There’s one mandate in Marvel Powers United VR: Hulk smash.
The newly announced virtual reality title for Oculus Rift Touch has a single main focus — turning players into superheroes. Unlike traditional superhero video games, the use of motion controls and the headset’s first-person perspective focuses on making players feel like they are one of Marvel’s iconic superheroes, rather than simply controlling one.
Whether you’re the towering Incredible Hulk, punching through bad guys with ludicrous strength, or you’re Rocket Raccoon from the Guardians of the Galaxy, two feet tall and carrying a armory’s worth of powerful guns, shooting away as you would in a virtual reality first-person shooter. Not only are you a superhero, but so are your friends, and you get to unleash your abilities on unsuspecting and fraught aliens who should have known better than to oppose you.
Marvel, Oculus Studios, and developer Sanzaru Games showed off Marvel Powers United VR at Disney’s D23 Expo in Anaheim, California, with a chance to lay giant green hands on the cooperative VR title. Even a year in and with another year of development to go, it’s already reaching its stated goals: To let you feel what it’s like to have superpowers.
Smash and blast
In Marvel Powers United VR, as many as four players band together as various Marvel superheroes, battling their way through a custom team-up mission featuring randomized enemies and bosses. Bad guys teleport in out of nowhere, requiring you to punch, zap and shoot them as you progress through each room.
Our demo mission took place in the Nowhere, the weirdo space station most recently seen in the first Guardians of the Galaxy film, and each new room featured a locked door that one player had to open as the group pushed through the baddies.
Bad guys teleport in out of nowhere, requiring you to punch, zap and shoot them as you progress through each room.
“The story is built around the idea that there’s a new Masters of Evil, which is a classic villains team in the Marvel comics, and the conceit is they’ve gotten their hands on a new cosmic cube,” Steve Arnold, head of Oculus Studios, told Digital Trends. “So they now have disrupted basically all of the Marvel universe, and you have to team up with other Marvel superheroes to take the villains down. What we’re going to do is we’re actually going to switch it up on you. The villains are going to be randomized, the bosses that you end up fighting are going to be randomized, so you almost don’t know who you’re going to get, and it could be different every single map. And so that plays into that whole, ‘hey, the cosmic cube is throwing everything out of whack.’”
That’s also the explanation for why Marvel heroes of all stripes might show up in the game. The developers have announced three so far at D23 — Hulk, Rocket Raccoon and Captain Marvel — and Arnold said the roster will probably climb to more than a dozen heroes by the time the game ships.
The ultimate Marvel team
Each of the available characters has different abilities, strengths, and weaknesses. Hulk is an effective melee fighter, smashing through enemies at close range, but flying enemies and snipers give him trouble. Captain Marvel and Rocket can both fly and fire away at enemies at a distance, but they can’t bring as much pain as the Hulk.
Each Marvel Powers United character also has, well, powers, which are activated by using character-specific controls. Hulk’s moves are mostly gesture-related, for instance — you hold the Oculus Touch controller’s grip buttons to charge up his fists, and then swing downward at the ground to send a shockwave traveling toward enemies, or clap them together for a closer-range explosion. He can also pick up objects and hurl them at enemies, or even grab enemies and heave them around.
Rocket, on the other hand, uses a variety of guns and explosives to get the job done. With controls reminiscent of VR shooters like Robo Recall, Rocket can pull pistols from hip holsters to fire away with, or take disc-shaped grenades off his chest bandolier to throw into battle. A bigger rifle pulled from his back functions as a shotgun if you hold it with one hand, and as a sniper rifle if you hold it with two. And you can hold the triggers down on all the weapons to charge them up for more powerful blasts.
“One of the inspirations I like to talk about is Left 4 Dead, because to me it’s the ultimate kind of co-op experience of just get from point A to point B, and it sound so simple, but it’s not,” Arnold said. “And it’s so fun and you have to work together, and no one person can go off by themselves on their own. There’s a strategy to who takes what weapon. This is similar, where you want to team up with people who have kind of complementary powers, potentially, which is one of the reasons we’re encouraging that co-op gameplay.”
Working together will have some benefits, too. Each player will have abilities that can set enemies up for additional attacks from their buddies for additional combos. Currently, Marvel Power United VR has an cooperative scoring system, and working together creates team combos, which can earn more points than what any one player can earn on their own.
Big like Hulk, tiny like Rocket
One of the more endearing features of Marvel Powers United VR is how it uses virtual reality and perspective to sell the differences between characters. Playing as Hulk, you tower over enemies and other characters, no matter how tall you are in real life. As you swing around your green fists, you also feel like a giant, an nearly unstoppable green wrecking ball.
By contrast, Rocket is tiny, looking up at everything. But seeing his gun-wielding raccoon hands replacing yours, and the raccoon snout peeking out from your face through the headset, adds a fun novelty that helps you really embody the characters. And while Rocket is little, a quick button press shoots him high into the air on a jetpack, so he’s not stuck cowering on the ground.
“There’s something super cool about seeing that size difference. Scale in virtual reality — nothing does it better than that,” Arnold said. “So I like throwing people into that experience back to back. When you’re smacking people, it’s so satisfying. And that’s another one of our big goals: Representing the powers of these characters accurately, so you really feel like you’re this giant behemoth that can just knock people out of the way.”
The variety in heroes in the game will be complemented by supervillains, Arnold said. The game will feature classic Marvel villains, as well as a few new ones. Our mission ended with a fight against Ronan the Accuser, the villain seen in Guardians of the Galaxy. The developers are looking to make enemies responsive to the variety of heroes, with different abilities that players will have to respond to differently. Some might have batons that certain smaller characters might have to block in order to avoid damage, for instance. In the demo, Hulk and Captain Marvel could catch incoming missiles and throw them back, something other characters couldn’t do.
“We want to make sure we have a villain set that kind of matches the heroes’ power set, because every hero’s going to be different, so we want every villain to be different,” he explained. “So Ronan is big, he’s sort of a bruiser, he chases you around the room, but he’s not really that fast. We will have other villains that are maybe moving around really quickly and have a different power set, so you’ll have to strategize really differently.”
It all came together pretty well. (To be fair, the difficulty was ratcheted down so we could just wail on bad guys without having to worry about things like taking damage or possibly dying). Gesture controls like grabbing Rocket’s guns or sending guys flying with Hulk’s fists seem simple, but they really cultivate the “you’re a superhero” immersion the game is going for.
The real testament, as Arnold said, will be how well the artificial intelligence works to counter players and force them to be smart about being super. The developers are putting a lot of focus on that aspect, he said, to make sure that while you’ll get the excitement of screaming “Hulk smash!”, you’ll also have to use your Hulk brain, too.
Right now, the developers have announced three characters for Marvel Powers United VR, with a fourth being unveiled later this week at San Diego International Comic-Con 2017. The game is currently on track to launch in 2018.