Back in 2014, the Avengers comics ran a storyline called "Time Runs Out." It was focused on another war between two key figures in the Avengers, Captain America and Iron Man. The coda of "Time Runs Out" (Avengers Vol. 5 #44) involved Cap and Iron Man slugging it out with each other as the universe literally dies. Two powerful men, two ideologies, pulling the Avengers in different directions, and ultimately accomplishing nothing.
It's probably not good that this story is what comes to mind when playing Marvel's Avengers, the new Destiny-like online game from Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics. There's an action-adventure experience here that does a pretty good job of making you feel like one of Earth's Mightiest Heroes. But that experience struggles in the face of certain aspects of Marvel's Avengers.
Ahead of this weekend's beta, I was able to spend some time with the PlayStation 4 version of Avengers. My hands-on included a few story campaign-centric Hero missions, some repeatable War Zone missions, and access to four heroes: Iron Man, Hulk, Black Widow, and Ms. Marvel.
I had to get through two Hero missions before the War Table, Avengers spread of missions you can undertake alone or in a team, would open up. The first mission functions as the introduction, offering a taste of Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America, and Black Widow. Not much about this mission has changed since my last go-around with Avengers, outside of some noticeable optimization tweaks.
This mission kicks off the Reassembled campaign, with Kamala Khan seeking to bring the team back together following the events of A-Day. " You have the Reassembled campaign and then you have the beginning of the Avengers Initiative. The end of the campaign is just the beginning of the rest of the game," says Avengers game designer Lauryn Ash.
The next mission available in the beta jumps forward in time, with Kamala Khan and the Hulk working together to infiltrate a SHIELD bunker in the Pacific Northwest. The pair are trying to get the JARVIS AI back online and find the other Avengers. The opening part of this mission is pretty good, as the Hulk is your playable character and he's great in the confines of combat. The core of Avengers's combat, the foundation for every character, is the same third-person, dodge and parry, soft lock-on combat you've seen in other games this generation. The main difference is the flavor available due to character choice. The Hulk is a bruiser, able to grab enemies and slam them into others. He can grab whole chunks of earth and throw them at far away enemies, or slam the ground with his meaty fists. Being a giant man mountain slamming robots into other robots feels great.
Less successful is the exploration of this linear level. With Hulk, there's a feeling of wanting to stomp around at high speed and jump long distances. Instead, the level had me looking through nooks and crannies for resources and chests, or scrambling up ledges. It's not a problem of play so much as one of concept: it's the Hulk, a living ball of muscle and rage. This gameplay isn't entirely what I think he should be doing. When Hulk is fighting, it feels pretty good. When he's traversing a linear level, not so much.
Ms. Marvel serves to further drive home the issues with the Hulk. Kamala fits more within the level design, able to pull herself towards ledges and swing around thanks to her stretching abilities. (We didn't know that Spider-Man was coming to the PS4 version during the beta period, but in hindsight, I can see how he'll work.) Kamala is a good bridge between both sides of Avengers, being a decent fit for Crystal Dynamics' Tomb Raider design, but also the more heroic combat. Kamala spins and cartwheels around the environment, making her fists and feet huge to deal damage. She feels much more fluid than the Hulk.
Once an Avenger
This is where Marvel's Avengers finds its strength: despite a common core, the Avengers all play rather differently. That's down to a combination of weight, movement abilities, basic attacks, and Heroic moves, the latter of which recharge as you deal damage and dodge enemy attacks. The Hulk is a pure pugilist, with a two-fisted slam that shatters the ground, and an enemy-clearing charge as his Heroic move. He also draws upon Rage as a unique intrinsic ability, which when activated increases Hulk's damage and heals him.
Iron Man is more of a ranged combatant than Hulk or Kamala, his repulsor blasts having zero wind-up, a long range, and the ability to be charged up to deal more damage. (I'll add that the repulsor blasts do have more impact than my previous demo, because of added rumble in the controller.) With the skill tree available in the demo, Stark can also spec into a high-damage laser and auto-targeting rockets, which you can switch between on the fly. Speaking of flying, Iron Man can simply take to the air at any time, making him the most mobile Avenger on the current roster.
Black Widow is the last Avenger you get the chance to play with, and she's all about opening enemies up to damage. She's the only Avenger with a vault move that allows her to end up behind enemies and interrupt attacks, her grappling hook helping me easily close the distance with my targets. Like Iron Man, she has various guns to unlock, including her standard pistols, a sniper rifle, and full-auto machine guns. I also dug her Veil of Shadows heroic, which can cloak Widow and nearby party members.
Crystal Dynamics wants to sell you on the fantasy of each Avenger, and they're most of the way there. Each one is like a different class in another online action game. I actually settled into Black Widow as my "main," as I really vibed with the rogue-like quantities of her movement and attack abilities. Given my time with the beta, I think I'll be a Black Widow or Captain America player in the final game, and the fact that my preference came so easily is a testament to its success in making the characters feel both unique and true to their depictions in the movies and comic books.
The problems crop up once you unlock the War Zones. These are the primary thrust of Marvel's Avengers outside of the story campaign and Iconic Hero missions. Zones are always played in a group of four: anything below the maximum is filled out by AI-powered versions of other characters in your roster. There are larger, more open-world War Zones with a number of objectives to complete and secrets to find, and the smaller Drop Zones, which are single objective encounters that can be completed in about five to 10 minutes. Everything is meant to be repeatable, with enemy encounters changing with each run through.
The War Zones available in the beta are only a small snippet of what will be available at launch and beyond. "Yeah, you're seeing a very small section of the War Table. You know we have at least 80 different missions, you've seen maybe a dozen," says Crystal Dynamics studio head Scot Amos. He points to a secret War Zone I found in the beta, calling it "a massive War Zone" with "about 20 points of interest in it". That's the kind of scope the studio is aiming for, where there are huge levels that you have to actively work to find.
Marvel's Avengers leans heavily on multiplayer game design for mission objectives. A Dominion Drop Zone, for example, requires you to hold one position waiting for a meter to fill while enemies attack you. Another mission has you standing in three different spots to hack a server, shifting around the arena as AIM attacks the different spots. There are also Harm missions, which are Horde-style encounters where you have to clear waves of strongest enemies. It's intensely multiplayer-focused, which is why Avengers always forces a maximum team of four.
But certain aspects of combat design fall away in the packed scrum of four-player combat. It's sometimes hard to see what's happening, making it difficult to attack a specific target or respond to incoming damage with a dodge or parry. Every character plays differently, but in the heat of combat against a few enemies, it can simply resolve in everyone just throwing haymakers wildly until the enemies are dead. Imagine Ghost of Tsushima with four Jins at once, or God of War with four Kratos' all trying to exploit an enemy's weakness. The strategy of each character tends to slide away in the firefight.
Lost in Space-Time
Marvel's Avengers has been compared frequently to Bungie's Destiny, but in practice I actually find it to be much closer to Sega's Phantasy Star Online 2. It features that same kind of free-for-all melee of abilities and relatively quick missions. There's no need to really talk because you're all focused on the same objectives and wanton destruction. And like Phantasy Star Online, despite my obvious misgivings with the devolution of combat, I still found myself having fun.
The original Marvel Ultimate Alliance games, and even the recent Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3, aren't very deep games. They're beat 'em ups with your favorite Marvel heroes. Marvel's Avengers, for all the pomp and circumstance, isn't vastly different from the Ultimate Alliance series. Sometimes, it is just fun to pick your favorite hero, pick a cool costume, and fire off some unique powers. Avengers fits that bill, for all its faults.
Marvel's Avengers to Phantasy Star Online 2, I was perplexed at the lack of an online hub area to show off your chosen hero, like PSO 2's ships. There is a SHIELD Helicarrier in the beta that you'll probably upgrade over the course of the campaign, but it exists in the solo side of Avengers; there's no way to show off those costumes or emotes unless you're on a mission. Amos somewhat dodges a full confirmation of some online hub for players, but acknowledges that there might be something similar in the launch game.
"You haven't seen that possibility yet," explains Amos. "I would say that you've gotten to see a very small glimpse of the Helicarrier where you actually get through the beta and you get to a War Table. The idea of what that could become... there's some other locations that you'll see come launch and even beyond that. I would say don't count us out yet."
When you hold up Marvel's Avengers to Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3, several issues appear. Right from the beginning, MUA 3 gives you 34 characters, while Avengers only has six. Both games lock out the same pick in a four player roster—you can't have two Black Widows, two Hulks, or whatever—but you have so many more choices in Ultimate Alliance. If you're a Ms. Marvel main and you end up in a team with an existing Ms. Marvel, you have to pick a different character, and you'll only have a few choices available at launch. On one hand, Crystal Dynamics designed heroes to be distinct, encouraging players tomain a specific Avenger. But on the other, I think it'll be very easy to find yourself in a group where you can't play your favorite.
During the early life of Marvel's Avengers, the studio wants you to feel like the Avengers. "We actually, particularly for launch, wanted that to let people work that out with each other. There's actually some features we'll add in that we'll announce and show by launch that'll make it even easier for people to match together, but for us we wanted this to always be the Avengers team. And as a team that means you have these unique heroes that all have these unique abilities that work better in concert," says Amos. "So we do want to have one Iron Man, one Hawkeye, one Thor, as that kind of team mix. At least at the beginning, I will say it that way. As players come and play and ask for more features, you know, we're gonna respond over time."
Marvel's Avengers continues to lean on multiplayer standards in terms of costume colors as well: each costume only comes in a single color when you unlock it, and other colors of that same outfit are treated as a wholly different costume. This also means if you like a look, but would prefer it in blue or red, you're out of luck until Crystal Dynamics designers decide to make that color. As an example, I really liked the standard design for Black Widow, but would've preferred a color other than black. That's not an option in the available outfits, so I'm out of luck. According to Crystal Dynamics, part of that is working with Marvel to ensure the proper look of all the heroes.
"We wanted the outfits to be intact, and looking at Marvel particularly, we want the heroes to always look and have that certain tone, style, or look to them," says Amos. "While there are shades of it, that have different tones or different styles, all of that again was done with our concept artists working with Marvel and saying, 'Does this feel right? Does this look right?'"
I do have to wonder how the Cabana Hulk costume fits into this idea, but that's neither her nor there.
Costumes and emotes are unlocked through two different systems. There's the Challenge Card, which is essentially a character-specific battle pass. Every character has daily and weekly challenges, and as you complete them you get challenge points. Every five challenge points unlocks another level (out of 40) on the Challenge Card, which gives you resources, credits, units, emotes, name plates, or costumes. You can also spend credits, Avengers's real-world money currency, to jump ahead on the challenge card. As I said, pretty much a battle pass. (There is a wholly in-game currency, Units, which can seemingly be spent at a vendor to buy stuff, but that vendor was not available in the beta.)
When asked about whether the challenge cards will change and evolve over time, like seasonal battle passes, Amos concurs. "Will they evolve over time? Yes, and as we actually have new heroes they will come with challenge cards as well. The ones that you've seen in the beta are the ones you'll get for the core heroes. That will be at launch, but we do expect to see updates in future versions for those," he explains.
There's also an online marketplace, complete with a rotating set of featured rare costumes and emotes. Again, it's clear that Marvel's Avengers has heavily designed around the idea of online multiplayer, and all that entails in 2020. I'd prefer that Crystal Dynamics lean harder on making more costumes, and offering multiple colors of each costume when you unlock them. I don't have a problem with cosmetics as a carrot, but I think color choice should definitely be separate from that system of unlocks.
And in regards, Amos did not have anything to add about Spider-Man being a PlayStation exclusive character, but his answer does lean into my speculation that it's the result of the existing deal between Marvel and Sony for the Spider-Man PS4 game. "We wanted people to certainly know about that," he says. "We're blessed with the unique relationship that Marvel and Sony PlayStation have together. It afforded an opportunity for us. We were happy to announce something that PlayStation players will get."
Marvel's Avengers is an uneven experience. The core of combat is well-designed, but with a full group of heroes, it just becomes a wild mosh pit of flashy powers. Certain characters don't gel well with the more linear level design of the story campaign. The inability to pick the same character means you could put hours in your favorite hero, only to find yourself being unable to play them because your friend uses the same one. And while I'm fine with the system of unlocking costumes, I think how those costumes are parcelled out should be changed.
Marvel's Avengers is fighting itself in several key areas. And yet, like Phantasy Star Online 2, I found myself enjoying the feeling of running around the battlefield with Hulk and Ms. Marvel at my side and Iron Man flying overhead. I was able to jump in with other players and have a fun time, very much in the vein of the old Marvel Ultimate Alliance games. I don't know if the launch iteration of Marvel's Avengers will be worth the asking price, but it feels like a game that should have a long tail and might be a game I'll be able to revisit month after month.
Especially once they add Black Panther.