Over the past decade, the Avengers have risen from being the provenance of comic book aficionados to one of the most recognizable intellectual properties in the world. They are superhero superstars whose names — Captain America, Iron Man, Black Widow, The Incredible Hulk, and Thor — bear immense weight in the world of entertainment. Translating the Avengers to the world of video gaming has left fans disappointed more often than not (Marvel’s Spider-Man on PS4 was an achievement in Avenger-adjacent superhero gaming; Sega’s Iron Man was 2008’s floppiest flop), which puts the high ambitions of Marvel’s Avengers into perspective.
After playing a gently disappointing beta and finally making it through the game’s initial campaign, it’s clear that Marvel’s Avengers is defined by that ambition. So much so, in fact, that the single-player missions that comprise the bulk of the story on release function more as a tease for wonders — and horrors — to come than it does a completely satisfying narrative. The main plot is fun, but the real excitement in playing comes from the dawning realization that this game nails the experience of playing as an Avenger and promises that as a live game, Marvel’s Avengers will return.
Putting Together A Team
The basic plot of Marvel’s Avengers, as seen in the oft-demoed “Avengers Day” gameplay, is that the Earth’s Mightiest super-team messed up, broke up, infected thousands of people with an Inhuman Virus that gives those people superpowers, and let an evil robotics company called AIM take over the world in their absence. Five years after A-Day, stuff’s pretty bleak in the Marvel Gaming Universe. Luckily for the scattered Avengers, a hero is ready to rise and save the day.
That hero is Kamala “Ms. Marvel” Khan, the protagonist and hero of our story. It is significant that this game revolves around Kamala for a number of reasons, most of which come down to the fact that a teenaged Muslim woman leading a AAA superhero saga is a first for the franchise and the industry. Marvel’s Avengers’ faith in Kamala is well placed, since she’s the most delightful part of the plot.
Kamala is an Inhuman, one of the “infected” people who gained powers after A-Day. She’s also an Avengers superfan who’s mourning the loss of her heroes. Kamala knows that the world needs the Avengers and tracks each one down to reassemble the only team that could take down AIM. The rest of the story follows predictably, based on the fact that everyone knows this game has Iron Man, Thor, Black Widow, and The Hulk as playable characters, but the glue that holds the Avengers together is their admiration for Kamala’s heroic spirit.
As mentioned before, the main campaign is fun. It is also surprisingly short. Marvel’s Avengers is not the kind of game that follows a single plot for 30+ hours. The reassembling of the Avengers is an eight- to ten-hour prelude designed to introduce the player to each character and prepare them for the moment the story ends, at which point the game reveals its final form as a constantly evolving multiplayer superhero universe.
Waging a successful campaign against Advanced Idea Mechanics and M.O.D.O.K. is really just where things start in Avengers. Crystal Dynamics built this to be a “live game,” hatched from the same DNA as favorites like Destiny or Grand Theft Auto Online.
The plan the studio has laid out is to deliver a continuing story in the form of free updates that will introduce new playable heroes and new threats to challenge them. We already know that Kate Bishop and Hawkeye both are coming to Avengers before the end of 2020, along with a new story to help us get to know them.
While we don’t know for sure, it’s fair to expect those add-ons to bring a level of challenge that compares to the campaign – which is to say, stuff you can comfortably play solo. But that’s only part of how Avengers is intended to grow after release.
The moment you finish the campaign, you’re pushed into “Avengers Initiative,” an online-centric mode (though you can still do plenty solo) that brings forward shorter, optional missions from the campaign and pairs them with new quest chains and tougher activities that lead to a growing array of higher tier rewards.
This is the play space where your choices around gear and skill builds start to matter. The campaign does a good job of introducing the concept of gear and how it impacts your power level. Once that’s done, your primary goal forks off in two directions. On the one hand, you’ve got that fresh pile of quests and high-value rewards to chase. But even that is just a means to an end.
The reassembling of the Avengers is an eight- to ten-hour prelude.
The real “endgame” in Avengers is a set of mission types that are built specifically for players at the higher power levels (the power level cap is 150). So as you’re doing the new quests, you’re getting higher quality loot that increases your power at a slow-but-steady pace. The better gear is also steadily delivering bonus effects that have more noticeable impact, like adding status effects to your ranged attacks.
It’s like training wheels for the true endgame. You’re not going to keep any of the gear you get on the climb to 150 power because you’re replacing it relatively quickly with higher-power items. There are ways to upgrade the better pieces and extend their usefulness, too. But you quickly learn not to be precious with your loot. It has no effect on how you look; it’s just there to push the numbers higher.
It helps that there’s a very natural feel and flow to powering up at this stage of the game. Even though you’re running through the same, relatively boring play spaces, the new goals you get to chase (along with the wider variety of threats that pop up) make every mission more exciting. This is also where you’re starting to make choices about how to set up your skill tree. Some of the tougher missions even encourage that experimentation, with modifiers that explicitly push you toward different styles of play.
This kind of pace and complexity isn’t for everyone. If you’re here more for an Avengers story and atmosphere, the going post-campaign gets downright dull. You’re running through harder versions of scenarios you’ve seen before, facing armies of enemies that look largely the same, and spending sizable chunks of time managing your inventory and reading skill pages.
The post-campaign stretch does introduce some curveballs. Villain Sectors let you revisit some of Avengers‘ startlingly few supervillain boss fights. And S.H.I.E.L.D. Vaults break up the “go here, punch this” monotony with light timed challenges. But the monotony does tend to creep back in, and that sense of boredom can easily undermine your superhero power fantasy.
That said, wiling away the hours in simple, XP-earning activities while worrying about skill builds and upgrade materials is just how a stats-centric action-RPG like Avengers works. Eventually, players will be able to test their amassed power against extra-challenging missions, like the “AIM’s Secret Lab” that’s coming a week or two after launch. But the process of getting to that point, the “gameplay loop” that keeps Avengers players on the hook, worked well for me.
Earth’s Mightiest Heroes
One of Avengers‘ greatest strengths is the variety in its roster of heroes. Ms. Marvel, Hulk, Iron Man, Black Widow, Thor, and Captain America all kick ass on their own. But each one plays differently in practice, with weaknesses to be mindful of and strengths to favor.
Despite those differences, they all operate under the same simple premise. There’s a standard set of basic attacks that tend to deal the least amount of damage but can be used with abandon. Then there’s the powerful Heroic abilities that you’ll use only rarely — they’re on a timed cooldown — but which can tilt the battlefield with heavy damage or tide-turning support enhancements.
Resting in between those two extremes is each hero’s unique twist on possessing superpowers. Think Iron Man’s repulsor blasts or Thor’s innate ability to channel lightning. You access to this reservoir of power is managed by an “intrinsic energy” meter that empties as you use your abilities amp up attacks and refills over time (there are ways to speed it up, including when you dish out light attacks).
The form and function of intrinsic energy abilities varies from hero to hero. Captain America can reflect projectiles with his shield. Black Widow has her guns and Iron Man his various blasters. Hulk and Ms. Marvel are good examples to focus on, as they both seem like more typical bruisers at the outset. But their full range of capabilities couldn’t be more different.
One of Avengers‘ greatest strengths is the variety in its roster of heroes.
Hulk, obviously, is about the rage. That’s his intrinsic ability, which you activate during a fight by holding down the R2 button. While it’s active, Hulk’s attacks deal more damage and his defense gets boosted. Ms. Marvel’s intrinsic ability, on the other hand, is polymorph. It works similarly (hold R2 to activate) and also ups her damage while allowing her to automatically bend around incoming attacks.
The differences between them become more apparent as they level up and their skill trees develop. You earn skill points with each new level and you can invest those points into improving everything from individual Heroics to basic attacks to the way intrinsic energy actually benefits you. Some of these aren’t accessible until levels 10 and 15, which helps make each tree’s three pages worth of possibilities less overwhelming to dig through in the early going.
For Hulk, you might want to focus on an upgrade that lets him heal while rage is active and then pair it with another upgrade that improves your intrinsic energy recovery. So you’d play in a constant loop of beating up enemies until rage is full, switching to rage to deal even more damage while healing, and then come out of it refreshed and ready for more. That puts your Hulk into more of a tank-style role.
Ms. Marvel, on the other hand, comes with skills that set her up better in a team support, or healing, role. So you might ignore her intrinsic energy options in early upgrades to focus on her healing Heroic ability, which can be improved to have more charges, revive downed teammates, and even restore intrinsic energy team-wide.
The great thing about building your Avengers heroes is each one contains multitudes. You can make Hulk more of a ranged fighter if you prefer, and you can focus Ms. Marvel in a more Hulk-like bruiser direction. Every hero has this kind of flexibility. The skill trees aren’t even meant to lock you into specific choices; over time, you’ll unlock each skill tree in full and at that point you have a choice of which skills to keep active.
Picking Your Battles
The large scale ambitions of Marvel’s Avengers as a live game that can add new content, new heroes, and new missions at any moment does unfortunately mean that the game lacks a certain flair in its mission design. The heroes themselves look and play wonderfully, but the cost of making each Avenger a unique character experience is the rest of the game’s design at launch.
Most of the missions take place in disappointingly dull, repeatable environments. There goes the Incredible Hulk, fighting in a science lab. Now Black Widow is vaulting her way through a desert. And oh — now we’re in a snowy tundra. Lather, rinse, repeat ad nauseam.
Some of the story missions are unique, including an early one that has Kamala sneaking through Heroes Park, a fictional Jersey City landmark designed to honor the Avengers, but by the time the main campaign is over the mere sight of another cactus in the Utah desert is groan inducing.
These are small gripes compared to the thrilling possibilities offered by the live game. Marvel’s Avengers had the unenviable task of retranslating the fantasy of being not one, but many of pop culture’s most popular superheroes into a video game. Its successes in doing so bode well for the game’s inevitably long future.
So strap on your armor, grab your shield from the wall, reach out your arm to summon Mjolnir and don’t forget to stretch. There’s a whole world that needs saving and Marvel’s Avengers knows that a hero’s job is never done.