‘Marvel Powers United VR’ Review – Wave Shooting Meets Cosplay

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Developed over the course of two years, Marvel Powers United VR is the first VR superhero game of its scale. A large roster of playable heroes lets you step into the boots, masks, and leotards of 18 Marvel superheroes. But rather than embodying your character, along with their powers, conflicts, and triumphs, you’ll end up feeling like you’re just dressing the part as you fight waves of enemies for high scores and loot boxes.

Marvel Powers United VR Review Details:

Official Site

Publisher: Oculus Studios
Developer: Sanzaru Games
Available On: Oculus Store (Rift) [Exclusive]
Release Date: July 26th, 2018

Gameplay

Marvel Powers United VR is an unabashed wave shooter where the primary incentive to keep playing is grinding your way to unlocking new costumes and character poses. The game has just one mode which consists of two slightly different phases: 1) defend the nodes, 2) defend the node while bringing eight power cells to the node.  You can play solo (with AI controlled companion heroes) or with up to three friends.

During a round, you will encounter a few villains. The nodes and power cells spawn in random locations, but once you’ve played one round, you’ve played them all—the villain mini boss encounters rely on the same basic tactics, the game’s various maps function primarily as set dressing without meaningfully impacting gameplay, and on your first go you’ll see every one of the bland cannon fodder enemies that make up the game’s many waves.

Playable heroes: Black Bolt, Black Panther, Black Widow, Captain America, Captain Marvel, Crystal, Deadpool, Doctor Strange, Gamora, Hawkeye, Iceman, Rocket Raccoon, Spider-Man, Star-lord, Storm, The Hulk, Thor, and Wolverine. | Images courtesy Marvel, Oculus

Some gameplay variety comes depending upon which one of the 18 heroes you choose, though you’ll quickly identify the underlying ‘classes’ which largely break down into melee, ranged, and caster. Each hero has three or four abilities and a special attack that can be activated after gaining enough points from dealing damage to enemies. The basic abilities don’t feel terribly differentiated, and gameplay typically involves finding your hero’s most effective attack and then spamming it indefinitely. Special attacks aren’t particularly thrilling to use, and generally either amplify existing abilities so they do more damage or create a sphere of damage around the player.

The no-name enemies—which you will kill by the hundreds, and will spawn out of thin air directly next to the node they intend to attack—are so unthreatening and similar that they can all be killed with the same tactics, meaning you’re never challenged to switch up your abilities. Mechanically the game doesn’t make you manage your abilities either, as pretty much every ability can be spammed indefinitely with no cool down, reload, overheating, or friendly-fire.

Deadpool’s SMGs, for instance, can be literally fired infinitely by holding the trigger down the entire match. You can also pull out his Katanas and throw an unlimited number of them at enemies (this turns out to be incredibly effective, and means you’ll have little reason to use the katanas for slashing, let alone your SMGs, pistols, or throwing stars). Characters who can hover can do so indefinitely, and there’s almost never a reason not to be in the air as it gives you the best angle for zapping baddies.

The villains, which act as mini-bosses, don’t change up the equation much. They are all damage sponges and are best defeated by hitting them repeatedly with your highest damage attack without getting within 15 feet (otherwise you risk getting hit by a near-instant high-damage area attack). All bosses also occasionally do a massively telegraphed attack that will usually put you down if you don’t get out of the giant orange glowing circle before it goes off.

The lack of incentive for varying your tactics and abilities is exacerbated by an absurd amount of auto-aim for many of the heroes’ abilities. The auto-aim on some attacks is so extreme that you literally don’t need to aim—as long as the enemy is anywhere within your view, your attack will fly directly at the target for a perfect hit at any range. In many cases the auto-aim will totally override your reticle, leading to some frustrating moments where your attacks seem to defy your intentions completely—sometimes causing you to miss entirely (like when attempting to lead a target).

Score is essentially the only reason not to simply spam your most effective attack; during each round you’ll earn points for killing baddies, and if you vary your abilities you can get your combo meter higher to get points faster. The problem is that the only reason you’d care about your score is if you want to unlock new costumes and character poses—neither of which change the gameplay in any way.

The end of each round tallies up your scores and per-character mini objectives (which are often as simple as ‘kill X# of enemies with X attack’), and you’ll be awarded some loot boxes based on your score. When you return to the game’s lobby space you can go to the award room to open your loot boxes and see what new costumes and poses you unlocked. There’s also a few ‘artifact’ type props to unlock (little trinkets of Marvel character lore, like a badge, cloak, or sceptre) which will appear in your award room. Unfortunately beyond the props, there’s no easy way to see your overall unlock progress; you’ll need to go through the rather slow menu to select a different hero and then you can see which costumes and poses are unlocked, one hero at a time. While it may be slow, the ability to switch heroes at any time (in the lobby or during a round) is welcomed.

There’s one other element to your grind that does actually lead to something different than costumes, poses, and props. For each villain you defeat during the wave mode, you collect one piece of the Cosmic Cube. If you collect 25 pieces, you unlock a chance to fight a certain big baddie from the Marvel universe in a different arena. While this fight is a bit different than fighting the villains in the wave mode, you’ll use the very same tactics (attack with your highest damage attack while staying away from the boss), and the rewards (loot boxes) are the same too (just more of them). This unfortunately makes the encounter feel quite anticlimactic.

It took me about six hours to collect the 25 pieces needed for that special encounter. After spending the cube pieces on the fight for the first time, you’ll have to collect 10 more to do it again (whether you won or lost). It isn’t made terribly clear to the player that collecting 25 cube pieces will unlock the fight (I only knew about it because I was told); had I not been grinding them out so that I could see what the encounter was like (for the sake of this review), I don’t think I would have bothered continuing to collect them.

Images courtesy Marvel, Oculus

For all the gameplay criticism above, Marvel Powers United VR’s redeeming quality is its visual presentation. It’s a good-looking game that feels highly produced and pretty well polished. Character models and poses look great and have had a ton of attention paid to them. Costumes are generally completely different outfits (rather than just different colors) and represent a wide range of looks from classic outfits to modern interpretations. While the static character models look very good, they tend to look a little janky once you see another player’s head and hands driving the character model (classic limp elbows and knees).

Environments also look great (with one or two exceptions), and it’s a shame that they’re used as the mere backdrop of wave shooting arenas rather than something more meaningful.

Immersion

Superheroes aren’t cool because of how they look or sound. They are cool because they have interesting origin stories, unique villain conflicts, and do heroic stuff. Unfortunately you won’t experience any of that in Powers United. One surefire way to quash immersion in VR is to take characters that inhabit a rich universe and then reduce them to a score counter and loot boxes. Throw into the mix waves of nameless enemies that are so homogeneous that they don’t even warrant having their own nicknames and you’ve got a recipe for bland gameplay.

Powers United is perhaps a victim of ambition. No one has really figured out what a great superhero game looks like in VR, but instead of focusing on one character and figuring out how to take their unique capabilities and translate them into a rich and embodied VR experience where the player feels like a hero, they tried to cram 18 heroes into one game right off the bat; I can’t say I’m surprised that they didn’t find unique and meaningful mechanics for all of them, but it’s a shame that not one of them really delivers the dream of feeling like a badass superhero.

Much of the game is based around spamming triggers or using rough gestures which are translated into heavily auto-aimed attacks, robbing the player of the feeling of being present and impactful in the world. There was never a moment in my time playing where I felt like I had landed an especially important shot, or killed a key enemy at just the right time. There’s just so much shooting and so many faceless and uninteresting enemies that none of it feels important.

When you do end up taking damage you rarely know which enemy it came from, but you’ll respond in the same way regardless: spam the dash button for a few moments and then turn around and start fighting again.

The audio channel in Marvel Powers United VR is so saturated with music, shooting, one-liners and interface cues that directional sound is almost entirely lost. As a result, the game doesn’t use audio for any key information.

Frustratingly, you can’t hand weapons from one hand to another, and you can’t resheathe most weapons; if you had any visions of roleplaying your character and doing some cool gun juggling or returning a sword to your back or a gun to your hip in a heroic way, you’ll watch as the weapon unceremoniously falls to the ground while a new one magically appears in its place.

For all the time spent on making the character models and costumes look good, there’s rarely an opportunity to see them up close. You can see your arms and body in first person if you look down, but it seems like a major missed opportunity to not have a mirror in the lobby space at minimum, or a way to browse through all your unlocked models and look at them in detail.

At least at the end of each match you get to pose for a team photo with your companions. It’s a neat idea and can lead to some funny social moments, but unfortunately you can’t charge any of your abilities or unsheathe any weapons for the photo, so everyone ends up standing around somewhat awkwardly, unable to wield signature weapons or powers for the photo. The photos unfortunately don’t get saved anywhere, so if you end up having one that’s particularly funny or interesting, you’ll only get to see if for the few seconds after the picture gets snapped.

Comfort

Marvel Powers United VR is the first game from Oculus Studios to use free locomotion (head relative with snap turning) and dashing mechanics. From start to finish I was completely comfortable, including several multi-hour play sessions. It felt easy enough to get my character around the environment, though dashing is somewhat important and seemingly can’t be triggered unless you are looking generally in the direction you want to go (quite possibly done to avoid dashing sideways, for comfort considerations). The game also has an additional comfort option (vignetting) for anyone having trouble with comfort.

When you fill enough of your points meter to use your special ability, a purple veil completely covers your field of view for a few seconds, which isn’t welcome when you’re in the middle of shooting enemies. This would be much more frustrating in a game where any individual enemy or attack mattered, but fortunately (unfortunately?) that’s not the case in Powers United.

I had to turn all sound sliders down to 25% to have even a slight chance of hearing my teammates while playing co-op.

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