Avengers has been out for a little over a week, and I’ve already put a ton of time into it. Normally when I review a game it takes a while for me to complete it so it’s not really within the release window. However this game got its hooks in me and really drew me in for better or for worse, so not only have I already finished the main story campaign, but I have already went through a lot of the post-campaign content. The only thing I haven’t actually done is try to play online multiplayer because as of right now the multiplayer matchmaking is still hit or miss.
The easiest way to describe Crystal Dynamics’ Avengers game is that it’s a game recreating Marvel’s Civil War with its gameplay. There are two styles/genres that are constantly fighting each other for supremacy – a fast-paced, character-action brawler vs. a multiplayer grind game as a service. The developers tried their best to blend the styles seamlessly, but both intrude on the other in significant ways. I personally prefer character-action brawler over the daily grind, but have learned to accept the parts I find tiresome just to have fun with the mechanics that excite me.
There is a lot more to dive into with regards to this game though, so let’s start from the beginning with the story campaign. There will be minor spoilers for the story so if you haven’t completed it yet, this is your warning.
The main story is seen through the eyes of Kamala Khan. The game starts with her winning a fan-fiction contest and getting to go to a special Avengers event – where she ends up getting to meet several of her heroes and geeks out like any fan at a convention. It’s very heartwarming and her enthusiasm is instantaneously infectious; she is absolutely the heart of the game from the get-go and it’s a shame this angle wasn’t used more in the advertising.
But of course things don’t stay hunky-dory. Explosions on the Golden Gate Bridge happen and you get an action tutorial through each of the five other Avenger heroes – Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Black Widow, and Captain America. Tragedy strikes – and while the heroes manage to stop the bridge attack, the new helicarrier explodes and infects the greater San Francisco area with unstable Terrigen, causing many Inhuman metamorphoses. Captain America is also presumed dead in the helicarrier explosion – but spoilers, he’s not (because he’s a playable character, of course). In true comic book fashion though, it’s not about whether Cap is really dead or not, it’s how he comes back and the why behind it. And the story still manages to do his return very well.
But I digress. The story then fast forwards five years to Kamala realizing something is fishy going on with AIM – the company that has taken over world security after what they’re now calling A-Day. The Avengers have disbanded because they feel responsible for the lives lost to the Terrigen explosion. Inhumans are going missing, and AIM views them as a threat to be captured or eliminated. Kamala is an Inhuman with polymorph powers, and after obtaining evidence that AIM is actually up to no good she sets out on an adventure to find the Inhuman resistance and maybe get the Avengers back together in the process.
All of it is bog-standard superhero storytelling, but the story is flawlessly executed. Kamala is a wonderful character who grows on her journey and discovers her heroes aren’t as perfect as she thought. Bruce Banner is another stand-out in the story who has his own growth and doesn’t end up as just a prop for getting to play as Hulk in the action parts. Bruce and Kamala’s relationship is probably the strongest development in the story. Tony leans into the Robert Downey Jr. interpretation but he also has some great scenes with Bruce and Kamala – and one of the best scenes of the game happens as a quiet dialogue between Tony and Cap once he returns. I personally had a harder time appreciating Tony, though, because while Nolan North did an excellent job as the voice actor his constant quips during battle just made me think Nathan Drake finally struck it rich on treasure and built himself a suit of armor.
Black Widow and Cap get some great late-game scenes and a little bit of storytelling, but the main focus of the story lands squarely on Kamala, Bruce, and Tony’s shoulders. The character gets done the most dirty by the story is Thor, though. He is barely relevant, shows up once for a specific battle then takes off again, then shows up again for the final battle. It felt like Crystal Dynamics didn’t know what to do with him or the character so they made him a Chris Hemsworth-lite and just shunted him into the corner. Overall it’s fine, as the job they did with everyone else was fantastic, but it really stands out as a missed opportunity when everything else was so well done.
Now let’s talk about the gameplay. The functional base mechanics of the game are fantastic. It plays like an old-school brawler with standard light and heavy attacks that can be combined with ranged attacks. Each character has three Heroic abilities that charge over time or can be replenished through Heroic orb drops – an assault, support, and ultimate ability. Each character also has a skill tree divided into upgrades for their standard moves, their heroic abilities, and then masteries that give you one of three options to customize each character to your style of play.
While the level cap for each character is 50, everything really starts clicking once you get to around level 15 and can mess around with the heroic and mastery options for each hero. Every character feels unique and has their own play style – for example, Kamala is great for melee crowd control because of how wide her attack range is due to her polymorph powers. Iron Man is built to fly around the battlefield and take out the squishy ranged enemies that pepper your squad from afar – between his repulsors, lasers, and rockets he has a wide variety of options. Black Widow is both great at assaulting single large-health targets with her melee combos and using her grappling hook plus guns to sprint around the battlefield applying damage to everything. Thor can pin enemies to the ground with Mjolnir, removing tough targets from combat until you draw it back to you for devastating lightning-based attacks. Cap is just an outright beast once you upgrade his shield throw and combo attacks, basically being able to infinitely keep his heroic abilities available by generating orbs via stuns and takedowns.
Hulk, though, feels the worst out of all the heroes. There are reports of him feeling better once you significantly upgrade his abilities, but out of the gate he doesn’t feel anything like the Hulk should play. He doesn’t have any stun protection when he starts out, so while he can tank a ton of damage late-game enemies can get him stuck in a stun loop. Nothing feels worse than being a mighty green monster getting continuously knocked out of combos by a random single shot from afar. Hulk should not have to dodge – Hulk should just be able to smash.
Overall though, the customizable skill trees and fun brawl mechanics make the actual gameplay excellent (and some people that aren’t me actually like Hulk, so you know, happiness can be found anywhere I guess). And if the game focused on this, made the campaign longer and made the post-campaign content more story-based it would be a top-3 contender for my Game of the Year for sure.
But it doesn’t. So let’s talk about the elephant in the room: Avengers As A Service.
The above screenshot happened in the middle of a very dramatic story sequence around the end of Act 2 of the campaign. Bruce and Tony were yelling at each other, the Avengers were falling apart, real emotion was being felt, and then…the game decided it was important to notify me that faction rewards are available. You know, during the single-player story campaign.
(I literally facepalmed just thinking about this happening while I was writing this. C’mon people.)
Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix wanted a part of that sweet, sweet games-as-a-service pie and what better draw than the hot Marvel property the Avengers? Almost all of the focus of the marketing was on this aspect of the game – four-player multiplayer Avengers action with crazy loot drops and endless endgame content to replay over and over and over with your friends. Finish daily challenges to work your way through battle passes and unlock cool new skins and emotes for each Avenger! Fight rad Avenger enemies as bosses in late-game content with three other friends! And hey, if you want to throw a few bucks at them for those really cool legendary skins that are hard to come by, why not?
And yes, if they wanted to put an Avengers skin over Destiny, they certainly accomplished their mission. But it’s almost like they only had a framework of how Destiny and other games-as-a-service became successful because they have made some absolutely infuriating decisions that are just terrible at keeping people interested and engaged with the game. I may not even be able to list them all here, but I’m gonna try.
There are two factions to get daily missions and rewards from: SHIELD and the Inhuman Alliance. SHIELD is on the helicarrier – your main base where everything else is. Gear customization, cosmetics, shops, etc. The Inhumans have their own base with their own gigantic load time – and that’s all. There’s no reason to go there except to get the new daily mission and faction rewards. There’s slightly different gear to buy but there isn’t anything unique about it – it could cycle through the other faction’s choices as well. There is literally no purpose to there being a second hub in the game other than to waste players’ time in loading screens – if the faction had been on the helicarrier it would have been more efficient. (Speaking of efficiency, they put the faction rep for SHIELD all the way at the ass end of the helicarrier so every time you want to get rid of that “faction rewards available” notification you have to haul America’s Ass all the way to the other end of the ship, and then all the way back to start a new mission. Why.)
You have a power level that is upgraded by finding new and better gear – this can be upgraded to a 150 max (and don’t forget, this power level is different from the hero level for skill trees that I mentioned before). The post-campaign multiplayer missions are all based on power level and the real tough missions have minimum levels to reach (for example the villain sectors – where you fight bosses – have a minimum power level of 40). Except the power level requirements fluctuate based on each character and don’t make any sense. At one point I had Cap at power level 44 and Iron Man at 49 and wanted to do a specific villain sector mission. For Cap, it said the minimum requirement was level 47 – three levels above him but two lower than Tony. So I switched to Iron Man figuring he would satisfy the condition, only for the mission’s required power level to have jumped to 54 – FIVE levels above his current one. I still don’t understand how that works.
Speaking of the gear, they made what the gear does absolutely inscrutable. Each hero has four ratings that determine their strength: Melee, Ranged, Defense, and Heroic. Now each of these four ratings is pretty easy to assign a function to. However the gear itself doesn’t use these descriptors. Instead they use stats like Might, Precision, Vigor, and I don’t know, Proficiency maybe? It could be Potato for all I care. Why make those different than the ratings? Why not just use the same word? And why does Might 20 translate to a 11% increase in my Melee Rating? The numbers are going up, but not in any definable way that makes sense!
Oh, and you can boost your gear to raise it’s power level! And those require resources! And I’m sure those resources have names, but for me they’ve been downgraded to yellow resource, purple resource, blue resource, and I think orange resource? Maybe? Are there four resources for boosting? I don’t even know, I just collect the shiny things on the ground. There are different levels of gear too with corresponding green purple blue orange colors as well. Oh, but there’s also fragments that are white colored resources which are used for spending money at vendors for gear, but are different from upgrade modules that are also a resource used at vendors for buying higher level gear. Oh, and also when you get daily missions you have to collect OTHER resources that just pop out of enemies and are labeled as a “resource” but don’t function as anything but the equivalent of rat hides or whatever you collect in World of Warcraft as a level 1 orc. (Is that what you do in World of Warcraft? I don’t know.) And these resources never actually appear in your inventory; they just make a 0/10 number counter go up on your mission screen, so why wouldn’t you just make the mission “kill 10 of this kind of enemy”? Wait, they DO have those missions, so how is the collecting the resource functionally different when all you have to do for those is also kill the same kinds of enemies? It’s not! OH! And I haven’t even talked about units, which are another kind of currency only used for the cosmetics! AND DON’T FORGET ABOUT COMICS, WHICH ARE ALSO COLLECTIBLE FROM CHESTS AND GIVE ALL YOUR CHARACTERS MINOR STAT BONUSES WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS TO ME.
I haven’t even gotten to the premium currency you get from spending real money in the marketplace, which is, yes, separate from units.
Games as a service is a disease.
I pay very little attention to the gear drops. If it isn’t an epic (purple) or legendary (orange) drop I immediately disassemble it and make one of the twelve resource numbers go up. If it is, I boost it until I have all its effects and equip it, then disassemble my previous equipment. It’s a tedious process that takes me away from the fun part of the game – beating things up as Cap or shooting things as Iron Man.
And if the stupid games-as-a-service decisions only affected the loot I would have less of a bone to pick with the game. But the fact is the post-campaign mission content is severely lacking. There are five general types of missions in multiplayer: drop zones, threat sectors, villain sectors, vaults and hives. Drop zones are quick missions that usually won’t take more than 5-10 minutes, where you have one static objective in an indoor, closed area. Good for quick EXP and leveling up hero levels. Threat sectors are large, open areas that have several objectives along with hidden chests and gear. These will take you a good half hour to clear out completely but can reward you with much better gear and increase your power level along with your EXP. Villain sectors will end with one of four boss fights – two of which are interesting Marvel villains and two of which are generic giant AIM robots that are not interesting. They do usually provide the biggest challenge as they seem to always have modifiers that make enemy health regenerate. You get a rare DNA Key (that open even rarer DNA chests) and plenty of EXP after defeating the boss. Not many chests for gear power level usually, though. Vaults are open worlds that have some side objectives you can complete to get extra gear, but the main focus is finding a secret SHIELD vault that has the best loot in it (and sometimes one of the aforementioned DNA chests). The vaults also provide a significant challenge as they are sort of a horde mode where as you unlock the vault you have to defend it from waves of encroaching enemies.
The problem is how all of these mission types are differentiated from each other in aesthetic. Every drop zone has you walking through the same 3 kinds of AIM corridors to one of the same 5 AIM rooms where you complete the objective. The threat sectors have you walking through one of 4 types of overworld until you go to a building where you get to see the AIM hallways again after an elevator loading screen. Villain sectors are always the same static stage based on the region you complete them in. Vaults contain the same overworlds and copy-pasted environments that the threat sectors do, before ending in a copy-pasted Vault that is always laid out the same.
Let’s not forget the hives, which are the final end-game content. I finally did one two nights ago after getting Cap to a high enough level. And what did I find it was? An interesting new twist with new enemies and a unique boss fight that is fitting for endgame content? Nope. It’s the same copy-pasted overworld from threat sectors/vaults, leading to a facility made up of five floors, which end up being the same AIM hallways and rooms I’ve seen in every other mission leading up to this, and the objectives are the same on each floor as every other mission in the game. Ugh. But don’t worry! There are also Elite Hives and Elite Heroic Hives I’ve heard – and I think those are just ten and fifteen floor variations of the regular Hive so I’m sure I won’t get bored or frustrated with that at all!
The games-as-a-service model takes the fun brawler gameplay and wraps it in a bland, bad-tasting repetitive bun. There are very few interesting story beats after the single player campaign is done – all of these repetitive mission types are generic to accommodate any squad of four Avengers. There is an iconic mission chain for each hero, and while the gameplay is the same as any other mission they at least try to make something interesting happen. (In fact, Thor’s iconic mission is the best of the bunch, adding an actual new villain to the mix even if you don’t end up getting to fight them.) But the lack of variety and general blandness of the post-campaign content just makes me wish they’d focused on making a longer campaign and giving me more of that amazing story. I can only get joy out of beating up Taskmaster so many times.
I didn’t even talk in depth about the bad AI, where if you play solo your AI counterparts refuse to use ranged attacks to hit flying units at all or really attempt to accomplish any other objective that isn’t following you around and attacking ground units with melee. And I get it’s a multiplayer game, but why in the world would you have a breakable door in a single-player Cap mission, but only give Kamala, Hulk, and Thor the ability to break doors? And not give a player the ability to tell their AI to do something for them? It’s mind-boggling.
And of course there’s the bugs. A vendor will keep saying their goodbye phrase over and over and over on repeat until you leave the hub. At one point my character model disappeared and no power was being used at the time. I’ve had cosmetic patterns I received as quest rewards vanish into thin air after obtaining them. I’ve had an infinite load screen happen multiple times and at least one straight up system crash – thankfully it was at the very beginning of a mission, but I’ve heard of others having it happening at the end of long missions like hive runs. Some of these bugs are hilarious, but others are infuriating and down-right game-breaking.
I’ve also stayed away from multiplayer for now due to significant matchmaking issues. And even though it’s not usually my main interest, c’mon Crystal Dynamics. You touted your big Avengers game as a loot-lovin’ multiplayer games-as-a-service. The fact that people have been having trouble finding quick multiplayer games with random people since launch is a legitimate problem for the future of the game. If the campaign is just to draw people in and the multiplayer is there to keep them coming back, you have to have a functioning multiplayer. This isn’t rocket science.
The good thing about all of this is that Avengers is a games-as-a-service. And since it’s Marvel, there’s going to be background influence to make sure this game gets to an engaging, playable state. They’re already on top of the bugs and are planning a semi-significant patch to restore lost cosmetics among other things shortly. They’re working on improving matchmaking. There are two scheduled free character updates for October and November – Kate Bishop and Clint Barton, two different Hawkeyes. There’s supposed to be decent story content attached to these updates as well.
If this game has good support and constant updates from the developer team, I can see this settling into a really fun game to play on a regular basis – especially with friends. I’ve got Cap to level 44 out of 50, with a power level of 69 (nice). Iron Man is somewhere in the 30s, and his power level is 70-something (not as nice). I’m putting in the effort and work and replaying these boring, generic missions over and over because I love the core of this game so much. I truly do feel like a legendary superhero as Captain America throwing his shield around while wrecking robots that just can’t compare to him. I love whizzing around as Iron Man, dodging turret fire to rain rockets down on unsuspecting AIM agents before dropping to the ground in the Hulkbuster to kick ass and take names. I’m jazzed to squad up with some people I know once they’ve all completed the story and want to tackle some multiplayer missions.
But I can also see myself dropping it if the new content doesn’t add some variety to the base game. The developers made their games-as-a-service bed, and now they have to lie in it. Right now, there just isn’t enough interesting content for higher level players. I know me, and I’m going to lose interest if they don’t start adding different things to do to break up the monotony. And I know I’m not the only one who feels this way.
Avengers is a game I desperately want to love, but it’s definitely a fixer-upper. Check back with me in six months and I’ll give you an update on how I feel. Until then…
PLAY Avengers, but probably just the single-player campaign. Unless you think you might be a Black Widow/Ms Marvel/Thor/Hulk main, then hit me up and we can squad together.