Marvel's Avengers' Gameplay Nails the Scope and Spectacle, But Important Questions Remain Unanswered

Avengers plays well, but we still have a few questions.

After two years of silence, Crystal Dynamics finally has the chance to show off its Avengers Project. Formally titled Marvel's Avengers, the game saw its debut at Square Enix' E3 2019 presentation, with all the bombast and action you'd expect. What was missing in that trailer was gameplay; there were brief snippets, but not enough to get a feel for what kind of game Avengers is.

Behind closed doors, Square Enix is showing off Marvel's Avengers in playable form. I didn't get my hands on it personally, but it was enough to get a taste of Earth's Mightiest Heroes. The demo begins where the trailer does, with the Avengers celebrating A-Day, the opening of their West Coast chapter in San Francisco. Part of the festivities is a new prototype helicarrier powered by Terrigen Crystals. And then faceless soldiers attack the event, all utilizing Stark tech that was given to SHIELD.

The playable part of the demo is a taster's choice, there to give you the feeling of each launch hero-Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America, and Black Widow-while also anchoring the events of the A-Day attack. Thor and Iron Man race to the Bay Bridge, and there the game transitions to playable form as Thor. Each character seems to have their own mechanics, but they all have two special attacks and one super move that can be charged up. Thor can hover above the battlefield, but he's better in the thick of things. His hammer Mjolnir can be spun before a hit to send an enemy flying, or he can throw it to immobilize a foe until Thor recalls it. While his hammer is holding someone down-which feels like it would kill them?-Thor can mix it up using his fists. His super move brings down a massive lightning storm on enemies, after causing them to float in low-gravity.

The gameplay then switches to Iron Man, who chases soldiers with jetpacks along the bridge before being stopped. Even in combat, Iron Man prefers to stay in the air and at a distance. He has a basic repulsor blast and missiles, and his super move is a sustained chest beam that melts targets, including a whole bus. As tanks enter the battle, it's Hulk's turn to smash. Hulk's section of the demo is fantastic, with the green giant smashing cars and debris in his way, and leaping far distances across what's left of the Bay Bridge. Hulk's fighting style is focused around grabbing debris and scenery to hammer foes; at one point he even grabs two enemies and slams them together.

"He's a different challenge," says Avengers lead combat designer Vincent Napoli when I ask about Hulk's section of the demo. "Widow is challenging on another spectrum. What gadgets can you give her to make her feel very unique? What support abilities does she need to be a stealthy tactical assassin? When it came to Hulk, we want him to feel like he can weaponize. He's weaponizing the environment and his enemies. He can run around with the enemies held. We just felt that was such a Hulk mechanic. From there we just developed his full set of abilities."

After Hulk slammed two tanks in each other, the scene then switched to Captain America. Unlike the rest of the team, he's on the deck of the helicarrier. Cap is probably the furthest departure from the comic or Marvel Cinematic version of the character, clad in semi-military gear and using a shield that can seemingly charge up. Like his other counterparts though, you can throw his shield and have it ricochet around the environment.

The demo ends with Black Widow, who is probably closest to what I'd expect from Crystal Dynamics based on their Tomb Raider efforts. It's here that we also get the first named villain in the form of Taskmaster. As Taskmaster takes to the sky thanks to a jetpack, Widow leaps on his back, sending the pair careening around the ruined structure of the bridge. Once the jetpack is broken, it turns into a boss fight somewhat similar to Insomniac's Spider-Man or the Arkham series. Black Widow has to dodge Taskmaster's attacks-there's a dodge indicator that pops up over enemies' heads to help you with timing-while using her Widow's Sting to attack him from range. Her super move cloaks her entirely; as Widow herself points out, Taskmaster can't mimic what he can't see.

Once Taskmaster is down, the scene turns to the helicarrier, which is sinking into the Bay. The Terrigen Crystals that power it are beginning to turn into a gas, obviously hinting at the Inhumans' Terrigenesis process at some point later in the story. More importantly, the helicarrier explodes, shattering the city. In the aftermath, the Avengers are blamed and banned, forcing them to disband. And Captain America was on the helicarrier when it exploded, leading to the apparent death of the First Avenger.

Every character is fairly distinct in terms of play, with even the low-powered Captain America and Black Widow not feeling much alike. "We look at each character and go, 'What are the things we need do to deliver that fantasy?' Not thinking in terms of what we can reuse. What are we going to do to make the definitive Hulk experience? As if we were making just a Hulk game, or just an Iron Man game. Then we build from there. It's you end up with characters that feel so distinct from one another," says Napoli.

Is the Avengers Demo Indicative of the Final Product?

The thing is, this gives me some idea of the narrative side of Marvel's Avengers. It's definitely top-tier action, with cars, buses, tanks, and even the Bay Bridge simply shattered under the strength of the Avengers and their enemies. Everything blows up real good. But it's not, as far as I can tell, indicative of the final product.

You switch between each character for this story prologue, but does that continue for the rest of the game? Will you have the option to stick with a favorite if you so choose? Avengers allows up to four-players to join together in online play, but Crystal Dynamics is mum about the specifics of that play as well. How does multiplayer action work? If four people want to be Captain America, can they, or are they each forced to choose a different character? Is there cross-play? I asked some of these questions, but Crystal Dynamics preferred to focus on what was being shown at E3.

Destiny 2's story campaign is great, but it's also not entirely indicative of what Destiny 2 is after you finish that story. Marvel's Avengers is a narrative experience that wants to tell the ultimate playable Avengers story, but there's a service element to it that Square Enix isn't talking about yet. I want to know more about that game, and the specifics of the story campaign, before I give my allegiance over to Marvel's Avengers.

I'm sure we'll find out more in the future, as we have a little under a year until the May 15, 2020 release of Marvel's Avengers on PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Stadia. That's a lot of time to firm up our perception of what Marvel's Avengers is. Right now though, based on the E3 2019 demo, I still have a lot of questions.

Tagged with Action Adventure, E3 2019, Opinions, PlayStation 4, Square Enix E3 2019, Xbox One.

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