Marvel’s Avengers is perhaps the best example of the dangers of trying to be too many things to too many people. Or perhaps it’s an example of the perils of following trends. Or even how important it is at making a good first impression in gaming.
It was a long wait from the game’s first teaser reveal until the game was shown off at E3 2019, where the game got…not the most enthusiastic of receptions. A number of criticisms surround the E3 trailer: the characters resembled their MCU counterparts too much, and the gameplay was thought to look basic at best and on-rails at worst, and in general fans have begun to start looking at the phrase “games as a service” as a dog whistle for all the elements about modern gaming they don’t like.
But how is the game, now that it’s out? In full disclosure, I haven’t “finished” the game. There’s a ton of content that involves loot grind and need to level up to the repeatable tasks, but I’ve sunk 4-5 hours a night into the title every day since the game released, completed the campaign and experienced some of the “Avengers Initiative”, while also having experienced the iconic missions for all of the main characters. Still I’d rather call this an impressions, rather than a review, and let’s start by saying this is the most baffling game I’ve played this entire generation.
Certainly, the game’s roughly ten hour campaign is good, and easily better than the campaign of the other “major” Games as a Service titles released over this generation at this point in their life (Destiny, Division, Anthem). It centers around Kamala Khan, a young woman who becomes something known as an “Inhuman” after being exposed to a mysterious gas called Terrigen after an Avengers celebration goes wrong. The Avengers allow the incident, referred to as “A-Day”, to split them apart, while the nefarious A.I.M. (Advanced Idea Mechanics) arrives in their place, claiming to offer the one thing the Avengers didn’t as superheroes: accountability.
But A.I.M. isn’t entirely on the up and up. They’ve been granted the ability to invade people’s homes and test to see if anyone is an “Inhuman”, and Inhumans have suspiciously gone missing once found by the organization. This, along with Kamala finding proof that the head of A.I.M., George Tarleton, isn’t who he seems, leads to her seeking out and gradually reforming the Avengers. And while players are able to play as Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow, the Hulk, and Thor, it’s still very much Kamala’s storyline from beginning to end–our ties to the Avengers come from their meeting Kamala both before and after she becomes a hero, and it’s how we relate to them. So let’s get this out of the way: the people who are only interested in the campaign will find much to enjoy here. It hits some of the same notes of the Avengers being broken as the MCU does, but it rearranges those notes and adds enough new elements that it feels like a different song rather than a poor remix.
But there’s more to the game than just a simple single-player campaign. Like most AAA games released these days, it’s rarely enough to be a standalone adventure people pay $60 for. Marvel’s Avengers promises not only an extensive multiplayer experience, but a world that’s going to be added on in the months and years to come. This makes sense for people who want to experience the feeling of forming a squad with their friends and taking on bad guys as the Avengers, but there’s a number of things getting in the way of making this a fully-formed part of the game.
To begin with, most games like this are based on loot grind, and for some mysterious reason, none of the loot has any cosmetic benefits. Characters don’t equip new weapons or armor, the gear is strictly stat-based. Supposedly, Crystal Dynamics did this on purpose, not wanting to ruin the iconic looks of the characters, which is a puzzling design decision. People play loot games for customization, to constantly make their character look different and cool in their own way, and show it off to others. For someone like me who’s largely interested in single-player and is a Marvel nerd, only having their costumes is cool, but this is ignoring the majority audience who would play this multi-player to begin with.
Another issue is the lack of polish on display for this game. The stories of people experiencing game-ruining bugs are plentiful, all over Reddit and other enthusiast sites. Players can fall through the world, gain materials to make new costumes from missions only to not actually get those costumes or other items attainable from quests, and for some the game has flat out crashed multiple times. These are doubtless things Crystal Dynamics knew about before shipping the title, but between Marvel and Square-Enix likely weren’t given the flexibility to delay the title another few months to work out all of these bugs.
A high point of the game is it’s combat. Playing each one of the Avengers feels different and unique. Though it can feel like a button masher for more inexperienced players, the combat mechanics are as deep as the player wants to make them, and it feels like how most of them should fight. Cap can lock on to multiple enemies and bounce his shield off them, Thor can chuck Mjolnir into an opponent and leave them caught in place until he summons it back. Iron Man can soar around the stage and attack people with rockets, while Black Widow can turn everyone invisible and perform cool martial arts takedowns on the enemies.
The problem is this “high point” demands every player to be an experienced gamer to get the most out of it. The player is constantly swarmed by hyper-aggressive enemies that can tear the hero to shreds in a few hits, leaving them to not feel all that heroic. This would be fine in a game aimed at hardcore gamers, but the Avengers should probably aim to appeal to a wider audience. There’s no doubt that many people who don’t play games have bought this game, only to put it down when they realized how punishing the combat is, even on normal. And thanks to the game’s needlessly complex gear system, they won’t even know how to make sure they’re properly levelled up to face their opponents. There’s a button to auto equip the highest level gear, but this should’ve been turned on from the start (along with auto-leveling) for newbie players who just want to experience playing as their favorite Marvel character.
But perhaps this game’s biggest sin is it’s simply not Marvel enough. During the game, you meet up with Shield and Inhuman Factions who give missions and reward experience, and almost none of them are particularly recognizable. There’s a ton of creatively designed Inhumans from the 2013-2017 era that could have been used, and we barely get any of them. Meanwhile, both the game’s level and enemy design is…shockingly repetitive.
You could be forgiven for believing that the only enemies in the game are robots, even if that’s not entirely true, because robots are mostly what the game throws at you. They’re all well-designed in terms of attack patterns, but for a universe with so many different factions and ideas it makes very little sense to rely so heavily on mechanized monsters. This was particularly egregious when doing Thor’s Iconic Mission, which involves a magical imposter taking his place and manipulating people to fight for him…only for the player to be asked to fight more robots that have somehow been corrupted by magic. It’s not that this isn’t plausible, but Thor has so many different enemies that it’s unfortunate they couldn’t have designed a few Frost Giants and trolls for them to go up against. It’s not that there’s nothing cool in there – Pym technology allows the player to shrink enemies, while other tech inflicts freeze, burn, or gamma radiation damage, but there’s not enough. There’s only three Marvel villains in the game as bosses, with another three bosses as mecha or more random bots to beat down.
As for the level design? It’s limited to tundra, two different cities, the deserts, and a bunch of AIM laboratories. Marvel: Ultimate Alliance took players on a tour through the Marvel Universe, from Shield to Asgard, it held nothing back and truly made the player feel like they got to experience all the locations that were part of this universe fans loved in the first place. It’s understandable that HD development makes developing that much unique content exponentially more difficult, but they left out so much that.
And that doesn’t just extend to the actual level design, but the characters as well. All of the characters play in very unique, distinct ways and fulfill different roles on a strike team, but that’s not the sole purpose of an Avengers game. At the end of the day, a licensed IP is about bringing as much of an IP’s world to life as possible, not just the combat. The Avengers is a team that has had nearly 125 characters join over the years, and even the Marvel Cinematic Universe acknowledges over twenty of them at this point. It would be inconceivable to me that this game could launch with only six characters…if not for the games as a service element.
Crystal Dynamics has promised that new characters, new stories, and new villains will be added to this game for years to come. And to their credit, they’ve decided to make them all free (more on how that’s possible later). But from the feel of it, Marvel’s Avengers has fell into the trap of so many other games as a service titles: rather than making a complete game and figuring out how to add content onto that, they start with a complete game and strip content out of it until they feel they can still get away with selling it for sixty dollars. Put another way: every Games as a Service title should probably start putting all their Year One content in the base game, and make their Year Two content into Year One content.
There’s no reason a team with so many heroes should have launched with so few of them in the game, knowing full well that every character is someone’s favorite. Datamining suggests an additional sixteen characters are coming to this game, and probably half of those should’ve just been shoved into the base game rather than drip-feeding them out over the next few months. Even the post-launch plan speaks to a company that was simply confident that their game would sell off the name rather than trying to entice players with additional characters: the Kate Bishop trailer is the most hype I’ve ever been about DLC in my life, but that’s because I’m a superhero nerd. Most Marvel film fans have no idea who she is, and she won’t move additional copies of the title anymore than Hawkeye would–these aren’t characters to convince those who weren’t hyped, they’re additional characters people could’ve become fans of if they were in the base title.
Already everything we’re seeing about this game suggests it isn’t performing well sales-wise, which is based on a number of different factors: a poor initial showing of the title and a beta people weren’t hot on. But perhaps the biggest indictment is most people already knew what to expect with a games as a service game: wait about six months, when the game is not only cheaper but will have far more content added on to it. But while fans who actually paid for the game wait on that content, Square-Enix is content to charge $15 for new costumes while the unlockable costume system is broken in a way that they still haven’t figured out how to patch. These exorbitant prices are acceptable to me as someone who has little intent on ever buying anything, but someone has to spend money for me to do that, and trying to squeeze out every last dime from paying customers while giving them nothing is a practice I can’t agree with.
To be clear, I love playing Marvel’s Avengers. Though it’s an imperfect experience, I picked it up as a primarily single-player title (until I’m pestered by friends to go multiplayer) and it succeeds at that. The campaign is short but sweet, and learning how to play as different characters and survive on the chaotic warzone fields is addicting if occasionally frustrating. I haven’t experienced too many major bugs so it’s hard for me to refer to the game as “broken”–most of my bugs have been things like spawning as Ms. Marvel and running into Ms. Marvel on board the Avengers’ base. If anything my problems come down to performance issues from running on a base PS4 – the slow down from enemies and all the particle effects are a reminder that these games are probably designed for more powerful systems than what I own.
But Avengers is a 7 that should have been a 9. While the bugs I’ve experienced aren’t infuriating, it speaks to a game that was rushed out the door. (“Seriously? You’re the best.“) It’s a solid foundation, but there should be more here than just a basic game when they brought together so many teams to make this game. This game can fix itself, but it’ll need more…everything to do so. More villains, more stages, more heroes, and more bug fixing. Unless you’re the most hardcore Marvel fan, I’d suggest waiting until they reveal a proper roadmap, fix some of the major issues…or until Spider-Man drops in March.
Marvel’s Avengers is out now.