Marvel Avengers Alliance marries turn-based combat to rich comic book IP

Disney Playdom’s Marvel Avengers Alliance is a turn-based combat game heavily influenced by classic role-playing games.

Playdom acquired the rights to develop the game from Marvel after Marvel was bought by Disney in 2009 but before Disney acquired Playdom in 2010. When the game finally debuts on Facebook in North America, Marvel Avengers Alliance will have been in development for nearly 17 months all told.

All that time has been well-spent according to Michael Rubinelli, Disney Playdom’s VP of studio operations. Not only did the development team at Playdom-acquired Offbeat Creations have plenty of time to collaborate with Marvel on perfecting the IP, but the design of the gameplay deepened over time to reflect a higher degree of polish and layered complexity that Rubinelli deems “future-proof” for social game platforms.

“We are absolutely opposed to cloning,” Rubinelli tells us. “It’s one thing to be influenced by something — but this [game] is very specific to Marvel and it stands on its own.” He believes that because of the depth and because of the Marvel brand, no developer would stand a chance at actually being able to clone the Marvel Avenger Alliance experience.

Rubinelli and Offbeat Creations COO and co-founder Robert Reichner walked us through a hands-off demo of the early and mid-game experience. Players take the role of a S.H.I.E.L.D. trainee in the Marvel universe — an extra-government agency tasked with protecting Earth against terrestrial and extraterrestrial threats. A force from space called Pulse unleashes a chemical called Iso-8 in New York City. As Marvel’s supervillains race to collect it, the player teams up with Marvel superheroes to stop them.

Core gameplay is combat. The player forms a team with their own customizable character and up to two Marvel heroes, each with their own individual stats that can be improved by training, with consumable items during combat, or with Iso-8 upgrades the player earns through gameplay. The player’s team appears on screen against up to three enemy combatants with turn order determined by individual character statistics. Like the classic RPG gameplay made famous by Final Fantasy, players have a range of options to use during a character’s turn — like attack, use item, summon additional hero or a special attack. Some attacks are unlocked only as the player levels up or as that individual superhero levels up. Superheroes each have 12 levels.

Fights themselves are governed by health for each character and by overall stamina that is used by each individual combat action. Players can use health or stamina packs on themselves or on superhero characters. The player can also choose to skip a turn in order to recover lost stamina. If a player’s character is knocked out during a fight, the player can still control the remaining superheroes; but they can no longer use health and stamina packs or any special items that would increase or decrease character stats.

Outside of combat, there is a deeper level of strategy involved in forming player teams and training characters. As players progress through the main story of the game, new heroes become available for the player’s team. Heroes are divided into one of five character classes — Blaster, Bruiser, Scrapper, Tactician and Infiltrator — that have a rock-paper-scissors balance of strengths and weaknesses. Aside from the combinations of those classes, players can also tweak their teams through weapon and armor equipment items available in the store or as quest rewards. With the added feature of a “distress call” summon that can bring a Facebook friend’s superhero into combat for a single attack, the customization options for forming the “perfect” team are pretty complex. Leaderboards track players’ high scores as well as which team combinations they prefer to use.

Overall gameplay is governed by various types of currencies. Silver is the soft currency earned in combat or through timed “remote ops” missions that the player can spend on items in the store. S.H.I.E.L.D. Points are a social currency gained by visiting friends and can be spent on unlocking new customization and upgrade options for characters, weapons and armor. Challenge Points are a regenerating currency that is spent only on asynchronous player versus player matches where player teams fight one another. An energy mechanic is applied to each fight encounter in the story mode. The remote ops missions are limited by a staffing mechanic where a player has to recruit friends in order to send heroes out on missions to other cities.

With so much content and so much history behind it, Marvel Avengers Alliance runs the risk of overwhelming new players. Rubinelli and Reichner both feel that the game hits that fine balance between too much and too little exposition on the story side — meaning both Marvel fans and newcomers can easily follow what’s going on. The developer went with modern visualizations of Marvel characters, based in part on the recent run of movies like Thor, Captain America and the upcoming Avengers film, so that characters should be easily recognizable. As for adapting to the combat style, individual matches can be completed in game sessions of no more than 10 minutes, which won’t intimidate the average social game player. We observer that many core video game players will also naturally take to the combat, as it should be familiar from classic Japanese RPGs.

At launch, the game will have 28 hero characters and just over 100 Marvel characters total (counting villains). The opportunities for expansion through characters are wide; especially as certain characters have premium missions that the player can purchase to gain a bit of extra story around their favorites. A partial lineup provided by Disney Playdom includes:

  • Human Torch
  • The Invisible Woman
  • Mr. Fantastic
  • The Thing
  • Colossus
  • Cyclops
  • Kitty Pryde
  • Nightcrawler
  • Phoenix
  • Storm

We’ll have a review of the game once it enters open beta in the coming weeks. Marvel Avengers Alliance is still on track to launch on Facebook in Q1 2012. Rubinelli could not confirm a Google+ launch, but Disney Playdom already had a publishing relationship with that platform, so it’s not unreasonable to think the game could find its way there.