Marvel’s Avengers Beta Doesn’t Deliver Superhero Spectacle, But There’s Hope

Although it's only in its beta testing stage, what we've seen of Marvel's Avengers so far is a mixed bag. Read our hands-on beta impressions.

Marvel's Avengers
Photo: Square Enix

There was a moment while playing the Marvel’s Avengers early access beta on the PlayStation 4 when I had to ask myself whether this slice of the game was the best way to showcase what was supposed to be a major spectacle for Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. Following two of the biggest movies of all time, Marvel’s Avengers should feel like a victory lap for Square Enix and a grand return to video games for the superhero team. Instead, the beta showcases a low-key affair that never quite feels all that fresh or unique.

While the combat, traversal, and all of the game’s other mechanics generally work just fine, the title’s dependence on long-established trends and design concepts, as well as a very dull group of baddies, render Marvel’s Avengers sort of ordinary. The game’s arcade-y co-op gameplay feels like an over-the-shoulder upgrade of the Marvel Ultimate Alliance series, which is undoubtedly a major inspiration here, while the loot shooter elements don’t really add anything new to that particular genre, either.

It’s important to note that these are my impressions after only playing the game’s beta build, a small portion of a much larger whole. This is in no way a final verdict on Marvel’s Avengers.

Before we jump in, you can check out some gameplay footage from the beta below:

I spent three days with the beta, playing through the “A-Day” intro mission that Square Enix has previewed plenty of times before as well as several main story missions (called Hero Missions in the game), a handful of short Drop Zone and War Zone missions, an Iconic mission focusing on the Hulk, and three HARM Room Challenges best described as the game’s take on a horde mode. While the beta was a varied sampling of the activities that Marvel’s Avengers has to offer, it was also a brief one that I wouldn’t consider a full view of the final product, and I definitely left the beta with the sense that there was way more to see.

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The beta opens with the heavily-directed A-Day tutorial mission that familiarizes you with the different heroes at your disposal. You wreck terrorists on San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge with Thor and his mighty hammer while zipping through the skies to lend air support as Iron Man. The Hulk joins the fight on the bridge, too, smashing and stomping his way through gun-toting enemies and tanks. The tutorial gives players only the briefest of moments with Captain America and his trusty shield before switching to Black Widow for a QTE-heavy boss fight with Taskmaster.

The A-Day sequence is fast-paced and exciting, full of Marvel’s signature funny quips and heroic moments to be sure. But while this opening story mission shows how Earth’s Mightiest Heroes can work perfectly in tandem during an emergency, it isn’t really indicative of the rest of the missions in the beta, which feature combat more akin to a brawler or beat em up than the choreographed, more linear fights of the intro.

A time jump after the intro sequence sees the Avengers disband after failing to save San Francisco from the terrorist attack. We reunite with Bruce Banner and Kamala sometime later on a mission to reassemble the superhero team. The beta keeps things largely out of spoiler territory, so I didn’t get to see how the duo first met or what set them on their new mission. But from what I did see, it’s clear that the young Kamala, who is destined to become the superhero Ms. Marvel, is the heart of this story.

It’s her desire to learn more about her powers as well as the heroes she grew up admiring that drive the main plot forward. She brings an energy to the team that’s a very nice contrast to the much more defeated Banner, who is living in exile on the Chimera years after A-Day. We get hints that he’s not really interested in being the Hulk or an Avenger anymore, but Kamala convinces him that reuniting the team is the only way to save the world from the game’s main enemy faction, Advanced Idea Mechanics (aka AIM).

The Hero Missions that follow hit familiar story beats, as Bruce and Kamala first go on a mission to recover an old piece of Stark tech vital to finding Iron Man and then make contact with what remains of SHIELD, now led by Maria Hill. The beta stops short of actually reassembling the team, but along the way, we watch as Kamala interacts with pieces of Avengers history, from finding Cap’s original shield in a silo to walking around the team’s old HQ on the Chimera. It’s nice to be able to experience this story from the point-of-view of a fan who feels as much wonder for these characters as we did when we read our first Avengers comic book or watched the first movie, even if the beta’s somewhat unsurprising and safe missions don’t quite inspire wonder themselves.

The big issue with the Hero Missions and War Zone/Drop Zone side quests is that AIM’s massive army of jet pack-wearing soldiers, evil scientists, and robots aren’t all that much fun to fight or learn about. While some of the robots boast cool, bug-like designs (one class even looks like a smaller version of an X-Men Sentinel), they’re basically just punching bags and bullet sponges that don’t require much strategy to take down.

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Running from room to room taking out AIM agents and machines starts to feel repetitive really quickly, and it doesn’t help that the environments sometimes feel really drab — big steel buildings with plenty of glass and high-tech lab equipment to destroy. There were even times when I felt like War Zone missions were recycling the same environment, simply remixing the order of rooms and hallways you traverse. Fortunately, these environments are almost fully destructible, which is a nice touch, especially when you’re playing as someone as chaotic as the raging Hulk. But overall, the level design showcased in the beta felt a little uninspired.

Once you unlock the War Table, you’re pretty much free to embark on missions in any order you choose and with whichever character you want, except when it comes to Iconic missions, which require you to play as a specific hero. The beta featured a Hulk-centric Iconic mission that saw the Jade Giant smash into an AIM facility to destroy the group’s gamma ray research. There’s a bit more storytelling involved with Iconic missions as well as opposed to other War Zone and short Drop Zone activities, which feel a bit less remarkable.

While there are a variety of different War Zone and Drop Zone missions to choose from, the ones in the beta mostly come down to fast sprints from point A to B that require you to destroy AIM research, defeat a robotic mini-boss, gather intel, or hold down a specific position. They rarely feel like unique experiences that could only belong in a Marvel game and are generally unexciting. And although some War Zone missions tend to offer up multiple stages and objectives, usually broken up by an elevator ride into an AIM facility or underground bunker, Drop Zone missions are bewilderingly short. You can finish them within 10 minutes, which makes them feel like filler content most of the time, although it should be noted that the shorter length of these missions is by design.

The nice thing about Marvel’s Avengers is that it won’t force multiplayer on you. All of the missions mentioned above can be played solo with three AI characters at your side or with up to three other players. While I only spent a very limited time playing with others, matchmaking worked well, but the real test will come when Crystal Dynamics opens up the beta to a much bigger group of players throughout August. But if you want to play the game solo, you can do so no problem. I even found the companion AI to be nice substitutes for real players during big fights with AIM. It’s evident that the studio has put in a lot of time into making all of these heroes feel genuine regardless of whether they’re being controlled by a player or AI.

A high point of the beta was the HARM Room, a holographic training area where the Avengers can square off against hordes of AIM enemies. In this mode, which is set on the Chimera itself, the team must survive 10 waves of increasingly difficult baddies. Only three difficulty levels were available in the beta, but it was a nice taste of what the mode has to offer. Whereas fighting AIM grunts in War Zones and Drop Zones starts to feel a little redundant, taking them on in bigger numbers in an enclosed area can get pretty exhilarating, especially when you’re against a wall in later rounds with fewer chances to heal.

As far as the combat itself goes, there’s a nice flow to the action, which feels pretty polished at this point, as you chain a mix of attacks with Black Widow, Kamala Khan, Iron Man, and Hulk. I particularly enjoyed playing as Black Widow, who uses a mix of batons, gravity-defying flips, kicks, and dual pistols to take down the game’s robotic enemies. She also has a cool grapple that she uses to swing to hard-to-reach platforms or hurl herself at enemies. Switching between her melee moves and third-person shooter gunplay is pretty smooth, too. Black Widow ultimately feels like the hero who benefits the most from Crystal Dynamics’ own experience with the action-adventure genre. At times, I even wished the studio had embarked on a Black Widow solo adventure instead of such a big superhero endeavor.

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Unsurprisingly, learning how to play as each hero is the best part of the beta. While Captain America and Thor are notably absent beyond the tutorial, you get plenty of time with the other Avengers. For the most part, each character feels distinct. Black Widow performs as a close- to mid-range hero while Ms. Marvel is all about melee. Hulk not only brings devastating tank-like power to the battlefield and destruction to the game’s environments but also does quite a bit of platforming along the way (a strange choice to give Hulk so much of the platformer gameplay but it mostly works). With Iron Man, you unlock the ability to fly around and wreak havoc from above, although his melee attacks also feel satisfying and weighty.

Special abilities that work on a cooldown timer add a nice superheroic layer to each character. Iron Man can summon his Hulkbuster suit for when he needs to take on bigger enemies and Hulk can clap his hands together to create a soundwave that does incredible damage and staggers targets. Black Widow can activate a camo that effectively turns the entire team invisible for a short time while Ms. Marvel can embiggen. Each hero has three unique abilities that really complement them and their move set. It was a blast learning how to best implement each ability.

A skill tree and a gear upgrade system allow you to unlock new attacks for each hero as well as upgrade gear stats to make your character stronger. As you level up in the game, you get skill points to redeem in the skill tree while the game’s myriad resources can be used to upgrade different pieces of gear. There are quite a few resources to keep track of, mostly found inside giant crates during missions, but I found that you could mostly ignore which resources upgraded each piece of gear. Compared to loot shooters, collecting resources never feels as grind-y or frustrating as it does in, say, the Destiny games.

You can also find different pieces of gear on the field, such as better gauntlets for Black Widow or better armor for Ms. Marvel, that offer perks (buffs) such as a damage boost, health boost, or elemental effects. Some pieces of gear even have two perks that you can unlock by upgrading them. As far as I could tell from the beta, gear serves to boost your character’s stats further but doesn’t offer any cool cosmetic effects, making loot feel a little less satisfying as a whole than in other loot-based games. Instead, cosmetic changes to your character will come from unlocking skins through gameplay or buying them with real money.

While microtransactions weren’t turned on during the beta, Crystal Dynamics did provide in-game currency so that I could shop for some skins, emotes, and themed nameplates for when you want to rep your favorite hero while in the matchmaking lobby. Skins include a Joe Fixit costume for Hulk, a casual winter-themed outfit for Kamala, a very cool black and red suit for Black Widow, and MCU-inspired suits for each hero. There were only a few skins to try for each character but trailers and gameplay videos have already promised way more costumes to choose from.

Some Marvel fans might perk up at the thought of being able to play Marvel’s Avengers as Joe Fixit and I guarantee there’s plenty more deep-cut comic book goodness where that came from. Credit must be given to Crystal Dynamics for just how much Marvel history it managed to pack into just this short beta. From breaking news from Marvel’s number one reporter, Phil Sheldon, to references to Dum Dum Dugan, easter eggs to be found on the Golden Gate Bridge, and classic real-life comics that make up the game’s collectibles, it’s clear Crystal Dynamics has done its research and has a real love for this universe. There are Avengers memorabilia scattered pretty much everywhere in the Hero Missions and there are even one or two villainous cameos I won’t spoil here.

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While AIM facilities feel a bit dull as you run around their familiar hallways, the world as a whole feels lived in. The level design in the beta might falter but the world-building in Marvel’s Avengers is on point. It’s just a shame that the gameplay itself never comes together like the world and lore Crystal Dynamics is building around it.

I return back to my earlier question about whether the content specifically chosen for this beta was the best way to showcase a game as big as Marvel’s Avengers. Did Crystal Dynamics play it too safe for the sake of preserving story elements and other surprises? Will War Zone missions have more to offer than the repetitive gameplay shown here? Crystal Dynamics has stressed that these missions could last anywhere from 10 minutes to two hours. It would’ve been nice to see a mission that’s somewhere in the middle, just to get a better look at the scope of the game. For now, missions and levels feel too minuscule for a team as big as the Avengers.

Will AIM be the only bad guys in the full game? Hopefully not. There are hints in the beta that other supervillains may be on the move and there’s even a brief boss fight with a villain that’s appeared in an MCU movie. With all of Marvel history at the team’s disposal, it’s hard to believe AIM was the best choice here over the countless other evil organizations, factions, and races created by the House of Ideas. Hopefully, the full game will offer a bit more variety on the bad guy front.

Ultimately, it’s important to remember that this is only a beta and what does work in Marvel’s Avengers works well. There’s hope in the game’s world-building, character design, and the combat system. And don’t forget that Marvel’s Avengers is a live service title designed to change and improve over time. It’s positioned as a platform that will receive content updates for years to come. Like many online games before it, it’s possible Marvel’s Avengers will face a rocky launch this fall, but if the history of this particular game format is any indication, Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix will have plenty of time to right the Chimera.

Marvel’s Avengers is out on Sept. 4 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, and Google Stadia. It’s coming to PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X later this year.

If you’re interested in participating in the beta, here is the schedule of when you can do so:

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  • August 7-9 – PS4 pre-order customers can join the closed beta
  • August 14-16 – All PS4 owners can join the open beta, and PC and Xbox One pre-order customers can play the closed beta
  • August 21-23 – Open beta across all platforms