Like the rampaging Hulk and his transformation into the brainy Bruce Banner, Marvel’s Avengers is a game of shifting personas and experiences. Developer Crystal Dynamics delivers a powerful superhero showcase that taps into each Avenger’s unique abilities to light up the battlefield in thrilling ways, but when the dust settles, it slows down to show a softer, human side that is every bit as engaging, placing a character you wouldn’t expect in the central role.
Crystal Dynamics makes a huge gamble right out of the gate, delivering the message that even though the name Avengers is on the box, this is actually a story about a young girl named Kamala Khan – a huge fan of the super team.
The opening moments show Kamala at an Avengers convention, geeking out when she meets the likes of Captain America and Black Widow. Kamala’s viewpoint as a little kid is a refreshing change of pace, and her excitement is likely in line with the player’s, showing an appreciation for these awesome heroes. It’s a fun way to kick off this story, but I was shocked by just how little screen time the Avengers get in early parts of the campaign. They are hardly featured within the first three to four hours of play, but it oddly works.
The focus this time is instead on Kamala’s origin story and her growing into the role of Ms. Marvel. This coming-of-age tale is beautifully penned with some legitimately touching moments along the way. Even as she is learning about her powers, Kamala shows us she’s no slouch in combat, using a wild set of fun shapeshifting moves to pummel foes. While combat is the central hook, a good portion of Kamala’s gameplay is distinct and consists of frantic platforming.
Ms. Marvel grabs onto ledges, tumbles when platforms crumble under her feet, and barely survives every big leap – all elements that recall Crystal Dynamics’ previous work on the Tomb Raider series. Kamala is even pushed to use stealth in a few sequences to sneak past AIM robots that serve MODOK, another character that is realized in awesome ways and is developed thoroughly from start to finish.
The platforming action is differentiated by a superhuman element, allowing players to use Ms. Marvel’s stretching abilities to propel her great distances and feel like a hero. These sequences, while impressing with the level destruction often on display, are repetitive in their steps, and fail to deliver a true sense of danger. They do, however, aid the narrative and help Kamala further develop into the game’s most dynamic character. It’ a game about the Avengers, yet the true star isn’t part of their ranks. I love that the story takes chances to keep you off-kilter, all with a satisfying amount of narrative pay-off.
When Ms. Marvel meets the Hulk in her attempt to reunite the team, the entire game structure transforms. It moves from linear, story-driven sequences to a hub format filled with deep RPG systems and a world map with a dizzying array of single-player and cooperative missions. I didn’t like hoofing it in the hub world to talk to various vendors, but the map is nicely designed and gives you all of the info you need before jumping into new critical-path missions or side activities.
At this point in the game, Kamala Khan’s story remains strong, and is joined by mini-arcs for each of the Avengers. Crystal Dynamics did a nice job creating scenarios tailored to these heroes’ unique abilities.
The Hulk is the unstoppable monstrosity you’d hope, smashing enemies and environments to bits. Thor’s Mjölnir absolutely wallops enemies, and each swing feels like it is delivered by a god. I also enjoyed the shield antics of Captain America (who doesn’t get much screen time for good narrative reasons), and the acrobatics of Black Widow. All of these heroes have great cinematic moments backed by huge gameplay setpieces. I don’t want to spoil any of them, but one cool sequence has you frantically running as the environment rotates around you. Crystal Dynamics also keeps you on your toes by challenging the norm for many of the heroes, putting them in situations where they may not have their gear or are wounded.
Iron Man is the only character that I didn’t find enthralling. His gameplay isn’t bad, but it’s tedious; his ranged attacks aren’t much fun, and his close-quarters melee isn’t as impressive as the other heroes’. Nolan North’s performance as Tony Stark is good – his voice and delivery work – but the jokes are overdone, sounding like a one-liner machine on the fritz.
All of the characters share similarities in button mapping, but feel distinct when it comes to combat and moves. Light and heavy combos abound for each hero, and are a blast to use. Each character also has a nice solution for ranged or airborne targets. The dodge, block, and parry systems are put to good use against almost every AIM enemy type, though your foes don’t have much variety.
Every encounter and success feeds into an experience point system that allows you to level up and earn new abilities. Avengers offers a surprising amount of depth in this field. You can’t really spec out a hero differently than their base potential, but you can add extra moves to combos, speed up cooldowns on ranged attacks, and make each character more lethal in certain ways. There are over 100 abilities for each character. It’s a rewarding system that will keep you playing for a long time.
Most of the critical-path missions are nicely designed and offer up plenty of rewards, but the same cannot be said of some of the side activities. For example, some assignments consist of destroying a just few things, so the mission is over almost as quickly as it began; I think I spent more time in the pre-match lobby (which can take time to load and find other players) than actually playing. You also get some odd control-point missions, which push you to stand on a spot to claim it, almost like Crystal Dynamics was thinking about competitive multiplayer ideas and just decided to use them here instead. The control missions are easy with other players at your side, but can be maddening with A.I., which rarely try to claim spaces.
The heroes are better when they are united on the battlefield. The cooperative play is exceptionally good. Most environments are wide-open spaces that allow a full team of four to clobber enemies in style, and you can also up the difficulty with your friends to get better rewards and make the battles more dynamic.
You are pushed to earn better gear to raise each of the heroes’ overall power ratings, which you need to tackle harder missions. You may have a power rating of 12, yet need 50 to stand a chance in a particular side mission. Crystal Dynamics clearly has played some Destiny, since the loot system, various currencies, factions, and hub world are nearly identical in concept.
Most of the gear you gain isn’t shown cosmetically, and the influx of items makes the experience drag. Getting a +1 spinal cord for Hulk is just weird, and does +1 really make a difference? Sure, the loot makes heroes more potent, but it just isn’t fun to collect.
Outside of legendary items, the one category of loot that is instantly satisfying is costumes. Crystal Dynamics loaded up on different outfits for each hero, and a lot of them are great nods to Marvel’s comic books. Getting the costumes either requires grinding to earn currency (of which there is an unnecessarily confusing variety), making progress on the Challenge Card (Avengers’ equivalent of a battle pass system), or getting a blueprint to fabricate.
Nothing really comes quick in Avengers. I wouldn’t call the process a slog, as I had a good time playing missions with friends. However, it goes slowly, making it seem like the structure is designed for you to spend real money to progress faster.
Crystal Dynamics wants you to play this game for years to come, and Avengers has plenty of content to keep you engaged at launch, but replaying missions on higher difficulties to get better gear won’t be enough down the road. It doesn’t have the competitive hooks of similarly designed games like Destiny. A steady drip of new stories and missions will be needed along with the announced heroes. Avengers is in great shape right now, dazzling with its story and action. I’m hooked on the end-game content that is available now, and I want to see just how powerful these heroes can become after leveling them completely.
Avengers, assemble! You have a great game to play!