Photo Credit: Square Enix
Marvel's Avengers — out now on PC, PS4, and Xbox One — has arrived at the craziest of times. This is a cliché at this point, but 2020 has been weird, to say the least. In a normal year, we would have gotten the Scarlett Johansson-led Black Widow movie, and the first-ever Marvel Cinematic Universe series at Disney+ in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier by now. And we would be looking forward to a wild new expansion of the MCU with Eternals. But the pandemic has seen to it that none of it would transpire as planned. It's been a year without Marvel movies and TV shows — Black Widow is slated for November currently, but fat chance of that happening in India with our coronavirus situation — and in such times, the Avengers game is the only new Marvel story in 2020.
In some ways Marvel's Avengers is like going back to 2012, to the days of The Avengers. Its developer Crystal Dynamics — best known for the Tomb Raider series — has used much of the same primary superhero roster that fuelled the first Marvel get-together. We've got Iron Man (Nolan North), Captain America (Jeff Schine), Thor (Travis Willingham), Black Widow (Laura Bailey), and the Hulk (Troy Baker and Darin De Paul). There's no Hawkeye but that's only because he's being reserved as one of the post-launch characters, after Kate Bishop and to be (controversially) followed by Spider-Man in 2021.
Where the Avengers game differentiates itself is the role it carves out for Kamala Khan (Sandra Saad). Not only is she the catalyst that helps bring the band back together after a tragedy — twice — she's also the beating heart of the game's single-player campaign. The story of Marvel's Avengers is the story of Kamala, a first-generation Muslim teenager from New Jersey who's grappling with her new identity and what it means to be a hero. Kamala is also an Avengers superfan, which makes her an audience surrogate of sorts, and the game does well to create the feeling of what it would like to be to meet superheroes.
Additionally, the Avengers game also riffs on the 2015 sequel Avengers: Age of Ultron, with the group going up against a seemingly unending wave of robots. The game's sociopathic scientist villain Monica Rappaccini (Jolene Andersen) claims they have “complex AI”, but the robots never have a meaningful conversation. For Marvel's Avengers, it's just a throwaway line given to a bit-part underwritten character.
Monica is the right-hand woman to fellow scientist Dr. George Tarleton (Usman Ally), who believes the Avengers are flawed because they are human and capable of mistakes. As such, he thinks they are a danger to society that must be curbed. Tarleton is also aggrieved by the Avengers' behaviour, particularly Iron Man's showboating. But the game doesn't go far enough in conveying his resentment, and he feels like an accessory to the plot.
Like with most Marvel movies, the main villains here are unmemorable and no fun to be around. We do get a couple of supporting supervillains in Taskmaster (Walter Gray IV) and Abomination (Jamieson Price) appear early on, who have history with our heroes — Black Widow and Hulk, respectively — but they are missing from the main narrative henceforth.
Instead, the bots that do all the grunt work, which deprives the Avengers game of any personality or visual flair, with all of them looking the exact same as any of their counterparts. That also ties into the uninspired combat. Just as we noted after spending time with the beta, it's extremely chaotic and will have you mashing your buttons as you do your best to rotate between four options as quickly as you can: light attack, heavy attack, dodge, and counter/ parry. As I'm writing this review, my fingers still hurt from all the button smashing I've done over the last two days in the Marvel's Avengers campaign.
Speaking of, this review pertains to the “Reassemble” single-player campaign only. We'll look at the online co-op multiplayer aspects, dubbed the “Avengers Initiative”, in a separate review.
The lack of personality is also felt in the indoor glass-and-steel environments where most of the combat in the Avengers game takes place. There's a very programmed feel to all of it. Enemies teleport in waves, you deal with them, and move onto the next one. Rinse and repeat. Combat lets Marvel's Avengers down, which is troubling given how central combat is to video games. What the campaign needed were unique moments and custom-designed action sequences that made the Avengers feel like a team. Instead what it delivers is an array of cookie-cutter missions that have seemingly been designed to support years of multiplayer.
And that's what it comes down to. Though it sounds like a cousin of the wonderful PS4 exclusive Marvel's Spider-Man, Marvel's Avengers is in fact competing in a whole different bracket.
Which brings us to the biggest annoyance of all in the Avengers game: strongboxes. The superheroes on Marvel's Avengers can be upgraded with new skills, costumes, and gear. While some of it is combat-driven, the rest is found in rectangular crates (gear) or square boxes (resources) lying around the in-game world. It's funny that you've to open or smash things to level up your hero, but what makes it annoying is how overused the mechanic is.
The second time you're on the Helicarrier as Kamala, the objective is to see Bruce in a different room. But that's not what you should do. You should go find and open six boxes around the ship before you actually see him. Otherwise your hero might be underpowered in combat later. During missions, the AI Jarvis (Harry Hadden-Paton) is reduced to periodically reminding you that you should “look for a chest with gear nearby”. Surely Jarvis has more important world problems to solve than serve as Alexa? More importantly, who came up with this stupid implementation of giving new gear to heroes?
As you unlock new heroes, new crates will appear in places you've already visited. It's almost like there's a secret Avenger whose sole job is to place crates around the Helicarrier and wherever you go so you can have the gear and resources you'll need on your journey. It gets to a point that you'll find yourself wondering where the strongboxes are whenever you enter a new environment, before doing anything else. And not only do you have to go around picking up new gear from crates, you also have to then manage it in the menus. Heroes with a full inventory can't pick up new gear, which means you've to periodically get rid of old items, one by one. Just so you can go and collect more.
Some crates even have enemies waiting to pounce on you after you open it. If you are so interested in guarding it, why did you leave it lying in a corner in the first place? What it boils down to is that it not only pads game time but is also proof of terrible game design in Marvel's Avengers.
When you're not busy looking for crates, you'll get to experience what it's like to be an Avenger. The game gives you an idea of what each of them play like during a grand opening mission set on San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. But it's more of an introduction than a proper combat tutorial. That comes later as the heroes are slowly unlocked, with Marvel's Avengers dropping you into HARM (Holographic Augmented Reality Machine) rooms. It's where you first get to explore every ability of each superhero, and to which you should return to practice and hone your skills.
Each of the (launch) heroes have unique skills, though there's a bit of overlap in places. Kamala can heal, punch with a giant fist, or enlarge herself and in turn, increase the power of all her attacks. She can stretch her body in all sorts of ways, which allows her to grab onto edges and swing from anything hanging. Black Widow does that with her grappling hook, though she can attach it to nearly anything or anyone. She can also create a cloak of invisibility.
Iron Man is a ranged specialist as he fires rockets or powerful beams, and can call upon the Hulkbuster, which even the Hulk can use. Hulk is a beast who uses rage to terrify enemies, charges at them, and claps his hands to create a shockwave. Cap can cause an area of effect damage too by smashing his shield on the floor, and he can throw it too, with the shield hitting as many as five enemies before it returns to Cap. Thor can send Mjolnir flying as well, naturally, and he can summon the Bifrost too.
The single-player campaign doesn't give you equal time with all of them — especially if you stick to the main story — but it does give an indication of what it's like to play as them. Hulk allows you to rampage without hesitation though he does make for an easy target due to his size. It's much easier to evade with Thor and Iron Man as you can take off. Black Widow can do as much by grappling away, but playing with her is a bit more tactical on the whole. Kamala is quite versatile but she's limited with ranged attacks.
You can solve some of the pain points by unlocking more skills and combos from a three-page skill tree for each superhero, with the help of skill points that can only be earned by playing Marvel's Avengers. You earn skill points as you level up — the heroes max out at level 50, but we haven't even scraped into double digits during the campaign, which is again a signal of how the game is designed for multiplayer and built to last several years. There's a lot on offer among the skill trees, but it will take you a lot of time to unlock it all.
But whether we'll be playing for so long is potentially the bigger question, given the nature of combat. It's not particularly exciting even as it throws the world at you. Though what that does mean from a strategic standpoint is you've to be clever about your approach. We found it best to take care of the ranged units such as drones and snipers first, before dealing with the ones surrounding you. Otherwise, they will have a field day in draining your health from afar.
Another thing that bothered us about combat in Marvel's Avengers are the impenetrable force shields that some enemies can conjure. Not only can they take any amount of damage, making even a beast like Hulk seem feeble, but they make no sense on a practical level. What kind of force shield can protect you when your opponent (Hulk) is literally tearing up the ground that you're standing on?
Graphically, Marvel's Avengers looks fine. There wasn't anything here that wowed me. The game's art direction feels like it's merely serving a purpose. The level of detail isn't great either, with Kamala's hair being a solid mass, instead of coming across as strands of hair. Where the Avengers game does do better is with the animations — be it Kamala's giant first punches, Iron Man's spin and blasts, or Black Widow's agile moves — but they do tend to get lost within the chaos of the combat.
Or they are spoiled by massive frame drops at times, much more apparent during or just after heavy sequences. Of course, my experience is with a PS4, arguably the weakest system Marvel's Avengers is playable on. In addition to the aforementioned PC and Xbox One, the Avengers game is also available on the half-gen upgrades PS4 Pro and Xbox One X and coming to next-gen consoles PS5 and Xbox Series X. But it's worth noting that the PS4 will be the most popular platform of choice at launch, and it's a shame Crystal Dynamics hasn't been able to fully optimise for it.
It's nowhere as annoying as the problems with combat though. If you can look past the latter — and it's not easy — you'll find a story that's largely well done, especially when it comes to Kamala's role in it. Its best moments are the narrative interludes, be it the early fun, charming, and giddy moments she shares with the Avengers or the quiet moments, like the time she drinks a giant cola, plays with a Hulk bobble head toy figure, and puts on a pop song on the radio in Bruce's car. Marvel's Avengers needed more of that, but unfortunately, it's drowning in sensory overload.
Rating (out of 10): 6