Review in Progress Update – September 1, 2020:
Review copies of Marvel’s Avengers didn’t unlock until yesterday, August 31, so while we don’t have a full review ready at launch, I’ve been punching my way through waves of A.I.M. soldiers for the better part of the last day. At roughly the 10-hour mark I’ve already beaten its single-player campaign, and just started dipping my toes into its transparently Destiny-inspired multiplayer mission grind. And while I had a ton of fun with the Avengers campaign’s story, the fact that it’s so closely tied into the co-op multiplayer that follows makes its progression unsatisfying and a chunk of its missions feel like filler.
Avengers’ main menu actually has one button that launches its “Reassemble” campaign, and another for its “Avengers Initiative” post-game multiplayer – but right off the bat it warns you that the latter option is full of campaign spoilers, and you’ll still need to get almost to the end of the former to unlock all six heroes available in the base game. In this way, you could decide to just treat Avengers as a single-player game, play its campaign, and ignore its multiplayer altogether if a game-as-a-service treadmill style of play wasn’t what you were hoping for here.
Played on its own, this campaign is actually a seriously good superhero brawler. Jumping between different Avengers to strike back at A.I.M. is nearly always fun, with each hero feeling thematically distinct and generally well used (except Thor, who is undoubtedly fun and charming, but just sort of… there, story-wise). The writing and character interactions really drew me in, and I loved watching a young Kamala Khan find her footing as a new hero as much as I loved watching the classic Avengers pick up the pieces of their past failings. The overall story is ultimately a fairly simple one, but it’s still a highly entertaining comic book action movie in playable form.
Combat is deeper than I initially gave it credit for in the beta too, if not by a whole lot. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a hoot to smash enemies as the Hulk, shoot them with Iron Man’s rockets, and throw Thor’s hammer at them alike, it’s just all a bit one-note. Most big fights devolve into mashing the light and heavy attack buttons, but you do have to be smart about dodging, breaking enemy guards, and using defensive abilities while doing that. And while enemies are not too visually diverse – you’ll be punching a lot of robots – there are plenty of different types, and the stronger of them do demand a beatdown more tailored to their shortcomings. For example, the faster Riotbots pushed me to dodge big swings before unloading on them, while enemies with shields needed powerful hits to break down their defenses.
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There’s plenty of exciting action, but the thing that really makes this campaign shine are the more intimate moments. Sandra Saad’s Kamala is charming and funny, standing out as a likeable protagonist while still acting as the perfect vehicle for us to enter the world of the Avengers. Troy Baker’s Bruce Banner is also exceptional, riding the line between a lovably awkward nerd and the rage-filled monster lurking just below the surface perfectly. While mid-mission dialogue lines are largely the standard video game fare, the conversations during its more cinematic cutscenes are truly great.
And that’s the rub: there’s a nugget of a linear, single-player Avengers game visible here that I really wanted to see more of. The majority of campaign missions are unique layouts tailored to the hero you’re using at the time – avoiding any big spoilers, scenes like running through a building under siege as Tony Stark while piecing together a makeshift Iron Man suit or exploring an old SHIELD facility full of reclics as Kamala appealed to me on the same level as games like Tomb Raider or Uncharted. These missions were almost always a thrill, supported by oodles of fun Marvel references for fans to pick up on.
Unfortunately, the spackle between those unique moments are less enticing. Instead of exploring hand-crafted areas, the story will occasionally ask you to run through the generic open worlds and A.I.M. facilities present in many multiplayer missions, completing dull objectives that aren’t designed with your specific hero in mind. While not frequent enough to ruin the story’s momentum entirely, it’s a real drag that this padding slows down an otherwise top-notch single-player campaign.
To a similar end, that campaign also has to pay for the sins of its wholly unappealing multiplayer loot system. Gear that doesn’t affect your look, isn’t always thematically interesting (why is the hulk equipping new… rib cages?), and largely offers invisibly incremental stat improvements isn’t any more more successful here than it is in the multiplayer – which is to say it’s dull. You’re also changing gear so often that it’s rarely worth fretting over or improving during the campaign, though I imagine that will change as you approach the multiplayer’s higher-level challenges. (That seems like the case for the Artifact items too, which have more unique buffs but just aren’t all that common in these early levels.) That makes the loot system an inoffensive but also unexciting aspect of the single-player experience, only piping up to occasionally annoy me with a message that I could be wearing better gear or that my inventory space has reached capacity again, requiring me to stop and clear it out one by one.
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Instead, more meaningful progression is found in each hero’s skill tree, but these don’t seem to have been designed with the campaign in mind either. The copious amount of skill trees for each hero offer new moves, combos, or modifications to existing abilities with a surprising amount of choice and freedom. I liked being able to prioritize upgrading Iron Man’s ranged attacks while focusing on Kamala’s air combos. The problem in the context of the campaign is that this system is clearly designed for multiplayer advancement over a longer period than 10 hours. None of my characters even hit level 10 by the end of the campaign (the cap is 50), making the progression during it feel stunted.
Avengers also seems to be running a least a little better for me on PS4 Pro than the beta did, but I’m still noticing tons of rough edges visually. I’ve yet to see any major problems like crashes, but hitching cutscenes, misaligned attack animations, and whole bunch of other wonky but not game-breaking issues are fairly common throughout. Kamala’s hair was missing in one cutscene, while another had Iron Man calling his team at the end of a mission as the enemies I had yet to kill stood idly around him, and it’s just sort of obnoxious that things like this haven’t been ironed out. (The final cutscene of the story was even distractingly invaded by a UI waypoint indicating that a needed to speak to a vendor, and if that isn’t the best metaphor for how Avengers’ multiplayer literally gets in the way of its single-player I don’t know what is.)
With the campaign done, I’m now turning my eyes more seriously toward the multiplayer “Avengers Initiative” content. The single-player story is enjoyable enough that I can at least recommend it on its own merits, but every time I jump into a cookie-cutter multiplayer mission it feels like a pointless grind that I’m not convinced will keep me enthusiastically playing far past the credits. Still, there are loads of missions left for me to complete, including an “Iconic” mission chain for each hero that promises some more nuggets of story.
We’ll hopefully have a final review of Marvel’s Avengers for you sometime next week. Until then, you can read my detailed impressions from the beta below, which (apart from what I mentioned above) are still largely relevant to the full game, at least for now.
Original Review in Progress – August 10, 2020:
After spending more than a dozen hours beating up A.I.M. goons in the beta for Marvel’s Avengers (available last weekend to pre-order customers on PlayStation 4), I’m strangely equally as excited to play the full game as I am worried about its long-term prospects. The early slice available here is, of course, vastly different from the final game in a number of ways, including its progression, mission structure, and the amount of content available, but it’s also robust enough to finally provide a good sense of what kind of game Avengers actually is. The answer, at least so far, appears to be a fun and charming single-player superhero campaign that’s grafted onto a far less entertaining multiplayer looter with a potentially troubling combination of problems.
The beta, which will be open on and off leading up to Avengers’ release on September 4 and doesn’t allow you to carry your progress over to the full game, includes three single-player campaign missions, four of the six heroes that will be included at launch, and a handful of mostly repetitive multiplayer missions to give us a taste of its online gameplay. That’s obviously nowhere near enough to make a final determination or full review, but it’s worth delving into even at this early stage.
The first story mission available is the same Golden Gate Bridge scene we’d seen in past demos – essentially a bombastic and entertaining way to dress up a tutorial. The second, however, is what really gave me a sense of optimism for the campaign. Starting simple, with Bruce Banner and Kamala Khan trudging through the woods together, this mission trades in cinematic spectacle for funny and genuine character moments that felt far more like Crystal Dynamics’ recent Tomb Raider games than the Destiny-style loot systems that have defined Avengers in the lead-up to this beta.
The dynamic between Kamala and Bruce is excellently performed by Sandra Saad and Troy Baker, respectively, and makes the duo instantly endearing. Her excited energy is a perfect counterpoint to his calm (and amusingly awkward) demeanor. The writing here is great, and that generally holds true throughout the entire beta – the only major exception being Iron Man’s extraordinarily obnoxious referential mid-mission quips. But apart from Tony Stark dishing out bad pop song jokes, I’m so pleased to see that (at least so far) Avengers has made room for small-scale human moments amongst all the action sequences. Thinking back now, I remember Bruce adorably fumbling his way through trying to comfort an upset Kamala more fondly than any of the times I used his alter ego to blow up giant robots.
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Smash and Mash
That’s not to speak ill of the action. The fundamentals of Avengers’ beat-em-up combat are a lot of fun in a campaign setting like this, with each mission giving you control of a specific character depending on the story’s needs at any given time. Your initial options don’t deliver the deepest combat system in the world, but the arenas I fought in as either Hulk or Ms. Marvel in that second mission felt tailored more to those specific characters in a way that was disappointingly missing from its replayable multiplayer setting later on.
Each character has their own unique attacks, special abilities, and signature style, and for the most part all the heroes in the beta – Hulk, Ms. Marvel, Iron Man, and Black Widow – are a lot of fun. I loved throwing giant rocks at enemies as Hulk just as much as I enjoyed flying through the air before landing to do a spinning laser attack as Iron Man. And while those two ended up being my staples after I completed the beta’s campaign missions, I was genuinely happy to switch to any character since they each bring their own flavor to a fight.
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Avengers makes it fairly intuitive when you first step into the shoes of a new one too, but the way it manages that is a double-edged sword. Despite being wildly different on the surface, each character is functionally similar when it comes to controls. They have a light attack on Square, a heavy on Triangle, a defensive move on R2, and nearly the exact same basic button combos to use as you’re wailing on enemies (at least in terms of what was available in the beta). The good news is that means it takes essentially no time to pick a new hero up and start effectively cracking skulls with them. The bad news is that, after a while, all their signature differences started to mean a lot less in my eyes.
Each hero is essentially their own flavor of ice cream. Everyone will probably have a favorite, but at the end of the day you’re still gonna be eating ice cream regardless. Hulk’s fists are ultimately going to be just about as effective at hitting stuff as Black Widow’s batons (which seems odd when you think about it), and Iron Man’s assortment of ranged weapons don’t feel as special when Ms. Marvel – who uses only her limbs to attack – can still “throw” her punches as a ranged weapon. There are undoubtedly significant differences in their capabilities (Ms. Marvel can’t fly, for instance), but so far when it comes to beating up bad guys there seems to be very little one can do that another can’t, homogenizing the feel of the beta’s four-hero roster as we’ve seen it.
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That samey feeling wasn’t really a problem during the campaign, where fights are more intimate and the flavor of being a specific hero is often the whole point. But in multiplayer, the increased scale of combat only made this shortcoming more apparent. The chaos generated by an army of enemies and four different heroes meant that, no matter who I was playing as, most encounters felt like little more than slamming Square and Triangle a bunch depending on what type of generic robot or A.I.M. soldier was in front of me (and upping the difficulty only seemed to make them stronger, not more nuanced to fight). Sure, I’d throw in ranged attacks and special moves to deal with distant enemies or break shields, and I definitely had fun blowing most of these baddies up regardless, but when the multiplayer asks you to replay encounters over and over again, the beta’s combat started to feel shallow quickly .
The main thing that bucks this trend are each character’s three heroic abilities, which are epic, cooldown-based moves unique to them (you’ll be able to swap between a handful of options in the final game). These are things like Hulk creating a shockwave clap, Kamala growing huge, or Iron Man calling down the Hulk Buster suit for any party member to equip. Heroics helped characters feel more mechanically diverse from one another because they offered effects that required more thought to use effectively than your fists. The heroic ability options are limited in the beta, but I look forward to seeing how much this system will let me alter the feel and role of my heroes.
The condensed nature of the beta means I surely haven’t seen anywhere near the full amount of what Avengers will have to offer next month, but environments and mission types also started to look disappointingly similar far faster than I was expecting. If you’ve seen one A.I.M facility in the beta, you’ve basically seen them all. Likewise, the comically brief Drop Zone missions and slightly longer War Zones provide different time investments but are almost identical in function. The former will drop you straight into an enemy base with a single objective to complete, usually taking at most five minutes to finish, while the latter has you explore a small open-world area for loot chests hidden behind light button puzzles before taking on the same sorts of challenges as the Drop Zones. But whether you start in a forest, a city, or an A.I.M. hideout, the beta missions nearly always have you punching your way through another bland underground facility before long.
War Zones become a true chore when played with randoms through matchmaking, too, because there’s seemingly zero way to communicate with your team. That makes actual teamwork about as rare as an Infinity Stone. Going in with a squad of friends, of course, makes things more fun (as it also does with moving apartments or getting your teeth drilled), but the mission objectives and level layouts remain largely uninteresting regardless. They generally fall into two categories: stand on a spot until you win or punch specific stuff until you win. The latter will often ask you to break some objects on the map, hilariously letting you ignore every enemy around you since they’ll all just instantly teleport away once you complete that task. Just like the Avengers would do it, right?
The combat, basic as it is right now, did keep me entertained thanks to the wonderful superhero flair present in all parts of Avengers, but that usually only lasted for the first or second playthrough of each mission. This could certainly be a problem contained to the beta, since the full game will likely have considerably more diversity. There are promising hints of it here, and every time I played something totally new was like a shot of adrenaline that revitalized an experience that was otherwise quickly going stale. New enemies or encounters – like an extremely cool giant spider-tank in the beta’s one Villain Sector, or an interesting door puzzle in its secret Vault level that required genuine teamwork and communication – always gave me hope for the variety the full game might offer. But if Avengers wants me to replay these missions ad nauseum like many other online looters expect, it has yet to give me a good reason to do so.
Some Assembly Required
Based on the beta, the most worrisome fundamental problem sitting at the heart of Avengers is in its loot, which could be put in a college textbook to teach budding designers what an unfulfilling equipment system looks like. It’s a convoluted mess full of invisible stat improvements, marginal gains for your characters, and – and this is not a joke – what appears to be EIGHT different resources to collect and upgrade your gear with, most of which seem to be functionally nearly identical and unintuitively assigned to different types of equipment.
Starting with the basics, every hero has four main gear slots: one primarily improves your melee, one your ranged, one your defense, and one your heroic abilities. You also have three slots for Artifacts, which so far appear to mainly offer more general buffs like elemental resistances or rare unique skills like increasing your chance to find gear. Each item has a generic Power level that influences both that hero’s stats and their overall Power level (which, in turn, affects the scaling of missions), as well as possible extra stat improvements and special tweaks, like adding elemental effects to certain attacks – a notably cool one is Pym Particles, which will shrink enemies exposed to enough of them.
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Dealing with gear is all very fiddly, with lots of tiny text offering tiny percentage boosts to different parts of your characters – but thankfully, if you want to ignore all that, hovering over an item will show you how it will affect your general melee, ranged, defense, and heroic scores, allowing those not interested in min-maxing to make snap decisions. That’s especially helpful because you can frequently find, for example, melee stat improvements on a ranged item, which will mean a higher Power ranged item might actually lower your overall strength. It’s unintuitive and irritating and made me reluctant to sort through loot instead of being excited about picking up something new.
The other major problem here is that the stat increases you’re getting are so ridiculously marginal (we’re talking often single-digit percentage points at a time) that you’ll practically never notice how your character improves after equipping a new item. Outside of elemental particle effects, nothing about what your gear changes is cosmetic (that’s left to progression unlocks and microtransactions for new skins) limiting these improvements to completely invisible numbers on a spreadsheet. Even the look of the gear icons in the menu is only loosely related to their function – while Iron Man might find new pieces for his suit, Kamala will be collecting wristbands and shirt logos (which, again, don’t change her visually when you equip them), and Hulk is improving his defense by swapping out… his ribcage, I guess?
I didn’t care about any of it, just the numbers, and even those aren’t satisfying to increase. I tried one harder beta mission when I had lower than the recommended Power level and got my butt kicked, so I went off to grind some bland Drop Zones to get that number up, and then returned to find the mission was super easy with absolutely no sense that I had accomplished anything to earn that growth. I’ve had plenty of fun grinding for power in games, but when the grind is repetitive and the rewards are unexciting, it’s a combo that can kill the momentum of any online looter – and has plenty of times in recent years. Late-game loot could, of course, be more varied or interesting than the limited amount I’ve seen, and I am interested to see how effects like Pym Particles are utilized further. But what’s here is so full of relevant flaws already that it makes me wonder if Avengers won’t eventually need to go through a loot rework similar Diablo 3, Destiny, and many others before it (a process Anthem is going through at this very moment).
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Thankfully, the other side of character progression is more compelling: simply using a hero will level them up and earn you skill points. Those can be spent on unique upgrades in one of three skill tree pages per hero, of which only one is available in the beta. I am excited to see the entirety of this system, because there seemed to be real, interesting unlocks to work toward, including new combos and entire moves. Iron Man’s was the most robust so far, allowing you to unlock rockets and lasers alongside your basic repulsors as a way to alter your heavy and ranged attacks on the fly. I liked making those choices far more than looking for loot.
There’s also clearly a lot of Marvel love poured into this game. The moves are full of references to comics and the MCU alike, and unlockable audio logs and comic book covers make this feel like both a living world of its own and an homage for longtime fans at the same time. The optional cosmetic outfits are also far superior to something like the limited options present in 2019’s Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3, with many unlocked for free (though seemingly pretty slowly) through each hero’s battle pass-style challenge card.
Another concern is that I’ve experienced a pretty alarming number of bugs in my time playing, though I will give it the resounding benefit of the doubt for this to the fact that this is a beta. So while you should take this with a grain of salt, also know that I’ve had allies completely freeze in place, my health bar disappear entirely, hard crashes to the PS4 dashboard, mission progress halted by glitched enemies, and a host of visual issues – including the fact that the frame rate will always slow significantly in large fights, even in performance mode on a PS4 Pro. A bug from the first beta weekend (one Crystal Dynamics told me has already been resolved) even permanently removed all but three missions from my map, forcing me to wipe my save data entirely to keep playing. These issues could certainly be solved by launch, but their prevalence here means I’ll definitely be keeping my eyes peeled to make sure they have.
That’s not the only big question the Avengers beta has left me with, either. I can’t wait to find out how long the full campaign is – as well as how often it will rely on using the more generic multiplayer-style missions as part of the story, which, to my dismay, it did for the beta’s third campaign mission. I want to know if mission and location variety change enough to keep me more engaged, or if its combat and heroes get a bit deeper once all the skill pages unlock. But, most importantly, I want to know if it could possibly give me a reason to care about what ribcage I equip on my Hulk.
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This beta’s campaign content had flashes of brilliance, and I am genuinely excited and optimistic to play the rest of that story. But the other side of the Avengers coin, that of a Destiny-style looter seemingly meant to be replayed long after the campaign credits roll, has me wholly unimpressed and extremely worried. It could easily be that those concerns are unfounded once I play the full game, but right now I’m left as anxious as I am impatient to find out.