SGF 2024: Hands-on with NetEase’s team shooter Marvel Rivals


There are lots of Summer Games Fest embargos still in place and more coming this week, but fortunately NetEase’s Marvel Rivals is something I can talk about immediately. I don’t want to overhype anything I cover, but as someone who learned to enjoy Overwatch but hasn’t touched the sequel, I have a suspicion that Marvel Rivals could be a home for those who love Marvel and old-school Overwatch.

Now let me be upfront when I say that obviously I did not master any heroes in my hour-long hands-on preview at the in-person SGF demo. Web-shooter to my head, I probably couldn’t tell you the full effects of half of my moves, and some ultimates just left me scratching my head. But what I did see and understand was fun – and this is very much a Marvel game for Marvel fans.

The Marvel effect

One of the most immediately satisfying things about Marvel Rivals is the voice acting. As in Overwatch, a lot of the character relationships come out through random quips. If you have Rocket and Punisher on the same team, they’ll talk about their guns. If Spiderman fights against Peni Parker, he’ll talk about Spider-on-Spider violence. The characters also reveal a bit about the story, which we’ll get to later, but the relationships formed by often decades-old characters is always great fun.

Similar to that is the roster. I’m not the biggest or most well-read comic nerd, but I knew a bit about Guardians of the Galaxy before the movies came out, and MR still threw me some curveballs, like Luna Snow. Lesser-known characters are cool, but so are variants, and white-wizard lookin’ Magneto just prompts so many questions about what’s happening in this game in terms of story.

Speaking of suit differences, I was intrigued to hear from Marvel Games Executive Producer Danny Koo (who had a hand in creating Luna Snow) that NetEase could potentially have something as out-there as a sumo-sized Squirrel Girl or Teenage Wolverine if it fit the game’s story. In fact, NetEase Game Director Thad Sasser added that sometimes Marvel had “better” ideas than the ones NetEase proposed, but he couldn’t discuss the particular example he could think of just yet, so clearly there’s more on the horizon.

While I was told the team’s focus is currently on making it the best PvP game it can be, the game’s lore is still a star sprinkled throughout the gameplay. You get it through voice acting, characters (again, see Magneto’s suit), Easter eggs in the levels, and in-game bios, though also in trailers. It would be nice if in the (not-too) distant future MR pulls off PvE modes when OW failed to do so, but for now, comparing the game to OW1 seems fair and quite the compliment, especially as I think I “get” MR in its current state more than I did OW1.

Super-sized action

When Overwatch 1 first launched, many of the characters basically seemed as if they were lifted from a separate game and made to fight other characters essentially from other games. I still stand by that sentiment, especially with the launch characters. I don’t feel that way with Marvel Rivals, though.

Let’s take flying characters, for example. Pharah wholly could have been a skin in Tribes and no one would have been the wiser. While there are flying characters in MR, they are all very different, not just from each other but from characters in other games that at least I’m familiar with. You’ve got Iron Man, who can stay up all day but is either kind of hovering or blasting forward like an old school missile, but also Dr. Strange, who is kind of falling with style.

Superficially, one could say Strange is like OW’s D.Va, in that both can fly short term and get shields, except Strange doesn’t rocket forward and has a huge shield, while D.Va can get some mad air and has a more medium-sized shield… and that’s it. The rest of their kits are wholly different. I mean, Strange opens portals, so you’d need to throw in another OW1 character, and even then the way portals are made and used are totally different.

This is generally how a lot of the characters in MR feel: like bits and pieces of gameplay you’ve seen somewhere, but combined in new ways, rather than each character feeling like a different franchise’s avatar battling it out in a Smash Bros-esque shooter.

While characters feel fresh, levels are less so. Certainly, the destructible levels that regenerate throughout the match are awesome. In one match, another player and I blasted down a wall the other team was using as cover at the start of the match. However, near the end, that wall regenerated just as their healer came back, ultimately ushering in our enemy’s victory. Despite the loss, it was a cool moment, both at the start with the rain of bullets and webbing and at the end when the other team barely pulled ahead in overtime.

But the gist of the battle was the same: stand in the glowing area as you generate points. Or stand on the thing as it moves forward. MR doesn’t get a pass like Splatoon did when it added a payload mode, as MR’s gameplay feels quit similar to OW or even Team Fortress 2. This is what I mean when I said it feels like OW1 but that I “get it”: It’s a comfortable gameplay format but with unique character kits, and that’s good. For people like me who get to play a lot of non-AAA, sometimes janky indie-games, the neat, polished mechanics that aren’t always terribly common are something we’re used to. And as a bonus, mainstream gamers don’t have to learn a whole new game mode, just the characters.

And that’s really the fun part because you learn not only new characters but also Team Ups: special move combos where characters benefit from each other. The one that’s often touted is Hulk adding Gamma Radiation to Tony’s blasts. The thing is, these are seasonal, structured around league seasons, and they’re not necessarily balanced. Koo told media that team ups come and go to help disrupt the meta, along with new characters. I was a bit worried about the latter, as there is a lot of character interaction with the voice acting, but Koo assured me that characters are planned long in advance, so there is plenty of time to get the voice work done.

While I was able to trigger a Team Up once, superficially by following a UI tip on the current possible team ups and choosing a character based on that, I wasn’t totally sure what it did when it happened. So Koo is correct about the lack of balance, but it can work both ways if you’re not paying attention to the actual game effects.

Controlling power

Let’s address one of the main draws: the return of 6v6 action. I had forgotten how much more fun a 6v6 match is than a 5v5; it’s flexible and chaotic. There’s a lot of room for team ups but also for someone to sneak off and have a heroic moment. I asked the team if it was specifically a reaction to Overwatch 2’s axing of team sizes, but Koo told me that the game just felt better with six players, saying that six is a good number in terms of participation – but also the flexibility I noted means there’s less chance of any hero basically just being stuck in the back healing. There were enough shields and heals across characters that even when I was playing a “healer” character, I felt I could participate in the violent battles around me.

Again, I may not have mastered anything during my playtime, but I did get a feel for a few characters: Spiderman, Mantis, Dr. Strange, Loki, Hulk, and Iron Man. Each character felt quite different. Overall, I’d say characters run a bit slower than OW ones, but often they have some interesting mobility. For example, Spiderman felt great in open places as his Shift move has him web slinging far and wide. While he can climb walls with that skill, in small areas and especially against stronger enemies, it felt more like a curse.

Conversely, Hulk felt tanky as heck without being too slow. I don’t think I’ve ever felt tankier in a hero shooter before than when I was hulking out. Starting as Bruce Banner (with a full ultimate to turn into Hulk) or reverting to him wasn’t great, and his damage wasn’t terribly overpowered, but taking a ton of enemy fire while you grab enemies and smack them around is deeply satisfying.

Similarly, Loki plays like a stealthy healer. You may not run fast, but you can make a clone, briefly go into stealth mode, and teleport back to it, plus his ultimate has him becoming a target enemy character with all their moves, which helped me experience Groot and Punisher too.

The callouts your characters make are great too. Some have to be decoded, such as Loki saying, “Your powers are mine!” (which means he’s turned into someone), but some are dead accurate, like at least one nearby ally declaring that Punisher has set up his turret. It makes casual play without voice chat a lot easier, and honestly, that’s usually what I want from my hero shooters these days.

While I know some people may be a bit on the fence because of Marvel Rivals’ recent non-disparagement clause kerfuffle, the team was clearly very aware of how bad that looked. Sasser in particular said that, as a game director, he isn’t just making games for himself or his company. He wants to make a good game, so not just constructive “but even negative” comments can help make the game better. No one mentioned any particularly useful feedback that had come since then, though.

I did use that opportunity to ask about the game eventually releasing on the Nintendo Switch, but at least so far as the July 2024 release window, it’s still just coming to PC, PlayStation 5, and Xbox Series X|S. But hey, if the release ends up being as strong as the build I played on, it’ll hopefully be able to pull off wins that took down other hero shooters.

MOP’s Andrew Ross is on the ground at Summer Game Fest 2024 – catch up on all our coverage!
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