With 81 years of content ready and waiting to be explored, it’s a real wonder that we’ve not gotten a 4-player adventure game in the Marvel Cinematic Universe before now. THQ tried and failed, and the Avengers movies came and went without so much as a peep. Now, Square Enix is stepping up to the plate with Marvel’s Avengers, a game focused on 4-player cooperative play with years of planned updates and free roster expansions. Where does this game fit into the Marvel universe, where does it stand at launch, and what can we expect in the future? There are a lot of questions to answer, so let’s get started.
The first question that is likely top of everyone’s mind is what kind of game is Marvel’s Avengers. Well, that answer is a little more complicated than I expected at the outset. First and foremost, Marvel’s Avengers sports a fantastic all-new single-player campaign told from the perspective of Kamala Khan. Khan, who will ultimately become Ms. Marvel, starts the game as a very young girl obsessed with the Avengers. She’s written a fanfic story that got her an invite to A-Day — a celebration of the Avengers and everything they stand for aboard one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s helicarriers. While attending this event, a brutal attack hits the heart of San Francisco, causing massive death and destruction, and the Avengers can do nothing to stop it. Now, five years after the events of A-Day, Khan stumbles onto a plot that will need the combined powers of the Avengers once again — if she can find and reunite them.
The campaign will take a dozen or so hours on normal difficulty (there are four levels to choose from) and is easily the best part of what Marvel’s Avengers has to offer. By wrapping the storyline around Kamala Khan’s perspective, the game picks up a slick growth arch. She has to lean into her newfound powers as she reassembles the Avengers to take down AIM. Due to her fanfic background, she knows enough about the Avengers to roll with the punches but still feels like a new recruit that has to earn her stripes. Kamala is an absolute fangirl for the Avengers team, but you know what they say — never meet your heroes.
Without power diving deep into spoiler territory, the plot is essentially a new take on the Inhumans comic arc. The Avengers are seemingly responsible for a disastrous event that causes humans on the west coast to develop powers. As these powers can range from awesome to awful, humanity immediately turns on the team, driving them into exile for five years. As Advanced Idea Mechanics, or AIM, steps in to help track down and “help” these new “Inhumans,” one has to wonder, what’s in it for them?
One of my favorite parts of the campaign is that the team at Square Enix settled on foes that haven’t been repeatedly retread countless times. If you’ve managed to stay in the dark, you’ll be surprised. If not, you’ll be happy to know that the team has handled the main villain with a great deal of care so as to not allow the story to drift too far to the ridiculous. Kamala’s irreverent and grounded humor is fantastic, and the writing really shines through. A great example is Kamala and Bruce having to take an impromptu road trip which sets up a fun culture clash sequence over song choices and Slurpee sounds.
The problem with the campaign is that, despite this game being designed for multiple people, you can only tackle a handful of missions together. Put simply, once you’ve unlocked a second character, everything afterwards should be able to be run with at least one friend. Unfortunately, that’s not the way the campaign is designed. You’ll have to play the missions in the campaign solo, except for the occasional mission at the war table listed as “multiplayer”. Undoubtedly this is done to control the narrative, but nobody is out there saying “I wish I could run every other mission in Halo in co-op.”
There are some other occasional oddities in the critical path on the campaign. One example might be that you’ll play three to four hours of story-driven missions, ending up at a central hub where you can tackle virtual reality training. These start off by teaching you how to play as the Hulk — something you’ve done in several extended missions prior to this. Similarly, there are things that I wish were better explained. What is valor, reliance, intensity, particle damage, and why do I need any of it? Sure, Pym particles shrink enemies, but does that mean I do more damage to them, or that they do less damage? I’m sure some min/maxer out there can explain it in infinite detail, but this is something I’d expect to learn from the game, not from a FAQ.
It seems like the bigger games get, the more, (the more, the more, the more) repetition, (repetition) we hear, (hear, hear). It doesn’t take long before you’ve heard every flavor voiceover from every hero at least a dozen dozen times. This is less problematic in the scripted single player game, but when you embark on any off-path mission you’ll find yourself groaning at Jarvis and Tony most of all.
The combat in the Avengers is easy to pick up, and a challenge to master. Attacks are split between light and heavy, with modifiers if you hold a button longer or simply tap it. Combinations can be unleashed with sequenced button presses, and a well-timed dodge or block can mean the difference between a tough fight and masterful control over your chosen Avenger. Adding powers to the mix lets you play your character your way. It’s simple enough for a more casual player, but deep enough to transcend mere button mashing.
Power progression is a tricky thing in a game like Marvel’s Avengers. If Hulk can SMASH, how do you make him smash less? The leveling system and three tabs of powers is how. At level 1, your character can do most of the defining things you’d expect. For example, Iron Man can fly, shoot repulsors, and beat down enemies at close range, and Hulk leaps across the battlefield at increasingly further distances, able to unleash his rage for additional damage. Tucked away behind the leveling system lies the rest of the powers that help Tony go from rookie suit pilot to high-powered combat flight jock, or lets Hulk smash even harder. Using Tony as the example, you can pick between focusing on your repulsors, lasers, or rockets, or you can work on your three “Hero Powers” (think Ultimates), defensive capabilities like a projectile shield, or adding a dive attack to his arsenal. It’s very likely you’ll have only a few of these skills unlocked by the time you close the books on the campaign, leading directly to the multiplayer.
First and foremost, if you are worried about the microtransaction portion of Marvel’s Avengers, don’t be. While it is a “games as a service” title, Avengers only has cosmetic offerings. The “Units” (seriously, that’s the best name we could come up with?) you collect can be used for new skins, nameplates, and different finishing moves. There are no pay-to-win elements anywhere in the game, though you can pay to skip forward in faction vendor loyalty level to buy new cosmetics. Even still, as the game is not competitive in any way, there’s little point to this beyond the looks you can bring to the field. At present, you can get a new character skin for 7000, nameplates for 500, and emotes for 1250. Amazingly, playing the game for 30 hours I barely collected just above half of what I needed to get a single new skin, so the grind is steep. Cosmetics rotate every week, just like they do in other GaaS titles. It is baffling, however, that you can’t preview any of them before you buy them from the vendor (though you can in the cosmetics menu, which makes this more strange) — this feels like an oversight.
Sharing much in common with games like Destiny 2 or Diablo 3, there is a wealth of loot to grind through in Marvel’s Avengers. Your character has four equipment slots, and three artifact slots to occupy. Each of these equipment types carries different faction alignment possibilities, including Pym, Shield, Stark, and others. These can provide bonuses like having a critical light attack finisher trigger a short-term defense buff, or reviving a fellow hero granting a boon to all other heroes. Like Destiny, you’ll have to grind out faction assignments to level up your faction vendor access.
With a game built around loot collection, that loot has to be interesting. Like other looter-shooter style games, these come in vendor trash all the way up to legendary classifications. Normally, this means you feel a sense of progression, with your first legendary being a momentous occasion, and every one after that being equally as exciting as they are indeed rare. Here, I had a full array of legendaries which were replaced quickly by rares, and then replaced again by epic. The “rarity” of loot is broken as gear seems to be sprinkled about with little regard to whether it’s exciting or not. Normally grey has no perks, green has one perk, epic has two, and legendary has three, but in Avengers you’ll find almost any gear with anywhere from zero to three perks, regardless of rarity. While you can deconstruct equipment and manage your loadout mid-mission, when the gear never stops dropping, it starts to lose its value, devolving into a numbers-chasing game rather than meaningful equipment for your Avenger.
The world of Marvel’s Avengers is seemingly built programmatically with a tile system. The game appears to take level components from several different pools, combining them to create a level set. The problem is that, after about 6 hours, you’ll have seen every tile. You’ll begin to recognize the same hallways, caves, factories, and laboratories, as well as the mechanics that are tied to them. By way of example, there’s one part of the factory where you’ll break four reactor nodes stuck to the four corner sections of the area. The enemies and their powers may change, but the objective is almost always the same.
Square Enix has promised exclusive War Table events that’ll be available for a limited time. I’ve not seen any pop up as of yet, but they are also promising major updates every month. The first major update has been announced as adding Kate Bishop and Clint Barton, aka two flavors of Hawkeye. Recent leaks suggest far more adds to the roster, including fan-favorites like Black Panther, but we’ll have to wait and see.
There are secret vaults hidden randomly throughout your missions (and by hidden, I mean you’ll immediately know where they are by just tracking down the GPS signal) that have a challenge before they give up their precious loot. Fighting through some tougher foes, as well as a puzzle solving detour, you’ll gain access to a bunch of materials you can use to upgrade your equipment, as well as a few crates. The rarity problem still exists, as does the tile and puzzle repetition, making these vaults less rewarding than they should be.
I want to take a moment and really recognize the art team behind Marvel’s Avengers. After the initial reveal they doubled down and worked hard to make this game absolutely gorgeous. Every aspect of the game is lovingly crafted fan service. Sure, the characters aren’t the actors who’ve played them for the last two decades of movies, but that’s an unreasonable ask. Instead we get some of the most iconic voice actors bringing them to life. The facial animations are top shelf, and the whole thing looks beautiful. Watching the interminably long credits shows that there are about as many companies and artists that worked on this game as worked on Avengers Endgame, so it’s no surprise that it delivers the goods on visual quality.
The original release date of Marvel’s Avengers was May 15, 2020. Here we are four months later, and despite the delay, there are entirely too many bugs in the current build of the game. I’ve run into a bug where the cursor stops being responsive, I’ve had the start button stop working, attack buttons cease to function until I died, if you look at one set of comics there’s a chance you won’t be able to view the rest, my wife and I have fallen through the world a few times, and stun effects make the screen blurry and then it sticks that way. I’ve been bounced out of more missions with my friends than I can count (and you cannot rejoin once booted — the game is not drop-in, drop-out), I’ve also had the game crash and tell me I don’t have enough resources whilst running a 2080 Super — I kinda doubt that’s accurate. The list goes on — audio voiceover drops out on occasion, reminders to visit faction vendors you can’t reach, “hold X to open” stuck on the screen, dailies aren’t resetting, multiple crashes to desktop, half a dozen full system locks, people’s hair disappears and reappearing, and several missions where my wife ended up with two Hulks on her team. During the final two missions of the campaign we crashed to desktop a staggering seven times. There are also plenty of the usual jittery havok bugs, and none of this list even begins to address the framerate problem.
Running bleeding edge hardware — a 2080 Super and a 2080 Ti, an 10th Gen Intel processor, and 32GB of RAM, this game will chug into the mid-teens without rhyme or reason. It doesn’t happen in the same place every time, it has nothing to do with the amount of polygons on the screen, and it always seems to happen at the worst possible moment. During the final two levels of the campaign, we clocked the framerate in the single digits an innumerable amount of times. Even in the day and age of ship now, patch later, this is simply unacceptable.
There are a few hiccups around balance that rear its head to spoil the fun. At present, you’ll occasionally run into issues where you can be one or two-shotted by enemies that are at the same power level as your character, or lower. I’m not sure if it’s a bug (it seems entirely possible given the list above), but occasionally you’ll have non-elite enemies seemingly able to outpace the damage output of their elite counterparts. It can make for some frustrating engagements and frequent retries, even on Easy difficulty level. Moreover, you’ll then step into the next room to face a boss and they’ll be such a pushover that you’ll have to scratch your head.
I’m somewhat belaboring the point, but there are some design faults that cause heartache. At present, Black Widow and Iron Man have no way to destroy cracked doors with chests behind them, though everyone else can. Worse, when you do throw the beatdown onto a boss and you are blessed with a legendary loot drop, you can kiss it goodbye — loot on the floor when a mission ends, stays there. Seeing a legendary on the ground to be left behind as Jarvis pats you on the back for a job well done feels like faint praise indeed. Adding 30 seconds to the mission to let me collect my rewards, or simply throwing it in the overflow vault would have solved this problem.
We do need to take a beat and talk about the AI, as the Avengers are not all built the same. Hulk is an absolute beast on the battlefield, as you’d expect, but he’s also my most steadfast ally for revives when controlled by the AI. Tony Stark on the other hand will happily let you bleed out, and Kamala is only marginally better. That said, I’ve also seen every single one of them, and occasionally enemies, fall into a deep trance where they stand still and contemplate the secrets of the universe, absorbing damage with a stupid grin on their face. Most of the time they’ll kick back to reality and go about their business, but sometimes they’ll just stand there and watch you die. It’s the circle of AI life, I suppose.
Here’s the worst thing with ALL of the items above — they should have been (and probably were) caught in testing. Unfortunately, the beta was used more as a marketing tool to drum preorders than it was to get valuable feedback. 8.5 million people played the open beta, but there’s no way the team could have digested, much less acted on, all of that data. Literally every single one of the items above could have been addressed by having Marvel’s Avengers come out at the end of September rather than the beginning.
The trick with reviewing titles with Games as a Service components is that we are essentially playing a prologue. These games are rarely feature rich, balanced, or content complete on launch. Some do a fantastic job of evolving over time, building out massive worlds full of lore, loot, and adventure. Unfortunately, for every Sea of Thieves, Diablo 3, or No Man’s Sky, you also end up with Anthem, Fallout 76, or the original Destiny. Lack of content updates, predatory loot boxes, and punitive grinding can turn off players quickly. Thankfully, the cosmetics-only approach for Avengers prevents the loot box problem, but repetitive battles, objectives, and mechanics are still an issue. Unfortunately for Marvel’s Avengers, the experience of Anthem (mine included as I rated that title based on its potential instead of what was in the box — a mistake) has made all of us leery. As a result, it’s difficult to assign the game any level of numeric score as it could be very, very different in two months’ time.
Once you’ve completed the campaign (the game discourages you from jumping into multiplayer without having ticked that box, and I concur) you’ll be able to embark on two dozen or so missions to get you started. The best of these are the iconic missions as they are story-based outings for each of the characters to further their adventures. Sure, they re-se some set pieces, thus suffering from the same repetition we see in the campaign structure, but the added storyline and voice work will pull you in. In addition, there are a number of side missions to boost your gear and power level. The current cap is 150, though there is little reason to grind that out at this point other than wanting to hit higher difficulty levels.
There are a lot of mechanics that allow you to stretch your multiplayer missions that much further. There is a fabrication machine that lets you craft cosmetics you find in the world. Vault mission can drop DNA keys that can give you additional goodies — if you can find them. Some missions will have exceedingly high power levels, so you’ll have to run and re-run missions at higher difficulty levels to tackle those. At this point, Square Enix is promising major updates every month, so you can also just wait for new content and enjoy the natural progression at that point — that’s my plan, anyway.
Easily the most frustrating part of Marvel’s Avengers is that there is an incredibly fun game in here. Four people teaming up as the world’s greatest heroes is an absolute blast — when it works correctly. Fighting AIM with your friends is more fun than I expected, and the framework for something amazing and infinitely expandable is here — it’s just currently buried under a pile of bugs.
With a great campaign, and engaging (albeit repetitive) multiplayer, Marvel’s Avengers is a fun title with cosmetic-only games as a service components bolted onto it. The innumerable bugs hide what could be an amazing and ever-expanding universe -- I just hope the team at SquareEnix is up to the challenge. I want to “do this all day”...but right now we are in the “you hope for the best and make do with what you get” stage.