|System: PS4, Xbox One, PC|
|Dev: Crystal Dynamic|
|Pub: Square Enix|
|Release: September 4, 2020|
|Players: 1-4 Player|
|Screen Resolution: 1080p-4K||Mild Blood, Language, Violence|
by Benjamin Maltbie
The best way to approach Crystal Dynamics’ newest game, Marvel’s Avengers, is to go in excited about the story-based campaign mode rather than the prominently advertised live-service cooperative mode. When players start up their copy of the game, a dialogue box appears and suggests playing through the game’s story mode first. A good reason to listen to this advice is because Avengers Initiative, the game’s multiplayer mode, could contain spoilers for the main scenario. A better reason to hold off on Avengers Initiative, though, is that the story mode is a bulk of what makes the game worthwhile and it is hard to imagine Marvel’s Avengers getting its hooks into a player on the merit of its multiplayer alone.
The story of Marvel’s Avengers is, unapologetically, a story for people who love superheroes. Throughout its well-paced campaign, which can be finished in just over ten hours, the game expertly leverages all the expected themes, motifs, and politics of the genre. Rarely is the story shocking but it does hit all of the right notes and could easily stand side by side with most of the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Kamala Khan, the game’s protagonist, is, honestly, one of the best-suited characters in comics for this sort of narrative. She is, through and through, an optimistic do-gooder, who has hope for humanity and fights for what she believes in. She was raised by a man who taught her that “good isn’t a thing you are, it’s a thing you do.” She grew up admiring the Avengers. She even wrote fanfiction about them and won a trip to something called the A-Day celebration. She is quintessential hero material, even without her powers.
The story is set five years after A-Day. The Avengers, now disbanded, have gone into hiding, disappeared, or been presumed dead. A new kind of superpowered people, called Inhumans, has been discovered. These are people who have been exposed to Terrigen Mist. Marvel fans familiar with different arcs about the Inhumans will be partially familiar with aspects of this. It is, however, an entirely new story. One which largely revolves around reassembling the Avengers.
This feat would be nearly impossible or anybody besides Kamala Khan. She inspires jaded, hopeless, and broken Avengers who are still struggling with the aftermath of A-Day. With Kamala driving the plot, characters like Bruce Banner and Tony Stark are free to engage in childish interpersonal conflicts. There’s something heartening about these big, strong, adults learning about heroism from the same person they are attempting to mentor. Is this a tried and true approach? Yes. Definitely. But it is also one of those “right notes,” I alluded to earlier.
The characters are the game’s strength. They are recognizable to fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe without being carbon copies of the heroes from those films. Tony Stark is more playful than sarcastic or miserable. Bruce Banner is depressed, certainly, but also demonstrates a tranquil appreciation for life that is pretty perfect for a man who turns into a ferocious beast whenever he becomes angry. The relationship between these two popular Avengers is wonderfully depicted, and the effect Kamala has on them is potent. The bonds are believable.
Characterization doesn’t stop with the well-acted, beautifully rendered cutscenes, either. It is felt very strongly in the gameplay. While all the move sets of this third-person action RPG are similar in execution, they all feel unique in their details. Holding down a trigger button on a controller allows players to used ranged attacks, but the difference between firing Black Widow’s gun, throwing Captain America’s shield, and hurling Ms. Marvel’s giant, rubbery fist is undeniable. They also serve different functions within the character’s toolkit. Some characters are meant to brawl and block, others are meant to dodge and counter. Hulk is meant to smash. Upgrade trees and gear drops allow players to customize how the characters perform, but, so far as I can tell, each still functions best within predefined roles. Gear can also help power up characters, but choosing gear is mostly a matter of choosing the one with bigger numbers. It falls out of a crate, gets equipped immediately, doesn’t even cause a cosmetic change, and is later broken down for scrap when a piece with bigger numbers turns up.
The stages are about as lifeless as the gear, too. There are some great set pieces and encounters to be had along the main path, but between those moments are large expanses of concrete, tundra, and badlands. These expanses can be freely explored but the actual act of exploration isn’t inherently rewarding. The rewards come in the form of treasure crates and special enemies, but whatever thrill can be found in hunting them down quickly turns to drudgery.
A more interesting array of enemies could have offset this feeling of monotony. As it stands, most battles are against nameless robots with very limited and highly predictable move sets. Even the final boss, who is narratively compelling, isn’t very exciting from a mechanical point of view. Some of the best fights in the game occur very early on and, while there is no question that Marvel’s Avengers can facilitate thrilling encounters, the sheer amount of straightforward slugfests is pretty surprising for a game about superpowered beings who fly, transform, and shoot lightning. That said, it is very possible that some of the game’s best battles will be experienced in multiplayer, or at higher difficulties. I just didn’t find any solid examples of that in my time with the game.
Once the campaign is finished, it is finally time to move onto Avengers Initiative. This mode is, basically, a mission select screen akin to the “war table,” from the story mode. It is here that players can team up with others to undergo special missions. It isn’t altogether different from undertaking story missions with other players, except there isn’t much of a story to it. There’s a sense that the grind is for its own sake. Players can acquire gear and currency so they can get costumes and powers that will make them look cooler and be stronger. This will, ultimately, help them on their quest to look the coolest and be the strongest.
It would be hard to recommend Marvel’s Avengers to anybody who is looking for a rich multiplayer experience. Despite being a live-service game, this is no Destiny. But Destiny was also pretty sparse when it first came out. There could be a lot of quality content in the game’s future, and it does seem that the developers want players to stick around for a while. There is a slew of post-launch content planned, after all. Spider-Man, who will be exclusive to PlayStation consoles, isn’t even due out until 2021. It is difficult to imagine what is meant to keep players grinding from now until then. The game is amazing for a weekend, but for several months? For the moment, it seems unlikely. Hopefully that will change.