No surprise: Contest of Champions is a free-to-play game, and as such, it has some of the typical impediments that can drive players up the wall. There's an energy system, with your meter drained by movement on the Quest map. And if you play online matches, the character you use is then inaccessible for two hours. Additionally, player health must be refilled using power-ups, while fallen heroes need to be revived with items.
Redeeming crystals lets you get new heroes and free items, and some crystals are awarded through battle or by claiming free daily giveaways. However, it's always the low-level fighters awarded for free, and at least in the hours I played, the only way I was going to get a three-star or four-star character was by buying crystals with slow-to-accrue units (the premium currency). Naturally, you can buy units in bundles ranging from $5 to $100. But it works: on my third spin, I ended up with a four-star version of Star-Lord — a real find.
Granted, I spent $15 on in-app purchases to get to that point. But I never felt compelled to spend money elsewhere in the game. The energy system might constrict if you're looking to play for long stretches, but a few fights at a time was never a problem for me. Contest of Champions is also pretty giving with its power-ups, but the combat isn't terribly taxing in the early battles. I imagine long-term play could be a very different situation once you're deeper into the Quest, but the early hours don't have any huge red flags.
Most importantly, the lack of combat boosts is key — I couldn't find a way to spend a couple bucks for a short-term advantage in a fight. Sure, you can build up your character with ample upgrades, but the game typically matches similarly skilled players for the multiplayer showdowns. Money always plays a role in these games, even if it's just buying access to more advanced fighters; I'd never compare it to a well-balanced, fully premium fighting game, after all. But as a freemium game, Marvel never seems out of line.
After my experience in my last Freemium Field Test with the brutal, banal grind that is Game of War: Fire Age, I'm sort of dumbfounded to discover that Marvel: Contest of Champions opted to be a game first and business model second. Yes, the familiar freemium restrictions are there to tempt the heaviest players into spending — and indeed, there's incentive to spend that money.
But there's no sense of being required to pay to have fun, which is a very key distinction. Contest of Champions is a perfectly solid, streamlined fighting game with excellent presentation and lots of popular characters. It's not incredibly deep, and the fighting probably isn't going to feel as exciting after 500 battles as it does after a few dozen, but there's still several hours of free fun to be had here.
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