Marvel’s Avengers Review in Progress – If We Had To Score It Now…

September 4, 2020
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Review in Progress Multiplayer Update – September 4, 2020: 

With nearly 30 hours now played, primarily as Captain America – who is nearing the level and Power cap –  I think I’m pretty much done with Marvel’s Avengers. That’s not to say I’ve “finished” its multiplayer (I still need to complete its primary post-game mission chain, which could take a chunk of the weekend), just that I am officially over its incredibly repetitive and entirely unrewarding post-campaign structure. Don’t get me wrong, I have had some fun exploring deeper into its skill trees and beating up the same waves of A.I.M. goons over and over with my friends – jumping in puddles after a heavy rain can be fun, too. But that doesn’t make them deep.

As I wrote in both my initial review in progress based on the beta and my update after beating the campaign further down this page, this loot system is just awful. It’s unsatisfying, unimpactful, and – worst of all – a paltry incentive to keep playing. Loot is earned and replaced at a pace that makes it almost irrelevant, making the distinct buffs some items offer (such as slightly more interesting elemental effects, like Pym Particles that can shrink enemies) superfluous when raising your overall Power level is the primary goal. Legendary items are slightly stronger but in no way more interesting (which one of the same flaws Diablo 3’s loot system initially had), and the unique Exotic Artifacts are cool but still largely invisible in combat outside of offering some lackluster activatable abilities.

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That’s a huge deal, because it means there’s no variety to the bland carrots on sticks that attempt to entice me to play the otherwise functionally identical missions. In other looter games I’ll get a thrill when a great new piece of gear drops, often compelling me to jump into just one more mission to see it in action. But I’ve never felt that in Avengers. In fact, I’ve outright stopped hunting down optional chests that are too far out of the way because they rarely ever feel worth the trek.

What’s more, the flagrant reuse of content and activities here is exhausting, and you’ll start recognizing the same set of objectives, building layouts, and optional points of interest almost instantly (sometimes things are even reused within a single mission). The coat of paint around them may change from a Utah desert to a green forest to a snowy tundra, but that means essentially nothing when it comes to actually playing through them and doing exactly the same thing you did before.

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I hoped some of the more special mission types might offer relief in the form of much-needed variety, but that proved not to be the case. Villain missions are largely the same as the more open Threat Areas except with a boss fight recycled from the campaign slapped on the end. Disappointingly, these fights have barely been tweaked aside from location, so fighting Abomination or Taskmaster with four heroes at once is devoid of strategy. And while fighting my way through a skyscraper to face Abomination on a rooftop arena was exciting the first time through, immediately doing it again and arriving on the exact same rooftop but with Taskmaster this time killed all of its novelty.

Vaults are similarly disappointing. They drop you into a large, generic open area full of side tasks to do before you descend into a SHIELD base with a puzzle door to unlock for loot. That’s cool… until you realize the optional tasks are basically identical for every vault, just laid out differently depending on the region you’re in, and the puzzle door seems to be literally identical every time apart from a randomized combination (and worse, the loot behind it is rarely exciting). Avengers kept tricking me like this: introducing a cool idea that briefly sparked life back into itself before I realized this was just the first of many, many times I’d see that content reused.

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The breaking point for me really came from reaching Avengers’ Hive missions, which bill themselves as a more difficult assault on an A.I.M. facility but in actuality are really just a longer one. You run through five floors of the exact same generic A.I.M. base maps you’ve already done elsewhere, completing familiar objectives in familiar hallways five times instead of the two Threat Areas usually ask of you. By the time they became available I was already beyond bored of their content.

Villain, Vault, and Hive missions also have Elite versions, but that just makes enemies a little stronger (and adds a sixth floor to the Hive) and that’s about it. The fact that each of these mission types seemingly only has a single level layout for each map region (all of which blend together) makes them get old shockingly quickly. And without exciting loot to reward my efforts in any of them, the only thing keeping me playing is the urge to complete the arbitrary mission chain telling me what to do next. That chain appears to just be feeding me gradually more difficult versions of stuff I’ve essentially already done (but more enemies with more life doesn’t really mean they are more fun), and if I didn’t have a sense of obligation to make sure I’m not missing anything unexpected I probably wouldn’t feel like playing them at all.

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Even the Iconic mission chains (one for each hero) that initially piqued my interest are essentially just the generic tasks you do elsewhere with some nuggets of story used to package them up in a different way. The Thor one had a cool (if small) tease I won’t spoil, and a few others took me to maps that visually stood out, like an underwater base. But when each chain is only two missions long and made up of activities I recognize from elsewhere, they pale in comparison alongside the impressive campaign. Hell, Iron Man and Ms. Marvel don’t even have missions for their Iconic chains, replaced instead with boring “Kill X of Y enemy” type checklists.

Little lists of tasks like that are fairly common, as seen in Avengers’ two factions, SHIELD and the Inhumans (though why the freaking Avengers would need to complete menial tasks to get on either of these organizations’ good sides is a question I can’t answer). The faction system is ripped straight from the Destiny playbook, but here they serve as little more than set dressing instead of a useful or compelling reason to play regularly. The daily assignments they offer often boil down to “play more,” and the only reward is faction experience to unlock new items in the faction shops – but since you’re constantly replacing your boring loot anyway and the faction items aren’t distinct from what drops in any way I can see, I’ve never once felt the desire to buy something.

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It’s easy to compare these issues to so many other games in the games-as-a-service/looter-shooter genre, but it’s clear what Avengers does wrong here that others do right. For example, Warframe has you running extremely similar missions over and over again, but it’s always in tantalizing pursuit of that next cool crafting objective, that next weapon/world unlock, or that next bit of compelling story (not to mention the varied enemy groups you can encounter and the massive pool of content options it has built up over the years). Destiny 2 has you similarly grinding loot to ever increase your Light level, but you also get to see the loot you earn tangibly change both your look and playstyle in exciting ways. Instead, if we’re making comparisons, the issues behind Avengers can be most directly compared to the exact same mistakes Destiny made at launch – or The Division, or Diablo 3, or most recently Anthem, as it seems no loot-based game like this can get things right on its first try. That gives me some hope that Avengers could eventually right the ship, but right now it feels like a “Fool me twice, shame on me” situation.

Another persistent issue I noticed in the beta that’s still alarming here is the lack of ways to communicate with party members when matchmaking with random players. While playing in a party with friends made it easy enough to coordinate over voice chat, the lack of any ping system made me want to avoid playing with random people at all – getting into an open map full of optional waypoints and not having any way to coordinate which one you should all be heading toward is infuriating. Playing with AI teammates actually became preferable to me, but that offers a different headache since the AI (while competent in a fight) will almost never complete objectives, making area control missions in particular a solo juggling act.

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The real shame of all these stumbles and repetitions is that Avengers really can be fun in the right circumstances. Its combat is still a button-mashing slam fest full of cluttered indicators and spongy bad guys, but it’s still pretty dang satisfying to crack skulls as these iconic and flashy super heroes. Even as I got more and more bored with what I was doing, casually chatting with friends while we completed bland missions had an undeniable appeal, and that’s a spark that could be fostered in time with some loot reworking and more content variety.

Part of that fun definitely comes from each hero’s skill trees, which offer a small but interesting amount of customization. They aren’t nearly as deep as they look on the surface, and plenty of the options are also invisible numerical upgrades that do little to satisfy my desire for more meaningful progression. But buried under all that are some very cool choices – ones that can change the nature of your abilities, like adding a gamma-poison AOE to one of Hulk’s attacks or letting you morph Iron Man’s Unibeam into either a longer blast, a bigger blast, or a shorter but more quickly recharging blast with multiple uses. There are some neat decisions to make here, even if there aren’t nearly enough to keep that progression interesting for as long as it takes to hit the level cap.

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Finally, while I already brought up bugs in my last update, good gravy do I need to mention them again. Frankly, Avengers is a mess when it comes to technical glitches. While I’ve only had one crash to the PS4 dashboard in all my time playing (an improvement from the three I had in the beta), there are constant smaller issues. I’ve had faces horribly deform, the audio cut out or repeat nonstop, characters floating around instead of walking or flying, and frequent frame rate drops and lag in busy fights. Once I queued into a Power 38 mission only to have every enemy instead be level 1, making it comically easy. There’s still little outright game breaking here (the servers, for example, seem to be holding up alright so far), but this is one of the roughest major game launches I’ve seen in a while.

Despite my rapidly dwindling enthusiasm for Marvel’s Avengers’ multiplayer, I am trudging forward at least until I finish the main mission chain of the Avengers Initiative operation, not that doing so is very entertaining. Keep in mind that I still really enjoyed the 10-hour campaign on its own, and you can read my last review in progress update below for my full thoughts on that. Honestly, though, unless the later missions really do something to surprise me I can’t see my opinion changing much beyond what I’ve already seen. Either way, we’ll have a final review for you sometime next week.

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Review in Progress Campaign Update – September 1, 2020: 

Review copies of Marvel’s Avengers didn’t unlock until yesterday, August 31, so while we don’t have a full review ready at launch, I’ve been punching my way through waves of A.I.M. soldiers for the better part of the last day. At roughly the 10-hour mark I’ve already beaten its single-player campaign, and just started dipping my toes into its transparently Destiny-inspired multiplayer mission grind. And while I had a ton of fun with the Avengers campaign’s story, the fact that it’s so closely tied into the co-op multiplayer that follows makes its progression unsatisfying and a chunk of its missions feel like filler.

Avengers’ main menu actually has one button that launches its “Reassemble” campaign, and another for its “Avengers Initiative” post-game multiplayer – but right off the bat it warns you that the latter option is full of campaign spoilers, and you’ll still need to get almost to the end of the former to unlock all six heroes available in the base game. In this way, you could decide to just treat Avengers as a single-player game, play its campaign, and ignore its multiplayer altogether if a game-as-a-service treadmill style of play wasn’t what you were hoping for here.

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Played on its own, this campaign is actually a seriously good superhero brawler. Jumping between different Avengers to strike back at A.I.M. is nearly always fun, with each hero feeling thematically distinct and generally well used (except Thor, who is undoubtedly fun and charming, but just sort of… there, story-wise). The writing and character interactions really drew me in, and I loved watching a young Kamala Khan find her footing as a new hero as much as I loved watching the classic Avengers pick up the pieces of their past failings. The overall story is ultimately a fairly simple one, but it’s still a highly entertaining comic book action movie in playable form.

Combat is deeper than I initially gave it credit for in the beta too, if not by a whole lot. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a hoot to smash enemies as the Hulk, shoot them with Iron Man’s rockets, and throw Thor’s hammer at them alike, it’s just all a bit one-note. Most big fights devolve into mashing the light and heavy attack buttons, but you do have to be smart about dodging, breaking enemy guards, and using defensive abilities while doing that. And while enemies are not too visually diverse – you’ll be punching a lot of robots – there are plenty of different types, and the stronger of them do demand a beatdown more tailored to their shortcomings. For example, the faster Riotbots pushed me to dodge big swings before unloading on them, while enemies with shields needed powerful hits to break down their defenses.

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There’s plenty of exciting action, but the thing that really makes this campaign shine are the more intimate moments. Sandra Saad’s Kamala is charming and funny, standing out as a likeable protagonist while still acting as the perfect vehicle for us to enter the world of the Avengers. Troy Baker’s Bruce Banner is also exceptional, riding the line between a lovably awkward nerd and the rage-filled monster lurking just below the surface perfectly. While mid-mission dialogue lines are largely the standard video game fare, the conversations during its more cinematic cutscenes are truly great.

And that’s the rub: there’s a nugget of a linear, single-player Avengers game visible here that I really wanted to see more of. The majority of campaign missions are unique layouts tailored to the hero you’re using at the time – avoiding any big spoilers, scenes like running through a building under siege as Tony Stark while piecing together a makeshift Iron Man suit or exploring an old SHIELD facility full of reclics as Kamala appealed to me on the same level as games like Tomb Raider or Uncharted. These missions were almost always a thrill, supported by oodles of fun Marvel references for fans to pick up on.

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Unfortunately, the spackle between those unique moments are less enticing. Instead of exploring hand-crafted areas, the story will occasionally ask you to run through the generic open worlds and A.I.M. facilities present in many multiplayer missions, completing dull objectives that aren’t designed with your specific hero in mind. While not frequent enough to ruin the story’s momentum entirely, it’s a real drag that this padding slows down an otherwise top-notch single-player campaign.

To a similar end, that campaign also has to pay for the sins of its wholly unappealing multiplayer loot system. Gear that doesn’t affect your look, isn’t always thematically interesting (why is the hulk equipping new… rib cages?), and largely offers invisibly incremental stat improvements isn’t any more more successful here than it is in the multiplayer – which is to say it’s dull. You’re also changing gear so often that it’s rarely worth fretting over or improving during the campaign, though I imagine that will change as you approach the multiplayer’s higher-level challenges. (That seems like the case for the Artifact items too, which have more unique buffs but just aren’t all that common in these early levels.) That makes the loot system an inoffensive but also unexciting aspect of the single-player experience, only piping up to occasionally annoy me with a message that I could be wearing better gear or that my inventory space has reached capacity again, requiring me to stop and clear it out one by one.

Instead, more meaningful progression is found in each hero’s skill tree, but these don’t seem to have been designed with the campaign in mind either. The copious amount of skill trees for each hero offer new moves, combos, or modifications to existing abilities with a surprising amount of choice and freedom. I liked being able to prioritize upgrading Iron Man’s ranged attacks while focusing on Kamala’s air combos. The problem in the context of the campaign is that this system is clearly designed for multiplayer advancement over a longer period than 10 hours. None of my characters even hit level 10 by the end of the campaign (the cap is 50), making the progression during it feel stunted.

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Avengers also seems to be running a least a little better for me on PS4 Pro than the beta did, but I’m still noticing tons of rough edges visually. I’ve yet to see any major problems like crashes , but hitching cutscenes, misaligned attack animations, and whole bunch of other wonky but not game-breaking issues are fairly common throughout. Kamala’s hair was missing in one cutscene, while another had Iron Man calling his team at the end of a mission as the enemies I had yet to kill stood idly around him, and it’s just sort of obnoxious that things like this haven’t been ironed out. (The final cutscene of the story was even distractingly invaded by a UI waypoint indicating that a needed to speak to a vendor, and if that isn’t the best metaphor for how Avengers’ multiplayer literally gets in the way of its single-player I don’t know what is.)

With the campaign done, I’m now turning my eyes more seriously toward the multiplayer “Avengers Initiative” content. The single-player story is enjoyable enough that I can at least recommend it on its own merits, but every time I jump into a cookie-cutter multiplayer mission it feels like a pointless grind that I’m not convinced will keep me enthusiastically playing far past the credits. Still, there are loads of missions left for me to complete, including an “Iconic” mission chain for each hero that promises some more nuggets of story.

We’ll hopefully have a final review of Marvel’s Avengers for you sometime next week. Until then, you can read my detailed impressions from the beta here, which (apart from what I mentioned above) are still largely relevant to the full game.

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