The Marvel's Avengers beta shows that combat and teamwork can get pretty deep, but is somewhat undermined by samey environments and a convoluted gear grind.
Even having played Marvel's Avengers last year, spending more time talking about the game, watching new trailers and the Wartable stream, it's been hard to get an overall sense of the melee-focused action-adventure game. We know it has a lot of characters, we know it has an involved single-player story campaign, and we know it has a live game-style gear grind, but getting a handle on how those things will work together in moment-to-moment play has been difficult.
After playing an early look at the Marvel's Avengers beta, the whole picture is starting to make more sense. My earlier comparison of Marvel's Spider-Man meets Destiny 2 holds up in a broad sense, but it's not the whole story. The beta displayed how playing as each of the different characters will be a distinct experience, how you'll bring the Avengers together to form a team, and how getting good with just one or a handful of characters will likely elevate the experience significantly--especially with other players.
The early portion of the beta takes you through a few story missions, giving a very broad look at the tale we'll be seeing in the full game. As we've known for a year now, the game opens with a big battle on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, which culminates in the Chimera, the Avengers' helicarrier, and its newfangled reactor exploding. That event (apparently) kills Captain America and a whole bunch of people in San Francisco, while spreading a disease throughout the country (and maybe the world) that turns people into Inhumans: essentially, they get sick and sometimes die, but if they survive, they get superpowers.
After such a massive and public failure, the Avengers disband and are slowly replaced by AIM, a science-minded corporation that builds all kinds of evil things, including combat robots and weapons. AIM, of course, is a supervillain organization from the Marvel comics, and as it gets more power, things get more authoritarian. The company seems to be rounding up Inhumans to experiment on them, and in the early going of the story, AIM is focused on creating a "cure" to return those people to normal. Although that sounds appealing to people whose lives have been upended by their new super-ness, we can assume there are more nefarious goals underlying the seemingly virtuous ones. In any event, it does seem that AIM is torturing Inhumans with these experiments that are administered against their will.
Enter Kamala Khan, an Avengers superfan who becomes one of these new Inhumans, later taking on the mantle of Ms. Marvel. Though we skip the story portions that introduce her and explain what she's up to, we can gather that Kamala is the force that's trying to reassemble the Avengers to fight AIM. We start the campaign with Kamala and Hulk working to try to find Iron Man's whereabouts by raiding an old Stark vault turned AIM facility, which is full of both enemies and Marvel Easter eggs. As you go through the story campaign, it seems that you'll be recruiting more and more characters to your expanding Avengers roster, and playing through missions specifically geared toward each one.
It's these closer looks at the characters that our hands-on time with Marvel's Avengers has been lacking up until now. We've seen the battle on the Golden Gate Bridge a few times, and that mission quickly takes you through controlling each of the core Avengers to try them out. But we haven't seen what really makes each character distinct--especially because every character has the same basic control scheme and base set of moves. There's a light melee attack, a heavy attack, a ranged attack, a dodge, and a parry, plus distinct special and ultimate moves with cooldown timers. What the beta finally showcases is the nuance that developer Crystal Dynamics has managed to bake into that set of moves for each of the characters and how they can complement each other.
As you work through the beta, you eventually get a chance to take control of four of Avengers' playable characters: the Incredible Hulk, Ms. Marvel, Black Widow, and Iron Man. Though their core controls are the same, understanding each characters' strengths and role on the team is actually essential to playing them well. Each character has something called Intrinsic Energy, a meter that fills up under different circumstances: for some characters, it recharges over time, while others fill it by busting heads.
Intrinsic Energy works to develop each character's specific focus in combat, informing how you play with them. Hulk, for instance, uses his Intrinsic Energy (dubbed Rage) to refill his health meter as he damages enemies, incentivizing you to just storm through a battle, crushing everything in your path with no regard for defense.
Played well, using not just Hulk's moves but his Intrinsic Energy too, turns him into your team's rampaging tank, engaging either big enemies or groups and keeping them distracted. Ms. Marvel's moves are largely sweeping melee attacks, thanks to her limb-stretching powers, and using her Intrinsic Energy makes her grow a little larger, so her moves stretch farther and do more damage. That makes her great for crowd control and beating up enemies while staying relatively clear of danger. Iron Man channels his Intrinsic Energy to fire his repulsors and counter incoming enemy attacks, converting them into an area-of-effect blast and providing a good reason for him to mix it up with multiple enemies, rather than just float on the edges of a fight and snipe. Black Widow is great at tying up and juggling enemies or knocking them off her feet, and her energy powers a grappling hook that lets you zip around the battlefield to bring the fight to unsuspecting opponents or to get out of harm's way.
Before you really understand what each character is good at and how to use them effectively, they can feel flaily and ineffectual. Iron Man has a bunch of long-range gun-type abilities, for instance, but it can be tough to be precise in the middle of a big fight--until you realize that you can use his flight capabilities to quickly get around, drop into a battle, and chain his punches together with rockets and lasers for some great hit-and-run attacks. Hulk seems unfocused and unwieldy until you stop worrying and just start plowing through baddies to regain health, recognizing that a more important aspect of your job might be to sew chaos, absorb damage, and smash stuff in a general sense. Getting a grip on each of the characters takes a bit of time during the beta, but the longer you spend with one, the more it's possible to see how Avengers is adding depth to its melee system by making its characters distinct in ways that aren't always immediately obvious when you first pick it up.
That's expanded by each character's relatively deep skill tree, where you can unlock a bunch of new moves across various categories. Unlocking new skills greatly expands on each character's movesets, and allows you to tune them toward your playstyle. With Iron Man, for example, you can prioritize unlocking both a rocket launcher and a laser beam in addition to his repulsor blasts, giving him more ranged options that you can switch between as the situation warrants. With Ms. Marvel, you can prioritize light attacks for hitting lots of enemies at once, or heavy attacks that let you deal more damage to a specific enemy. How you spec out your characters quickly starts to make them feel more specialized, encouraging you to pay attention to developing combos and controlling the battlefield, both alone and with other people on your team.
Most of the beta was made up of the kind of repeatable team missions you'll go on as part of the live game side of Marvel's Avengers. All of these missions in the beta required a team of four, allowing for matchmaking with up to three other players or filling the slots with AI-controlled heroes if you want to play alone. The missions available in the beta ran a fair gamut, from quick brawls with a few waves of AIM enemies, to more involved missions in which you would hunt down a specific target or group of baddies, to fights where the Avengers needed to hold a specific location against waves of opponents. There was also one Hulk-specific character mission that expanded his personal story and a lengthy mission that culminated in a big boss fight against a giant insectile mech.
The missions either pop you into an enclosed space to take on an objective in a single location, or drop you into a larger area you can explore that's similar to a public area in Destiny, but with a clear set of mission goals you're working to complete. There's some variety in these sections in that you can look around for extra loot or side objectives that aren't part of your main mission. In one open area, a little exploration exposed a tougher high-value target-type enemy that dropped gear when you killed it. In another, you could find a locked-up treasure chest that required finding specific switches to open. The exploration portion gives you a little variety for these missions, but it can make them feel a bit unfocused, and not every hero feels great for platforming and traversal (looking at you, Hulk). They're at their best when you work through an area with specific challenges, like traps that deal electrical or radiation damage, or enemies that wield cryo weapons that can freeze you in place.
One problem with the multiplayer missions is that they all feel rather samey. Most of the missions in the beta have you breaking into some AIM bunker, which looks like a cross between a bland Halo Forerunner facility and a post-modern office building. Whether you're attacking them in the forests of the Pacific Northwest or the American desert, the bunkers are all the same. Their generic nature makes these missions run together, and while fights can get cool as Marvel's Avengers starts introducing tougher enemies and objectives that require teamwork, they're not nearly as fun or well-made as the story missions.
Part of that issue is that most of the multiplayer missions have to accommodate any combination of Avengers--the missions are more fun when they're more focused on accommodating the specific abilities and playstyle of a particular hero, or when they throw something like the walking mech tank at you, requiring you to run under, around, and on top of the thing in order to beat it.
Those repeatable missions play into the gear grind of Marvel's Avengers, which is what will keep you busy over the long haul. Like other live games, it's a complex and convoluted system, and it's tough to get a sense of how well it works without engaging with it over a long period and into some sort of endgame, when you start to get all the best stuff and work out how to utilize it well. The gear system works similarly to other live games like Destiny and Anthem, at least at low levels: you find gear as you play and equip the stuff with the best numbers, which improves your hero's statistics. There are a bunch of these stats to keep in mind, like health, defense, melee effectiveness, and ranged effectiveness, and gear also conveys various buffs, such as defense against freezing attacks or a chance to inflict radiation damage on enemies.
At low levels, though, you probably won't pay attention to gear much, and will just change out each piece for the next one you get with higher numbers. There are cases where gear will matter--one story mission takes you to Siberia, where the AIM troops are all bringing guns that can freeze you, so you're encouraged to wear gear with freeze defense. Multiplayer missions will give you a heads-up about what you'll be facing so you can plan accordingly, so it's nice to have gear that can give you an advantage in specific situations. But this feels more like a thing you'll be worrying about later in the game more than early on.
And the gear system is not an especially clear one. Your hero's Power level, determined by your gear, dictates which missions you can handle without getting your clock cleaned, so the numbers will matter to you--but there are a bunch of aspects to it that are going to take some time to understand. Armor conveys various buffs at first, and better gear will also include additional perks you can unlock by "boosting" that armor. To do that, you have to spend different resources you get in missions, and that increases a piece of armor's Power stats as well. It seems like the idea is to allow you to grow a piece of gear you particularly like or need beyond its initial Power numbers, so it stays viable in your loadout. There are a whole bunch of different resources with different rarities, and different requirements for different gear pieces, and you'll probably ignore that system for much of the early game as you cycle through gear you don't want to keep. It all seems fairly confusing up front.
That's sort of the general feeling of the entire Marvel's Avengers beta--there's a lot to keep track of and it's not quite clear how well all these systems will work together yet. That's partially because the beta is just a small slice of the overall game, meant to emphasize combat and how characters will work together in teams. And once I got the hang of it, that stuff was impressive. Ms. Marvel and Black Widow in particular are a lot of fun to play as you start to unlock their moves and understand how to use them effectively. Both characters emphasize agility, speed, and skill: Black Widow's grapple lets you hit trouble spots in a fight with ease, where you can sweep an enemy's leg to knock them down, then pummel them before they ever get a shot in. Kamala is quick and adaptable but in something more of a support capacity, and using her well really feels like you're helping out the team as you heal them or help keep a bunch of enemies tied up while an ally handles some bigger threat.
But all the characters have cool strengths and interesting abilities, and once you know how to play them well (and you unlock their cooler skills), they start to feel like they're providing unique experiences within the game. By the end, I was even coming around on Hulk, who I initially disliked playing because he often felt lumbering and clumsy. A lingering question is how well these characters can synergize together on tougher missions as you approach the endgame of Marvel's Avengers--it really seems like the more time you can invest in a character, the cooler they become, and I suspect teams who know their characters well and can work together will get a lot out of the combat.
The beta left me most interested in the story campaign of Marvel's Avengers, though, and that seems like the place where the game has the most potential. Kamala is a great lens through which to view the established characters of the core Avengers team; she's a fan and an audience surrogate, engaging with the superheroes in a very human way. In general, Marvel's Avengers feels like it's continuing all the best aspects of the Marvel Cinematic Universe's Avengers characters, telling a story in the vein of Captain America: Civil War or Avengers: Infinity War. They're flawed and conflicted, and sometimes, they fail in painful and devastating ways. The writing and voice acting seem strong enough in the beta snapshot to support that kind of story, and it's easily what has me most excited for Marvel's Avengers.
Much of the rest is more of a wait-and-see situation. I'm not thrilled by the generic-looking AIM bunkers or the somewhat unfocused feel of the multiplayer missions, and it's much too early to really get a sense of whether the gear grind in Avengers will feel especially meaningful from a gameplay perspective. But I found myself becoming a fan of the game's combat and characters, especially as I developed them. I'm not sure Marvel's Avengers is a game that will support you playing a whole bunch of characters--it seems a little too confusing and a little too big an investment to try to get good at more than a small handful of heroes--but the idea of playing with a core group of friends who each specialize in one or two Avengers to make a cohesive, capable team is pretty compelling. There are still a lot of unknowns with Marvel's Avengers, but with a better sense of the game, there are aspects that are promising.