Superhero movies have never been more popular, but you'll still have to endure an agonizing wait between each new costumed adventure on the silver screen. If comic books aren't easing the wait, you still have one more option: video games. Both Marvel and DC offer free-to-play massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) that let you embark on a whole new adventure in your favorite superheroic settings.
Marvel Heroes and DC Universe Online take somewhat different approaches to immersing you in a well-known comic book world. While both offer wholly original stories starring iconic heroes and villains, Marvel's game is an action/RPG in which you play as an established hero, whereas DC's is a more traditional MMORPG in which you play as an original character.
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The games target somewhat different audiences (DC vs. Marvel fans, for starters). But they're generally similar enough that they can go head to head in a crossover event that will shape the fate of the world for years to come — or at least your gaming schedule for the next few months.
If you're going to sink dozens of hours into an MMORPG, it had better be fun to play. Luckily, both DCUO and Marvel Heroes deliver on that count. Which one you prefer depends a bit on what you're in the mood for, but each game is enjoyable, polished and faithful to its source material.
Marvel Heroes is essentially a spiritual successor to Diablo II, and even shares one of that title's lead designers. The game takes place in an isometric perspective (an angled top-down camera), and you take control of an existing Marvel character, like Captain America or Rogue (there are more than 50 in all). As you click your way through massive hordes of enemies, you'll gather items and equipment, and learn new special skills. The result is a pretty addicting loot-cycle, with a few added game-play bonuses for completing the story as multiple characters. The breezy gameplay, respectable character-building mechanics and very lenient customization options make Marvel Heroes hard to put down.
DC Universe Online, on the other hand, is much more akin to World of Warcraft, or any other third-person MMORPG out there. You'll create your own hero with a fairly generous variety of options, from gender to costume to superpowers to weapons. Once you're all set up, you do battle with a few enemies at a time, using a combination of light, heavy and special attacks. The combat system strikes an agreeable balance between action and statistics, putting some weight on how well you play and some weight on how well-equipped you are. You can build up your character with a variety of different skill trees, and there's plenty of equipment to be had, although managing the inventory can be a pain.
WINNER: Marvel Heroes. Marvel Heroes comes out ahead here, if only by a little. The gameplay is a little more intuitive and much faster-paced. Encouraging players to try multiple heroes gives the game some variety, too.
We love superhero comic books for their striking artwork and relatable themes, but mostly we love them for their outlandish storylines and colorful characters. Marvel Heroes and DC Universe Online both tell brand-new stories in their respective settings, but while the former is pretty much business as usual, the latter takes a pretty creative approach.
Marvel Heroes starts with (stop me if you've heard this one) Dr. Doom acquiring an artifact of great power and threatening to control reality with it. From there, Nick Fury, director of S.H.I.E.L.D., puts out a call for superheroes to stop the villain and … well, that's pretty much it. There are a few decent twists and turns along the way, but it's basically just a succession of villains working at cross-purposes, with appearances from heavy hitters like the Kingpin, Mr. Sinister and Dr. Octopus. A few last-minute revelations keep the story going for a few more chapters, but feel artificially prolonged, too.
On the other hand, DC Universe Online hits the ground running with time travel, alternate realities, brand-new technology and a world already under attack. When Lex Luthor finally succeeds in destroying the Justice League, his victory is short-lived, as Brainiac can then conquer Earth unchallenged. Luthor travels back in time and distributes Brainiac's nanotech to create a new generation of superheroes who can forge their own paths as either heroes or villains. The struggle between Brainiac and Luthor creates some interesting drama that lasts all the way to the end of the game's extensive story line.
WINNER: DC Universe Online. A new generation of superheroes requires an all-new story line to go with it. While it's much harder to finish DCUO's story mode, it's also much more rewarding.
Much like comic books themselves, DCUO and Marvel Heroes thrive on huge crossover events. It's not enough to just play through the story and run endgame content; companies have to keep players interested with timely story lines, particularly ones that tie into ongoing comics, TV shows or movies.
Marvel Heroes has big events on a fairly regular basis, usually associated with the release of Marvel Studios TV and movies. Daredevil Season 2 and Captain America: Civil War both had game tie-ins, and if I had to hazard a guess, I would say you could expect similar things for Luke Cage Season 1 and the Dr. Strange movie later this year. In addition to deals on costumes and characters that you can buy with real money, these events usually give bonus experience to relevant characters, or even introduce new scenarios. When Civil War debuted, for example, players could take part in the climactic airport battle.
DCUO's approach is extremely similar, creating events to tie in with shows like Arrow, Flash and Legends of Tomorrow, as well as movies like Batman v Superman. To celebrate Wonder Woman's 75th anniversary, for example, DCUO is offering players free access to the game's downloadable episodes, as well as an experience boost for their avatars. The primary difference between DCUO's events and its competitor's is that DCUO events often seem aimed toward high-level players. Heroes who are just starting out can't access downloadable episodes, since these players need high experience and equipment levels to do so.
WINNER: Marvel Heroes. The two games have similar events overall, but while Marvel Heroes events are good for both new and veteran players, DCUO's have a bit narrower audience.
Both Marvel Heroes and DCUO are completely free to play, and you can reach the maximum in-game level without dishing out a single penny. However, the two developers do both have servers to run and employees to pay, so there are plenty of things you can buy. Both games offer worthwhile bang for your buck, but one hides behind a paywall a bit more than the other does.
In Marvel Heroes, you can theoretically earn everything with in-game currency. I say "theoretically" because, in practice, this would take a very long time and would require a lot of luck. You can buy heroes with a currency called Eternity Splinters, which drop at regular intervals. Costumes, though, are a total crapshoot and are quite rare, so if there's one particular look you like for a character, you may as well buy it; you're not going to earn it. Otherwise, all story content is available to any player.
DC Universe Online is also fairly generous with free content, offering players two character slots (presumably for both a hero and a villain) and unrestricted access to the whole game's story and items up to the maximum level (30). However, after that, players have to buy content on an episode-by-episode basis. It's not an unfair system by any means, but it does mean that if you want to see how the game's plot resolves, you'll need to dish out some money. There are also some arbitrary restrictions on how much currency free players can attain.
WINNER: Marvel Heroes. Marvel Heroes lets you have anything in the game for free, although its cosmetic items are hard to come by. DC Universe Online charges for story content.
No matter how much fun a game is, it won't do you much good if you can't play the title on your platform of choice. Simply put, DCUO has this category in the bag. The game is available on PC, Xbox One, PS3 and PS4, meaning it's an easy sell for sitting back on the couch and taking over the living room for a few hours. Marvel Heroes runs on PC and Mac, lets you use a controller and doesn't require much in the way of system settings. While that's admirable, the title still hasn't made its way to consoles.
WINNER: DC Universe Online. DCUO is available for PC and console players, while Marvel Heroes is a computer-only affair.
Gamers and comic book fans are lucky they have two excellent games that represent the biggest publishers in the industry. Marvel Heroes earns a slight nod over DCUO for its user-friendliness and fast-paced gameplay. But DC's offering is still well worth a look for those who want to guide a unique hero through an unpredictable story.
Since both games are free to play, you may as well try them both out and see which one you like better. Just don't be surprised if, like me, you intended to play a few hours to get a feel for it, and wind up wondering what just happened to your entire weekend.