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FIRST LOOK: MARVEL’S AVENGERS

MARVEL’S AVENGERS is just around the corner, and I was lucky enough to be invited to play the beta build of the game in advance. Over the course of a long weekend, I tried out some of the main campaign, strike missions, and explored the world with a number of characters that will be available in the full game when it launches September 4.

Set five years after the events of A-Day (a terrible name that nobody seems to have given a second thought about); a cataclysmic disaster which saw New York turn into a barren wasteland and thousands of people infected with a gas that unleashed the Inhuman gene in them. The Avengers have disbanded, Captain America is dead, Tony Stark is missing, and a fascist new organization called AIM has taken over the world.

Enter Kamala Khan, a precocious, smart, and adventurous youth who sets out to find answers about her mutation. After a chance encounter with Bruce Banner makes her a target with AIM, born from the ashes of SHIELD, Khan becomes the one person who can reassemble the legendary team, and become a hero in the process as well. 

As far as setups go, AVENGERS has a great one. Kamala Khan is a wonderful lead character, one who is a joy to play and be around. Not only does her introduction feel logical, but it’s a natural extension of the gameplay in that she serves as an audience surrogate to all the mechanics and story beats. Had the game been entirely about her – in the style of the PS4 masterpiece SPIDER-MAN – AVENGERS would be a winner right out the gate. 

Sadly, based on the beta, AVENGERS can’t quite settle on what kind of a story it wants to tell. There’s almost a contractual obligation to include the lineup of Avengers from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but without everything we’ve grown to love about them over the past decade. 

The first bit of weirdness is apparent right when the game first loads up. For whatever reason, Sony and Crystal Dynamics haven’t licensed any of the likenesses from the cast, which makes the reliance on their esoteric presence that much more confusing. At every turn we’re supposed to be reminded of how great these characters in the films are, but only just enough that nobody gets sued. Dialog evokes the famous one liners with similar tone and timbre, but not quite.

Sure, everyone tries really hard with their roles, but as much as I like actors Nolan North and Troy BakerMark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr. they are not. 

This indecisiveness extends to the gameplay itself, which at the present is a hodgepodge of linear action (the campaign) and ANTHEM styled games-as-service nonsense designed to drag out the experience as much as possible. The clunky menus are reminiscent of DESTINY, complete with endless variants of the same armor that only increases player stats and not much else. 

If, for example, the loot collecting was similar to something like DIABLO the experience would be much better. But in its current form there’s little to no use for upgrading gear except for having an arbitrary number to complete levels with. Even more frustrating is the ludonarrative dissonance: Hulk, the strongest character in the Marvel universe, can’t beat normal henchmen without equipping a higher level bracer first. Because the level design is highly linear, super powerful characters can’t break certain doors or jump (or fly!) over certain obstacles. At every turn you’re reminded of just how powerless you are, and it eats into the enjoyment every minute.

There’s also a season pass, because of course there is. 

These are such dated design choices, something that would have made sense ten years ago when designers didn’t know better, and they feel that way right out the gate. Gone is the cosmic scale established in the films (let alone the comics), replaced instead with barren hallways and, sigh, hacking missions. 

It’s built as a social semi-MMO, but one that’s tacked on the side of a genuinely compelling singleplayer narrative experience. Neither one complements the other, and it feels like both were separate projects forced together at the last minute just to make a deadline. 

Most of the strike team quests follow the same pattern: The Avengers find a location with either intelligence, prisoners, or a higher level bad guy that needs punching, and set out in groups of four to clear the area. Said areas are usually indoors in mundane labs or bunkers, each indistinguishable for the other. When inside the characters have to either destroy reactors or hack them, but rarely anything else. This means guiding your character to a designated area, punching all enemies that randomly spawn around you, and not moving until the timer has run out. 

It’s the laziest, most cynical kind of level design, mostly seen in mobile games. It’s not fun, not even with friends, and it feels like an absolute waste of the license. 

The elements that do work are admittedly great. Combat animations, especially for Khan and Black Widow, are terrific and really feel grounded and fun. Captain America, for his brief bit, is also a blast to play with thanks to a winning shield mechanic. Voice acting from Laura Bailey and Sandra Saad is spot on as well. 

While things can and will still change, at its current form MARVEL’S AVENGERS feels like a game with endless potential that never once taps into what it could be. The campaign itself is an exciting and compelling romp, so here’s hoping that the full thing will live up to the interesting prologue present in the beta. 

Co-op likewise has moments that are genuinely thrilling, especially when taking down larger enemies together, but the actual mission design isn’t compelling enough to excite just yet.  But they do highlight the inherent problem with assembling this team: Kamala Khan, Black Widow, and Captain America are not The Hulk, Thor, or other cosmic characters. They are imbalanced for a reason. Making the big characters weaker to fit a design build will automatically suck some fun out of the experience.

But this is still a limited taste of the full thing. I’ve only played a fraction of what will be available in the full game. Everything now comes down to how well developer Crystal Dynamics handles the introduction for Ms. Marvel and her first major bow in mainstream media. If the campaign is good, AVENGERS will be an easy thing to recommend. 

MARVEL’S AVENGERS is out in just a few short weeks. Look back here for a full review later this month. 

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