Crystal Dynamics' take on the Avengers characters and the story therein is compelling, but live service aspects get in the way.
Editor's note: You can now read our full thoughts in our scored Marvel's Avengers review, which covers the campaign and many, many hours of loot chasing. Phil's early impressions and a few days of updates continue below.
Ms. Marvel is the heart and soul of Crystal Dynamics' take on Earth's Mightiest Heroes, and the introductory level that kicks off the game's story establishes her as the nerdy, hilarious, over-the-top fangirl that anchors the entire experience. The Avengers end up disbanded after a huge accident that remakes the world, but it's Kamala's experiences--finding her identity, searching for community, struggling with adults in her life letting her down or failing to understand her--that are grounding Marvel's Avengers.
It all starts with an opening mission that focuses less on punching bad guys and more on what makes the Avengers heroic as people. A number of times now, we've seen the A-Day mission, in which you play as each Avenger as they fight an army of bad guys who want to do terrorism. It's a quick snapshot of how each character handles before the game moves into its real story, in which you play Kamala trying to find and reassemble the Avengers to fight off the totalitarian threat of the villainous organization AIM. But it's Kamala's introduction with her father, wandering around the pre-attack A-Day celebration, that centers Marvel's Avengers. She's a kid who meets her heroes, who finds them caring (if awkward), and who takes from them all the best lessons to grow, after a five-year time skip, into a hero in her own right.
And so far, when Marvel's Avengers goes hard on its story mode, I'm really enjoying it. It begins with Kamala accidentally getting the attention of AIM and outing herself as an Inhuman--a person who gained potentially dangerous superpowers after the events of A-Day in San Francisco. AIM has basically taken over the US as a security force, rounding up Inhumans with the backing of anti-superhero sentiment from the traumatized public. Kamala sees the injustice and sets out to find a fabled "resistance" that's fighting back against AIM's growing authoritarian power. She quickly becomes the game's moral center as she starts working to re-recruit each of the broken Avengers to her cause.
The single-player campaign is full of character moments that tap into the best of the Marvel Cinematic Universe's take on the Avengers, with lots of beats that feel like they could have been lifted from deleted scenes in Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War, and Avengers: Infinity War. Bruce Banner believes he and the other Avengers were responsible for what happened in San Francisco, and feels the group's bravado to be its downfall. Tony Stark is pissed at Banner for betraying the team in admitting his ambivalent feelings to Congress, resulting in the Avengers' disbanding. But like Banner, Tony is also struggling with his own feelings of responsibility, and rubber-banding between that and his arrogant belief that he could have fixed all the problems. Both are incredibly guilty over Cap's death. And Kamala sees mentors in them both, but imperfect ones who she keeps having to drag back toward doing what's right.
The story is full of human moments that make me want to keep going, like when Kamala meets other Inhumans for the first time or when Bruce and Tony speak after four years apart and hash out all their issues. The jokes and quips between all the characters are release valves for their trauma and their issues, and they're quickly coming to rely on each other thanks to Kamala's steadfast resolve. My feeling is that I'm about halfway through the main campaign (from what I can tell), and it's a good story--the kind of thing that made me really come to like the MCU, especially around and after Captain America: Civil War.
It's when Marvel's Avengers pivots to its trappings as a live game that it stalls, so far. You slowly build up the defunct Chimera, the Avengers' helicarrier that was at the epicenter of A-Day, unlocking rooms that let you do virtual reality training, store extra gear, and buy stuff from SHIELD agents acting as shopkeepers. Sweeping War Zone missions have you exploring big open areas full of AIM enemies, where you spend a lot of time breaking open boxes to get crafting resources and picking up loot and comparing gear numbers, and not really engaging with the characters beyond radio instructions from Stark's AI, Jarvis.
The further into the story you get, the more Marvel's Avengers takes on the feel of something like Destiny 2. I'm now taking challenges from faction leaders so I can increase faction reputation so I can unlock new gear in their stores that I can buy with the 10 different kinds of in-game currency I find on missions. I have a ton of gear with a lot of different perks that increase specific kinds of damage by granular, small percentages. Getting funneled into War Zones to hunt down components to fix the Chimera and earn gear drops kills the pace of the game, when all I really want are more scenes of Kamala and her awkward Avengers dads trying to work through their issues.
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It's not that those live game things are bad, necessarily--although they are all really, really dense. It's that they're crowding up a much more interesting portion of the game. Loose from the story, getting into the minute details of character-building may well be pretty engaging. I'm enjoying unlocking new skills for my characters and slowly figuring out how best to use each of them, after all. But those things are holding my attention far less than my growing relationships with the characters of Marvel's Avengers, and I'm eager to get out of the sprawling, hour-long War Zones and back to the more character-driven moments.
As with the beta, the longer I play with any given character, the more I'm enjoying the combat, although there's a learning curve here that isn't helped much by the game itself. You don't get a good, proper combat tutorial until you open the HARM room about two hours into the game, but various chase scenes and small-scale fights with Kamala are, frankly, more exciting. That said, I like the depth inherent to each of the characters, especially as I unlock new skill-based abilities like better parries and more effective combos. Knowing which enemies to dodge, which to juggle, which to take out quickly, and which to parry is making combat more and more engaging as I get the hang of it. The drawback is that you need to get the hang of it for each character in turn, since they're all just different enough to require their own bit of training.
I still have a long way to go in Marvel's Avengers to get the full experience. I'm sitting on several character-specific questlines to complete, plus a bunch of missions that can be played in multiplayer (something I haven't touched yet), and I haven't put in the time just yet to really dive deep into the gear system. I'm especially interested to see how Marvel's Avengers focuses on those aspects after the story content is exhausted and it starts to roll out its biggest challenges, like its raid encounter.
So far, though, I'm really enjoying what Crystal Dynamics is doing with these characters and with the Avengers story the developer is able to tell. It's the heavily video gamey portions that are dragging me down, and I'm hoping Marvel's Avengers will grow into them as I continue my adventures.
Day 3 Update
The post-campaign world of Marvel's Avengers is densely littered with stuff to do. I'm both enjoying knocking out mission after mission, and kind of confused by it all.
In the hours after finishing the story campaign, which did a pretty good job of maintaining its heart and its smart exploration of (some of) the Avengers through to the end, the focus goes instead to the two factions available in the game right now: SHIELD and the Inhuman Resistance. Both have questlines that send you on a variety of missions in which you earn new gear and clean up ongoing story points. AIM is still active around the world and doing new, more horrible stuff, and you need to go smash up their labs.
These missions are all multiplayer offerings (though as with everything in the game, you can play them solo with AI companions), where you can team up with friends or matchmake with other players. Missions vary in length and complexity, but they're all basically of a type: You often start in a large outdoor area with a bunch of optional objectives, beating up enemies along the way, until you force open an elevator and enter an AIM facility. From there, you fight through some tighter hallways to an objective, where your goal either becomes to defeat waves of tougher bad guys, hold some control points to hack computers, or blow up specific objects before you're overwhelmed by enemies. Occasionally, your hunt ends in a boss encounter with either Taskmaster or Abomination, two of the supervillains who appeared in the campaign.
There's not a ton of variety in these multiplayer missions; most of the differences come in the size of the area you have to explore and what the different enemies' abilities and modifiers focus on. Some levels have a lot of electricity-themed enemies, others are full of baddies who can freeze you, and so on. What's making them work is the slow drip of unlocking new moves and combo options for the character I'm using as my main, Kamala Khan, and building skill with the game's combat.
Marvel's Avengers becomes markedly better as you unlock more and more moves for a character. Your combat options open up when you can grab enemies and throw them, smash them into the ground, and juggle them in the air. It's frustrating, then, that it takes so much time to unlock a lot of these moves. On the one hand, you get a better sense of what you can do and when you can do it when you only unlock one new move every few missions--but at the same time, going back and playing a low-level character with fewer options is a lot more prohibitive after you've spent time with one you feel like you're starting to master.
I'm also starting to get to the point where I'm unlocking specialization options for Kamala that are adding more depth to her fighting options. The question of whether I want two charges of my healing ability or would prefer to self-revive, for instance, is allowing me to think about my role on a team and what we need in the moment. It's not often, so far, that I really work together closely with the other players I'm matching with--but I can see how those possibilities would work, and I'm hoping Marvel's Avengers will start to provide the kind of challenge that requires smarter teamwork as I get nearer to the endgame.
What that endgame looks like, however, is still very unclear. The underlying loop of the live-game portion of Avengers is chasing ever-better loot, but in this interstitial space between the campaign and the endgame, I'm cycling through equipment so fast that I barely look it over. Gear has lots of perks that offer options for how I play, but each mission has me picking up at least two or three new items, so I'm constantly throwing things away for whatever has higher stat numbers. And that means there's currently no point in putting any thought into loadouts or character builds, since I'm still not earning equipment I'm going to want to keep for longer than 20 minutes.
The nice part is that this level grind is moving quickly. I haven't exhausted all of the post-story questlines yet, but I'm making fast progress toward the level caps--and, presumably, the tough top-tier content that's going to divvy out and require top-tier gear. I've put in about 25 hours at this point, but I've never felt like I was just grinding content to get new gear. I'm waiting to see what that'll feel like once I run out of questlines to complete and have to start replaying old missions.
Though Avengers is still keeping me engaged as I get better at fighting its many waves of enemies, it's not entirely smooth. The further you get into it--even during the story campaign--the more bugs and irritations start to infest the game. I've had audio glitches that mar story moments and mission explanations, boss character models that break and freeze mid-fight, wave-based fights with no enemies in them, missing dialogue prompts that stall progress, and one glitch where a multiplayer mission loaded in too many heroes, adding doubles of Black Widow and Iron Man and giving us six characters, when strike teams top out at four. It's often the case that live games struggle at launch, and I've had some connection issues and loading glitches pop up in my time with it. Nothing has been game-breaking--at the very worst, I've had to quit the game and restart it in order to clear an issue--but it does make Marvel's Avengers feel a little hinky and rushed, and more than one multiplayer mission has turned out to be pretty anticlimactic because a boss stood still while we pummeled him or the enemies we were supposed to fight never showed up.
My overall impression after 25 hours is that Marvel's Avengers is a fun but flawed game with a lot of good ideas. It still feels as though the story campaign and the live-game missions are pretty divorced from one another, and I miss the moments when it was just me using my skills to take down a tough boss, rather than just watching as Taskmaster or Abomination get absolutely mobbed by me and three other superheroes. But there's a lot of depth in the combat Marvel's Avengers offers as you unlock more and more of a character's skill tree, and especially when you get a decent team that works together, there are quite a few opportunities to feel super.
I'm hoping that the elements that still feel disjointed will start to come together in the endgame of Marvel's Avengers, and the game will become challenging enough that teamwork will be important, skillful fighting will be required, and paying attention to character specialization and gear loadouts will give you an important edge.
Stay tuned for my full update in the coming days.