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Marvel’s Avengers Beta (Demo) Impressions

The “beta” (Read; demo) for Crystal Dynamics forthcoming Avengers game was open to everyone to play over the weekend, so I jumped in and spent some time smashing stuff as the Hulk, flying around as Iron-Man, kicking ass as Black Widow and generally avoiding playing as the annoying Kamala Khan as much as possible. With less than a month until the Avengers is out, this demo is our chance to see if we’re going to get an awesome new superhero game that can stand with Marvel’s Spider-Man and the Arkham games.

Obviously, this isn’t a full review. I’ll probably still cover the game when it comes out, so for now these are my brief, rambling thoughts on the demo. To the credit of Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix there is a good chunk of content available to check out.

Visually, it’s okay, at least in the technical sense. There’s plenty of detail in the textures and the character models. But in terms of the actual art style this is some of the most generic shit imaginable. Interiors are the blandest grey corridors and rooms you could possibly think of. The exteriors are a tad more exciting since you get some splashes of muted colour, but that’s like saying being slapped is preferable to being punched. I mean, yes, that’s correct, but you’d rather not get slapped or punched at all. Almost every location in the beta feels instantly forgettable. Combine this with the gameplay and the result is a game that blurs everything together into a forgettable mess.

Then there are the Avengers themselves. Earth’s Mightiest Heroes look a lot more like Earth’s Okayest Heroes. Presumably unwilling to pay the massive costs involved in licensing the looks of the Robert Downey JR, Chris Evans and the rest of the cast, Crystal Dynamics seem to have gone for the £2 toy in petrol station knock-off look. Captain America looks like someone’s step-dad. Black Widow weirdly resembles Scully from the X-Files. Honestly, they really do look like those Chinese rip-off toys you’d find in a grocery store, featuring Captain US, Thar, Black Spider Lady and the Incredible Angry Man. In the defense of Crystal Dynamics, I’m all up for them doing their own spin on these classic characters in the same way that Rocksteady have their version of Batman, but these just look…wrong.

Nor does it seem like Crystal Dynamics knew how to deal with having all the Avengers in a game while representing what they can do, meaning we have a lot of disconnects that bother my nerdy brain. It’s weird enough watching Thor having to whack humans around a couple of times, but it’s even stranger when the Hulk can’t just obliterate an idiot with a shield. It’s even crazier when Black Widow is almost as effective in straight melee combat as the raging green monster. Obviously we’ve had things like this before. Marvel’s Spider-Man is a good recent example with the super-strong Spidey being toned down so that basic thugs could still be a slight threat. But it’s consistent. The problem is so much more pronounced in Avengers because you have a varied cast of characters with radically varying levels of power and a developer that wants to keep the gameplay, “balanced.”

Based on my time with the beta, Marvel’s Avengers is is a straight action game, meaning 90% of the gameplay involves punching things. Combat is mechanically okay, mixing in light and heavy attacks with some basic combos and a charged up heavy attack to deal with shields, although the amount of time this attack takes is is measured in terms of decades. There’s some decent variety among the four characters in the beta, too. Hulk can grab enemies and slam them into the ground, Iron Man can swap between a few ranged weapons and can even fly using a control system very reminiscent of Anthem. Each hero gets their own skill tree, so that’s quite nice to play around with, although you level up pretty fast so I’m not sure about the longevity.

Where the combat falls apart is…er, everywhere else, really. First the motion blur and camera shake is absurdly overblown, and yet somehow smacking an enemy still feels ineffectual. There’s not many feelings of impact and power, both of which are vital when you’re talking about playing as the Avengers. In bigger fights things become so chaotic between the blur, the shake and the particle effects that blocking and dodging become useless since you can’t see the enemy indicators or animations. So you just smash the buttons. And that’s it. I don’t even mind that because a good button-masher can be cathartic, but in that case you need the presentation to be strong, and it just isn’t.

Each hero does at least get some semi-cool special moves that are tied to annoyingly long cooldown periods. Hulk, for example, has a massive thunderclap attack that feels pretty awesome to use. Iron Man has his Uni Beam and can also summon his Hulkbuster armour, although controlling it feels like herding a bull using a feather.

There doesn’t seem to be any co-op specific moves, which feels like a wasted opportunity considering the game’s heavy focus on gather up three other players to tackle missions with. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be any co-op mechanics at all, like healing or buffing friends.

The mission design is equally dismal, featuring such brilliance as standing in a small space so a meter can be filled or just destroying all the enemies in a room before moving to the next room. Sometimes, missions might feature fighting through rooms of enemies AND standing in a small space. Between this, the extremely basic level design and the plain aesthetic you end up with no distinctive missions.

In the larger exterior areas, there are some bonus objectives strewn about, all of which are a chore to complete. Apart from that, it’s just empty space filled with even more enemies to fight, which you do all the time, anyway.

And then there’s loot. We all know that I freaking love loot, so I hoped that hoovering up new loot for my heroes would be the one big saving grace of this entire Avengers nonsense. But no. Whether it’s due to licensing or just because of how the game is going to be monetized I don’t know, but the loot you get doesn’t alter the appearance of your character. It’s nothing more than a collection of numbers that you bolt on which might give you a perk and increase your overall power level. Perhaps in the full game there might be enough variety to at least let you try out different builds, but in the beta I just found myself robotically going into the menu and hitting the “equip best” button. I never felt like I was making any significant or interesting changes to my character.

There’s no effort to find a way for loot to make sense in the game, either. Why the Hell is billionaire tech-genius Tony Stark finding gear better than his own just lying on the ground? And the Hulk’s loot is literally a new spine and arm muscles, so that’s just weird.

The only way to change your character is by equipping new skins, which is where the monetization comes into play. There’s a marketplace where you can buy new skins, and so far it seems as though you can only get them through real money. Each hero also has a battlepass of sorts with unlockable skins, but these you can get by completing in-game challenges, although the amount you can earn is capped. Worryingly there’s a heap of extra space in the battlepasses, so I’m expecting some form of paid content to appear there.

In fairness, they’ve been upfront about the inclusion of microtransactrions. This is intended to be yet another live-service game with new updates and skins being rolled out constantly in a bid to generate cash. But seeing these monetization schemes in a game that costs £50 to buy and that plays so poorly only serves to make the Avengers feel like it should be a free-to-play mobile game. If this was going to be sold for £15 or £20 I don’t think I’d have as much of a problem with the system, but with a full £50 game I’d rather see proper expansions.

In the beta you have the option to swap between 4K mode and Performance Mode. 4K mode on a PS4 Pro is damn near unplayable, so I jumped over to Performance Mode. It wasn’t much better. In Performance Mode the framerate is allowed to go all the way up tyo 60FPS, but all that means is the drops are much, much more pronounced. Framerate drops are frequent and large, making the already sickening motion blur and camera shake feel a hundred times worse. This needs to be heavily patched in time for launch, as it’s currently unacceptable. Perhaps the Xbox One X and PC versions fair better.

With less than a month until launch this “beta” is the game we’re getting, barring some small updates. And so far there’s almost nothing I like about. It features all the same basic gameplay problems as Anthem, and we know how that went. It’s dull, clumsy and full of generic design choices. In other words, it feels like a blatant cash grab where they put together the most lacklustre game and then slapped the Avengers license on the top with no effort put into figuring how to actually make a fucking Avengers game. Perhaps down the line things will get better as more content appears and the game is fleshed, but right now nothing in the beta has made me want to play Marvel’s Avengers when it launches. Based on what I played, I’d recommend waiting for a big price-drop in the future unless you’re really hungry for some mindless button mashing.

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