I walked away from E3 2019 decidedly unhappy with Marvel's Avengers from Square Enix. The character designs needed a little work, the starting roster felt sparse, and it was hard to tell from the gameplay trailer how it would feel. It was Square Enix' time to make a big splash, and instead I felt disappointment and boredom from the community. As E3 2019 came to a close, I felt Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 was the better Marvel game at the show. There were too many questions about what Marvel's Avengers was for me to be excited.
In seems Square Enix saw the community response, because at PAX West 2019, Crystal Dynamics not only let us play Marvel's Avengers, it also laid out the scope of the game. I essentially walked through what I honestly should've been shown as E3. It's not enough to make me a "true believer" as Stan Lee would've said, but I'm intrigued about where the game is headed now.
The playable section in front of us was the A-Day demo that Square Enix has previously shown off online. It's clearly the opening section of the game, introducing you to each hero and giving you an idea of how they function. Each hero shares some basic functionality: light attack, heavy attack, dodge, jump, two chosen Heroic abilities, and an Ultimate. Within the combat arenas, there's basic style of beat-em-up play that can be compared to Rocksteady's Arkham games. Where they vary is in the specifics of play and feel, which is where Avengers succeeds and falters at the same time.
Putting on the Costume
Thor is your first available hero, able to slam enemies with his fists or his magical hammer Mjolnir. Mjolnir itself can be thrown and recalled at any time, pinning enemies to take them out of the fight, or sending them flying. Thor plays fine, but it's clear that Mjolnir needs a little tweaking in terms of impact; it works remarkably like God of War's Leviathan Axe, but the visual cues that made the axe feel meaty aren't as apparent with Thor.
The arena itself is a combination of melee-focused grunts, snipers who require a thrown Mjolnir, and shielded enemies. The mobs with riot shields can be weakened with a power attack-holding down the heavy attack button to charge up a more powerful hit-or you can move so that the return trajectory of a thrown Mjolnir hits them in the back. Thor's Ultimate is also a solid crowd-clearer, showering a huge space around Thor in a lightning storm.
Iron Man, on the other hand, is probably the least successful hero in the demo. While Thor has at least some weight and impact, Iron Man's basic repulsor blasts feel weak and tinny. Unlike his compatriots, Iron Man can switch from ground combat to floating effortlessly, but that's doesn't really add anything to his play. He feels weak and unsatisfying to play. This is what I mean when I mention the simultaneous success and failure of Marvel's Avengers; it's only as good as the character you're currently playing, since they're so different.
Next up was the Hulk, and the difference could not be more stark. (Pun intended.) While Iron Manlacks any weight his actions, the Hulk is all weight and power. Hulk can grab an enemy at any time by holding down light attack. A grabbed enemy can then be used as a weapon, thrown, or simply slammed into the ground. Hulk's section of the demo also included the first finishing moves I saw in the demo, where certain attacks will leave enemies staggered. You can follow up on these staggered enemies with Circle and O together, using a powerful attack to remove them from battle.
Even in terms of movement, Hulk was a winner. Unlike the previous two, his section of the demo included some brief traversal and platforming, which may be a larger part of the final game. You can grasp the momentum as he dodges tank shells heading his way, and his leaps cover these vast chasms.
Captain America has probably the worst visual design, but actually played rather well. Like Thor, Cap can throw his shield at anytime, but unlike the Asgardian it automatically bounces back once it hits an object. Hitting enemies is satisfying because of that firm metallic thunk once the shield impacts, and you can play around with the return journey. I even threw the shield into a wall, only for it to bounce back and cold-cock a riot shield enemy on the return journey. The shield can also be held up for defense, and the demo version of Cap had a Heroic called Steamroller, that bounces the shield off multiple targets in succession.
Finally, there was Black Widow up against the mercenary Taskmaster. Widow feels the closest to Crystal Dynamics' work on the Tomb Raider trilogy, featuring a section in which Black Widow leaps over platforms and dodges explosions before landing on a flying Taskmaster. The next section is a quick-time event, but it's clear that Crystal Dynamics has work to do in regards to optimization. (Potentially this is why it wasn't playable at E3.) As Taskmaster flew around and under the bridge with Widow on his back, the PlayStation 4 Pro's framerate dipped hard. The demo was doing double time here.
This eventually transitioned to a boss fight that again leaned towards the foundation established by the Arkham games. Black Widow had a dodge like the rest of her team, but she also had an MMA-style counter move (R2). When Taskmaster moved to attack, he had either a yellow or red indicator, letting you know whether to counter or dodge. Overall, Widow doesn't wow in terms of new mechanics, but she plays well.
In terms of my personal preference following the demo, I'd say Captain America, Hulk, and Widow stand at the front, while Thor hugs the middle and Iron Man trails far behind. Given that Iron Man is one of the primary modern Avengers, that means that Crystal Dynamics still has some tweaking to do. With only five starting heroes, everyone has to be a winner.
The studio still has time at least, as Marvel's Avengers won't be launching on PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Google Stadia until May 15, 2020. The game will be making money for all that free post-launch content by selling premium costumes, which is good because fans weren't entirely happy with the default looks for the Avengers. Ms. Marvel is also a part of the game, even if she isn't any of the previously-announced heroes.