As a die-hard Marvel fan — the kind that hasn’t missed a single installment in the Cinematic Universe and has been reading comics for as long as he can remember — I have to admit to being a little skeptical of Powers United VR. What we’ve seen of Sanzaru Games’ cooperative superhero simulation so far seemed like it could be fun, but I wasn’t sure it would have the finesse and structure to be entertaining for more than a few minutes. Based on the footage we’ve seen so far it looked just a little too hectic for its own good.
Actually playing that game has, thankfully, made me just a bit more of a true believer.
I recently got hands-on time with Powers United’s three new heroes. That includes Thunder God Thor, who is currently enjoying positive reviews of his latest blockbuster movie, and Inhumans Black Bolt and Crystal, who… well, yeah. With a team of three other players that included Deadpool and Hulk, we tackled a new level set in the arena on the alien planet Sakaar, which is again seen in Thor’s latest movie along with the Planet Hulk storyline in the comics. Our team was tasked with defending a beacon from swarms of Kree soldiers: blue-skinned cannon fodder that you’ll have seen in several trailers.
A few things struck me when I first put on my Rift to play as Crystal. Firstly, the various shapes and sizes of the characters around me weren’t anything like as jarring as I thought they would be. Crystal’s height, for example, was a little smaller than my own, but I didn’t feel disconnected from the experience as I thought I would with Hulk towering over me and standing at shoulder-level with Thor. If anything I was momentarily convinced my comic book dreams really had come to life right in front of me as we discussed our strategy.
Jumping into the arena itself, Powers United’s accessible control scheme and mix of standard and more inventive powers immediately had me feeling heroic. Crystal, for example, shoots streams of water from one hand, and fire from the other, both activated with a quick pull of the trigger. They make short work of any Kree soldier, but Marvel encourages you to use more creative powers to earn more skill points. Hold down the trigger on either controller, for example, and those streams of water and fire will form hands that you can pick up enemies and playfully fling them around with. On the defensive side, Crystal could also summon spikes from the ground to protect the beacon from rocket fire.
Powers United is at its best when it’s tapping into these more unique abilities. There’s an immense satisfaction that comes with slinging Thor’s mystical hammer, Mjölnir, into waves of enemies and then catching it upon return, and a suitable cinematic flair to raising it up to gather lighting before unleashing it on suspecting foes. Better yet, some characters allow you to take to the skies at any point and rain down attacks from above. Each hero gives you plenty of options to play with, and just as you get bored of one playstyle, you can switch up to another.
There are some missed opportunities, though. Inhuman king Black Bolt, for example, carries one of Marvel’s more interesting gift/curse power sets in which speaking even a whisper emits a powerful energy blast that will decimate foes. Rather than using the Rift’s microphone to simulate that power, though, you simply hold down two grip buttons for an effective attack that doesn’t reach the full scale that we’ve seen in the comics or TV show. His other rapid blasts and super strength abilities, meanwhile, make him surprisingly bland to play as.
More importantly, though, I’m still yet to see how Sanzaru can channel the vast amount of abilities into the larger strategic gameplay, though this may be down to the ease of the demo itself. Right now, the action channels the climatic thrills of an Avengers movie with scores of enemies that can easily be defeated with pretty much any attack you see fit. The challenge comes from your central objective that you’ll have to protect (which the team did fail to do in one match). You’ll have to make sure to choose a few heroes with some good defensive abilities, for example. This works well for that initial sense of teamwork empowerment, though I’d love to see enemies that would require me to use more powerful attacks rather than rely on the standard energy blasts.
It’s most apparent when the bosses show up. Towards the end of the match, Kree warlord (and Guardians of the Galaxy regular) Ronan the Accuser appears with a chunky health bar and a suite of devastating attacks. Things get even more hectic when Thor’s villainous brother, Loki, joins the fray too. But, instead of these making for cinematic, dramatic confrontations, they feel more like mindless brawls. Neither will flinch at the touch of Thor’s hammer, for example, and I could stand right in front of Loki as he marched dead-eyed towards another member of my team without really feeling like he was acknowledging my presence. It turns into a bit of a slug-fest; everyone safely concentrates fire on the boss until their health meter depletes, rather than actually strategizing or feeling any sort of enhanced threat.
Ultimately I still feel like Powers United is playing it a little too safe, but I’m much more optimistic that the end product is going to be a lot of fun, if not a huge leap forward for AAA gaming in VR. I want to see some more inventive characters join the battle; I’m desperate to see what Sanzaru might do with Spider-Man and the possibilities of Dr. Strange (incidentally, I noted mentions to Captain America, Iron Man and Groot in the game’s hub world) and how the game’s various modes will change up the mindless nature of the combat too. As it stands, though, I’m much more hopeful than I was a week ago.
Marvel Powers United VR hits Oculus Rift in 2018.