Marvel's Avengers is the Incredible Hulk of video games. The rage-filled Avenger and his scientist alter-ego are the same person and yet wholly different from one another, and Avengers is similarly split between two, sometimes diametrically opposed, personalities. One is a single-player story campaign that can be emotional and thoughtful, tuned to bring you into the shoes of Earth's Mightiest Heroes, while also spending time with them as people. The other is a multiplayer-focused live game full of huge levels where you punch all manner of enemies, without many worries as to why. Both sides work in their own way, but they never quite mesh, leaving Marvel's Avengers a somewhat confused, haphazard game--but a fun one, despite all its inner turmoil.
Like the Hulk's mild-mannered counterpart, Bruce Banner, the single-player story campaign of Marvel's Avengers makes a strong first impression with its more thoughtful approach. It's set in its own alternate Marvel Comics universe where the superheroes that make up the Avengers--Captain America, Iron Man, Black Widow, the Hulk, and Thor--are famous and beloved. You start the game as Kamala Khan, a young girl who's a huge fan of the heroes, when she attends an Avengers celebration called A-Day in San Francisco. Soon, Kamala will become a superhero in her own right, following a terrorist attack and a tragedy that causes the Avengers to disband and spreads superpowers throughout a segment of the population. And while you'll spend time as each of the titular team, the single-player portion of Marvel's Avengers is really Kamala's story, and it works because she provides it a moral and emotional heart.
But this is a superhero game, and that means there are supervillains--and they need punching. The core of Marvel's Avengers is an action-RPG brawler, with you playing a range of characters that deliver beat-downs to Marvel creeps such as Abomination, Taskmaster, and MODOK, as well as their many robotic and human minions. You're treated to a host of moves, which include light and heavy melee strikes, ranged attacks, hero-specific special abilities that have cooldown timers, and extra abilities triggered by using Intrinsic Energy, a resource that generally builds up over time and allows you to activate boosts for damage or defense. Combat in Marvel's Avengers is about stringing together combos and abilities based on the enemies you're facing, with various threats demanding that you kick them into the air to juggle them, break their shields with heavy attacks, or dodge and parry their incoming blows to defeat them.
The fighting feels akin to Marvel's Spider-Man or the Batman: Arkham games, although the fighting in Marvel's Avengers adds spins of its own. The longer you play and the more moves you unlock by leveling up a hero, the more options you get in a fight. Avengers has a large and varied roster of enemies, and the further you get into the game, the more often you're made to consider how best to use your combos and superpowers to take down baddies, instead of relying on random button-mashing.
You start as Kamala on her journey to become Ms. Marvel, while she works to find and reunite the Avengers. The heroes are needed to take on the threat of AIM--a technology company that produces killer robots and seeks to imprison and "cure" anyone who displays superhuman abilities. Before long, you're playing as each of the characters in turn as the story explores the Avengers' emotional turmoil from their failure on A-Day and the five years that have passed since.
The strength of Marvel's Avengers is that while every character is stamped out of the same template--melee attacks, a ranged option, special abilities, and Intrinsic Energy--they all play very differently from one another. Iron Man is more of a ranged sniper than a melee brawler, for instance, and is easily laid low if the fighting gets too hot around him. Hulk, meanwhile, gains his Intrinsic Energy from dealing and receiving damage, so you're incentivized to wade straight into combat and smash as much as possible. Kamala gets a damage boost from using her Intrinsic Energy and unlocks additional moves that excel at knocking back and controlling groups of enemies, while Black Widow is a juggler who focuses on dishing out damage and is best at moving quickly around the battlefield to put down specific threats.
The Avengers are all different enough from one another that playing each of them can feel like hopping into a separate game, and it's this variety that helps keep Marvel's Avengers interesting--especially as you get into its multiplayer-focused live game portion. In the campaign, all those characters allow you to explore different thematic levels that play to each of the Avengers' strengths, but it also causes the story to feel more disjointed. There's enough difference in the characters that jumping from Kamala to Hulk to Iron Man over the course of a few levels is less empowering than it is disorienting. There's a lot to know about each character, and handling each effectively takes practice and effort. Though the game dishes out character-specific tutorials, they pop up late and are optional. There's not really an elegant way for the game to onboard you with each of the characters, so the single-player campaign starts to feel like more of an extended tutorial to get you ready for the live game.
However, the story is an engaging one, with Marvel's Avengers digging into the character-specific conflicts that added depth to the Marvel Cinematic Universe's take on the Avengers. It largely focuses on the relationship between the exuberant Kamala and the reluctant Banner, who's fallen into depression and despair in the years after A-Day. In Banner, Kamala finds a superhero mentor who helps her come to grips with who she is becoming thanks to her new powers, while Kamala helps give Banner the strength to step off the sidelines when he has the ability to change the world. The relationship between Kamala and Banner, and its twisted reflection in villains George Tarleton and Monica Rappaccini, is what makes the campaign of Marvel's Avengers work, and the time spent developing its characters makes them worth investing in.
Not everybody in the story gets an equal amount of attention, though. Iron Man's conflict with Banner and how it affects Kamala are key elements, but Black Widow, Thor, and Captain America (who is killed during the events of A-Day) are largely ignored. In practice, the 10- to 14-hour campaign feels like it shortchanges some of the heroes to make room to cram in the Hulk side of Marvel's Avengers: the expansive, multiplayer-focused live game.
While many of the missions you play in the single-player campaign are focused on a single hero or maybe a pair of them, by about the halfway point, they start to get combined with forays into the multiplayer offerings of Marvel's Avengers. These are missions of various sizes that you usually take on with a team of four superheroes, either controlled by other players or filled in with AI-controlled versions of the Avengers you've been ranking up and customizing throughout the game. Some of these missions are single encounters in locales like AIM facilities, where you do the sorts of activities you see in other live games--fighting off waves of enemies, defending a specific spot for a set amount of time, destroying a bunch of objects such as power generators, and taking down boss characters. In the bigger, more expansive levels, missions often have multiple steps as well as optional side objectives, such as solving simple puzzles to unlock doors or locating and killing a tough enemy.
Playing with other humans especially, it's possible to find synergies between the characters' capabilities and their strengths and weaknesses. Iron Man and Black Widow are great at tangling up a tough enemy while Ms. Marvel and Hulk clear the crowds that fill in around them, for instance. Working together in a fight makes for some cool moments, and even with a team of AI characters, the bigger, tougher battles of Marvel's Avengers get pretty exciting as you smartly deploy your superpowers or get assistance from one of the other heroes.
The trouble is, couched within the story campaign, these missions stand out as being a lot less focused. All the levels, even the biggest ones, are pretty homogeneous since they need to support all different characters equally. That turns them into little more than big fighting arenas that don't play to any particular strengths. They also do a lot to kill the pace of the campaign, cutting back on character moments so you can run around big chunks of the Utah Badlands or the Pacific Northwest forest, opening up chests and fighting random battles. Marvel's Avengers has all the trappings of a live game like Destiny 2 or The Division, with its social spaces, shopkeepers, faction vendors, and daily activities. The explanations for all these things are wedged in the middle of the campaign and, like the multiplayer missions, feel at odds with what the story is trying to deliver in its exploration of its characters.
Once the campaign wraps up, you're left with just the multiplayer-focused side, which runs on continually throwing more challenging missions at you and gating those missions with gear requirements. All those treasure chests you open throughout Marvel's Avengers provide items for a loot system, in which you outfit your characters with equipment that has various stats on it. The overall average of your stats determines your Power Level, which has more granular stats that determine the damage you dish out or absorb. Power also dictates which missions you can handle and how tough they are.
Like other live games, the loot chase is supposed to be the engine that drives your continued engagement--the chance at better, more powerful stuff is the reason to tune in every day or every week with your friends. On this front, Marvel's Avengers flounders a bit. Just about every piece of gear you'll find has interesting perks that can change the way you fight, offering advantages like defense against enemies with freeze weapons or allowing you to shrink or poison enemies as you pummel them. But it's only at the very top of the loot grind, as you near the cap of 150 Power, that you might actually start to bother looking at the gear you're using and what it does. Up until then, even items with good perks will get replaced in short order, since you'll continually pick up new gear with higher Power numbers as you play. Gear also doesn't affect how your character looks, which makes it feel even less consequential.
The good news is that the loot chase isn't much of a loot grind. You can tear through levels at a pretty consistent clip, which keeps you from ever feeling like you're gated from content you want to play and forced to play stuff you don't. In the end, there's a fairly huge swathe of activities you can take on, with varying lengths, objective types, and difficulty levels. If you want a quick 10-minute experience, you'll have that option; if you'd rather dig in for 30 minutes or an hour, there are larger levels that can keep you busy. And the tougher they are, the more skill they demand from you in combat, and tapping into that depth is where the game excels.
But like the Hulk himself, it all feels a bit chaotic and unfocused. The loot grind is ever-present but largely not something you really need to pay much attention to. Despite a lot of objective options, all the levels are relatively similar and pretty repetitive, sending you to a lot of copied locations like AIM labs or taking place on the same couple of big chunks of desert or forest. And when four heroes are wailing on the same big boss or giant robot, you lose a lot of the nuance of dodging, parrying, and constantly considering your attack options because it's hard to see through the confusion.
Still, Marvel's Avengers does manage to scratch that live game itch, just like it scratches the itch for an emotional superhero story, and when its combat comes together, it can be very fun. Adventuring through the game with the different characters creates a ton of variety, which helps keep fighting a lot of the same enemies in a lot of the same environments feeling fresh. There's a lot to master for any given character, and with six on offer in the base game and more coming, experimenting with each one is a solid draw.
The endgame does a great job of drip-feeding you additional activities as well, with each new level unlocking a newer, tougher one to go with a bunch of character-specific challenges to wrap up. The late-game Hive levels are essentially just five or six smaller missions stacked together and yet make for some very tough and varied fights and activities, especially at high difficulties. Fighting with human teammates especially can be a very good time. Whether you're on voice chat with friends or just picking up random teammates through the game's matchmaking, it feels good to find opportunities to help each other and work together to defeat tough foes you'd struggle facing alone. But the AI is good enough, on the whole, that you can play Avengers by yourself and stay engaged.
After 50 hours with Avengers, I'm still interested in taking on tougher combat challenges and leveling up the rest of the characters--and I'm excited to see what developer Crystal Dynamics has in store with its take on four-player "raid" content, which is coming to the game later. There's also a lot of potential for expansions on the story side with additional characters coming to the game post-launch. They represent an opportunity for more intimate, character-driven episodes that tap into the best stuff in Marvel's Avengers, which would be a lot more enticing than just new characters to take through the same multiplayer missions.
That interest has been marred along the way by technical snafus, though, especially of late. There were points throughout Marvel's Avengers when bugs popped up to break dialogue, disable interaction prompts, or load in too many copies of heroes for a mission. I've had issues where no enemies spawn during battles, or where a checkpoint doesn't trigger and a mission can't advance. Most of the problems are minor inconveniences, and some seem to have lessened since a patch was released with the wide launch of Marvel's Avengers.
In the last few days, however, my game has suffered crashes and freezes often when I've played, seemingly with no cause. Though other GameSpot staff aren't reporting the same problems, posts on Reddit and Steam forums suggest I'm not alone in having major problems with the game. Sometimes I can play through a whole mission or two and even get a couple hours out of a play session, but other times, I'll get trapped on the start menu or see the game seize up repeatedly over a short period. Usually, the solution is a full restart of my computer, and attempting to fix the issue by downgrading graphics settings and hunting down new GPU drivers haven't alleviated the problem at all. I've managed to put in a lot of hours into Marvel's Avengers over the last week or so, but in the last few days as I've worked through the endgame, these problems have rendered the game unplayable at times.
On the whole, I've enjoyed my time with Marvel's Avengers, and if Crystal Dynamics can deal with the technical issues plaguing the game, I'm looking forward to spending time mastering the combat styles of all the characters and exploring the expansions of its story the live game has set up. At times, Marvel's Avengers struggles to unify a thoughtful story focus with a more momentum-based, action-heavy live game system--but both have their good qualities. As with Bruce Banner and the Hulk, it'll be worth sticking with Marvel's Avengers to see how it might reconcile the two halves of its personality in the future to make something even better.