This article is part of VICE Gaming's Comic Connections week – find more here.
Marvel, and video games – they're trying, bless them. Ignoring for the moment the company's upcoming, hugely promising collaboration with Telltale, Marvel has long taken a scattershot approach to turning their comics into games. And after a string of terrible, terrible titles created by internal studios over at Sega, their focus has more recently turned to mobile. Specifically, the potentially lucrative free to play market.
But are they any good? I played them to find out. All of them. Which is probably why when I close my eyes all I can see is Iron Man and Captain America trying to convince me to purchase gems or coins or bloody iso-8.
To be fair, as far as free-to-play (F2P) games go, some of Marvel's are pretty good. Actually, some of them are great. The standout is Marvel Puzzle Quest, by quite a long way – it's easily the game I've sunk the most time into. It's important to note that this is developer Demiurge Studios' first and only F2P title to date. Previously they have worked on ports and multiplayer maps for fairly well known franchises born in the gaming world, such as Mass Effect and Borderlands.
This grounding in the world of actual games is perhaps what led to Marvel Puzzle Quest being less of a nickel-and-dime fest than the others. And yet it's the one I've also spent the most real money on.
Marvel Puzzle Quest is a match-three game (see screen, below) in which you carry a trio of heroes and/or villains into battle against other famous Marvel characters. Your roster can be upgraded using the "wonder material from outer space", iso-8, which increases their abilities, allowing you to manipulate the board and do greater damage in battle. So, it's Bejeweled with an RPG twist – but it's also a lot deeper than that, if you allow it to be.
Here's where the Marvel comics connection really comes into its own. Its Universe is big. Huge. However big you think it is, double it. And then it's even bigger than that. Puzzle Quest keeps spitting out characters at you, giving you new heroes and villains to join your roster in a never-ending parade of skin-tight leotards and lashings of Adamantium. Work your way through the story mode and by the time you finish you'll have a full roster of heroes. Some rare, some common. Some powerful, some Hawkeye.
This roster-building mechanic can be found in every one of Marvel's F2P games because, as I say, the company knows its strengths. And its audience.
How you obtain characters in each game is where they differ. Marvel Puzzle Quest has you collecting "covers" (as in, the cover pages of comics). It's a fairly standard gacha system where your fate is in the hands of the Random Number Generator (praise him, praise him), but you can also collect specific covers by being good at the game. Timed events are very regularly added to MPQ, some of which include new characters who you can obtain by being one of the highest on the leaderboard. Events are instance-based, which means you only need to beat out only 950 of your peers to get one of the top prizes, as opposed to all eleventy million players.
Marvel Puzzle Quest throws so much free stuff at you that it's easy to convince yourself to spend a little money every now and then: to support the developers and to thank them for the hours of enjoyment you've received so far. And that's how free to play should work.
Unlike Marvel Future Fight (screen, above), created by Korean developer Netmarble, a company specialising in F2P mobile titles. Its premise is similar to MPQ: build your roster and take them into battle against an invading parallel world in which everyone in the Marvel Universe has turned evil, because... they just have. The thing Future Fight does have going for it is that it can be genuinely fun. It's a Diablo clone, essentially. Though the levels are small and linear (because mobile), it controls surprisingly well and there's enough skill required that you don't feel the game is playing itself. Though there is also an option for that, if you're feeling lazy.
The problem with Future Fight is that you'll likely hit a difficulty wall fairly early on. Stamina isn't an issue so far. So much as sneeze and they'll award you another 50 stamina to keep you going, at least early on – but that grind gets real grindy real quickly. You'll be playing old levels over again in order to break past these impasses.
Character collection is also slow and laborious, as you'll need to find a number of tokens for each character in order for them to join your crew. These new teammates also suffer from being incredibly weak, meaning you'll either be siphoning your precious upgrade materials away from your current team or ignoring the new guy completely. It gets to the point where receiving a new hero can feel more like a punishment than a reward. Either way, you'd better get grinding those gear-up kits.
But like I say, Future Fight can actually be pretty fun to play, so you may find the grind actually quite enjoyable. At least for a while. It's definitely worth checking out.
Marvel Mighty Heroes, however, is easily the worst of the Marvel F2Ps. It's made by DeNA, another publisher that specialises in mobile F2P titles. In fact, DeNA is a huge deal in the east. They own Mobage, which is a very successful Japanese mobile platform, and they've also recently announced a partnership with Nintendo to bring their franchises to mobile devices.
They know how to make money off mobile, then. But whether they know how to make good games for the platform is another question. One does not necessarily beget the other.
Marvel Mighty Heroes is a bit of a mess. It's got a great chibi art (see the screen, below), which really works with the Marvel characters, but the gameplay is astonishingly ill conceived. It's a timed arena battle that is multiplayer only. You'll be partnered with three other players to kill as many enemies in as short a time as possible. It's similar to Future Fight in its top-down brawler style, but much more basic. It also doesn't help that you're competing with the other players to get the highest score.
Instead of a team of co-operating superheroes, your teammates are a permanent hindrance and annoyance. As such, the game gets frustrating and dull pretty quickly. If you're going to be spending your real world time and stamina (and maybe even money) on a Marvel F2P game, this should be bottom of your list.
Try Marvel Contest of Champions instead, especially if you're less interested in the action-adventure styles of Future Fight and (arguably) Mighty Heroes. Contest of Champions is a fighting game, with a central conceit that suits the F2P model. You've been tasked by the Collector to take part in the eponymous Contest of Champions, in which you must pit the heroes and villains contained in his vault against other powerful enemies taking part in the contest. It's developed by Kabam, another F2P mobile darling, though the game lacks the punishing difficulty wall of other games of its type.
As far as fighting games go it's pretty basic, with just a light punch, heavy punch, dash and dodge at your disposal, as well as a couple of upgradable character specific abilities – although that's enough to allow for some player skill to make a difference. Contest of Champions has probably the best sense of progression of the bunch, with multiple routes through each chapter to encourage replayability without making it feel like a total grind. Compared to other Marvel F2Ps, expanding your roster and upgrading your characters can feel pretty rapid. It'll be your dwindling stamina that hinders progress, rather than any artificial difficulty curve.
Marvel: Avengers Alliance (screen, above) is the game I've spent the least time with, but it's also one that seems to have a lot of potential. It's the oldest of the Marvel F2P brood, which means tons and tons of stuff to play through, collect and explore. It also has a comfortably familiar play style; a true RPG at heart, with turn-based, Final Fantasy series-style combat. It feels like a more cerebral and in-depth game than the others. Worth a look if that's something that appeals.
There is one other Marvel free to play game out there. It differs from all of those I've already mentioned because it's not available on mobile devices. It's exclusive to PC and Mac, and it's also fantastic.
Marvel Heroes 2015 had a rocky first year (back when it was simply Marvel Heroes), but re-launched with an updated (and post-dated) moniker in June 2014. It turned its 59 percent Metascore into 81, and became one of the best Marvel games on PC alongside Marvel Puzzle Quest, which also has a PC version. Both excellent.
Like Marvel Future Fight, Heroes 2015 is a Diablo clone. Unlike Future Fight, it has no mobile limitations on the scope of its environments or gameplay. It's a fully-fledged MMO, with a rich diversity of levels, enemies and features. It also has an actual decent story, with animated cutscenes and everything, written by Brian Michael Bendis, who is one of the biggest names in modern comics. But let's not get started on him, or this article will never end.
Heroes 2015 is free to play but, like with all good (read: rare) F2P games, you never feel the need to spend anything. Instead, you'll feel the desire to: on costumes, new heroes (which you can switch between at any time) and other boosts and bonuses. After... well, wallowing feels like a strong word, but yeah: after wallowing in the murky pool of mobile F2P, Marvel Heroes 2015 feels like a breath of fresh air. The best part? There's nothing to prevent you from playing for as long as you like, stamina be damned.
Which brings me back to Marvel Puzzle Quest. While all the other mobile F2P games are enforcing a limited play time with that cursed stamina bar, MPQ has a much more subtle way of preventing you from never leaving your house again.
Your characters' HP is persistent in MPQ, which means that if one of your strongest heroes takes a beating in one fight, they won't last long in the next. Health is regenerated over time (superheroes, duh), but you can also instantly restore them to their best using a health pack. You can carry up to five of these at any one time, and they regenerate at a rate of one every 30 minutes. What this means, practically, is that if your main roster is downed you can heal them back in, wait for them to regenerate, or use someone else.
And there's the difference between health packs and stamina. While the latter tells you to go do something else, the former encourages you to experiment with different modes and characters while you wait for your A-team to come back to life. A subtle, but important difference.
The best thing about F2P games is the updates and expansions: regular special events that tie in with the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies; shiny titbits to keep your magpie brain coming back to see what's new, and each game in this list employs this tactic to varying degrees of success. Luckily, none of these games are cynical cash-grabs. They all have their own merits beyond the ubiquitous "spend money" button. And, maybe, what I've examined here will encourage you to give one or two a try for yourself. They are "free", after all.
More from VICE Gaming: