The superhero genre is a good friend of the video game. This magic combination can result in some of the best gaming experiences that money can buy and they can also result in absolute dreck. So when the biggest superhero franchise of the modern era, Earth’s Mightiest Heroes themselves, finally got a big AAA game to capitalise on their reign over pop culture there were high expectations. The Avengers rule the movie world, can Marvel’s Avengers do the same for video games?
The answer is not a simple one but, in essence, no. Not at all.
Yet it all started with such promise. The prologue concerns Kamala Khan attending an Avengers event in San Francisco. She is our window into this world, including a few fleeting interactions with the team, but then disaster strikes and the team have to assemble to save the day.
A lot of the cast are riffing on their MCU counterparts but Kamala Khan is a very welcome injection of youth and enthusiasm. The character stuff all feels on point, lacking the immediate spark of their cinematic siblings but engaging and likeable nonetheless, the murderer’s row of gaming voice artist elite including The Last of Us Part II’s Troy Baker and Laura Bailey definitely do their work in these cut scenes.
There are issues almost immediately when it comes down to playing. Characters move with a certain rigidity, it lacks the fluid movement of something like Marvel’s Spider-Man. The controls feel poorly thought out, the interaction button is the same button as the basic strike so you may occasionally find yourself swinging a pointless punch when you want to be opening a door or crate purely because you weren’t facing exactly the right direction at the time of pressing.
This problem also extends to a lot of the character controls in combat. There is something so haphazard about a lot of the button mapping here, on top of the other problems that we will get to. As there are a lot of characters in this game, and they all control and handle a little differently, it is best to break it down individually.
Thor‘s hits feel weighty but the action doesn’t flow right. Everything moves a few beats too slow and you can tell they took some cues from God of War but the controls aren’t nearly as intuitive, so the flow of combat suffers even more. It’s satisfying but it’s not exciting.
Iron Man‘s flight controls are, again, really counter-intuitive, using the right stick to steer rather than control the camera yet the left stick also appears to steer to some degree so nothing controls the camera aside from your physical movement. This is the sort of thing Starfox did before tech had advanced enough to allow independent camera movement, it feels so cumbersome and intrusive. It makes piloting a little awkward. Hovering feels a little better, one stick controls movement and one controls your view, so the controls make a little more sense, but it moves at a snail’s pace. This carries through into the shooting for Iron Man; aiming is slow and awkward and the action lacks the weight of Thor’s hammer blows. You really want to feel that recoil of his repulsor blasts and it’s just not there.
Hulk is fun. They give him appropriate traversal mechanics and his attacks feel wild and heavy, the clunky uneven character movement that plagues all the characters in this game even makes sense with this character even if it’s not a design choice.
Black Widow plays really well. The aiming is more responsive than it is with Iron Man, the melee combat flows smoother, everything has the right level of impact for this character. Strange that the character with no powers is more fun to play than some of the characters with the coolest powers. Captain America is similarly enjoyable to play. His shield attack is dynamic and differentiates him from everyone else, he has some really impactful takedowns. The whole experience of being Cap feels authentic to the character.
The prologue is probably the best advertisement for the game. The set pieces are fantastically overblown, the stakes are immediate, and the heroes powers feel like they are having a tangible impact on the world around them. The rest of the game doesn’t come close to reaching this level, which makes me wonder what could’ve been done with this IP had they put all their attention into just a single-player campaign. I wanted a lot more big, destructive set pieces like the Golden Gate Bridge battle.
After the prologue, you get to play as a teenage Kamala Khan as she uncovers a shocking conspiracy behind the ‘A-Day’ disaster that created the superpowered race known as the Inhumans and led to the dissolution of the Avengers. A sinister tech giant called AIM, that emerged following the loss of the Avengers and SHIELD, seems to behind it all. Kamala is quite fun to play, her body mass shifting powers allow for some visually interesting attacks and traversal.
After some table setting with Kamala’s first mission, establishing a Marvel Universe without the Avengers, she eventually joins forces with Bruce Banner/The Hulk to start reassembling the team. So now you get to play as one character with the other characters are AI sidekicks.
At this point, the game starts to gradually unravel its upgrade systems and the concept of loot and this is when the game truly begins to come off the rails. What begins as a passably fun action game becomes bogged down by ceaseless, fiddly admin.
The menus are a pain to use on consoles. A mouse pointer is a dreadful design choice for menu navigation for a console. It never works. It’s unintuitive and it’s slow. Especially maddening as the menus are ridiculously dense. There are four gear slots which, when hovered over, reveal all your available gear options. Slip your thumb a little or move the wrong way even a little and that pop up will disappear. Now it is possible to navigate in a more conventional manner, in a way, as the mouse cursor still needs to be in the exact right position for the directional buttons to work.
The cosmetics screen is even bigger with all the cool and geeky skins, emotes, takedown animations, and nameplates. Yes, even nameplates. A wealth of cosmetic options is not a major issue, we will get into the real issues there later, but when your menu system is horrible to navigate it does not feel exhilarating to go upgrade your hero. It feels like work.
There are stats everywhere. The gear has stats, even the damn collectables you find around the world have stats. It’s too much. Even the great physicists of history would see all these goddamn numbers and think it’s a bit excessive. None of this is fun and when you think about Avengers, you think fun. Kids want to play an Avengers game. This is not appealing to kids. The Avengers IP is so successful because it appeals to a broad cross-section of people, this is appealing to only a very specific type of gamer.
Upgrading characters, offering unique paid battle passes for each character, no doubt doing the same for the DLC additions. None of this is worth it when you consider how repetitive the game already feels. A lot of these characters play like asset flips of each other. Thor and Iron Man share the same flight mechanics, despite it making no sense for Thor to fly that way. Cap and Black Widow share the same combat mechanics, just like Hulk and Thor. You can already see the signs of how ’copy and paste’ these new DLC characters will be; Spidey will likely manoeuvre like Ms Marvel but with webbing in place of stretchy limbs, Black Panther will definitely fight like Cap, and the two incoming Hawkeye characters are a no brainer. They want you to keep grinding and/or paying through the nose, to max out and kit out characters that will feel like re-skins of a character you’ve already played before because the characters we got at launch already feel that way.
Let’s talk a little more about the grind. There are around nine different pieces of in-game resources needed to upgrade your gear or trade for new gear with the vendors on your Helicarrier hub. To get these special tokens will require you grind away in fights, either by replaying main campaign missions or via their multiplayer mode. This means repetition. And repetition relies on a gameplay loop. Every game has one, in some form or another, the basic function of action required to succeed in the game paired with the rewards of that success. Run and jump to collect a string of gold rings at high speed in Sonic, mow down demons with a shotgun in Doom, and so on. The focus on a ‘live service’ experience means the game must be played and replayed ad infinitum to get even remotely close to your money’s worth, so the gameplay loop needs to feel both mentally rewarding and physically engaging. It needs to be as easy to get into as a reflex, it needs to hit that dopamine high every time you nail it, and the highs need to be off the charts the better you get. Destiny 2 has it since Bungie are among the all-time best engineers of FPS gameplay. World of Warcraft has it with its deep RPG combat system. Marvel’s Avengers does not have it.
With the gameplay loop being as simple as beating up endless supplies of bad guys, opening crates, and collecting loot from both, there was a strong need to make it compelling to play. Playing Marvel’s Avengers never feels like you earned your loot because the game doesn’t feel like you have full control over it, you’re hitting the buttons and things are happening, but they are so counter-intuitive that it never feels natural. You never get into a zone because you’re constantly forced to think about what you’re doing. Fighting excessive amount of damage-sponge enemies without the scripted beats of the prologue to accentuate the impact of your actions, the fights start to feel flat. Even Hulk, one of the best characters to play in the prologue, wore my interest down to a nub. The boss battles are big and dynamic and feel as cinematic as the best moments in the prologue, but the connective tissue simply isn’t there. The entire game should feel like the prologue, that high should not be a reward for being patient with the rest of the game.
What’s more, the screen is so relentlessly busy with information in the thick of battle that it does not always register that you even found loot. The game would have to remind me that I had found some better gear and I should upgrade my loadout. Even if I was enjoying the mechanics of looting, the overload of visual data in every frame is denying me the pop of excitement in knowing I got the loot in the first place.
Nothing about this game works as it should. Every design choice is seemingly at odds with its intended goal. It is deeply frustrating.
The story is fine, serviceable enough, but the performances are solid enough to make the cut scenes enjoyable to watch. Troy Baker in particular crafts a really interesting take on Bruce Banner. But the action needed to drive the story forward is nearly non-existent, the looter aspect of these games requires you to batter massive amounts of bad guys so every level inevitably feels like an endless skirmish with aggressively obnoxious particle effects and stats popping on screen. The action rarely ever feels like it is serving the narrative, merely serving the loot. It becomes numbing after a few rounds.
So, if this title is a struggle to truly enjoy in the relatively brief campaign, how will it fare as a live service game that (in theory) offers no end?
Post-endgame content comes in the form of its multiplayer modes, although they can be played solo with AI companions. These are basically the exact same thing you will find in the main campaign without any storytelling to pad them out, these are the missions that the game expects you to grind away at for your loot and cosmetic tokens.
The existence of this post-game mode is the reason the main campaign feels so lifeless and uninspired. This mode is how the game is expected to last in the long term so the main campaign needed to feel just like the multiplayer to prepare players for what to expect. That is why the single-player story campaign frequently devolves into drawn-out fights with damage-sponges, that you may well fail several times and need to replay several times in order to switch or boost your gear on a return trip.
The combat mechanics and the core gameplay loop are simply not good enough to justify this playstyle and staying with this game beyond the end of the main story feels like a punishment rather than a pleasure. The likelihood of a player sinking enough hours into the game to access every secret and every cool new skin seems remote, so the alternative is to pay your way to success. This may well be the intention, design a game just frustrating enough that paying for a shortcut to your favourite skins and emotes is a viable option. I would normally feel bad about thinking so cynically but there is something extremely unpleasant about this games entire design ethos and I get more upset by it the longer I spend with it.
On a technical level, the game is not great either. The graphics aren’t very polished, with muddy and unclear textures, and there are frequent performance issues when things get too frantic but the game tries to patch over this with motion blur, which does not help the existing aesthetic problems. None of this should be acceptable when the loading screens are interminably long; I watched characters cycle through their waiting animation more times than I cared to remember as we transitioned from missions to the hub. For a game this big with the expectation to invest more time and money for cosmetics, it does not look nearly good enough.
There are the seeds of a good game in Marvel’s Avengers, anyone who has played Square Enix or Crystal Dynamics work in the past knows they are capable of greatness, but it is currently buried under mountains of menus and rather shameless monetisation schemes. If they had put all their energy solely into a good campaign experience, focusing on more fluid combat, intuitive controls and a more user-friendly progression system, this could have been a top tier superhero game. Sadly, far too much mental real estate was wasted on loot and working out ways to monetise the cosmetic content so the elements of the game that actually work do not work nearly as well as they should.
I cannot in good faith recommend people pay for Marvel’s Avengers. At it’s absolute best, the game is fine. More often that not, it does not reach those modest heights. The live-service approach to a franchise that does not suit it has rendered so much of it bland and lazy when that’s the last thing a game of this nature should be. This may be a game that we come back to in the future and find a completely reworked, satisfying experience that doesn’t put all its effort into blocking the player from enjoying themselves but not right now. At launch, Marvel’s Avengers is an imperfect and frustrating mess.
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum