Marvel’s Avengers, developed by Crystal Dynamics, is the latest full-price game to dip its toes in the live-service pool. The game contains a standalone campaign that can be played solo, but its main focus is on the multiplayer/co-op missions that make up the majority of the content. With live service/games-as-a-service model being as spotty of a subgenre as it has been in these last few years, does Avengers do anything new or innovative? Or does it slip back into the familiar, uninteresting gameplay loop that plagues many of these games?
Story – An Alternate MCU
Let’s start with the story. Marvel’s Avengers starts off with A-Day, a celebration of the Avengers. In classic comic-book fashion, the day goes horribly wrong with Taskmaster crashing the party, ending with Steve Rogers’ (Captain America) apparent death. 5 years pass, with the Avengers disbanded, and AIM (Advanced Idea Mechanics) has taken over as the leader in world security, lead by George Tarleton (MODOK) and his right-hand woman Monica Rappaccini.
The game follows Kamala Khan (Ms. Marvel) as the primary protagonist as she tries to assemble the Avengers again (and piece SHIELD back together), with gameplay perspective switching between said Avengers as the story progresses. Going into the game I was skeptical, as I wan’t impressed with the story setup in the BETA. Starting the final game, it becomes immediately clear just how much context was missing in the BETA. There’s a really good story here, and I really enjoyed the overall campaign, even though it got bogged down by the live service mechanics every once a while.
The game takes around 10 hours to beat on normal difficulty, and it does feel a little too short, and at its worst – unevenly paced. However, seeing as how it’s a live service game, there will be more content added in the future (for free). Make no mistake, the story is far from over when you beat the main campaign. Crystal Dynamics & Square Enix have been very clear about how they want to expand and continue the story for years to come, adding new campaigns and characters post-launch.
While the launch-campaign here is perfectly serviceable, it does leave a lot of threads open which might irk some. In essence, the main driving force of the story is unlocking all the Avengers, which happens every couple hours or so. It’s an interesting world that starkly (hehe) presents an MCU-like experience, but with its own unique backstory. Longtime MCU fans will recognize it from far away, including many character traits and easter eggs. It’s surprising then how we’re getting a brand new story with MODOK, a character so criminally underused in other media.
There are splashes of familiar stories that we’ve seen over the years from Marvel, like Hulk battling Abomination, or Black Widow duking it out with Taskmaster. We even have a Tony Stark that has given up hope and has to be forced out of retirement, quite similar to what happened in Avengers: Endgame. But none of this ever feels like rehashing or copying what’s already been done, thanks to the context that the game provides.
There are enough twists in here to make it an engaging narrative. Some sequences do still feel unpolished though. Certain moments will see characters exiting one location and entering another as if all of them can teleport. The pacing can feel a little weird as certain story points ramp up quickly in pace. Thankfully it all comes back to the characters who held the story together for me. It’s clear that Crystal Dynamics knows and cares about these characters. It’s just that the live-service/multiplayer content feels extremely tacked on, and a lot of times it even harms the single-player story campaign.
Characters – A Dash of New, Yet Familiar
Before Marvel’s Avengers came out, I remember gamers around the world mocking Crystal Dynamics for “copying” the MCU template of characters. While that is true to a certain extent, there are some rational reasons as to why that decision was made. Mind you, none of the following is from any interview with any developer, but my own speculation. In a world where the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the most popular franchise of all time, how do you tell a completely original story with the same characters? That too in a medium that’s consumed by as large an audience that gaming commands? Simple, you take from the MCU enough so as to make the game welcoming for casual and hardcore gamers alike. In fact, there might be all-new players coming in to play Avengers who aren’t even into gaming, if only because of how familiar it feels.
Making Kamala Khan the protagonist is the best decision Crystal Dynamics could have taken. The game starts off with the player in her shoes as she explores the A-day convention, which reminded me of comic-cons in real life. It certainly hits even harder when you consider the state of the world right now, with all conventions going digital for the forseeable future. Khan is a Avengers fangirl through and through, and much of her enthusiasm captures the same feelings I, along with many others, have for the MCU and the brand in general. Who wouldn’t want to meet Iron Man or Captain America?
Kamala’s drive and energy knows no bounds, and it’s the one thing that kept me going. Even though we switch to other characters throughout, I always wanted to go back to playing as Kamala. This is the first time that the characters has been represented in a relatively more mainstream media, with her MCU debut coming soon too. It serves as a reminder that we need more perspectives outside of the godly heroes that we, and Kamala, idolize.
Let’s get on with the other Avengers then, starting with Bruce Banner. He’s the 2nd character that you play as extensively during Act 1. Troy Baker gives a nuanced performance that only slightly takes from Mark Ruffalo’s interpretation in the 1st Avengers movie. The internal battle between Banner and Hulk has always been the most interesting aspect of the character, and it’s present here in spades. Throughout the story (and even after it), we find Bruce struggling to come to terms with the situation around him. While he has enough control over ‘the big guy’ to be an ally to the Avengers, there are moments where Hulk can lose control and go against our heroes.
Then we have Black Widow and Thor, who are arguably the most sidelined here. They are perfectly serviceable, but I never got any particular reason as to why they’re present here in the story. As you play the game you’ll see how Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America and Ms.Marvel clearly have more focus (and reasons to be) in the story. At the very least that’s true of the launch Reassemble campaign, and that might change with future content updates. Thor (voiced by Travis Willingham) feels very much like the character from the first Thor movie – still very awkward and formal in his speeches and interactions with other people. He’s the most basic character in terms of writing here, and it’s a shame Crystal Dynamics didn’t take inspiration from the quirkier side of character, as seen in the wonderful Thor: Ragnarok.
Black Widow is perfectly fine, and in fact might have a little too much plot armor. That becomes abundantly clear during the 3rd act, which I won’t spoil here. Laura Bailey is as good as she always is, although not quite as strong as her portrayal of Abby in The Last of Us Part 2. But that’s understandable, given the very nature of the game itself. I do wish she got to shine more in the story. Oh well, maybe in a standlone future campaign update…
Coming to the head honchos, Tony Stark and Captain America are probably the furthest apart in their approach as they can get. Stark (voice by Nolan North) is extremely close to his MCU counterpart, so much so that he comes across as an imitator sometimes. Captain America (Jeff Schine) is probably the furthest from the MCU version compared to the rest of the cast, and I like it. He’s a more traditional Captain American who proudly stands in the front lines, ready to lead the Avengers into battle.
Captain America’s presence (or lack theirof) is obviously one of the most important aspects of the story. You play as him once in the A-Day prologue, and then pretty much wait 10 hours before you can play as him again. This might count as a spoiler, but well, you already know what you’re getting with an Avengers game.
I’m happy to say (or rather write) that Crystal Dynamics have done MODOK well. His origin is intrinsically tied to the events of A-day, and his motivations are perfectly understandable. I thoroughly enjoyed exploring more of his side of the story in cutscenes, and was left wanting more. While he does appear too comic-booky on the surface, I think many players are in for a ride when they start unraveling the story. The same goes for Monica, who has an interesting relationship with Bruce Banner that we only get slight hints of. I won’t talk more about her as she plays an important role in the end-game, so you’ll have to figure her side on your own.
Gameplay – As Engaging As You Make It To Be
Marvel’s Avengers follows a pretty basic combat/traversal system, at least at the start. Right and left bumpers can be used for heroic or support abilities, and you can trigger an ultimate once your intrinsic meter fills up. Face buttons will let you do light and heavy melee attacks, while also having the ability to dodge and jump. You can use the triggers for ranged attacks and blocking/parrying. Seems pretty basic right? Well, that’s how it looked like to me too. More on that in the next-section.
While the basic controls are the same, enough custom animation work has been done to distinguish between the 6 primary Avengers. So for example, the ranged attack varies from character to character as:
- Black Widow uses her guns
- Ms. Marvel uses are stretchy arms
- Iron Man uses his repulsors.
- Hulk throws rocks (no really).
It looks flashy enough and is completely in character, so at least the movesets are believable. However, there is a lack of balance in the melee section. Iron Man feels too slow, Thor feels like a discount version of Kratos from God of War, and Ms. Marvel can feel too overpowering sometimes. And the Hulk? Yeah, it’s basically as button mashy as the 2008 standalone game was. Yikes.
Unfortunately, if you want to power through the compaign, then you’ll be stuck with this boring combat system for the entirety of it. If however you’re willing to invest hours into the side-missions, then you might accumulate enough skill points to customize your preferred Avenger’s moveset. Until then, it’s about as button mashy as it looks. And that may not necessarily be a bad thing for most gamers. It’s just that I was expecting much more polish in that department from an Avengers game, possibly the only one that’s going to keep getting updated for years to come.
Due to the game having to support all playstyles, environments can be quite repetetive. With each hero’s traversal style being different, the level design has to accomodate for all of them. This leads to many missions feeling extremely dumbed down to its most basic state. It won’t be long before you start second guessing whether you’ve explored a region more than once, due to the sheer homogeneity of it.
Mission design is also pretty lacklustre in variety, as most of them pretty much boil down to button mashing on robots and standing in a concentrated area. There are primarily 7 missions types – Campaign missions, Hero missions, War Zones, Drop Zones, HIVES, HARM room challenges, and Villain sectors. Yeah, that’s quite a lot. For the most part in the campaign you’ll only stick to the main story missions and the occasional HARM room or war zone for levelling up.
For all the mission variety that the game boasts, they really do boil down to almost the same thing over and over again. This can get quite frustrating if you’re not fond of the combat and gameplay-loop. Thankfully, I invested enough skill points to customize the characters the way I wanted them to play as. However, that only happened towards the end of the story, by which point I was getting extremely tired of the core gameplay structure.
Live Service Mechanics in Single-Player Campaign? Please Don’t.
The A-day prologue sequence, as good as it is as a set piece, doesn’t leave much time to truly explain just how deep the combat can get. By “deep”, I don’t mean skillful. There are 3 ability skill trees – Primary, Specialty, and Mastery. You can earn skill points by completing special objectives and missions, but the drop rate of those are quite low (for obvious reasons). If you want to fully unlock any one character’s skill tree, then you’re in for long hours of (rather generic) missions. Yes, each character has their own skill tree.
But the real meat of the game is obviously the loot system, as it is in games like these. For certain characters it makes sense, like with Iron Man. But with others, it really doesn’t make any sense as to how collecting loot increases their power. Hulk is the most obvious example of this. It’s weird enough to see Hulk gut punching normal guards 3 times for them to be knocked out, but when a highler level normal human sized guard takes out the Hulk? Well, that’s just stupid isn’t it?
And then there’s the constant, in you face advertisements for going to the gear vendors and spending that hard-earned XP on a different colored bandana (ok not really). In one section, I remember being told to go to a vendor as part of a tutorial section. So after I approached the same, I was forced to spend all my in-game currency on getting something, and I couldn’t exit out of the menu. And you’re forced to visit these vendors every once a while as that becomes part of the mission objectives.
There’s so many extra game mechanics here that Crystal Dynamics had to put up multiple pages detailing the game. I won’t be explaining all of these, so click on the sections below to know how each of those systems work:
⦁ Gears and Cosmetics
⦁ Weekly Missions
⦁ Co-op terms
We’ve seen more of these pages recently where game developers have to put up individual blog posts to explain how half of their game works. In my opinion, it’s never a good sign. And even after all of that, I still don’t know how certain mechanics like ‘factions’ work. The game never explains it properly!
While you can play the campaign on your own, there are multiple moments where I felt some missions genuinely wanted me to team up with friends. At certain times, your AI Avengers just won’t do what they’re supposed to do. Take for example breakable doors. Certain characters can break them with heavy attacks, and others can’t. If you’ve chosen to play as the latter and come across a breakable door, your AI teammates will just stand there while you try to use all of your moveset to no avail in breaking said door. This really makes it clear just how unfinished the game is in certain sections.
And did I mention you’ll have to read through 3 blog posts to even understand half of these mechanics?
It’s a Bug’s Life – Can the Live Service Model Save This Game?
Over my 10 or so hours of playing the campaign, I experienced a ton of technical issues. Bugs and glitches were certainly a part of it, but the horrible framerate drops are something truly special. Nothing speaks ‘Earth’s Mightiest Heroes’ than seeing the framerate tank to the low 10s when you’re punching 12 robots in the face, with particle effects flying across the screen. I expressed my concerns regarding the performance in the PS4 BETA, while performance on PC was much better (as expected).
With that out of the way (not really though), there are plenty of other things that bugged me (sorry) about in the game. Animations can get stuck in a loop sometimes, your attacks animations be cancelled mid-way by an enemy, enemies don’t react to your attacks whatsoever, etc.
And then there are the usual, well-known bugs that are present in almost every big game – falling out of the map. With the maps being as generic as they are, you’d expect them to hold up together at the very least. Nope, good luck with that.
The game has a system where if you’re knocked down, your teammates (AI or co-op partners) can come close and revive you. Except about 90% of the time your AI teammates are happily ignorant of you waiting 40 seconds to die. This has been fixed somewhat with recent updates after launch, but since most of my game time was before launch, I’m still including that here.
If there’s any game out there that will really benefit from faster load times on next-gen, it’s Marvel’s Avengers. Seriously, loading into the game, loading into a mission, even changing characters while roaming in the Chimera/Ant Hill hubs take forever. With the game touting its live service mechanics and ability to jump in and play with your friends, it sure takes an eternity to actually “jump in”.
I expect/hope all of these issues to be fixed with patches, but it’s telling when a developer/publisher will put out a game at full price ($60/Rs,3999) selling it as a AA experience with multiple bugs and microtransactions on top of it all.
Verdict – Not the $60/Rs.4000 Experience, Not Even Close
Ultimately, Marvel’s Avengers is a little disappointing. There are some excellent moments in the campaign, but they get bogged down by the technical (and social) ambitions of the game. With the “live service” model becoming more and more prominent in gaming, it’s high time we start getting games which don’t break and fall on their face at launch, especially when sold at full price. Wait for a discount, and free content addition, as well as patches to fix the game before you dip your toes into Crytal Dynamics’ Marvel universe. Or just play Marvel’s Spider-Man (PS4) for your daily fix of playing as a marvel superhero.