Last week, Oculus Studios and Sanzaru Games released Marvel: Powers United VR exclusively for the Oculus Rift. Oculus had noted it was one of the their largest investments in a single game yet and it was to my knowledge their first with an IP. The game, however, was met with mixed reviews with critics calling the game out for its extremely repetitive nature and lack of depth.
I’m not exactly a fan of Marvel by any means: I’ve seen the first two Captain America movies, the three Iron Man movies, Guardians of the Galaxy, and the first two Avengers movies as well as all pre-Cinematic Universe Spider-Man movies, but other than the Spider-Man movies I never cared enough about any of them to actually see them in theaters. I’m aware of what happens in many of the movies I haven’t seen as I care enough to know what happens but not enough to sit down and see it, if that makes any sense. However, I do find the idea of being a superhero appealing and I like VR games so I said “Screw it” and plopped $40 down for the game.
In Marvel: Powers United VR, you start with a prologue sequence in which you pick either Captain America or Black Widow, then fight your way towards Avengers tower while meeting up with various Marvel superheroes along the way like the Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man. This culminates with your character and the rest of the heroes going face to face with a cast of Marvel villains called the Masters of Evil lead by Thanos, who triumphantly declares he has the Cosmic Cube and will rule the universe. It’s a nice linear mission despite some lame writing that seemingly sets up a story driven single player linear experience.
Absolutely none of the rest of the game is like this.
Instead, you warp to a space station where you can choose a hero to play and begin matchmaking for your primarily multiplayer focused adventure (although you can play solo with AI companions filling in for human players - more on that later). Once you’ve formed a team and select a location, you begin your mission which always works in identical fashion. The Scientist Supreme appears via hologram and blabs on about Thanos being awesome and your doom and generic villain stuff. From here, you face off against waves of enemies while protecting relay terminals effectively like a horde mode mixed with an arcade beat-em-up. The game gives you alternate optional objectives like perform a certain number of team combos or get a certain score per round and will every now and then spawn a boss character or two like Ultron or Venom. The final wave swaps out relay terminals with a shield generator which requires power cells to charge up forcing you to manage getting cells with protecting the generator but this is rarely a challenge.
At the end everybody’s scores are tallied and ranked and everybody strikes a pose. Your reward for your performance is loot boxes which hold cosmetic items (there actually are no microtransactions here for these boxes, thankfully). The only other mission type is one in which you face off in one prolonged boss encounter with Thanos that you unlock by getting cosmic cube shards obtained each time you beat a boss in a regular mission.
And that’s all of the game’s features right there. It’s definitely light, there’s no denying that, and it’s not the game’s only problem. The user interface is baffling in ways you don’t expect. Creating a good user interface in VR can be challenging as the medium is still new and everything is in 3D, but this game fails in ways you don’t expect. Generally menus are handled with normal button presses so they avoid the normal VR issues, but everything is placed in the least logical place.
For example, say you want to go to the game’s training room to try a hero. There’s a hub world so you’d expect the training area to be in there, right? Wrong. You need to go to matchmaking. “But I want to go there by myself” you might be thinking, but it doesn’t matter: if you want to play solo, you need to go to matchmaking then immediately ready up before the game finds any other players. This will force the game into solo mode at which point you can select training as a map in the mission select. It’s naturally buried in the middle of the list of maps as well. Not only is this confusing, but having the Training Room as a regular map means that in random matchmaking users can vote for it as a mission and it can be randomly selected. Wanted to go fight Thanos? Too bad, Jimmy selected Training room, so you’re going there instead.
It gets worse as well. Say you end up in the training room in the matchmaking scenario I listed and you want to leave. You open the pause menu and you want to leave but there is no leave option. Well it turns out when you open the pause menu mid-match, the game doesn’t tell you you’re now in a sub-menu so you need to hit back to go to the main menu (Which, for the record, shares many of its options with the sub-menu adding to the confusion). You then select exit which until this point exited the game but now only exits to the hub world. Oh, by the way, you selecting this doesn’t remove you from the party like you’d expect: it just automatically forces everybody in the party to leave the training room whether they wanted to or not.
There’s also some serious balancing issues. Certain characters have attacks which can easily be spammed to get a high score such as the Hulk and his sonic clap or Deadpool’s submachine guns. Other characters focused on melee attacks tend to have moves that are unresponsive: VR games with melee moves often have a cooldown period or require a certain amount of force to register hits to avoid people flailing their arms as fast as they can to instantly win. Powers United goes a bit too far with this and often characters like Black Panther and Wolverine don’t register melee attacks fast enough to avoid getting punched in the face by tougher enemies.
Also, it’s a Marvel Superhero game and you can’t play as Iron Man. I imagine they’re saving him to bring out later (free DLC was already confirmed) to bring some post-release hype back to the game, but it still feels like a hole in the otherwise pretty wide roster.
So based on all of these flaws, there’s absolutely no way I could possibly recommend this game, could I? Well...
I may not be a big Marvel fan, but there’s a certain amount of glee that even I take in wielding Captain America’s Shield and deflecting missiles, or using Spider-Man’s webs to tie up an enemy and yank them towards me so I can punch them back at another enemy, or picking up and hurling foes as the Hulk.
The character variety actually helps alleviate much of the repetitiveness as the game plays extremely differently depending on character choice. Deadpool has loads of guns turning the game into a more traditional shooter. Doctor Strange can fly above the action while doing hand gestures to conjure different types of magic. The Hulk can literally pick up and hurl enemies at each other.
Even more delightfully, the way the game looks changes as your character does since the game world scales to your character’s height. Pick Rocket Raccoon and suddenly enemies and teammates look 10 feet tall. Pick the Hulk and suddenly everybody else looks like a bunch of toddlers running around your legs.
While all missions have the same basic structure, the maps do have nice visual and layout variety to mix things up. Some maps are more open making it easier to go between the two relays you’re protecting while others deliberately separate them making your team have to coordinate a bit more to save both. Plus, they look very good for a VR game.
Yes, the gameplay is repetitive as you destroy wave after wave of enemies but you’re usually given a decent amount of actions to do with your characters. Foes are usually easy to kill as well, but part of it adds to feeling like a powerful superhero. Plus, the motion controls with the Oculus Touch controllers add a lot to the game: You summon tornadoes as Storm by sort of grabbing and pulling up on the ground. You can shoot a giant beam of fire as Captain Marvel by charging up your shots and moving your hands together like Ryu firing a Hadouken. In the end, there’s almost something intoxicating about methodically dispatching enemies with ease, and even more so when you’re physically moving to make it happen.
In the end, I’m torn on the game because I really like Marvel Powers United VR, but I feel almost guilty about it because it could be so much better. Adding more mission objectives, adding more characters, and fixing the major issues with the UI would help the game go a long way. So I go back to “Do I recommend this game?” Honestly, I don’t know. I really enjoy it, but I also think basically every criticism against it is justified and thus I’m not sure if too many others would even like it.
The last time I felt this was the initial release of No Man’s Sky. That was another game that had major UI issues, felt barebones on release, and fell short of what was promised. Yet, I played it happily for three weeks calmly traveling from planet to planet scanning animals and plants and buying bigger ships despite no real reason existing to do so. I was often asked by friends curious about that game about certain features and basically everything I had to say was negative. In the end, I was forced to admit that the game wasn’t that good, but that I enjoyed playing it.
However, if the end goal of a game boils down to “did you have fun” and my answer is “yes”, does that mean the game is actually good? Honestly, I’m not really sure. In the end though, as long as I am having fun, maybe it doesn’t really matter.