The Facebook game Marvel: Avengers Alliance represents, in a fashion, both the potential and limitations of "social" superhero RPGs. Developed by Playdom (Gardens of Time), which was acquired by Disney at about the same time as the House of Ideas a few years back, Avengers Alliance has defied expectations chiefly by supplying ambitious graphics and gameplay. After all, many Facebook games are essentially disguised chores (clicking on tiles to plant and harvest crops is about as fun as doing a TPS report). But does Avengers Alliance deliver enough to make it worth your time -- and potentially hard-earned money?

Players will find out very quickly that Avengers Alliance is no Farmville. If you've ever played a Japanese RPG game like one from the Final Fantasy series (especially Final Fantasy X), you'll feel right at home with Avengers Alliance. The core of the game involves turn-based battles where your unique S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and two other Marvel heroes of your choosing do battle against the likes of Hydra, A.I.M., The Hand and various recognizable villains across the Marvel Universe. There are still opportunities for players to make progress when not playing as the game offers you the chance to send heroes off on side missions from the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier as well as the chance to undergo research for new weapons and gadgets.

At first, the game is shockingly simple since all you can do is select from one attack option per character. However, throughout an extended tutorial, Avengers Alliance slowly introduces more complex game mechanics, including item usage, healing, area of effect abilities, character classes and status ailments. If you're familiar with all the terms I just mentioned, you'll be off and running once the game takes the training wheels off. Those who have a more casual gaming background might want to heed a warning that Avengers Alliance contains some game mechanics that are decidedly complex in nature. That's not to say that the game is unapproachable as Playdom provides explanations for everything, but rather might take some more effort to learn than your typical "social game."

The first thing you'll do when loading up Avengers Alliance is creating your own custom S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. You can choose your gender, plus several facial features and hair options. I made my agent look like 616 Nick Fury without the eye patch because I roll old school like that. From there, you'll be sent into a guided tutorial of the game's interface and basic mechanics featuring Maria Hill and Ultimate Nick Fury. It was more than a little amusing seeing my 616 Nick Fury as a rookie agent take orders from Ultimate/movie Nick Fury, I won't lie.

Playdom does a good job of immediately surrounding you with familiar characters from the Marvel Universe. The first hero you meet and recruit is Iron Man while Avengers such as Black Widow and Captain America make their appearances early in the game. Marvel fans will be glad to be matched up with such villains as Madame Hydra, Baron Zemo, M.O.D.O.K., and Loki all within the first chapter. It was a pleasant surprise for me as I was definitely prepared for my initial hours with Avengers Alliance to be filled with grunt soldier fights with maybe a B-List Daredevil villain to drag things out a bit. The art and battle animations all look very slick, almost like Marvel's motion comics. The dialogue, on the other hand, incorporates some nice touches like Baron Zemo's German accent, but falls short of the quality you'd expect from a true "Marvel Architect" penned title.

The story of the game revolves around a mysterious cosmic event called "The Pulse." Little is known about the origin or purpose of the event, but the effects begin to manifest in New York City as pieces of power-giving cosmic rock called ISO-8. Let's be real, the purpose of "The Pulse" is to give the developers an excuse to have all of the heroes and villains of the Marvel Universe interact with each other in the same place. From that perspective, it's a sufficient enough impetus to get things rolling. In addition to being a driving plot point, ISO-8 is also a game mechanic as it offers players the chance to customize their characters' equipment using different types of ISO-8, granting various stat bonuses.

The game is broken up into ten chapters of six missions apiece. Five of those missions are "free" with the sixth being a "premium" mission that costs a significant amount of Command Points to unlock. While you can obtain enough Command Points through just playing the game, it'll be a long and arduous journey to scavenge enough to do so (we're talking weeks and months of playtime). You're better off biting the bullet and just shelling out real money if you really want to experience these missions. As an added bonus, these missions also give you an extra hero to add to your roster as well.

Unfortunately, with the mention of the dreaded phrase "real money," we come to Avengers Alliance's greatest shortcoming: its convoluted and unbalanced currency systems. There are four types of currency in Avengers Alliance:

  1. Silver - Common currency that is obtained from almost every action. It's used to fund new research projects, upgrades, and weapon/item purchases.
  2. S.H.I.E.L.D. points - Social currency that can only be obtained from begging friends who are playing the game. It's needed to level up heroes and start research projects.
  3. Command points - Rare currency that appears to be a random drop when defeating bosses . Collect enough of these and you can recruit new heroes to your squad or buy premium mission content.
  4. Gold - Premium currency that is given very sparingly at each level increase. It's the stuff you get if you decide to put real money into the game. You can use it to exchange for any other currency in the game.

Hope you got all that because I certainly had trouble wrapping my head around everything at first. I've yet to mention the fifth "currency," which is energy, because it's the one least likely to impede early progress, surprisingly enough. You need 10 energy points to undertake a battle and you're given a pool of 60 to start with. The energy pool regenerates with time, but you'll level up so fast that you can actually get a couple hours of playtime your first go-around without needing to take a break.

Why Playdom just didn't keep things simple and use two currencies (perhaps one that you earn by playing the game and one that you earn rarely in the game and/or purchase with real money) really baffles me. The currency system in place just promotes frustration and confusion without adding any real gameplay value. That's not even the worst of it, though.

In my first couple days of gameplay, I quickly discovered that S.H.I.E.L.D. points (or lack thereof) would be the bane of my Agent's existence. You see, every time one of your heroes gains a level, you have to send them off to training by paying a certain amount of S.H.I.E.L.D. points. Problem is, there is no way of earning S.H.I.E.L.D. points by playing the game normally (The only other recourse you have is to check Tony Stark's welfare bonus tower each day for a chance at maybe getting 3 points). You have to spam your Facebook friends begging them to send you some. I don't know about you, but the last thing I want to do is write messages to people I haven't talked to in ages asking that they please sent me some S.H.I.E.L.D. points. Granted, this might not be a problem for some players out there with a close knit group of Marvel fan Facebook friends, but it's nevertheless a social burden that does nothing to enhance the gameplay experience.

"But it's a free to play Facebook game, of course they're going to make you want to pay real money for the convenience of progressing more smoothly in the game!" is something an apologist might say. According to in game gold prices, it would cost $2 to level Black Widow to level 2. You can see how pricey this route can get considering that there are up to 28 heroes to train and that the game recommends you be at level 86 to play the last mission currently available. It's hard to imagine any rational person feeling motivated to pony up this amount of cash to enjoy a "free" game, especially when they are just starting to learn the game.

As a result, I had to continue playing the game without leveling up my heroes. It sucks and really demoralizes you from continuing further because, let's face it, an RPG without a palpable sense of progression is a fairly worthless one. It's a shame that Playdom saw it necessary to shoehorn in typical "social game" currency barriers for Marvel: Avengers Alliance, because the core game is actually quite fun. The turn-based combat system is satisfying despite being overly familiar and I've seen far worse implementations of licensed Marvel art and dialog. I'd almost prefer the game cost $5-10 to begin with if it would mean that the game is playable all the way through without the premium currency garbage.

One final component of Avengers Alliance that unlocks once you finish Chapter 1 Mission 4 is a mode Playdom calls "PVP," which stands for player vs. player. In PVP you can challenge other (real) players of the game to a multiverse-crossing battle using the characters, items and heroes you each have come across during your time with the game. Unfortunately, it's not as interesting as it sounds, since you're not actually matching wits with a live person. You're essentially playing a battle versus the computer using the stats and recruited heroes of another person's game. Playdom even tries to engender rivalries upon logging by notifying you of which players have defeated you since the last time you logged in. It's too bad my heroes are experiencing arrested development from lack of S.H.I.E.L.D. points or else I might care that I've been beaten by everybody on Facebook.

Still, it's another avenue for you to earn some more experience for your team above and beyond the "normal" game, as the energy required to participate in a PVP battle is on a separate timer from the energy required to play the story. There's also an interesting extra element of customization as you can choose to trade in some of the items you've collected (such as med kits or frag grenades) for permanent bonuses in PVP. Playdom was really onto something here in terms of creating a social gameplay element that's both unique and fun, but at the end of the day the PVP mode feels a little half-baked and could use some more fleshing out. I mean, how awesome would it be if you and a friend's team could team up to take down a super-sized threat like Galactus? Or maybe you could seek out some friends to help you finally get revenge against that random bro that keeps beating your team in a massive 6v6 battle royale. These are elements that would really be compelling reasons to recruit friends to play the game, rather than simply begging for currency.

If you're a Marvel fan, Avengers Alliance is still worth checking out given that the price of the game is "free." There's a genuinely fun game set in a fully realized Marvel Universe wrapped inside some onerous social game mechanics. Just be warned that you may reach some progression barriers sooner rather than later if you're playing largely on your own. Were Playdom to wise up and balance game progression better, they'd have a truly addicting title for True Believers to skip their lunch breaks for.

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