Marvel's Avengers Review
Under different circumstances, this would be totally awesome
The Marvel brand has seen an incredible rise in popularity over the last decade, thanks to the release of films set in the same cinematic universe. Of course, the comics have always had a following, but there is no arguing the records set by Avengers: Endgame last year. In the video game realm, the company hasn't had as much of a breakthrough, with the heroes often appearing in fighting games of all kinds. The newly released Marvel's Avengers game was meant to be the big entry, even carrying the same definitive name. Sadly, despite some fun combat and a good campaign, the game doesn't live up to even modest expectations.
Marvel's Avengers follows the story of Kamala Khan (Ms Marvel), as she is a young fan who gets invited to A-Day, thanks to a fan fiction story she wrote about the Avengers. The A-Day is a celebration taking place aboard their new Helicarrier, called the Chimera, powered by new tech that utilizes the power of a Terrigen Crystal. Just as the Avengers make their speeches to the crowd, an explosion occurs on the nearby Golden Gate Bridge. The team make their way over and fight through the apparent terrorist group led by the Taskmaster, however it turns out to be a distraction – Captain America and the Chimera are infiltrated, and an explosion occurs. Large parts of the city are destroyed, and those onboard the ship get exposed to the crystal's fumes, giving them random supernatural abilities. The Avengers are blamed for this disaster, Captain America is presumed dead, so Iron Man, Thor, Black Widow and Hulk go their own separate ways.
The story then jumps five years ahead, as an organization called A.I.M. is working with the governments across the globe to contain the threat that the infected people – called the Inhumans – pose to the general population. AIM is led by former Avengers scientist George Tarleton who worked on the Chimera, and ambitious scientist Monica Rappaccini who is more ambitious than she appears. Kamala Khan, who has kept her powers hidden, accidentally stumbles on footage that shows Tarleton possibly killed Captain America, but this triggers AIM to come after her. On the run, she sneaks and fights her way out of the Jersey City, and finds her way to the crashed Chimera, where she encounters Hulk. She shows him the footage, and he reluctantly agrees to help. The pair thus begin a quest of reuniting the Avengers and taking on the new corporation before it pushes its powers too far.
The campaign of Marvel's Avengers is a fairly entertaining one, lasting a decent 8 to 10 hours and not overstaying its welcome. The narrative doesn't offer any mind-blowing twists or reveals, but its typical Marvel plot serves the game well and any fans of the universe will be pleased with how the events unfold. There are a few rather enjoyable campaign levels that will take players through cool set-pieces, though fans of Crystal Dynamics' previous works may see a few familiar elements.
The story is definitely helped by some solid writing and likable characters, with Ms Marvel playing her role as a naïve new superhero particularly well, going from saving others to being simply in awe of the Avengers presence. Her sensibilities are relatable and charming, and the rest of the team also take on the personalities that fans of the films will be familiar with. Black Window is all business with a side of compassion, Bruce Banner is a calm rational man who does what he thinks is best for the greater good, Thor is surprisingly funny, and Tony Stark is the self-indulgent action man.
It may be difficult to shake the images of the movie actors that have played these roles for the past 10+ years, who don't reprise their roles here, but thanks to good writing and performances, it's not a huge adjustment. Instead, you may get a slightly different sense of déjà vu, as the voice actors are a few famous faces from other game franchises. Kamala is played by Sandra Saad, and she does a good job of bringing her character to life. Other heroes however take some getting used to – Tony Stark is voiced by Nolan North, with a personality that's highly reminiscent of Nathan Drake; Bruce Banner is played Troy Baker with a soft and calm voice not unlike Joel Miller; and Natasha Romanoff is handled by Laura Bailey, who carries a familiar tone. Everyone does a good job of course, but it might take players longer to get used to the voices than to the new hero faces.
And as good as the story is, a few missteps stand out – the game doesn't address a few key moments, such as how Ms Marvel first discovered and reacted to her powers. There is also a moment when she dons her first costume, and it features the Avengers pin – the entire game goes without any sort of moment where she actually gets invited/joins the Avengers. As endearing as Kamala is, her character is inconsistent, jumping between saving the world and yet still being unsure of herself. And as the game is meant to last for many more hours through multiplayer, a few very key narrative threads are left unresolved.
Across the campaign, you'll get a chance to play as every hero on the roster. As a third person action game that focuses on melee combat, this brawler can be quite entertaining and varied. In traversal, Black Window and Ms Marvel can jump fairly far and use a grappling hook mechanics (or stretchy hands, in case of Ms Marvel) to grab ledges, enemies, and so on. Hulk and Captain America are more direct, with the former being able to leap far, and the latter able to double-jump. However, while varied, all of these movement mechanics are not really necessary. Though the levels feature occasional platforms high in the air, they are usually devoid of anything – be it loot or enemies, so there's really no case where you need to flex your traversal skills (apart from campaign set pieces).
In combat, the controls are also similar at a basic level - all heroes have a quick attack and a strong attack, as well as a dodge and a ranged ability; beyond that, there are major differences that begin to form. Thor and Iron Man have the ability to fly/hover, and their controls are the same and work well; the rest of the cast are ground-based fighters. No matter who you play, the game nails the feeling of combat from the films. Hearing the metallic thunk of Cap punching someone in the face with his shield, the lasers of Iron Man hitting the target, and the thunder strikes of Thor, it all comes together really well and very much looks the part. Even Black Widow does well with her pistols and punches, and Ms Marvel is satisfying to control with her far reaching punches and kicks. Hulk is perhaps the least satisfying to play as – he's not any stronger than other heroes, so his huge size doesn't actually feel like it matters. He can't knock or throw enemies any better, his environmental destruction is limited, and his health pool doesn't seem any different. Instead, his dodge ability feels cumbersome, and it's not always easy to see what he's hitting – and your teammates won't appreciate getting their view blocked either.
The characters bring tons of diversity to the battlefield thanks to their special meters and combo opportunities. The special ability meter functions differently depending on the hero – for Hulk, you hold the trigger to send the green guy into rage, increasing his damage, and getting hits helps keep the rage going. Other characters similarly start with a full meter which depletes with usage; Black Widow must instead land a flurry of good hits before being able to unleash. Ms Marvel's special lets her flex out of the way of incoming blows and increase damage. All characters also get 3 abilities – support, attack, and ultimate, which charge up over time. Cap's ultimate lets him become a brawler and devastate enemies with strong attacks; Black Widow gets a strong staff to pummel with; and Hulk unleashes a thunder clap to damage and stun foes ahead of him. Support abilities are aimed at affecting nearby heroes as well, such as restoring health as Ms Marvel, aggroing enemies towards you as Hulk, or making everyone invisible as Black Widow.
You earn experience for each character, which in turn provides a skill point to use in a variety of skill trees. Each hero has four areas to upgrade – for light attack, heavy, ranged, and intrinsic ability (i.e. their block/parry system). These new skills let you perform new attack combos, improve old ones, and so on. After that, there are also four specialty trees that increase the effectiveness and even function of your special abilities. Mastery skill trees have even more perks, and interestingly enough these skills unlock three choices rather than one static perk, so you can swap between what you'd like to have – more damage, health recovery, and other buffs.
Beyond earning skill points, the experience of each character doesn't matter as much as their gear level. Marvel's Avengers tries very much to be a loot-based RPG, akin to Destiny or The Division. All characters have four armor slots and a couple of artifacts; each has a level, possibly a perk, and increases your hero's stats. It's fairly typical design – new gear drops from enemies and can be found in randomly scattered chests. You can also improve the gear's level by upgrading it with 8 different materials.
But the whole system is needlessly overdesigned. Characters have too many stats – there are 4 base stats at the top of the screen, but also stat tables for might, precision, proficiency (critical/perk chance), valor, resolve (health), resilience (armor), and intensity (stun damage). It just doesn't seem to fit in a brawler game like this, and it never feels like it matters – as long as your gear level is good, you will be more than fine. The same goes for the perk and upgrade system; the game always drops better gear with every mission so you're constantly making progress, thus all gear has a very short shelf life, even if you upgrade it. All gear is unique to each character, and it loses value very quickly.
Playing on the second of four difficulties, as long as your power level is within reach of the recommended value, you'll have no problem just using whatever gear you have. Missions have random modifiers, like increased stun damage or ice/poison enemies, but these things just don't matter. It's difficult to imagine someone trying to adjust their build for every mission condition, and there's just no benefit.
Speaking of enemies, that's another area where the game doesn't quite follow its own design ambitions. You'll be fighting against AIM soldiers and their human and robotic forces, who come in a few varieties. Foot melee soldiers, flying enemies with rocket launchers, floating droids, and lots of stronger foes that block all but the strongest attacks. Enemies flash a yellow indicator when winding up an attack to be dodged/blocked, and red when it's unblockable. For a while it's fun to dodge around and duke it out; but later in the campaign, and for all of the post-story content, you'll be encountering sizable forces where it's pretty much impossible to dodge everything. Your attacks are all animation based, and getting disrupted/stumbling happens very often. As such it becomes more of a button masher, as stronger enemies begin to ignore your attacks and cannot be stunned or interrupted. So you won't be too focused on trying to combo or juggle enemies in the air, and more about dodging and throwing punches whenever possible. The battles just get very chaotic, with tons of foes, and it somewhat works against the combo system the game tries to promote.
A short while into the campaign, players gain access to two small hub areas – the Chimera ship, and the base of the Inhuman alliance. These hubs possess the War Table, which is a menu to launch all missions. The hubs also serve as the bases for the game's two factions – Shield on the ship, and Inhumans in the second hub. The ship is at least fun to explore – the Avengers hang out there so you can briefly talk to them, and go into their rooms for some Easter eggs. However, the Inhuman base has nothing to do except visit the faction vendor and faction head, so you must endure another loading screen and run through just to visit those two characters.
Visiting these two factions will be a frequent occurrence once you've completed the campaign and move on to the post-story missions. The factions provide daily and weekly quests, which is meant to keep players coming back and grinding for experience. In return, you get resources, and access to higher level gear. Additionally, each hero has their own Season Pass-like progression system that also offers daily and weekly challenges in return for cosmetic unlocks like new name plates, emotes, takedowns, and hero skins. You can also buy skins directly with real money.
After you've completed the campaign and gotten comfortable with all the heroes, you can head online to continue fighting AIM with other players, cooperatively. Annoyingly, the game requires you to register for a Square Enix account. Playing with others doesn't add much – you can always bring along your AI heroes, who do a very decent job of dealing damage and reviving as needed. You can't really give them commands or anything, but they are quite capable in a fight, regardless of their gear level.
The post-campaign design of the Avengers has you running various mission chains that try to continue a few of the story threads left unfinished in the campaign. However, these narrative tidbits are really minor and don't really offer much satisfaction. Instead, it boils down to doing the same very repetitive missions over and over. By far the biggest issue with the Avengers' gameplay is the level design. The missions that you go on to boil down to dropping you off in one of a few environment types – a city, a sand canyon, a grassy canyon, and so on – and just making your way to an objective AIM building. All the environments, buildings and their interiors always look the same; inside you will find combat rooms, which again constantly repeat, and just task you to eliminate all foes. Sometimes, you may ignore enemies and simply stand in certain spots to let JARVIS hack something; or you may need to destroy glowing generators. Sometimes, you may have to fight a squad of strong AIM soldiers.
The game tries to provide some variety by adding Vaults and Hives, but again these missions types are the same every time. In Vaults you have to run around the same room and stand in a numbered square, based on a given number combination, while fighting waves of foes. In Hives, you're going up a tower, clearing an enemy room on each floor. It's highly repetitive and basic, but at least the game doesn't make you run around an outdoor area with random foes before getting to the objective.
This extremely repetitive mission design really weighs it down, and it doesn't help that you've got essentially 5 characters to level. As mentioned, all gear and experience is unique to each hero, and the AI that you bring along do not gain anything. So it's like trying to level 5 characters in Destiny or Division; a very time consuming task that isn't helped by already being very bored just leveling one hero due to the repetitive missions. Having to do it all over again for another hero never feels worthwhile.
And so you might consider playing with others, so that at least you can have other high level characters helping you along. Matchmaking is pretty flakey however, with unclear indicators of when you're searching or when there is a problem. It's very rare to find 3 other players to fill the squad, so an AI hero joins anyway. The game also doesn't make it clear how the mission difficulty works – sometimes the required power level jumps all over the place depending on who joins your game, and sometimes you're not allowed to bring your own AI companions because they are too low level.
But where the game really comes apart is in its performance. On a base model PS4, this is one of the worst performing major releases of the year. There's plenty of issues – less impacting examples are cutscenes missing sounds and effects, not playing at all, and some very poor draw distances as you watch items and textures stream in. Bringing up the character menu to tinker in your inventory during loading screen often results in glitches when the level does load. Things get a lot worse in gameplay as you get clipped into buildings, enemies fall through the ground, and scripted events don't trigger, and thus require a checkpoint restart. But the worst part is when the game's framerate absolutely tanks during heavy battle sequences, into almost single digits, making it largely unplayable for a few moments. Even simply navigating the menus and various character tabs results in very long pauses every single time. You almost dread going into the menus.
And it's not like the game is pushing the hardware to its limits. This is a decent looking game, with some nice animations and character models, and combat moves that fans will recognize from the Marvel films. But the environments are decidedly bland and lacking in detail, with the texture quality just on par with any other major release. The effects are also nothing to write home about. It's very disappointing to see such terrible performance for what amounts to a fairly average quality presentation package.
Marvel's Avengers is a game that carried a lot of potential, at least on paper. It succeeds in delivering an enjoyable campaign, which is not always easy to do with a licensed property. The combat and character variety is also pretty fun, along with authentic animations and satisfying takedowns, with the RPG progression systems decently designed. However, the very dull and repetitive level design, the grind for higher levels, and tons of technical issues really prevent the game's potential from shining through. And there is certainly some potential here – it just wasn't ready for prime time. It's pitched as a long-service online game, so it's possible that these issues get fixed down the line, but there's also a lot of structure redesign that will be needed. For now, it's a game that's only going to satisfy the most dedicated fans of these superheroes.