Marvel's Avengers: War For Wakanda Looks Like The Black Panther Game You Wanted
Black Panther makes his debut in Marvel's Avengers in War for Wakanda, a large expansion coming August 16.
Marvel's Avengers has not had a smooth first year, but as it approaches its one-year anniversary it's become that much more self-assured with a steady stream of quality-of-life updates and new content. It will be marking the end of August with War for Wakanda, an expansion based on and starring one of the Marvel universe's biggest heroes: Black Panther.
In a hands-off preview, I saw an extended look at the first two stages of War for Wakanda, along with details of Black Panther's abilities in combat. I was impressed, not only by how well this appears to be paying respect to the breakout character, but by how different it looks from anything else that came in the main game or previous character-based expansions.
In combat, Black Panther is a nimble melee fighter, but his agility and grace belies a level of ferocity that matches the animalistic name. He claws, kicks, and kinetic-blasts his way through enemies. In an interesting twist, though, many of his abilities grant passive buffs and debuffs, letting you boost your allies, weaken your enemies, and then rage your way through enemies to build up the energy to do it all again. His Ultimate ability, which summons the panther-god Bast, is a strong forward wave attack that also carries passive buffs or debuffs as you'd like.
The initial mission sees T'Challa letting an enemy go intentionally so that they lead him to the real target, the villain Ulysses Klaue. His traversal through the jungle is marked by athletic sprinting and leaping. When he reaches the end of this initial area, which serves as the introduction to his abilities, a brief environmental puzzle explains the history of the Black Panther line. After that you step into the kingdom of Wakanda, a lush environment that beautifully integrates nature and Afrofuturist technology.
That same aesthetic is present inside the Wakandan palace, where T'Challa meets with the Avengers. Some brief narration ties Black Panther's story to the existing Avengers plot, saying that as king of Wakanda, he had closed the borders after the death of his friend, Captain America, at A-Day. The current threats, established in other Avengers post-game content, are starting to pressure King T'Challa to reopen his borders and join the fight.
From there, the second area has the Avengers joining Black Panther on a mission--not the other way around. It's more typical Avengers action with the familiar heroes we've already seen like Cap and Kamala, but Black Panther looks to be an excellent addition to the roster who fills his own niche. A minor villain cameo and a few big brawls later and T'Challa realizes the full extent of Klaue's plan, just a moment too late. That looks to begin the story in earnest.
The demonstration left me eager to learn more, so I talked with War for Wakanda writer Hannah MacLeod and Marvel's Avengers senior combat designer Scott Walters. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
You had this expansion in the works when we learned about the death of Chadwick Boseman, and held off on the announcement out of respect for him. Can you talk about the mood at the studio, working on this in light of that event?
MacLeod: Chadwick is going to be Black Panther for a lot of people forever. He made a huge stamp on pop culture. He's become an icon and he really lifted T'Challa and Black Panther into that space as well. And that was prior to his passing. He has had that effect.
For the rest of the team, what we wanted to do with our version of Black Panther and our version of Wakanda is just extend that legacy to really expand people's view of Black Panther and Wakanda. Let them get to know this character even better. I hope, I think, we've done him justice, but yeah, it was the kind of thing that we definitely talked about and considered a lot. The movies, cartoons, comics all really influenced us on this game, but I think our T'Challa is a bit different from what you've seen before. The hope is that we're just extending the legacy, not trying to rewrite anything.
What Black Panther comics or eras or authors did you draw from the most when you were coming up with your version of T'Challa?
MacLeod: There's a very short run called Flags of our Fathers, where Captain America actually visits Wakanda during World War II, and he meets Azzuri [T'Challa's grandfather]. That ended up being way more influential than I thought it would be when I first read it. But also, the most recent two runs of Black Panther have both been pretty heavy discussions about the monarchy of the future of Wakanda, how Wakanda should be governed, and the Black Panther's place in that leadership that ended up being very impactful. Ta-Nehisi [Coates] just blew my mind with a lot of the work that he's done in recontextualizing Wakanda and taking a different look at it.
One of the things that we really wanted to emphasize is that Wakanda is not one big monolithic thing. It is made up of different tribes of people, there's a factionalism within the nation where people have different opinions of how the country should be run, what their relationship to the outside world should be. And I think those two most recent runs have really dug into that.
And then Evan Narcisse, who was our narrative design consultant on the game, [had] a short run called Rise of the Black Panther that really focuses on T'Challa's family history. It digs into his birth mother and his father and Shuri's mother and things like that. That ended up being really key to us, figuring out the why of our story points. We wanted him to be slightly more guarded and we needed to look at those key events in his past that would lead him to be the person he is. So we took the death of his father and tweaked it just enough to motivate him to become the Panther he is in our game. So yeah, those four runs were probably the most influential for the story.
So you were drawing inspiration from Narcisse as an author, but also you were interfacing with him directly as a consultant. What kinds of perspective and ideas did he bring to the table?
MacLeod: Working with Evan was the best. I love him. He gave a lot of direction in terms of character. He's a comic book nerd, like the rest of us, but he's got a deep understanding of the various areas of Black Panther. And he really helped us to focus on, like I said, those whys, those motivations for each of the characters. He also was always good at redirecting us in terms of the characters to points of their personalities that maybe haven't got as much light. So for example, T'Challa is a scientist in his own right; he's extremely intelligent.
The movies have kind of leaned off of that, but in the comics he works on his own suit. He developed his own gear and we really wanted to emphasize that intelligence and that strategist mindset in his character. And so Evan was always good at redirecting us on those paths. He gave me a lot of direction. He came to the office--pre-COVID times--we got to show off what we were working on and had hours-long discussion on what we wanted to do with this character. I always feel like I'm in good hands because I and really, the entire writing team, got to lean on Evan.
Avengers has such a large roster of characters. When you're designing a new character to fit in this space, like Black Panther, how do you go about making sure you differentiate him from other power sets while also staying true to the character?
Walters: Black Panther is our ninth hero, so we've gotten to this rhythm of, we know on paper what every hero needs to fit in our game and interact with all the mechanics. When we start researching, we hit up all the source material--comics, cartoons, you name it. And we figure out: what is the thing? What are the most recurring elements or skill sets that you see in his combat? What are the things that players are going to recognize the most and be iconic? And we want players to say, when they get their hands on playing Black Panther, they're like, yep, that's Black Panther. That's exactly what I would expect or envision.
So when we look at making each new hero, we do try and make them distinct and feel unique. So the way we do that, as we look at those iconic moves and we say, oh, how is that different? I think a really good example is the power attack. On paper, it's a grab. Hulk can grab, Kamala can grab, Black Panther can grab now. But they do it differently. Both Hulk and Kamala use their size and strength to basically pick up small guys and throw them. Whereas Black Panther is agile, he's acrobatic, he's strong, but he's not going to hold the guy with one hand like they're a ragdoll, right? So what he does for his grab is he leaps through the air, passes on top of the enemy and bears them down to the ground. And then he just unleashes a savage series of claw attacks. That felt really natural to what people would think of Black Panther doing in terms of his mood set.
And when we were looking at how to differentiate that one step further, we thought, Hulk and Kamala don't grab these large suit enemies. They don't grab the walking tanks. But Black Panther, he's agile, he's nimble, he can jump on top of them. And so that's kind of a whole unique thing that he can do that the other heroes can't.
When you're going into designing a new character, do you look for mechanical gaps from the other heroes?
Walters: We do that in both scenarios. We look at, what gap or thing are we missing? And then also, what can this hero fill out of that list? And so when we were developing Panther, he's primarily a melee guy. We needed a ranged attack for the puzzle mechanics or for enemies that stay outside your range, but he is a melee character. So when we were developing the ranged attack, we were like, what if his [ranged attack] stuck to the target and then made the melee damage better. And so we really liked that loop: Okay, let me throw a couple of daggers while I'm running over, then I can use my melee attacks to really deal the most damage. That spiraled into, well, what if he's all about buffing and debuffing players and enemies.
And so his Overcharge mechanic is a big kinetic burst area. He stores up the energy in the suit. He releases it and knocks everyone down, but he also supercharges his melee attacks for a brief duration. And the idea is you want to build that meter up while that buff is active and then trigger it again and keep that loop going and maintain that effect. He's got his support Heroic that can buff allies or debuff enemies on the fly. You get to choose which version you want to call in to best fit the scenario. His Ultimate does a similar thing. You can spec it to be very support-focused and help the team, or you can spec it to be very detrimental to enemies and lean into that.
He's very quick, but he has a wide array of abilities. And to really master the character, we want players to figure out what that rotation is, what that flow is and react to the situation as necessary.
He also occupies an interesting place on the 'power org chart.' He's not superpowered, per se, like the Hulk, but he's also not just a very skilled regular human, like Black Widow or Hawkeye. He's in the middle range. So how do you go about illustrating that through gameplay?
Walters: Yeah, he's not just really skilled. I mean, that is certainly one aspect to him, but he has super-strength through the heart-shaped herb. He is more resilient through his technology and being able to absorb and defend against certain attacks. And to some extent, it is a game and we need to make sure that everyone is within a certain band. Otherwise people are like, well, it's no fun playing this hero because they're just super-weak.
That's where we lean into a place where, in order to get the most reward for Black Panther, you really want to lean into his skills, his ability to buff and debuff. Do that instead of Hulk where, oh you can just smash, right? That's very core to his character, he just tanks things. Widow is really good because she's agile and has the grapple, and has like her air combo where she kicks off the enemies or the ability to go invisible and sneak around and hit him from behind. So I think that's basically our approach. We still try to keep them all fun to play within a power level, but then make them stand out through their unique mechanics.
Black Panther has a unique personality among the Avengers as well. He's got a certain sense of self-confidence. And it's a form of self-confidence I think is distinct narratively from like Tony Stark's.
MacLeod: Absolutely. I think one of the things that surprised me most when I was reading the comics--you didn't use the word, but I think we can--he's arrogant. T'Challa has this level of arrogance. That really surprised me because you don't really see it in the movie. He's earned the right to be arrogant, though. He's incredibly intelligent. He's a scientist in his own right. He upgrades his own suit. He also prepares for everything. Even in his first appearance, in the comics, he is testing to see if he can defeat people that should be allies. He's prepared even in the off-chance that the people he's allied with turn evil. So he's earned that arrogance, but it comes off a little off-putting, especially to the other Avengers. I really enjoyed that. It is a little bit different than say a Tony Stark character whose arrogance is a bravado. He hasn't quite earned it. It's a very different experience. We really worked hard to make sure that T'Challa had a different relationship with every single Avenger. The way that they relate to him based on that arrogance, the slight guardedness, the off-putting nature is different for each hero. But yeah, he's got that confidence and he has every reason to be. We wanted that to be part of his character, that when you are Black Panther, you're Black Panther, this is awesome.
Yeah, the Avengers do relate to him differently. Captain America seems very deferential to him. He knows he's a visitor in someone else's country and he's trying to represent America well.
MacLeod: I really think Cap is the secret heart of the entire game, because there's this earnestness to him that people can't help but respond to. And our idea for the backstory of the game is that prior to A-Day, Cap and T'Challa were in talks to potentially become allies. And because of A-Day and Cap's death, that's what pushes Wakanda back into their isolationist policies. And a lot of that came from, again, this Flags of our Fathers run, where Cap meets Azzuri and has this deep respect for Wakanda. I think Cap approaches things with an earnestness that everyone is in it for the right reasons. I think Cap has a really wholesome, almost loving reaction to Wakanda.
How much research did you put into the broader field of Afrofuturism?
MacLeod: I worked with a bunch of the environment artists, and they did a ton of research. It was very important to the environmental art team that they look into African architecture, because the idea is Wakanda has not been conquered. It's never been invaded. It's never had an occupying force, it hasn't been colonized. So they want it to look at African architecture to see, alright, if this got to develop, if it was suddenly technologically enhanced and got to really shine over 10,000 years, what would it look like? Wakanda is also really big on the balance between nature and technology. They don't let their technology overrun nature. So a lot of the more ancient structures that you get to see in Wakanda have just been built, like using nature around it, rather than cutting down trees, they would bend trees to different directions.
They want to build a structure, or even in the more advanced architecture, there's a lot of arcs and things that are closer to the shapes of actual nature rather than harsh, strong corners and other European influences.
Walters: Yeah. And for the combat, we obviously looked at the different weapons, daggers, the spears, the shields that really were core to culture in Africa. And so Black Panther's daggers were all directly influenced and inspired by real weapons, and the same for his spears. You'll see the shields--although they're energy shields, because it is a high-tech future--you can see this very iconic shape and size, just made out of energy.
One element that I think is really interesting in the Wakandan culture is a strong emphasis on having women in positions of power.
MacLeod: Absolutely. It's interesting, because Wakanda wasn't always that way, there are some more traditional elements. Like, the Dora Milaje are this all-female fighting force, but their actual origin was as potential wives for the Black Panther. The idea was each tribe would submit a woman who could be a potential wife for Black Panther, but they're also trained to be soldiers. They've left that tradition behind, and a lot of that has to do with the more recent Black Panthers who've taken up the mantle.
We're at this point where I think Shuri especially feels like [she's] on even footing with her brother. There's some conflict there in our story, just by virtue of the fact that they have different ideas of what the future of Wakanda should look like. Also, they've been deeply affected by the death of their father, which we've tweaked some of the context of that death so that they have taken very different lessons from it, from each other. But at the same time, T'Challa would never disrespect Shuri's knowledge and expertise.
Okoye is also an interesting character, both in the movies and in the comics. She's one of those people who, while she deeply respects T'Challa and respects the position of Black Panther, she's willing to speak up when something doesn't feel quite right. She can question him and doesn't fear repercussions for that. It was really fun to dig into those characters. There's even some other female characters that we name-drop or show in various parts of this pack to really take a look at that. T'Challa is a king, but never takes for granted the expertise of the people around him.
You mentioned the 'role' of Black Panther. In the movie it seemed as if the king and Black Panther were one in the same, but in the comics I understand it's more of a religious or ceremonial role. The king is not necessarily the Black Panther and vice versa. Do you play with that at all?
MacLeod: Yes. So that is actually deeply core to the overall story. I'm not going to speak too much to it because I don't want to spoil things, but yes, that was something that stuck out in our research for the comic, because I too thought it was, this is one in the same. But in the comics, it is not, the king is one thing and it's a monarchy, you're born into it. You're going to become king regardless, but to be Black Panther, you have to challenge. You have to fight in order to actually become Black Panther. It has to do with being able to take the heart-shaped herb, you have to get Bast's blessing to even become Black Panther. There's an arc in the comics where Shuri becomes Black Panther, but does not get Bast's blessing, and so she doesn't get infused with all of the powers that a Black Panther would have. There's quite a bit to speak to how T'Challa is balancing those two roles, those two responsibilities. We dig into it a lot.
What's the size or scope of this expansion as compared to the main campaign or the Hawkeye expansions?
MacLeod: So we can definitely say the story campaign itself is comparable to what you got out of Kate or Clint, but there's quite a bit more stuff to add on to that. We have a new social space, an outpost which is very detailed. I highly recommend exploring it because the artists knocked it out of the park. There's also additional Avengers Initiative content. So we've got Drop Zones and Threat Sectors that we're adding. There's also, later on, going to be an Omega-level threat mission that builds on the characters and situations from Wakanda. So yeah, it's hefty.
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