, so why in the world does its map show fog of war every time I return?  Admittedly I’ve learned where everything is fairly quickly, but it just doesn’t make sense to me.  Edit- again, the map is a work in progress!

Loot drops seemed to be handled appropriately for the most part.  I’ve been able to consistently acquire mission and level appropriate gear for my heroes.  However, the rate at which gear drops for characters I don’t have seems too high.  I get that the dev team is trying to encourage players to purchase the other heroes, and I certainly feel like players should reward the team by making use of the store (it IS free to play, after all), but it feels like they’re trying a little too hard to remind you that you don’t own everything yet…  Of course, it is possible to receive heroes (and costumes) as drops, and I have to say it’s pretty exciting the first time it happens (even if it was a hero I was less likely to use right away).  It happened early on in my adventuring, so the game doesn’t feel like you must pay up in order to unlock everyone.  My only issue with the inventory system is that I ran into a bug a few times with Cyclops.  When I entered an instanced mission area, several times I lost access to my inventory.  I was still acquiring items (and they were being recorded in my inventory when I regained access), but I couldn’t equip or use anything.  It only was a problem during boss fights where I really could have used some heals, but I’m sure this will be sorted before launch.

Bottom line is this-  Marvel Heroes is a lot of fun to play.  It should tell you something that Jen went from being cautiously optimistic about the game to actually purchasing a Founders Pack (she does love her some Wolverine).  They seem to be a pretty good value, all things considered.  I can see myself spending a lot of time in Gazillion’s version of the Marvel universe, and you really should as well.