Spending a few hours with Marvel's Avengers gave me a headache.
I actually mean that in a good way. The newest Marvel game is a dizzying experience that is tremendously fun with friends, especially when you all dig the House of Ideas. While its eccentricities and early growing pains as a live-service game were occasionally frustrating, I found myself enjoying Marvel's Avengers more often than not.
A vast improvement over the bland beta, Marvel's Avengers is destined to be an evergreen fixture in many a gaming rotation. That there hasn't been a new Marvel movie all year — who knows if we'll actually see Black Widow in November — aids the game's appeal as a substitute. You may play it endlessly for hours at launch; you may not. But you're going to play it, and likely for a lot longer than you might expect.
Developed by Crystal Dynamics and published by Square Enix, Marvel's Avengers is an action game heavily inspired by the Marvel Comics universe. While much of Avengers begins as an exploration game reminiscent of Crystal Dynamics' Tomb Raider trilogy (right down to scratched walls indicating climbing and frequently pressing "Up" on the D-pad to search for scattered goodies), Avengers morphs into a live-service co-op game as more Avengers are unlocked. The game's mission structure and "gear" upgrades make Avengers a kind of superhero Destiny 2. Drop in, fight bad guys, go somewhere, hold X or Square, repeat.
This could have been a disaster. Thankfully, Avengers is simply a blast to play.
A new universe
While aesthetically and spiritually inspired by the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Marvel's Avengers takes place in its own canon that draws just as much inspiration from the comics. Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel, who debuted in comics in 2014 and will star in her own Disney+ series, is the primary entryway into this sprawling universe.
Five years ago, a disastrous event in San Francisco known as "A-Day" resulted in the death of Captain America and millions of innocent people with dangerous superpowers. The creation of these "Inhumans" forced the Avengers to disband. Kamala, a superfan of the Avengers and secretly an Inhuman, seeks the truth behind A-Day, kicking off a globe-trotting journey where she helps reassemble the Avengers.
The heart of the story is about getting the band back together, and that heart has a name: Kamala Khan, a teenager whose youthful, giddy gaze at the Avengers rubs off on you no matter how much you resist. You are in awe of the Avengers because Kamala is always in awe of them. She really is the ideal vehicle to enter this new universe.
While I take umbrage with the game's rewriting of the Inhumans (they're no longer aliens) and Kamala Khan's origins (a story I believe defines Kamala as much as Peter Parker's spider bite), there isn't anyone better to "star" in Avengers than her. There are times in the single-player campaign I wished the game was just an open-world Ms. Marvel. Traversing the environment and swinging from buildings and branches with her polymorph powers is surprisingly smooth and fun — and I felt the game forcing me into Iron Man's boots was a buzzkill.
Fight as one
At its core, Avengers is all about you and your friends living out your superhero fantasies. It just takes a different approach than past superhero RPGs, like City of Heroes or DC Universe Online. Less a superhero role-playing experience, Marvel's Avengers feels like an interactive comic book "spread page" — those big, jaw-dropping action scenes that are so big they take up two whole pages. The spread page has made its way to the big screen in a big way, and Marvel's Avengers pays homage by adapting it into an addicting action video game.
The moments are fleeting, but teaming up with your friends and pulling off team-up maneuvers are a thrill. The game is all about recreating that rush over and over; the missions and enemies are merely there to add variety and flavor.
Despite the different power sets of the Avengers, the game uniforms its controls. It's impressive how much this works. No matter if you are Iron Man or Black Widow, holding down the left trigger and pulling on the right trigger will activate an aim/shoot action. (The Hulk rips off the ground and throws chunks of concrete. It's hilarious.)
While the Avengers each have specific combos and special abilities that require some study, it's a thing of wonder how the devs figured out how to "flatten" the Avengers to play like one another. Not only is it less work on the players' part to "study" their preferred Avenger; there's less chance of bickering over who gets dibs on Thor, because the other Avengers aren't so different. Of minor consequence is that I feel I don't have a go-to main. That's good for the game. Not so great when much of the appeal of Marvel is gravitating towards a favorite.
What grinds my gears
Marvel's Avengers has characters who can level up and unlock more abilities based on points you use to purchase on a skill tree. You've played this before. Spider-Man had it. Ghost of Tsushima had it. Crystal Dynamics' Tomb Raider games, all of them, had it. It's here in Marvel's Avengers, too.
What's different is a gear system that feels straight out of Destiny 2 and even Injustice 2. It is also way more complicated and a lot less fun. It doesn't even result in any cosmetic changes, which makes the gear system a meticulous system only the biggest number nerds will enjoy.
At a glance, "gear" are parts players can pick up during combat, as well as mineral resources that upgrade specific kinds of gear. All gear is used to strengthen or tailor an Avenger to a specific play-style. If you prefer ranged attacks over melee combat, for example, the gear system buffs ranged attributes. Each gear has a power level. As you progress and collect stronger gear, you can keep higher-power gear while getting rid of ones you've outgrown.
It sounds complicated — and or the first few hours it is. In the beginning, I found myself mindlessly putting on higher level gear and ditching the ones I thought were obsolete, not realizing they have a class rarity you should pay attention to. It took time until I realized the rare gear I kept trashing could actually be more valuable if I just took the time to upgrade them. My mistake! I just wanted to get back to playing.
Truth be told, I've waited years for Destiny 2 to adopt the system in place in Avengers. But Avengers is a different IP than Destiny. In comic books, changes to a character's costume actually have meaning and consequences, and it would have been neat to see other players' "customized" Iron Man or Captain America that feels unique to them.
True believers only
I expect Marvel's Avengers to shatter people's expectations, especially since those expectations were set low by an underwhelming beta. The story is a damn good Avengers tale, evocative of the best arcs by Brian Michael Bendis and Jonathan Hickman. M.O.D.OK. as the villain is a novelty for anyone sick of Thanos and Ultron.
Just how well the game's proposition of endless multiplayer will age over time is yet to be seen. While the 2018 Spider-Man remains the high mark for superhero games, Spider-Man worked because it was a solo Spider-Man adventure with a beginning, middle, and end that captured the comic book experience. Like a comic book, there was a time to put down Spider-Man.
Marvel's Avengers, on the other hand, has a campaign that feels like an eight-hour prologue to an endless bonanza. That's not a bad thing — It's a great thing! — but I wonder what purpose a well-told story serves when most of the time will be spent on refreshed missions. Put another way: When your friends are already ahead playing the multiplayer, you'll curse the hours you have left in the campaign.
Marvel's Avengers is a Game of the Year contender that I don't think should win such an award. It's an addicting multiplayer with a few glaring hiccups. You want to learn counters and dodging, if only to spite the A.I. The "feel" of pummeling AIM bots doesn't match up to the combat texture felt in other games, including Spider-Man. It has a clumsy gear system that feels like homework. It has a solid campaign that only gets in the way of a meaty multiplayer. None of these are enough to knock Marvel's Avengers out of Game of the Year consideration. But just as other games like Fall Guys and Call of Duty: Warzone achieve similar goals, much of Avengers lies in your own interest in the Marvel Universe.
For anyone who yearns to once again feel the thrill of the portals scene in Avengers: Endgame, a new universe awaits. 8/10
Marvel's Avengers is out now on PS4, Xbox One, PC, and Stadia.
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