From the beginning of its development, Marvel’s Avengers was at odds with itself. Its publisher Square Enix understood that most consumers were looking for a story-driven campaign from a video game starring Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, but knew that kind of game limits Square Enix’s earning potential to solely the sale of the game.
Eager to maximize profits off such a valuable franchise, Square Enix decided to utilize what the video game community refers to as the games-as-a-service model. Instead of featuring one contained adventure, the publisher paired a primarily single-player campaign with a multiplayer mode called Avengers Initiative where players continually upgrade their heroes’ gear to battle increasingly challenging enemies.
In doing so, Marvel’s Avengers follows in the footsteps of Destiny, the revolutionary Bungie title which combined the framework of MMOs (massively multiplayer online games) with first-person shooter combat. Square Enix wanted to use a similar framework for Marvel’s Avengers, which can best be described as a third-person brawler.
Square Enix selected Crystal Dynamics to develop the game. The studio is primarily known for rebooting the Tomb Raider series for modern audiences. The 2013 game and its sequel Rise of the Tomb Raider are critically lauded, cinematic, single-player adventures. Crystal’s background made the developer a perfect candidate for an Avengers campaign, but an odd choice for the multiplayer component.
The game seemingly struggled to balance the two competing interests based on early reception to the game when it was previewed at E3 2019. Most gamers who had the chance to play the demo agreed the game looked like a mess. The characters didn’t feel like the Avengers, the story content was generic, and, most significantly, the combat wasn’t satisfying.
In the time since then, all three of those elements of the game have improved remarkably. Despite that, the game has a long way to go before it gets up to par. That speaks to the impracticality of its guiding directive to blend a cinematic action-adventure with a Destiny-like multiplayer. But the game does its best to accomplish both goals and it’s an admirable attempt.
Marvel’s Avengers stars Kamala Khan aka Ms. Marvel, who has to reunite the Avengers, driven apart by the same calamity that imbued her Khan with her superhuman flexibility. Kamala, played by Sandra Saad, is a bright point of the campaign and the game as a whole. Her enthusiasm is infectious on other characters and the players themselves. Even her character animations feel like expressions of her personality. Taking giant leaps with her elongated legs and making long reaches with outstretched arms communicate her excitement to learn, grow, and follow in the Avengers’ footsteps.
Kamala Khan is a fangirl at heart, and her adoration for the Avengers brings about some of the best moments of the story and holds together scenes that would otherwise fall flat. At times the other heroes feel underdeveloped or, worse, like poor imitations of their cinematic counterparts. But the game makes the player care about the Avengers through their interactions with Kamala. Her faith in the Avengers brings out the best in each of them.
That said, the campaign’s narrative is still wildly uneven. Bruce Banner feels like a fully three-dimensional character due in large part to a nuanced performance by Troy Baker. But all the other Avengers are underdeveloped and, at times, uninteresting. The story didn’t give enough time or care to most of the heroes in it. The same can be said for the villain. Towards the beginning the campaign tries to prescribe some sort of motivation for the leader of AIM, George Tarleton, to commit atrocities. But it devolves into parody superhero cheese over the course of his transformation into M.O.D.O.K.
Ultimately, the most important factor in most video games is the gameplay, and Crystal Dynamics had a hell of a challenge put in front of them. Developing a set of heroes with unique fighting styles and movesets that are somehow compatible with one another seems like a nearly impossible task. Still, Crystal managed to design superheroes with completely different abilities that are all at least relatively fun to play as and work together on the same playing field. The combat is at times stale or buggy, but the studio’s ability merely to put the necessary pieces together surpasses expectations.
Even though it pulled off the gameplay, the title has plenty of other issues. In order to save development time, several missions in the campaign use game modes found in online multiplayer. They were easily the least interesting moments of the campaign and a reminder that the gameplay in Avengers Initiative isn’t as compelling as playing through the story
Were Crystal Dynamics given the same development time and resources but tasked solely with creating a single-player action-adventive, the Avengers’ adventure would have been better-written, better-paced, and packed with exciting cinematic moments. With its resources split between the story mode and Avengers Initiative, Crystal was forced to make do with what they had, resulting in a serviceable campaign instead of something really special.
There’s still some fun to be had with Avengers Initiative even though it’s not on the same production level as the campaign. The multiplayer mode provides more opportunity to play as the Avengers and to team up with friends. Eventually, though, the gameplay grows stale. You can only replay the same missions so many times when you’re repeatedly fighting the same AIM robots and the handful of supervillains over and over again. Players may be interested in Marvel’s Avengers long enough to unlock all of the heroes’ abilities, but it’s hard to imagine a world where they’ll invest the amount of time that players put into in action MMO’s like Destiny. This game might be enthralling enough for dozens of hours of gameplay, but not hundreds.
While there isn’t a wide variety of missions to play at launch, Square Enix plans to support the game for years to come. More types of missions and enemies will be added over time, as will new playable Avengers, starting with Kate Bishop. Despite its many faults, there’s a lot left to love about Marvel’s Avengers, and the game should only improve in the months to come.