Near the beginning of Avengers – sorry, to be clear, that’s Marvel’s Avengers, the videogame – Thor lifts up a bit of steel that’s pinned a civilian to the ground, and says “Lucky for you, I am mighty!”
That line, though it’s brief and lifted from the Age of Ultron film, has cast a shadow over my expectations for Avengers ever since the prologue footage first released. The delivery is all empty machismo. It comes in the midst of an extremely scripted action sequence, where you alternate between all the Avengers and basically just mash ‘X’ a bunch between each cutscene. Would the Avengers game just be a big-budget button-masher where a bunch of comic book pastiches yell extremely silly dialogue at one another?
Marvel’s Avengers isn’t (quite) a button-masher, and there’s a lot more heart to its vision of the titular hero squad than first impressions might suggest. After a dozen hours with the game, I’m more eager to play every time I hop back in, and I’m starting to dread the end of the story because I want more time with the cast. That bodes well for the game’s long-term service plans and episodic story updates. Perhaps most importantly, this is a surprisingly deep action-RPG that’s both challenging and rewarding.
After a disaster at the end of the opening mission, Captain America is presumed dead. Bruce Banner no longer believes in the mission of the Avengers, and has told the world the group is a danger to society. Iron Man, feeling betrayed, retreats to a hippie life on one of his many estates. Thor has disappeared, and Black Widow is – well, ok, she’s basically still doing Black Widow things. But that version of the Avengers we saw at the prologue, the one spitting corny one-liners – that’s the past. Now, every former member of the team is dealing with that collective failure in their own way.
EVERY HERO HAS A UNIQUE JOB TO DO, SO THEY EACH GET A MOMENT TO SHINE
It’s not long, of course, before everyone is suited up and blasting bad guys with lasers and magic hammers, and this is still a world where problems are ultimately solved by resolving to do heroism and then punching unambiguous villains in the face. But there’s just enough meat to the interpersonal drama among the team – and weight in the performances – to add some emotional stakes to what’s otherwise a lightweight sci-fi story full of silly contrivances to push the plot along.
Kamala Khan – or Ms Marvel, if you prefer – is why it works. She’s a (mostly healthily) obsessed fan of the hero squad, and her self-assigned mission to reunite the Avengers forces her to regularly push past her social insecurities. Her extremely awkward heart-to-hearts with the rest of the cast pull the story together, and add just enough emotional stakes to make the whole crew worth caring about.
As much as the story is about a group of individuals with diverse abilities pulling toward a common goal, the in-game action does the same thing – and that’s maybe the most impressive part about Avengers. Every character slots into a similar formula with a similarly broad set of abilities: everyone’s got a light melee attack, heavy melee attack, ranged attack, defensive move, dodge, and a meter that you use for certain special moves. Picking up a new character is never going to feel like picking up a new game, because everyone is building on the same template.
But within that template, each Avenger gets a unique suite of abilities that gives them a unique role in combat. Ms Marvel has a set of melee attacks that let her do some light juggle combos with her massive, stretchy arms, and she can spend her meter energy to enter an embiggened polymorph mode for extra damage and automatic dodges against incoming attacks. She’s a great all-around fighter. Hulk can unleash big area-of-effect damage using just his basic attacks, and spends his meter for brief periods of invincibility and health regeneration. He’s a tank. Black Widow can only fill her meter by landing attacks without taking damage. She’s a precision DPS.
Each character gets their own combat role within the context of this larger, universal gameplay system. You might have a Hulk player smashing into crowds and causing as much chaos as possible while soaking up damage. Iron Man will be flying overhead, launching ranged attacks to pick off those hard-to-reach stragglers or snipers harassing everyone in melee, occasionally dipping in for a few punches to build that ranged meter up. Black Widow will be engaged in a heavily counter-driven one-on-one duel with some especially dangerous foot soldier, taking that pressure off the rest of the party. Every fight feels like a proper, cinematic Avengers battle in which each hero has their own job to do, so they each get a moment to shine.
This is all based on a mostly single-player experience so far. Avengers is happy for you take on the story solo, with friends, or with strangers online, but it seems clear that the long-term post-game content – the Avengers-as-a-service, if you will – will focus on you teaming up with other players to clear ever-more-challenging content. Beyond a handful of multiplayer matches just to make sure the matchmaking works alright (it does), I haven’t had the chance to dive into the bigger multiplayer stuff – and much of it doesn’t unlock until the post-game, anyway.
The other big question is how effective the game’s long-term play hooks are going to be. I’m having a great time gathering loot to power up my team now, sure, but I’ve already smashed my way through a number of identical AIM laboratories multiple times over. Am I still going to want those purple armbands for Ms Marvel once I’ve seen those same labs a few dozen more times?
IF THE DEVS CAN DELIVER ON THEIR LONG-TERM PLANS, AVENGERS IS GOING TO BE THE PERFECT COMIC BOOK GAME
It’s an open question, but at the moment, the hooks are starting to dig in. I want to finish those dailies to unlock the next silly Hulk costume on the battle pass. I want to check in again tomorrow for another quick mission that’ll get me closer to either more power, or an even sillier shirt.
As much as I’ve enjoyed Avengers so far, it’s had tech problems. I’ve had multiple hard crashes – one was random, while another occurred at a specific scripted moment, and I could only progress by turning down the effects settings. I’ve also seen multiple instances of enemies falling through floors, or getting trapped when the doors close on a big fight. That’s a major issue when you’ve occasionally got to beat every enemy in an area to progress, and while in every instance so far I’ve been able to use long-reach attacks through walls to avoid restarting the checkpoint, that’s not something I should have to worry about.1/12<>
But those issues haven’t really dampened my enthusiasm about what I’ve played so far. This is a robust, challenging action-RPG that’s built an eminently likeable vision of the Avengers, and it’s one I can see myself sticking with for the long haul. If the content holds up through the endgame and the devs can deliver on their long-term plans for continued episodic content, Avengers is going to be the perfect comic book game – one where you’ll be able to regularly pick up the latest issue, see Captain America’s latest costume, and pummel the villain of the week in a regular dose of light adventure.
Check back with us soon for a final verdict and score once we’ve had time to play a little more.