Introducing F2P Arcade, a new review series centered around free and freemium video games for consoles, desktops, and mobile devices.
I tend to get grumpy when I hear people complain about things that are free. With the wealth of music, videos, and games available online for no charge, you’re bound to find some content that’s half-assed and amateurish, likely in much greater proportion than what’s polished and professional. So, imagine my surprise when I found the free-to-play fighting game Marvel Contest of Champions to be slick, addictive, and miles ahead of the F2P competition.
Contest of Champions is a pretty basic 3D/2D fighting game for iOS and Android, but there’s enough spit-shine and attention to detail to keep it fun even after hours (or days) of play. First and foremost, there’s the terrific selection of characters (33 and counting) from all corners of the Marvel Universe, from Black Bolt to Captain Marvel. While the basic tap and swipe attacks are more or less the same across the board, each character has three unique special moves, including an animated fatality-style finisher. Only higher-tier unlockable characters have all three moves, which I count as a plus, as you only get to see them after you’ve been playing for a while, an added reward for players who stick with it.
And there’s plenty to stick through: the story mode features dozens of branching maps, each offering a number of fights that can each have to be played multiple times to get to each match. There are special event maps that change each day and offer a different set of rewards and higher difficulty. There’s also online multiplayer, complete with an excellent matchmaking system to make sure that, no matter what your play level, you’re in a fair fight. Having explored the three game modes for about a week, I’ve yet to hit anything resembling a pay wall, and it doesn’t seem as if I’ll have to pay to level up characters for quite some time, if at all.
Characters are split into six categories, arranged in a rock-paper-scissors wheel so that each has an advantage over one other (Cosmic trumps Tech trumps Mutant, and so on). You can only keep so many characters in your party at a time, so there’s some strategy involved in choosing whom to take with you, and there are reasons to play and level up a variety of fighters. Unless you unlock a character who’s disproportionately advanced, you’ll need to rotate through your roster pretty frequently, which keeps the game feeling fresh. As with many other F2P fighters (compare to NetherRealm’s Injustice and WWE Immortals mobile games), characters come in multiple tiers, so that you start off the game with weaker characters and earn or purchase better ones over time, but by using your resources carefully you can keep even lower-tier characters competitive as you advance through the game.
The “story” in the story mode is pretty much an afterthought, a simple excuse to get these heroes fighting each other—The Collector and Kang the Conqueror have kidnapped a bunch of heroes and villains and are forcing them to duel on their behalf. But story’s not what we’re here for, anyway; we’re here to enjoy wailing on our favorite Marvel characters as our other favorite Marvel characters. As with any touchscreen-based game, the controls are incredibly simple, all taps and swipes for attacking, blocking, and dodging, but button-mashing will get you nowhere in Contest of Champions. Even after days of play, the AI remains clever and unpredictable, so you’re constantly on the defensive, choosing wisely when to strike and for how long to press your luck building up that combo.
It’s a pretty game, too: the character models are slick and stylish, and the frame rate is top-notch. I played Contest of Champions on my three-year-old, third-generation iPad and practically never experienced chopping or lag, even during online play. Most of the character designs are the latest versions from the comics, and there are even a handful of rare collectable characters in alternate contemporary costumes, like Superior Iron Man and Unstoppable Colossus (complete with Juggernaut helmet). Fighting games are notorious for skimpy, over-sexualized female character models, but while the proportion of male to female characters is pretty inexcusable (27:6), the actual physical proportionals of the female characters are more or less acceptable. Gamora’s in her Mass Effect-style armor, Captain Marvel and Storm have their cool mohawk-style haircuts, and even Magik, boob window and all, comes across as a badass rather than a “babe.”
For a game that’s ostensibly designed to make you spend money on new characters and items, Contest of Champions provides ample opportunity to expand the playing experience without paying a cent. New characters are unlocked by buying crystals with an in-game currency that’s earned slowly as you play. However, since character crystals include random characters (rather than buying specific fighters), higher-tier characters are available at the same price as lower ones—it’s just a matter of chance. Items that restore your health or energy can be bought, but they’re also fairly common rewards during play. The only reasons players have to spend money playing Contest of Champions are impatience or gratitude. In short: if you’ve been playing long enough for the difficulty curve to get the best of you, at this point you really owe it to developer Kabam to drop some coin.
Like I said, I’m not one to gripe about the flaws in free entertainment, but there are certainly some places where Contest of Champions could improve, first and foremost being the sound design. I initially played this game with the sound off in front of the television and looked forward to hearing the sound and voice acting later on. When I finally got to play with the sound on, however, I discovered that, apart from a few stock grunts, there was no voice acting to speak of. There’s only one piece of music in the game, and it’s so short and repetitive that I actually turned the sound back off after about twenty minutes. I’d also like to see some unlockable costumes, beyond the two alternate character builds currently being offered. The ability to put a personal touch on the look of your characters would add a little flavor, particularly in online play. Like literally every video game ever, it needs more playable women. But beyond that, there’s not much more one could reasonably ask for in a free game.
If you’ve got a capable device, enjoy a good, simple scrap, and have some time to kill, I can think of no better way to spend zero dollars than to pick up Marvel Contest of Champions.
Stay tuned for more installments of F2P Arcade!