Marvel’s Avengers Review

September 10, 2020
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Plenty of games have followed in the action-looter footsteps of Destiny, but few have done so with a universe as exciting as Marvel’s Avengers. It’s a loot-based brawler full of superhero flavor, but the joy of smashing villains in the face with Captain America’s shield can unfortunately only carry it so far. While its single-player campaign is good on its own merits, that’s only a small portion of the whole package – and the endgame loot grind that’s meant to be the meat of the meal is an overly repetitive (and surprisingly buggy) mess that gave me very little reason to stick around.

The main menu of Avengers actually has one button that launches its very strong “Reassemble” campaign, and another for its painfully repetitive and unrewarding “Avengers Initiative” multiplayer. 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 currently available. In this way, you could decide to just treat Avengers as a single-player game by playing its roughly 10-hour campaign and ignoring its multiplayer altogether if a game-as-a-service treadmill style of play wasn’t what you were looking for.

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But the sins of the latter undoubtedly affect the former, and you can feel it within a few hours of launching into the campaign. There’s certainly a lot to have fun with here, as every hero brings a distinct style to their combat while still being similar enough to make swapping between them from mission to mission relatively seamless. The appeal of controlling that team of recognizable heroes – Captain America, Thor, Black Widow, Iron Man, Ms. Marvel, and The Incredible Hulk – is fundamental to Avengers, and it was at least sturdy enough to get me interested in the post-launch plans Crystal Dynamics has already laid out. As you might expect, however, what’s here at launch holds very little appeal (and certainly not much of my attention) once the campaign credits have rolled.

The Marvelous Ms. Khan – Campaign 

Played on its own, the Reassemble campaign is a fun superhero beat-em up that tells a great story, even if the closely tied co-op multiplayer that follows causes its progression to be unsatisfying and a chunk of its missions to feel like filler instead of superheroics. Jumping between different Avengers to strike back at the classic evil Marvel organization A.I.M. (Advanced Idea Mechanics, basically bad guys who use science and robots) is nearly always enjoyable, but it also isn’t afraid to pause cinematic spectacle for more intimate and often funny character moments too. In those quiet scenes, Avengers feels far more like Crystal Dynamics’ recent Tomb Raider games than the stereotypical action-looter systems lead me to expect.

That enjoyment largely comes down to the excellent writing and character interactions, which quickly drew me into this brand-new Avengers story. I loved watching a young Kamala Khan, AKA Ms. Marvel, find her footing as a new hero as much as I loved watching the rest of the Avengers pick up the pieces of their past failings. Each hero is well acted and well used (except for Thor, who is charming and entertaining but just sort of… there, story-wise). And while the overall plot is ultimately a fairly simple one, this campaign is still a highly entertaining comic book action movie in playable form.

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Sandra Saad’s Kamala is delightful and funny, standing out as an endearing and fresh-faced protagonist while still acting as an ideal 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. The dynamic between the two is at the heart of this story, and thinking back now I remember Bruce adorably fumbling his way through trying to comfort an upset Kamala more fondly than any of the times I used his alter ego to blow up giant robots. Mid-mission dialogue lines are generally less memorable, but the conversations during its more cinematic cutscenes can really be special.

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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 specially tailored around whatever hero they give you control of 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 is less enticing. Instead of exploring hand-crafted areas, the story will occasionally ask you to run through its own versions of the generic open worlds and A.I.M. facilities that are later recycled to death in most of the multiplayer missions, completing dull objectives that aren’t designed with your specific hero in mind like standing on aggravating control points or punching specific baddies. While not frequent enough to ruin the story’s momentum entirely, these missions are undoubtedly its weakest moments, and it’s a real drag that this padding slows down an otherwise top-notch single-player campaign.

To a similar end, character progression during the campaign also suffers due to Avengers’ overall focus on multiplayer. Gear is a mostly irrelevant part of the single-player experience, only popping in to occasionally annoy me with a message that my inventory space has reached capacity again, requiring me to stop and clear it out one by one. And while a hero’s many skill trees offer some more interesting choices later on, you’ll barely scratch the surface before the credits roll. That means that while you can ignore the multiplayer if you just want to play through the campaign, you’ll still feel the negative effects of it at times.

Hulk Mash! – Combat

Thankfully, the superhero power fantasy and combat fundamentals of Avengers’ beat-em-up brawling really work. Each character has their own unique attacks, special abilities, and signature style, but they are all so entertaining that I was genuinely happy to switch between any of them. It’s a hoot to smash enemies as the Hulk, shoot them with Iron Man’s repulsors, and throw Thor’s hammer at them alike, especially in the sometimes smaller-scale encounters found during the single-player’s more unique levels.

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Avengers makes it fairly intuitive when you first step into the shoes of a new one, too, but the way it manages that is a bit of a double-edged sword. Despite being wildly different, each character is functionally similar when it comes to controls. They have a light attack on Square, a heavy on Triangle, a dodge on Circle, a defensive move on R2, and some very similar basic button combos. The good news is that means it takes essentially no time to pick up a new hero and start effectively cracking skulls with them. The bad news is that, despite their impressive diversity, the cast can feel a little homogenized in terms of how you’re practically using them when compared to other hero-based games.

It can definitely be fun, it’s just all a bit one-note. Most fights devolve into mashing the light and heavy attack buttons, though you do have to be smart about dodging, breaking enemy guards, and using defensive abilities. 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 among them can benefit from a beatdown that exploits their shortcomings. For example, heavy hitting enemies pushed me to dodge big swings before unloading on them, while ones with shields needed powerful hits to break down their defenses.

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Apart from obvious things like attack types and Iron Man being able to fly while Captain America is forced to run laboriously slow behind him, the main aspect that differentiates how each hero plays are their three unique Heroic abilities. These are epic, cooldown-based moves like Hulk creating a shockwave clap, Kamala becoming giant, or Iron Man calling down the massive Hulkbuster suit. Heroics help characters feel more mechanically diverse from one another because they have abilities that require more thought to use effectively than basic attacks, and they can often be tweaked in interesting ways in each hero’s skill tree.

These trees aren’t nearly as deep as they look on the surface, and plenty of the options are boring numerical upgrades, but buried within all of that are some very cool choices. There are things 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. My Captain America could keep his Brooklyn Brawler attack buff Heroic up nearly constantly by chaining together Takedown attacks, using skills that made Takedowns extend its duration, generate more Heroic energy, and happen more frequently – but someone else could take him a different direction, possibly focusing on taunts and defensive buffs instead. There are some neat decisions to make here, even if there aren’t enough to keep that progression interesting for as long as it takes to hit the level 50 cap.

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Unfortunately, while the combat system has a decent amount of depth on paper, actually taking advantage of that complexity never really seemed to be necessary during missions. Big fights can get very cluttered with abilities and indicators, and tough enemies can frequently soak up a ton of damage, with some special ones even sporting frustrating shielding that lets them ignore your hits and combos entirely. To that end, using animation cancels to juggle enemies in the air, experimenting with different the elemental effects and modifiers gear can give you (like a particularly cool Pym Particle effect that shrinks enemies), and making skill tree choices for how to tweak my Heroics didn’t seem all that important when I could often just as easily win by button mashing. That doesn’t really feel like the combat system’s fault, it’s how the missions and enemies themselves ask you to make use of it – or, more accurately, how they don’t.

We’re In The Endgame Now – Post-Game/Multiplayer

After finishing the campaign, Avengers transitions you from its Reassemble single-player Operation (its word for a siloed collection of missions, likely used to avoid spoilers, though there is some overlap between them) to the multiplayer-focused Avengers Initiative post-game Operation. Without ruining anything, you’re given a new main mission chain, a reason to keep fighting A.I.M., and a wheelbarrow full of tasks to complete that are so repetitive they are frequently indistinguishable from each other.

Unlike the campaign, these missions are instead meant to be played online with three other people, but I quickly found I generally didn’t want to unless I had assembled a team of people I knew. For starters, finding other players through matchmaking often takes a frustrating amount of time – but worse, Avengers seems to lack any sort of built-in ping system or communications to coordinate with them once you do. Its more open Threat Sector missions are sprinkled with optional waypoints to chase down for extra gear or resources, but without a way to indicate which one we should all be heading toward next actual teamwork is about as rare as an Infinity Stone. It was easy enough to use voice chat when playing with friends, but when I played solo AI teammates actually became preferable – though 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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But even if there were better tools to coordinate with my team or smarter AI to assist me, that still wouldn’t make the missions you use them in any less of a drag. The structure of its post-game is as repetitive as it is unrewarding, with a lethally bad loot system and a critical lack of variety. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoyed beating up the same waves of A.I.M. goons over and over at times, and going in with a squad of friends, of course, makes things more fun – but jumping in puddles after it rains can be fun, too, and that doesn’t mean either activity is very deep.

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The constant reuse of content and activities here is downright 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). Missions will usually drop you into a fairly large open world-style area topside before descending into a generic A.I.M facility for more linear challenges – and if you’ve seen one A.I.M facility, you’ve basically seen them all. The objectives will change slightly, but whether you’re told to control a point, break some objects, or fight some dudes, they all blur together without any big, memorable moments. And it doesn’t matter if you start in a green forest, the Utah desert, or a snowy tundra (all of which recycle the same side activities, like bunkers with chests behind barely hidden button puzzles), you’ll be punching your way through another bland facility before long. The quicker Drop Zone missions even cut out the pretence altogether and just place you directly into a single facility encounter, which I can only assume is designed for mindless grinding.

I’d 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 Threat Sectors 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 you’ve already seen everything they have to throw at you. 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 – not to mention Iron Man’s Hulkbuster can literally just punch Abomination off the edge to end the fight in under a minute, which would be hilarious if it wasn’t so clearly an exploit rather than an intentionally designed strategy.

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Vaults are similarly disappointing. They drop you into another Threat Sector-style open space full of similar 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 copied and pasted instead of developed and iterated on in interesting ways.

The breaking point for me really came from reaching Avengers’ Hive missions, which bill themselves as a more important 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 beaten elsewhere, completing familiar objectives in familiar hallways five times instead of the two Threat Sectors usually ask of you. By the time they became available I was already beyond bored of their content, and they don’t feel any more rewarding for the extra time spent.

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Villain, Vault, and Hive missions also have Elite versions, but those just make enemies a little stronger (and add a sixth floor to the Hive) and that’s about it. They get old shockingly fast, and the only thing keeping me playing was the urge to complete the arbitrary mission chain telling me what to do next. That chain was largely made up of more repetitive missions, culminating in an “Elite Heroic Hive” that was literally just a 14-floor regular Hive but single-player and with the admittedly interesting threat that if you went down and needed to be revived you’d have to pick a different hero before continuing. The problem is, I did go down, and it didn’t actually make me pick a new hero, which I assume is a bug that robs it of its only significant difference and reduces it to an absolute chore. Without that, the current endgame is left devoid of unique content.

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. Thor’s chain actually had a cool (if small) tease toward potential future content I won’t spoil, and a few others took me to maps that at least 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 when played after 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” or “deal X damage with Y move” type checklists.

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Little lists of tasks like that are fairly common, as seen with 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 just boil down to “play more, I guess,” and the only reward is faction experience to unlock more item options in the faction gear shops, which don’t seem to sell anything you can’t find elsewhere and rarely gave me a compelling reason to make a purchase as a result.

Some Assembly Required – Loot

But now we’re getting into one of the fundamental problems at the center of Avengers: its loot. It is textbook bad, stumbling into the same mistakes so many loot-based games have made before it and leaving the otherwise enjoyable brawling combat with no carrot on a stick to entice you through its repetitive levels. This loot system is a convoluted mess of invisible stat improvements, marginal gains, and way too many different resources to collect and upgrade your gear with, most of which seem to be functionally nearly identical and unintuitively assigned to different types of equipment.

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Starting with the basics, every hero has four main gear slots: one primarily improves your melee, one your ranged, one your defense, and one your Heroic abilities. You also have three slots for Artifacts (two Minor and one Major), which offer more general buffs like elemental resistances or rare unique skills like increasing your chance to find gear. Each item has a generic Power level that influences both that hero’s stats and their overall Power level (which, in turn, affects the scaling of missions), as well as possible extra stat improvements and special tweaks, like adding elemental effects to certain attacks or improving your other abilities in mostly uninteresting statistical ways.

Dealing with gear is all very fiddly, with lots of tiny text offering tiny percentage boosts to different parts of your characters – but thankfully, if you want to ignore all that, hovering over an item will show you how it will affect your general melee, ranged, defense, and heroic scores, allowing those not interested in careful min-maxing to make snap decisions. That’s especially helpful before you hit the cap, because until then loot is earned and replaced nonstop, making those distinct buffs superfluous when raising your overall Power level is the primary goal. You can at least start making more interesting decisions about which of those extra effects you want to prioritize once you cap out, although Legendary rarity gear (as well as the absurdly hard to find Exotic rarity) is slightly stronger but in no way more interesting than the other options as far as I’ve seen. Frustratingly, this was one of the same fatal flaws both Diablo 3 and Anthem’s loot systems initially had.

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The other major problem here is that the stat increases you’re getting are so ridiculously marginal (frequently single-digit percentage points at a time) that you’ll practically never notice how your character improves after equipping a new item. Since missions generally scale to your Power level anyway and negate your progress, a Power 30 mission will play and feel almost identically to a Power 130 mission even as you improve. And while the small handful of one-of-a-kind Major Artifacts available can offer cool activatable abilities like a short damage buff, they’re not impactful enough mid-fight to fill the gap that a lack of unique loot creates.

Another part of why it’s so unsatisfying is that, outside of elemental particle effects, nothing about what your gear changes is cosmetic, almost entirely limiting these improvements to invisible numbers on a spreadsheet. That makes some logical sense for a game about superheroes who have iconic looks that you wouldn’t want to mess with too much, but it doesn’t make for a compelling RPG loot cycle. (You can change your heroes’ looks, but that’s left to new skins you either have to find, unlock, or buy with real money.) Even the look of the gear icons in the menu is only loosely related to their function – while Iron Man might find new pieces for his suit, Ms. Marvel will be collecting armbands and shirt logos (which, again, don’t change her visually when you equip them), and Hulk improves his defense by swapping out… his ribcage, I guess?

I didn’t care about any of the gear I picked up, just the numbers, and even those aren’t satisfying to increase. In fact, at a certain point I outright stopped hunting down optional chests that were too far out of the way because they rarely ever felt worth the trek. I’ve had plenty of fun grinding for power in games like Warframe and Destiny, but when the grind is this repetitive and the rewards are so unexciting, it’s a combo that can kill the momentum of any online looter – and has plenty of times in recent years. While it’s easy to say these issues are shared with so many other games in the games-as-a-service/action-looter genre, Avengers is getting things wrong here that the successful games that paved the way for it got right years ago.

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 that shake things up, though to be fair it has had years to build up a massive pool of content options). Destiny 2 has you similarly grinding loot to 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.

No, You Move – Looking Forward

The silver lining here is that I am actually cautiously optimistic about the future of Avengers. The oh-so-familiar issues certainly feel like a “fool me twice, shame on me” situation, but the excellent character work present in the campaign and untapped potential of its combat fundamentals do give me hope that Crystal Dynamics could eventually right this ship with enough tweaks and updates. To be clear, it definitely needs them (it wouldn’t surprise me if Avengers got a “Loot 2.0” rework before long, like so many of these games do), but what’s already here doesn’t seem as hopeless to me as some other rocky launches that were eventually pulled back from the brink.

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That said, oh boy does Avengers just need some good old fashioned bug fixes as well. This is one of the roughest major releases I’ve seen in a while. Apart from just general lag and framerate slowdowns during particularly busy fights on a PlayStation 4 Pro, I’ve seen hitching cutscenes, misaligned attack animations, and a whole bunch of other common wonky issues throughout. I also had one hard crash to the PS4 dashboard, and a couple missions that got stuck and required a checkpoint reload to continue, but the problems are generally far less serious than that and largely not game breaking issues.

Still, in one cutscene Kamala’s hair was inexplicably missing, 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. 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. I’ve seen character faces horribly deform, audio clips repeat nonstop or cutout entirely, characters floating around instead of walking or flying, and so many more distracting wrinkles that desperately need ironing out.

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All of these stumbles are a true shame because Avengers really can be fun in the right circumstances. Its combat is currently a button-mashing slam fest full of cluttered indicators and spongy bad guys, but it’s still pretty dang cool to crack skulls as these iconic and flashy superheroes for a while – that tasty Marvel flavor does count for something. 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 theoretically be fostered in time with better loot and more content variety.

Crystal Dynamics has also said that all future heroes will be added free of charge (starting with Kate Bishop’s Hawkeye in the next month) and will include their own story content, which has me unexpectedly excited. After playing dozens of hours, I am well and thoroughly done with this endgame until some massive changes are made, but the idea of dipping back in occasionally for some new campaign-style missions told in a serial, comic booky format is at the crux of Avengers’ pitch, and it’s one that does appeal to me conceptually… assuming they don’t just reuse more of the same multiplayer missions to flesh them out, of course, which I’m not yet confident they won’t.

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