Just like the Hulk himself, Marvel’s Avengers is two very different personalities in the same body. The first is a single player game with a reasonable story and a handful of decent missions. It wouldn’t rival the likes of Marvel’s Spider-Man or the Batman: Arkham series, but it’s mindless fun. The second personality is a live-service game for groups of up to four players in the vein of Destiny with heavy monetization that intends on adding new characters and content over the coming years. Like the Hulk and Bruce Banner, these two personalities are almost always at odds, struggling to co-exist. But unlike the Hulk, Marvel’s Avengers isn’t big, green and awesome.
Given the mass popularity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe it’s amazing it has taken this long to get an Avengers game on the market. And I have to say, I was excited when Marvel’s Avengers was announced. A game where I could play as the Hulk? Or as Thor? Or Captain America? I signed up to that concept faster than the Hulk can eat his way through an entire Burger King menu. The Avengers are ripe for an awesome action game, and for a few brief moments Marvel’s Avengers manages to be just that. Those moments are fleeting, though, and ultimately Marvel’s Avengers ends up doing less justice to its characters than LEGO Marvel’s Avengers.
Kamala Khan is the focus the story, at least for the first three-quarters, as she takes on the role of Ms. Marvel. We’re introduced to Kamala as she travels to a special Avengers celebration where her Avengers fan-fiction is in the running to win the big prize. She’s just a kid at this point, and she’s freaking out about getting to be on a S.H.I.E.L.D. heli-carrier. She geeks out about everything, and practically enters a state of hyper-frenzy when she actually gets to meet her heroes. Her giddy enthusiasm could be annoying, but I actually found her to be endearing. It wasn’t until much later in the game when her excitement started to grate a little.
A lot of credit goes to actress Sandra Saad who absolutely nails the role. She plays it with such genuine wide-eyed amazement and happiness that it’s downright infectious. And I also want to give credit to the writers for understanding how to do diversity correctly: Kamala Khan is a muslim, and while its brought up one or twice its never shoved in our faces or awkwardly presented as this amazing thing that we all need to take note of. It’s just one part of her character. She isn’t defined by it. I like that. Take note, folks, that’s how you do diversity.
Things go wrong at the big celebration in a big way. The result is that Terrigen Mist is unleashed, killing hundreds and giving many others super-powers. In other words, it’s the Inhumans from the Marvel comics, a ballsy move considering how divisive the Inhumans have been. The Avengers are blamed, and they disband, going their separate ways, all mourning the apparent death of Captain America in a fiery explosion. Five years later an organization named A.I.M. has gained massive power, and is trying to “cure” the Inhumans. Kamala herself has gained stretchy powers, turning her into Mr. Fantastic but without the insane brainpower. She wants to reunite the Avengers and discover the truth of A-Day, and sets out to do just that.
The narrative feels like a mix of stories that have already been done, with the Avengers arguing among themselves and having to band back together being an especially overused trope. In particular, Marvel’s Avengers has a horrible habit of setting up a conflict and then resolving it in the same scene. At one point, Tony and Banner have an argument which leads to Tony suiting up and the Hulk coming out to play. They smack each other around, and then literally leap out a window, disappearing from the scene. You don’t get to see what happens, but perhaps a minute later they both come back looking sheepish and all is forgiven. That kind of thing happens a lot.
But the good news is that there’s still some decent character moments. Kamala’s relationship with the socially awkward Bruce Banner is sweet, and she gets to keep geeking out over working with the actual Avengers. Sadly, though, since Kamala is the real focus of the story it does mean the other Avengers are painted in the broadest of strokes. Thor in particular seems to almost get ignored in the storyline. His sole trait is his Shakespearian speech, but apart from that he might as well be kept in the cupboard. Captain America and Black Widow don’t do much better, either.
No Avengers game would be complete without a big-bad villain to go up against. Crystal Dynamics had a lot to choose from, so I’m impressed that they went with M.O.D.O.K. rather than some of the more obvious ones. He isn’t in the story anywhere near enough to be truly interesting, but he’s portrayed quite well and has a good boss battle at the end.
The campaign is easily the mightiest part of the whole game, and is only dragged down when the live-service multiplayer pieces are added into it. When you aren’t being dragged through the dull live-service based missions there are some fun set pieces, though nothing ever comes close to the Golden Bridge sequence near the very start where you swap between all the Avengers. That awesome mission gives us a glimpse at what this game could have been before ripping it away and leaving us with this weird, awkward mess of a game. If Square Enix took those live-service elements out and added in a few more bespoke missions we would have had a competent 10-15 hour Avengers game that wouldn’t have been anything special, but would have been fun.
Being an Avengers game, the fighting is the core of the experience, the thing you’ll be doing the most no matter who you play as. So, the first thing that needs to be tackled is whether the current roster of six heroes feel different enough when you’re playing as them. And I think the answer is yes. The Hulk is lumbering and pick up enemies and use them as weapons. Both Iron Man and Thor can hover and fly which make them stand out, but are also differentiated from each other by Iron Man having plenty of ranged options and Thor being more of an up close and personal kind of guy. Although he can of course fling Mjolnir across the map and even use it to pin enemies to the ground or into walls.
The next thing the game does right is give each hero an interesting set of moves to play around with. And again, I think Marvel’s The Avengers does a good job here, although you don’t get a feel for that in the campaign. It’s not until after the campaign – maybe another 5-10 hours – that you unlock enough moves for an Avenger to really see what they can do. Captain America is an awesome example with some tricky air-juggling combos and some sweet ranged tricks with his shield And the Hulk has some kickass AoE moves. Certainly, the combat isn’t as deep or slick feeling as something like Devil May Cry 5, but once you get into the flow it feels good to batter robots around and really learn the ins and outs of your chosen Avenger. I focused mostly on Captain America, but I’m also enjoying Thor and want to get better with Black Widow as she has some serious potential.
Each Avenger has an Intrinsic ability that’s activated with the right-trigger and governed by a meter. In Thor’s case pulling the trigger imbues his attacks with lighting, meanwhile Hulk has his Rage that lets him smash stuff better. Captain America’s meter controls how long you can hold down the right-trigger to block incoming attacks. Black Widow has probably the most interesting because it activates her grappling hook for some awesome counter moves.
Speaking of countering, when it comes to come on the defensive there’s a couple of choices; a tap (or double-tap, to cover more ground) of circle lets you evade incoming blows. Meanwhile, pulling the trigger just before an enemy smacks you blocks the blow. On the harder settings and more challenging missions, evading, blocking and parrying are extremely important, which is why I find it annoying how easily the indicators can be to miss in the middle of all the particle effects.
When you level up there’s three separate screens, with the first being where you unlock basic moves and skills. Then the other screens are called Speciality and Master, and these let you fine-tune how your Avenger’s three special abilities work. I really like the Speciality and Master skills make you choose between different variations as well. You can swap between them whenever you like, but you can never have everything activated. It pushes you to really pick and choose what you want to focus on.
So, the Avengers themselves feel pretty good to play. The problem is that everything in the combat system built around the characters needs some serious work. Crystal Dynamics seem determined to stop you ever getting going properly. First, there are a lot of shielded foes which require you to use your extremely slow, charged up heavy attack. Then there are completely shielded enemies that enable them to simply ignore your attacks. Then there are bigger foes who can also ignore whatever you do. On top of that, the game loves to throw in a lot of ranged units, while the warning icons often fail to pop up or are easily missed amidst the carnage. The fundamentals are there, but
The Avengers have been around a long time and have an extensive roster of foes that they’ve battled, ranging from the intimidating to the weird. So why in the name of Thor’s glorious facial hair would you choose robots as the enemies? Yes, the majority of what you fight are either robots (in various hues) or generic goons with guns. Sure, there are variations of these, but it’s saying something that one of the four (yes, just four) boss fights in the game is just a giant tank robot. Oh, and one of the boss battles you only play once, so the only two supervillains you really get to go up against multiple times are Task Master and Abomination. That’s it. In Avengers game, a game about a team who has faced off against dozen of amazing villains, Crystal Enix decided to have Taskmaster and Abomination as the only two villains you get to battle against.
As a general nerd, it also bugs the crap out of me that the Avengers themselves are damaged by the need for “balance” in a game of this style. Because Crystal Dynamic want every character to be viable and feel equally important in every situation, you end up with major thematic weirdness. This is a game in which Black Widow is as effective at punching stuff as the Hulk and Thor. It’s a game where a regular dude with a gun can somehow survive the Hulk grabbing him and repeatedly slamming him into the ground just like the Loki scene in the Avengers movie. All it does is serve to make the Avengers feel less powerful than they should be.
It’s pretty obvious that Square Enix took a look at the existing live service games and came to the conclusion that loot is a vital part of them. However, somewhere in that research it also seems like they failed to understand what makes the hunt for loot compelling. The result is a loot system that’s been wedged into Marvel’s The Avengers, and like the Hulk trying to squeeze into a hatchback it just doesn’t fit.
The first issue is the least problematic of the bunch, but as a nerd it still hurts: nobody at Crystal Dynamics stopped and asked how they were going to thematically justify the loot system. And so the Hulk literally has new ribcages as part of his loot. And new arms, although those are apparently actually some form of nanites that boost his strength. It’s still weird, though. And then there’s Iron Man picking up random bits of stuff off the ground that are somehow better than his own custom-designed gear. And Captain America? You can replace part of the structure of his shield, even though the whole thing is made of Vibranium. Miss Marvel gets stuff like a new insignia that does…er, things? At least it fits the likes of Black Widow a little better, although none of the loot ever replaces actual weapons so she doesn’t get to pick up new pistols or anything like that.
But the real problem I have with the loot is how it doesn’t alter your chosen Avenger’s appearance. Since most of the game’s monetization model is built around acquiring new character skins, Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix went down the route of having loot be purely stat based. Maybe I’m in the minority here, but one of the biggest draws of loot for me is finding something new and equipping it, and then making the hard decision of whether I want to wear something that fits my build, or if I just want to look bloody amazing. I’d actually point at Mortal Kombat X as a game that had both skins AND loot that changed your appearance. In that game, skins were the biggest visual transformations, but you could also get loot that altered small pieces of the costume. It wasn’t a perfect system, but I’d prefer something like that in Marvel’s Avengers over this.
At least the stat side of the loot is okay, albeit still not very exciting, at least not based on what I’ve found. Loot tends to be quite specific in what it boosts, adding things like Cryo damage to the end of light combo finishers or a 29.3% change of causing an explosion when taking damage. Overall, I like this because it pushes me to do specific builds. But on the other hand, none of the loot I’ve come across fundamentally alters how I play, unlike something like Destiny where a new gun really changes how you approach the game. Most of the gear you find just enhances the stuff you’re already doing.
So, how does all this gear feed into the progression? Basically, your total Power level (max 150) is determined by your character level (max 50) and your gear. Each piece of gear can have its power level bolstered by spending resources, of which there are far, far too many to keep track of. But, of course, you can only upgrade something so much before having to ditch it for a shinier, newer bit of loot. This is why in the early game it’s hard to build something effective because you’re always cycling through gear to raise your power level. It doesn’t matter if you find something with a nice perk, it’ll be gone in about five minutes. It’s not until later in the game when gear perks and specific builds become more viable as you grind resources to buff up your best stuff.
As for endgame content to keep you logging in every day, it’s thin pickings. There’s the chase for Exotic loot, but that’s not very tempting since Exotics are only a tier higher than Legendaries and don’t appear to have any unique characteristics, at least none that I’ve seen. The Hive missions seem to be where Crystal Dynamics are hoping dedicated players will spend their time. These are mutli-floor gauntlets filled with the same boring objectives. There’s nothing interesting from a gameplay perspective. Apart from that, you can keep grinding out daily challenges for SHIELD and the Inhumans and working through character’s season passes. It’s not exactly a wealth of engaging content to keep players hooked and waiting for new characters, is it?
Now, we get to the mission structure and level design, both of which is Marvel’s Avengers at its lowest. There are maybe a handful of open environments in which almost every mission is set. There’s the dry desert, the city, a tundra and a jungle. These are some of the most utterly bland, generic levels I’ve seen in a triple-A title. They’re instantly forgettable spaces littered with random platforms that exist solely so that every hero can traverse the map. While on a technical level Marvel’s The Avengers is frequently quite good looking, the barebones level design is woeful, especially given how much time the game expects you to spend in them repeating the same missions over and over again.
In almost every mission you start in this open area and move through the objectives, maybe stopping off to check out a few of the question mark icons which denote loot to grab or a powerful foe to fight. And then you’ll inevitably be funneled into some unground labs which are somehow even more mind-numbingly boring than the exterior. The transition is handled via a black screen, too, and whenever you move to the next room or area indoors you’ll be faced with another black screen or a 10-30 second elevator ride. This is 2020, people, why the hell are there black transition screens and elevator rides breaking up these tiny indoor spaces?
Actual mission design is, at best, simplistic. Your goals are to either smash the enemy/random object or stand around in a small zone while a bar charges. Sometimes there might be a few places to stand in and the enemy might try to capture those spots. Keep in mind that when playing solo you have to remain in the spots because your A.I. chums don’t count for some baffling reason.
I don’t know how else to say this: the mission structure and level design are abysmal. At least Anthem occasionally had a cool waterfall or temple or something. Marvel’s Avengers has nothing. There wasn’t a single moment where I thought to myself, “oh, that looks quite cool.” And the mission objectives are borderline insulting in their simplicity and their lack of variety. I’m playing as the Hulk, for fucks sake, I don’t want to stand around in a bloody box so a meter charges up.
Although it’s not actually the game’ biggest problem, the thing that irritates me the most about Marvel’s The Avengers is how poorly the license has been used. Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics wanted a live service game, so they built the most generic, forgettable template imaginabe, realised it was basically going to be the new Anthem and desperately slapped the Avengers into it. Nothing fits: the loot makes no sense, and characters like Thor and The Hulk have to be constantly be kept in check so that other heroes the ones coming in the future can work.
While it’s certainly better than the lousy beta I played on PS4, the performance of Marvel’s The Avengers on an Xbox One X is still far from good. The game defaults to 4k mode which certainly looks sharp and detailed and the many particle effects can catch the eye. It runs like an arthritic donkey, though, the framerate chugging and wheezing and only barely making it to 30FPS at times. Swapping over to performance mode helps. There’s a notable softness to the image, but it does unlock the framerate to 60FPS. That’s a number you’ll barely every get to see, though, even when you’re just ambling around the Helicarrier or the Ant-hill, both of which serve as the game’s social hubs. Performance still plummets off a cliff when the action gets heavy. The while thing is in need of some serious work.
Oh Thor, the load times. We have to talk about those. I hope it’s drastically better on a PC with an NVME, but on Xbox One X the loads times are atrocious. They’re frequent, too, with some missions being really short. Just travelling between the two social hubs can take around a minute, which is all the more frustrating because you have to travel to both to pick up faction challenges.
Matchmaking is rough, too. Actually finding a full-party is a bit like throwing a bottle over your shoulder and making it land right-side-up on Cap’s shield. That’s a pretty big problem in a game geared toward playing with others. And when you do get into a match the connection quality is pretty iffy. That’s a major pain in the ass when the post-campaign Hive missions can take up to 45 minutes to complete.
There’s plenty of bugs to keep you entertained, too. Captain America’s shield keeps disappearing during emotes, facial glitches make it looks like people’s skin is melting, enemies won’t register hits, enemies vanish, sound doesn’t play and loads, loads more. Luckily, I’ve not had anything game breaking, but be warned: there’s a lot of people experiencing heaps of different issues.
I’m getting to the end of this review, so let’s talk about monetization. First, it’s important to know that new characters and content is going to be added for free, which is great. Basically, each character comes with a Challenge Card that you advance along by completing their daily and weekly challenges., This unlocks new emotes and skins and takedowns. The way a new character will be handled is that the character themselves will be free, but the Challenge Card has to be paid for. The price is 1,000 credits, which can be bought for £10. Honestly, I don’t mind this: you’ll get to play as the character as much as you like, and so you only need to bust out your wallet if you really love them. Keep in mind, though, that while you certain can earn credits purely by playing the game, the economy is definitely weighted toward you paying. It’s quite a grind to unlock credits.
You can also pay to advance along the Challenge Cards do, which is horrible. The daily and weekly challenges let you progress along it at an okay rate, but again, they definitely want to push you toward paying. Paying for a new character’s Challenge Card is one thing, but being able to skip through it by paying more is pushing it too far.
The final thing to buy are character skins, emotes, nameplates and takedowns from the marketplace. A typical skin costs around 1000-1500 credits, so that’s £10-15 a pop. That’s far too much money, especially as the current skins are crap. Many of them are just recoloured versions of other skins, too. Yes, that’s right, you can’t even adjust the colours on them.
Ultimately, you have to look at this game and ask a simple question: if it didn’t have the Avengers license, would it be worth playing at all? No. Absolutely not. It would be nothing more than a decent action-game with a so-so campaign and a bland, soulless live-service focus that may or may not become worthwhile many, many months from now. It’s only when you put the Avengers license into the game that it becomes worth looking at.
Yet there are moments when the game comes together, when you sit there and realise you’re playing as the Avengers. In the first couple of hours I was playing as Black Widow and watched as the Hulk came barrelling into view and began unleashing hell, and Iron man flew overhead, launching a barrage of missiles. For a moment, I was a kid again and the Avengers were so freaking cool, man. And I can’t deny that despite my many complaints, I did keep playing. I’m a sucker for loot, it seems, even a crappy system like this.
Right now, I can’t recommend Marvel’s Avengers. It has too many flaws. But given a few months or maybe even a year, Crystal Dynamics could build upon the potential excellence that is here. In other words, will this become the next Destiny, or is it going to be Anthem? Or worse, Fallout ’76. God, I hope not. The world only needs one Fallout ’76.