Last month, a house listing in Fayette, Missouri went viral online. The two-bedroom home had a classic exterior evoking old school Americana and the first few pictures showed a beautifully renovated interior. Once you got beyond early pictures though, it was clear why the home was so cheap: most of it was an unrenovated, still-functional prison. The beautiful home is just a face grafted upon an ugly, cobbled-together body. It presents well in the beginning, full of comfort and emotion, before giving way to something more cold, utilitarian, and unsettling. Maybe I could just ignore what lies behind the curtain and enjoy those first impressions.
I feel about that home like I do about Marvel's Avengers. It frontloads its goodness, kicking things off with a damned good story experience and good combat. Once you're done with the main campaign, the magic carries through for a bit before you realize that you're doing the same thing over and over in the same sterile science hallways.
The story campaign is where the game shines and does its best to showcase the launch heroes. It follows in the wake of A-Day, where the Avengers' prototype Helicarrier explodes and covers the surrounding area in Terrigan gas. This gas gives people powers, creating a new race of humanity called the Inhumans, but also leads to the Avengers disbanding.
This is the story of one Inhuman, Kamala Khan. (She, oddly, is never referred to by her heroic name "Ms. Marvel" during the story.) Kamala was there on A-Day, a contestant in an Avengers fan-fiction competition. She's the catalyst for bringing the Avengers back together, a young fan who will ultimately stand beside her heroes. While the Avengers is a larger organization, this game focuses on Kamala and the primary five: Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, and Black Widow.
Kamala is instantly endearing and a great showcase of the wonder inherent in the idea of these superheroes; these modern gods of science and magic. You feel her excitement and the doting love of her father, who's acting as chaperone. She's also the key to humanizing the Avengers themselves—her early meeting with Thor brings to the forefront his boasting nature and underlying warmth, and when they met again later in the campaign, it actually made me go, "Damn, that's my God of Thunder." You understand the tension between science bros Tony Stark and Bruce Banner, the latter of whom see heroes as somewhat of a threat. There's even some good characterization on the edges of the team, like a Hank Pym who has largely given up the superhero lifestyle. Crystal Dynamics nails its version of these heroes in the same way that Insomniac crafted its own spin on Spider-Man's world.
Thanks to their time on the new Tomb Raider trilogy, Crystal Dynamics is well-versed in building a compelling single-player experience and that shows here. The Reassemble campaign has a number of amazing moments, highlighting the narrative and specific play style of each hero. Not every level is a winner, as some are clearly endgame multiplayer levels repurposed for the narrative, but it's a rollicking ride for a good 13-15 hours. If I had ended my experience here, I would have walked away saying, "This is great."
Contest of Champions
Crystal Dynamics promised that players would get the feeling of truly being Earth's Mightiest heroes, and they've largely delivered. Each character feels distinct, like varying classes in another game. Hulk is the bruiser that soaks up damage and clears out crowds; Black Widow is adept at stunning foes, and Iron Man can fly around the battlefield, using repulsors, rockets, and lasers to flatten foes. Crystal Dynamics even nails some of the small moments: Thor players can throw Mjolnir at enemies, and if you don't recall the hammer it just sits there pinning enemies to a wall or the floor. They're not worthy.
Every character comes with a set number of skills and Heroic abilities: one Assault Heroic, one Support Heroic, and one Ultimate Heroic. As you level, you'll unlock new skills and combos, allowing you to respond to enemy attacks in different ways, like Cap's Mirror Shield, which reflects beam attacks back at enemies. The skill trees look bigger than they actually are, with each unlocked skill having just three branches. Sticking with Captain America as an example, one of his Combat Specializations lets him increase damage for Combo Finishers, increase Stun damage, or increase ranged damage. I eventually specced out a Cap that is very adept at keeping enemies stunned and out of the fight. It's less about variety and more about flexibility.
That is mirrored in the loot. Early on I replaced loot quite often and barely looked at it. Once I got into the endgame though, loot loadout began to matter more. It's best to focus on stats like Might for melee damage, Precision for ranged damage, and Resilience for more armor. The most fun is the Particle damage type, which shrinks enemies with Pym Particles; hitting a foe and turning them into an itty-bitty toy never gets old.
For all these stats and perks though, Marvel's Avengers is a brawler at heart. Your heroes will frequently go fist-to-fist with enemies, and there's an extensive system of combos and juggling that feel amazing... when you have the chance to just focus on a single enemy. It's not as precise as something like Devil May Cry, but it's good enough and there's real weight and heft to most attacks. The sound helps sell the feeling as well, with the metal clang of Captain America's shield and the whine of Iron Man's repulsor keeping you rooted in the heroic fantasy.
At its best, Avengers will drop you in one of the wide open War Zones, letting you run, leap, and fly around with a group of friends. I enjoyed wall-running and double jumping around the lone city map with Cap, with Thor flying overhead or Black Widow grappling beside me. In these moments, just before Thor and Iron Man leave the on-foot Captain America far behind, I found myself feeling like we really were a cadre of colorful superheroes.
We're In The Endgame Now
Sadly, the experience starts to fall apart once you've finished the campaign. The post-story content, "The Avengers Initiative," isn't as well-polished or satisfying as the Reassemble campaign. What starts as exciting begins to become a bit rote, if it works at all.
The missions are discrete instances, so there's little flow to the overall experience; even in the larger maps, you're only there until the main objective is done. This actually works really well on the smaller drop zones, which are meant to be completed in 5-10 minutes tops, but on the larger War Zones, I wish there was a chance to just… live in those areas. There's a flow of play to Destiny 2, The Division 2, or World of Warcraft where you can just move from event to event until you're done. Here, even on the larger maps, the experience is finite.
Over the course of the campaign, you'll see most of the map types: the city of the Eastern Seaboard, the deserts of the Utah Badlands, the pastoral forests of the Pacific Northwest, and an area simply called "Snowy Tundra." On one hand, these are good looking maps, on the other, I would've liked far bigger swings in terms of look and design. Crystal Dynamics had the entire Marvel Universe at its disposal and it went with… forests and mountains. The wild swings in locales in Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 is more indicative of a proper use of Marvel's imaginative property.
There's little variety to be found in the game's overall loop. Underneath most of these are the exact same AIM laboratories. The same hallways; the same Arc Reactor and Turbine rooms. You'll unlock the exact same SHIELD vaults. You'll fight adaptoids, riotbots, and AIM keepers over and over again, with the only break being the human Watchdog faction. Even Hives are just those same AIM labs stacked into multiple floors, instead of a single floor.
And again, despite having the full breadth of the Marvel Universe, you'll only fight Taskmaster and Abomination, both of whom featured in the beta. Another villain makes a brief appearance in an iconic mission, but that's it. No Red Skull, Enchantress, or Doctor Doom here. There's not even low-level villains that would've slotted into the story better, like Baron Strucker, Mentallo, Ghost, Blizzard, or Titanium Man.
Given the lack of variety, the only way Marvel's Avengers can challenge you is by throwing more enemies at you, or giving them overshields. The latter just turns enemies into damage sponges you can't stun, taking one vector of attack. The former begins to get annoying when you realize that ranged foes have excellent aim and tracking shots, while also allowing players to take damage while a stagger animation plays out. In harder content like Vaults and Hives, you'll find yourself dodging and parrying relentlessly, because if you get hit, you'll stagger, at which point you'll probably take additional shots that'll eat up your health. And god forbid the Torpedo modifier is on the mission you're tackling, which makes projectile attacks do far more damage. I talked about combos and juggling being available when you can focus on a single enemy, but in reality, that doesn't happen much in Marvel's Avengers.
You can play through most of Marvel's Avengers solo, the rest of your party being filled out with AI companions during multiplayer missions. The problem is the AI is just fine. Part of Avengers' combat requires acknowledging which enemies you take down first, but the AI won't do that. I'd see Black Widow attacking an Exo instead of working on those drones she can easily reach. I had a boss fight against the Abomination, which has a field that drains life from you: Hulk, Black Widow, and Iron Man all stayed in melee range and ultimately died, leaving me to whittle his health down over 10 minutes. It wasn't hard, just tedious. And in the high-end content, like the Elite Hives, you'll spend most of your time babysitting them, focusing on dangerous targets and reviving the AI teammates when they inevitably go down.
Which brings us to the biggest problem with the endgame of Marvel's Avengers: the multiplayer matchmaking simply does not work. During my time with the game, I never had a full party. More likely, I'd only get matched with one player and half the time that happened, they'd disconnect mid-mission. Most of the time, I ran alone.
This is obviously a pretty big problem. Even Anthem, for all its problems, at least let me matchmake properly for its endgame missions. I'm shocked this isn't working—server issues due to capacity is common at launch, but this doesn't appear to be an infrastructure problem. Crystal Dynamics has promised to fix it, but this is a full $60 product with a base feature that does not work. And that's before I get to other bugs. I've personally had the game hard crash a few times, had one boss get stuck in a wall, and have seen my character fall through the floor into the void. Other players have reported losing progress due to corrupted saves, hard locks in the HARM rooms, and unlocked skins disappearing. It's a bit of a mess.
Speaking of skins, most are just recolors revolving around a few themes, rather than wholly different costumes. Not only that, there's very little you can do to acquire the skin you want. The Challenge Card is a Battle Pass that allows you to unlock some skins, but it's gated by Daily and Weekly challenges. There's a cosmetic vendor where you can buy skins, emotes, and nameplates with in-game units, but unit gain is roughly random, the store is on a rotating basis, and the skins themselves are pretty expensive. I had an Iron Man skin I wanted to pick up, but didn't have the 4,500 units needed to do so. By time I did, the store had refreshed and the skin was gone.
Why not allow players to simply work their way up to the non-Marketplace skins they want? Instead, you have to hope the skin is on the vendor, or hope that you get the skin you want from a pattern, which is entirely random. Getting a skin you want that's not on the Challenge Card leaves everything to chance. That's also true of the gear: there's currently no way to reroll gear if something drops with the wrong stats. Other games have gone through this problem before and fixed it with loot tables, gear crafting, or slot rerolling. Marvel's Avengers has none of that.
There's an experience that Marvel's Avengers nails for 10-15 hours, a cinematic adventure as Earth's Mightiest Heroes. A game where you can heft Mjolnir and ride the lightning as Thor, or tear streets up as the Hulk. A place where Kamala Khan is introduced to a whole new audience who have yet to read her comic. I enjoy this half of the game.
Then there's the other half of Marvel's Avengers, the long tail. This online game is a ramshackle clutter, with tons of reused environments and enemies, and a lack of variety in terms of objectives. It's saddled with poor options for player progression. I've seen these problems before in other online multiplayer titles, and I'm a bit shocked that Avengers is not prepared. Crystal Dynamics will fix them, I'm sure, but this is now, this is launch. This side of Marvel's Avengers was not ready.
I like this game, but I wish I liked it more. In six months to a year down the line, it could be something special. Marvel's Avengers needs work, and ultimately Crystal Dynamics needs to do its own reassembling before this takes its place as a grand superhero experience.
If Marvel's Avengers was just the single-player story campaign, it would be amazing. There, Crystal Dynamics sells you on its version of the Avengers and introduces the charming and endearing Ms. Marvel to players everywhere. Combat has depth to it, and each hero truly feels distinct. Unfortunately, the endgame is where our heroes falter, with broken matchmaking, rough options in terms of progression, and endlessly reused environments and enemies. Surely, Marvel's Avengers will see improvements, but here at launch, the endgame needs a good deal of work.