A developer assumes a measure of responsibility when making a superhero game. These characters typically have a longstanding fanbase that is oftentimes overprotective and overly precious about how their favorite heroes are portrayed. So when it was announced that Crystal Dynamics and Marvel Games were working on an action-adventure, narrative-driven, loot-based Avengers game, I was skeptical because a) it sounded like an overly ambitious game to make regardless of licensing, and b) this isn’t just any superhero license—these are the most popular, beloved superhero characters on the planet right now. How could the developers possibly meet Marvel fans’ lofty expectations?
My takeaway from Marvel’s Avengers after completing its story campaign and playing through hours of its online multiplayer component is that the game will not meet your expectations. It’s ultimately a bit of a letdown. Certain aspects of Marvel’s Avengers can be even extraordinarily good, but there’s a lack of consistency that runs throughout the game on several levels as well as fundamental flaws that keep it from standing alongside the likes of Marvel’s Spider-Man and Rocksteady’s Batman Arkham series in the superhero game pantheon.
Marvel’s Avengers as an experience is divided into two big modes. The first mode is a story campaign, which is designed as a mostly solo experience and focuses on the hero’s journey of would-be Avenger Kamala Khan (voiced wonderfully by Sandra Saad). Upon completing the campaign, the game transitions into its Avengers Initiative online multiplayer component, which continues the story through largely standalone single- and multi-objective missions you can take on with up to three teammates. If you want to get to playing with your friends right away, you do have the option to skip the campaign entirely, but then you’d be missing what for now is the stronger half of the experience.
The story itself is pretty standard fare for comic book fans. It sees the Avengers disassembled and then slowly reassembled in dramatic fashion before they ultimately save the day. The inciting incident is A-Day, an event in San Francisco in which the Avengers, along with scheming scientists George Tarleton and Monica Rappaccini, were meant to unveil a new mineral called Terrigen as the key to a clean energy-fueled future. But when terrorists led by Taskmaster attack, most of the team rushes to the rescue while Cap tries to secure the volatile Terrigen crystal fueling the Avengers’ helicarrier, the Chimera.
After defeating Taskmaster, the ship unexpectedly explodes, claiming the life of Captain Rogers and spreading Terrigen mist across the city, imbuing normal people with extraordinary abilities. The world comes to refer to these new superpowered citizens as Inhumans. Fearing for their own safety in an Avenger-less world, humanity quickly begins hunting and persecuting these Inhumans, who are forced to hide their powers or risk imprisonment — or worse.
Years later, young Kamala Khan, who met the Avengers on A-Day as a participant in a fan fiction contest and is now secretly an Inhuman with incredible shape-shifting powers, embarks on a journey to uncover the truth about what really happened on that fateful day. Along the way, she reassembles the Avengers and joins the Inhuman resistance and what’s left of SHIELD in their fight against Tarleton’s evil tech organization Advanced Idea Mechanics (AIM). Like Kamala, Tarleton is also going through his own transformation, morphing before our eyes into the grotesque MODOK, who’s never been one of my favorite Marvel villains but is serviceable here.
What sets the game’s narrative apart from other Avengers stories and pretty much every video game story out there is that Kamala is at the center of it, which is cool not only because she’s a great character from the comics, but because she’s a Pakistani American woman starring in a AAA video game. I can’t overstate how much decisions like this mean to underrepresented communities. Best of all, Kamala’s storyline is handled with care, as we watch her grow into a powerful hero that inspires the rest of the Avengers to get back to work. She’s truly the heart and saving grace of the game’s story campaign.
The game’s larger storytelling is far from perfect, however. Kamala is a great protagonist, and the mentor/mentee relationship that develops between her and Dr. Bruce Banner (Troy Baker at the top of his game) is perhaps the title’s best storyline. But the other Avengers—Iron Man, Thor, Cap, Black Widow—aren’t nearly as compelling. They feel like shallow versions of what we’ve seen before in the comics and movies, which would be fine if you only saw them from Kamala’s point of view…but you don’t.
At different points throughout the campaign, you take control of each Avenger, turning the game into more of an ensemble piece meant to explore all of the heroes individually. But other than Kamala and Bruce, none of them has an interesting character arc. Larger than life Marvel staples like Tony Stark and Thor are woefully underwritten here and even their Iconic Missions, hero-specific side stories that tie back into the main plot, leave much to be desired. While these missions are each meant to highlight a specific character and their powers, they mostly play out like every other mission type. More on that in just a bit.
It doesn’t help that Marvel’s Avengers doesn’t do enough to distance itself from its movie counterpart. All I see when I look at the OG Avengers in the game is “Store-Brand Avengers,” lesser versions of their MCU counterparts (don’t get me started on the atrocious Tony character model). And since their individual stories are underwritten, we virtually have no choice but to reference the MCU to fill in the blanks. The game just doesn’t have a strong identity of its own.
Fortunately, combat is pretty solid all around. Crystal Dynamics has done a good job making each hero feel different from the next, from Kamala’s stretch-based powers to Iron Man’s high-flying maneuvers to Hulk’s environment-shattering smashing, and the combat feels smooth, with timed dodges, parries, and ability gauges adding depth to what is essentially traditional beat-em-up gameplay. There are imbalances here and there (like when a dozen off-screen enemies attack you all at once and you have no choice but to, well, die), but it’s generally fun to punch and shoot your way through AIM’s robotic and human goons.
The combat is also sometimes hindered by a camera that can’t quite keep up with the action. Things can get so hectic during intense combat sequences that it’s very possible that you’ll lose track of what’s happening on screen all together. I also experienced pretty severe framerate drops at points when there were too many enemies on screen. And although you can tackle multiplayer missions by yourself with three AI companions—which is a nice touch for those who don’t particularly like playing online—expect to grow frustrated with the AI at times.
All of this is compounded by the uninteresting enemies you’ll face throughout the game. No one really thinks of AIM when counting down the best evil factions in Marvel history and the shadowy organization isn’t made any more spectacular here. You’ll mostly spend your time in Marvel’s Avengers fighting bullet-spongy robots, drones, mechs, and jet pack-wearing soldiers, with almost no hint of an actual recognizable Marvel villain in between. How is it possible to have this much access to the Marvel license and include pretty much no fan-favorite villains in the game? Sure, you’ll face one or two, including Hulk villain the Abomination, who was revealed in the beta, but don’t expect to see any A-listers in this game.
Marvel’s Avengers also puts a big emphasis on loot and character progression. Each hero has their own skill trees, gear to equip, and unlockable cosmetics. Skill points you earn by completing missions and taking down enemies can be redeemed for new abilities on the skill tree, while cosmetics (new costumes) can be purchased with in-game currency at different vendors, bought with real money, unlocked by progressing through the story, or earned through each hero’s Character Card, a progression system structured like a traditional battle pass. As you complete challenges in the game, you’ll earn challenge points that unlock new items on the Character Card.
The gear system is a bit more involved. You’ll need to do a lot of grinding to outfit your character with the best gear and raise their power level, the most important number in the game. Your character’s power level, which is an amalgamation of each piece of gear’s individual power level, defines how strong your character is and whether they can take on increasingly difficult missions.
Each mission has a recommended power level, and it’s in your best interest to heed that warning. If you’re even five below the recommended power level, you’re likely to get annihilated on the battlefield. Unfortunately, this means that you’ll find yourself grinding levels for more powerful gear quite a bit in the game, replaying War Zone missions at higher difficulties in the hopes of getting better item drops. All that said, loot isn’t represented cosmetically, and while there are seemingly countless perks and customization options tied to the pieces of gear you find, at the end of the day, the combat kinda feels the same no matter what loadout you’ve got. There’s a severe lack of variety here.
As we wrote in our preview of the game back in August, War Zone missions get old very quickly. They’re repetitive, are largely set in surprisingly drab environments, and usually involve one of only a handful of mission structures, from attacking and defending control points to destroying AIM tech to simply taking out enemy waves. This is all fun at first, and playing with others online does add dimension to the experience. Coordinating attacks, watching each others’ backs, performing devastating combos on giant robots—the combat is definitely conducive with online co-op.
But the recycled mission structures and environments just aren’t enough to keep me going for as long as the devs want me to. There are some storytelling elements bookending the War Zone missions, especially in the case of the aforementioned Iconic Missions, which is appreciated. But after breaking into the umpteenth AIM lab and destroying the three valuable pieces of tech or holding down the three important control points or destroying another giant mech, you begin to wonder what you’re actually working towards in the game.
As far as I can tell at launch, you grind missions to earn better gear in order to take on new missions that feel exactly like the last batch…but more difficult? All in all, repetitive missions make it so that you want off the gameplay loop as soon as possible. I certainly don’t feel the impetus to keep playing now that I’ve finished the story campaign and written this review.
Another annoyance I have with online play is the matchmaking. It often took forever to find other players and launch a mission. I ultimately enjoyed playing solo with AI companions much more, which really says something about a game that’s meant to be played with others, especially since the AI heroes almost never help you actually complete objectives. They just kind of follow you around the stages.
I’m looking forward to the Hawkeye DLC that’s on the way for Marvel’s Avengers, as well as the PlayStation-exclusive Spider-Man content coming out next year, but I’ll most likely give the game a rest until then. I wish that Crystal Dynamics had focused more on the campaign because, man, some of the set pieces and Kamala moments show signs of life in a game that mostly feels dead on arrival. I would have loved to play 10 more hours of a Kamala single-player campaign. But alas, I’m left with the bitter taste of a middling, Destiny-like action-looter that unfortunately undermines the truly great things that the game does have going for it.