(MARVEL’S AVENGERS is out now on PC, PS4, and Xbox One. Distributor provided review copy.)
AVENGERS is a game described best with the words: “yes” and “but.” Yes, it’s a big budget action game where you finally get to play as a bunch of fan favorites for the first time in ages. But it’s also a shallow, cynical games-as-a-service platform without a soul that comes way too late to capture the zenith of the MCU craze. Yes, it has a wonderful lead heroine in Kamala Khan who should be at the forefront of everything Marvel does from now on. But she’s also sidelined very quickly once the story gets going in favor of the legacy cast. Yes, there’s a legacy cast. But none of them look or sound like the cast we’ve grown to love from the movies, making them feel like a repeat of a SPACEBALLS joke (“You idiot, you’ve captured their stunt doubles!”).
As a whole it reminds me a lot of the license games that plagued the late 90s and early 2000s. That time was a wasteland for gamers everywhere as studios pumped out expensively made but rushed products every year to coincide with their summer blockbusters. For every happy surprise (JEDI POWER BATTLES) there were a dozen failures (PHANTOM MENACE, FIGHT CLUB). While AVENGERS doesn’t entirely fall into the latter category, it is an aggravating experience because it holds so much potential that is squandered for a cheap buck.
The game works sporadically very well, especially when experienced through the viewpoint of Kamala Khan, a young hero on the road to becoming Ms. Marvel. The story picks up at the Avengers Expo in San Francisco, which Khan is attending with her father after winning a fan fiction competition ensuring entry to a VIP meet and greet. This entire sequence is infectiously joyous as Khan (winningly voiced by Sandra Saad) excitedly rushes about the expo meeting her heroes. It has the same optimistic quality as the MCU at its best and sets the tone for sadly a completely different game than the one that follows.
As the expo comes under attack by unknown forces, The Avengers are quickly put to work to save the day once again. A fast paced introductory sequence has the player controlling each of the original lineup, and it’s here that the disappointment quickly starts to kick in. None of our heroes feel particularly powerful or fun to play. Galactic strongmen Hulk and Thor feel particularly weak as they have to hammer average grunts multiple times before for them to fall, and it’s such a bummer to see either one fumble backwards when a red shirt blocks their attacks.
Even human characters like Black Widow and Captain America don’t fare any better, the latter feeling especially underwhelming considering his stature in the mythology. Black Widow is more fast paced than any of the other characters, but she too is kept sidelined for a good portion of the campaign beyond the opening tutorial.
If there’s anything positive to get out of this game, it’s the hope that Marvel sees what an exceptional character Kamala Khan is and how much she means to people.
After the tutorial the game jumps ahead by five years. San Francisco is a ruin and a contagious toxin released by the event has left some showcasing mutant powers, earning them the moniker of “Inhuman”. One of these is Kamala Khan, now a teenager who still believes in the Avengers, despite them being disbanded and outlawed. As she discovers evidence that could begin to set things right, Khan has to leave all that she knows behind in order to reassemble the legendary group once again.
All of this is easily the best part of the game. The action is fun (even with the spongy enemies), and Khan is a natural leading character for a story like this. Putting the team back together gives a clear sense of purpose and there’s a feeling like you’re setting off on a major quest right from the get go.
And then you meet Bruce Banner, find the Chimera helicarrier, and the game comes to a grinding halt about two hours into it. Suddenly the player is bombarded with random weekly missions, purchasable vanity items, season passes, and unlockable characters (based on what system you’re playing on). Everything that has made games like ANTHEM and DESTINY such utter bores to play. The story itself takes a backseat as the game expressly tries to get you to play anything but the main missions with promises of “rare” loot drops at every turn.
AVENGERS settles for cribbing elements from all other free-to-play titles and burying it’s minimal story under mountains of busywork.
But these drops don’t mean anything because apart from adjusting minor stats on the screen, they don’t actually change the way characters look or play. They’re just there to provide a quick dose of endorphins so that you’d unlock more battle chests or, even worse, buy them with real money.
Unlike looter games like DIABLO, AVENGERS is terrified of actually giving players any real progression because that means one day they might actually complete the game and not play again. So instead of delivering an emotionally resonating, action packed story that people wanted to return to over and over again (like the UNCHARTED series), AVENGERS settles for cribbing elements from all the other free-to-play titles and burying it’s minimal story under mountains of busywork.
Should you actually play the campaign straight through, the story will keep you busy for about 7 hours give or take, with maybe some extra thrown in due to sequences that force the player to very slowly walk around areas listening to exposition. Not to mention the endlessly convoluted explanations of different mechanics in the inventory, none of which are actually meaningful, but give enough of an illusion of depth that many will not notice how shallow the mechanics actually are.
Even more weirdly the pacing goes right out the window as if the developers forgot what they had already made for the game. After five major set pieces, including the opening sequence with all the iconic characters, the game forces the player into completing a full tutorial sequence that explains how the games controls work. It’s a baffling moment to begin with, made even more bizarre by its inclusion so late in the game.
Is the campaign still worth the effort? Yes, but not at the full asking price of 60€. It has a brilliant opening and exciting ending, but in between those is a myriad of dull missions that are occasionally brightened up by beautiful character moments. These mostly deal with Kamala, including an utterly charming scene where she explains to Tony Stark what a Bhurkini is. There’s no tragic backstory here either, her father is an endlessly supportive and wonderful character who is a joy to see. If there’s anything positive to get out of this game, it’s the hope that Marvel sees what an exceptional character they have on their hands and how much she means to people.
If only that would apply to the legacy characters, but apart from a few standout pieces it just feels like everyone is on autopilot here. Troy Baker is particularly dull and sounds like he really doesn’t want to be here at all. Between his and Nolan North’s public falling out last year it could have made for an interesting pairing to see them as the embittered Stark and Banner, but the game doesn’t seem to care about this drama at all either. So apart from a quick argument (which is played beautifully by North) their storyline goes nowhere. Laura Bailey is terrific as Black Widow, mostly because her character doesn’t look or act anything like Scarlett Johansson, meaning she’s free from all the baggage that the last decade of cinema brings.
There’s also the option to skip the campaign entirely and jump right into the Avengers Initiative portion of the game. But beware, the opening cinematic for that will spoil the entire storyline without warning. The Initiative portion is essentially similar to the strike missions in the campaign, but with the ability to play as any of the heroes right off the bat. Sadly the mission design here remains just as uninteresting and plodding as in the main game.
Most missions are set strictly indoors with repetitive mechanical environments preventing any sort of superhero fun from ever taking place. Even when playing with flying heroes like Thor or Iron Man the game limits movement into extremely cramped areas where a single shot from a random enemy will force the player right back on the ground. Skills are reminiscent of MMO style abilities, meaning that everyone is exactly on the same level in terms of power. So you’ll have a team of Thor, Hulk, and Iron Man each punching random enemies over and over and over and over again until their health bars have drained.
The game has more in common with the timid first dips into the cinematic pool that films like DAREDEVIL did in the early aughts.
If you’re here for the kind of incredible set pieces that AVENGERS, AGE OF ULTRON, INFINITY WAR, or ENDGAME promised, you might as well walk away now. The game has more in common with the timid first dips into the cinematic pool that films like DAREDEVIL did in the early 2000s. Everyone kind of looks like their counterparts and there’s big talk about what they can do, but once the realization sets in of what that actually means the game nopes out of anything resembling fun right away.
Instead you’ll spend most of your time opening boxes (by holding down a button, even when you’re The Hulk) or hacking doors. Said hacking is done by standing in a small area while waves of enemies spawn at you. You can’t leave, otherwise their counter-hack will overtake yours, causing the mission to end and sending you right back to the beginning. This is done so that the very segments feel longer than they are, but instead just feels like a cheap move done in an effort to make the product feel more like DESTINY.
Unlike DESTINY, AVENGERS doesn’t feel like it’s ready for prime time. The PC version suffers from a variety of bugs, frame drops, and crashes at random intervals even on a high end system. Sound will cut out at random intervals, while character models can get stuck in an animation loop during cut scenes. A particularly funny scenario saw JARVIS complain to Iron Man that he needs to go to the war table to activate a mission while said mission was already loading.
In its attempts to be like everything else, AVENGERS comes away feeling like nothing at all. It’s not really fun to play, and the constant barrage of online content feels like you’re being pushed to spend even more money beyond the initial buy in price. Even when playing alone the game will punish you for going offline by taking away all unlockable costumes and bonuses the minute you are not on a Square Enix approved server. You don’t actually own the game, you’re renting it for a high price.
Which is a shame, because Kamala Khan and our cast of heroes deserve better. This dark timeline certainly isn’t the one worth returning to.