Since “Marvel’s Avengers” by Crystal Dynamics was released last week, many critics have asked why the game’s marketing missed the mark.
There’s a common refrain in many of the reviews: There’s a kernel of a good game here, but it can be tough to find. That’s the trouble when you try to make a game that the developers described as meant for “everyone.” It’s trying to be so many different things at the same time. It’s to the great credit of Crystal Dynamics that a lot of it works better than expected. The combat mechanics are robust and deep, and the loot system shows some promise.
But then a lot of it doesn’t work, and that was somewhat expected. It’s plagued by bugs, like the times the supervillains were completely invisible (and, no, that wasn’t their superpower). It’s poorly optimized, causing mass-reported issues on the PC platform and struggling to keep up on the base PlayStation 4.
I try to review games as what they are, and not what they could be. But with so many preconceived notions about characters like the Avengers, and a few titles that have set the bar high for the superhero genre, it’s impossible not to think about what “Avengers” could have been if it was another type of game. Especially since this one tries to be so many other things at one time. That’s what happens when you try to be something for everyone.
But a game doesn’t need to be a live service. A game can be like “Spider-Man” by Insomniac Games, offering not only a thrilling combat system but dozens of free costumes and six supervillains to fight. “Avengers” has a combat system that’s kind of thrilling, and dozens of costumes you have to either roll the dice on or buy with real money, and two supervillains to fight. Again, it’s hard not to wonder what could’ve been if it narrowed its ambitions. The game doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Superhero games that offer so much more out of the box exist, while this feels akin to getting a ticket to a carnival, where the rides on offer run the gamut in quality.
“Avengers” is still a good game, despite that messy ambition. In fact, its best parts are its least ambitious. At its core, “Avengers” is a great scion of the brawler genre. Captain America and crew are descendants of “Bimmy” and Jimmy of “Double Dragon,” Axel of “Streets of Rage,” and yes, Captain America and crew from the “Avengers” Data East arcade game from 1991.
Every character initially feels distinct, and by the end of the game, they each feel distinctive enough to anchor their own game. Iron Man in particular is a highlight, offering three distinct playstyles that become more useful as they get augmented with various loot. Kamala and Thor hold excellent support roles, healing and augmenting the team as Hulk clears the room and Black Widow takes out long-distance targets. The team dynamic of superhero fighting clicks often and well here. The fighting game community especially has taken a shine to how the movesets allow for player creativity.
“Air juggling combo” is a term you’d find in “Street Fighter” or brawler luminary “Devil May Cry,” not in a typical “loot grind” live service game. With that inclusion alone, the fighting in this game is already deeper than what you’d find in the premiere superhero games: the “Arkham” series of Batman titles. And it offers for so much flexibility across six heroes.
You can rebuild Captain America into an unstoppable force, optimizing his Brooklyn Brawler Ultimate Heroic Action to last long and drop Regen Orbs that refill your Willpower meter. Sorry, did I start to lose you there? That’s because we’re smacked in the face with another glaring fault in this game. Nothing is ever explained well enough, and the game assumes you’re a gamer that’s internalized the definition of the “loot grind.” Don’t forget to pick up your daily “Faction” missions to level up your “Faction” experience!
Common gamer jargon like “health” and “ability meter” are repurposed to fit this game’s universe, and only explained in tiny fonts, all hidden across a crowded user interface that only gets worse the more you navigate it. So health is called “Willpower,” “Heroic meter” is abilities, and “Intrinsic” meter is for other abilities. So much of the game relies on your desire to pay attention to juggling three different meters while tracking loads of invisible statistics. It’s how you can turn the Hulk, who feels weak in the first few hours, into the one-hit monster he’s meant to be. It’s through precarious management of his “rage” power in his “intrinsic” meter, while ensuring speedy cool-downs of his abilities. Is this the kind of game you’d want to explain to “everyone?”
And even though the superhero team synergy works in terms of movesets, the game is a visual mess. Enemies look far too similar to each other. Supervillain fights devolve into a muddy mess of particle effects and a veritable rat king of Avengers limbs and appendages crowding the screen.
Everyone’s already talked about why the campaign is a highlight, and it’s more to do than just the charming writing around Kamala Khan, a.k.a. Ms. Marvel. Crystal Dynamics are pros at producing thrilling single-player setpieces through their “Tomb Raider” trilogy, and that skill shone through the 12-hour experience. The story provides essential context to the superheroics, like Tony Stark being caught unaware inside his disheveled home, or Kamala Khan running away from a rampaging Hulk full sprint through the Avengers’ battleship. These sequences have beautiful bespoke animations and storytelling moments, so much so that it’s a shame that it’s not replayable once it’s all done.
It’s an even bigger shame we don’t see any of that storytelling prowess in the multiplayer, the most-advertised component of the game. Instead, we get adventure game “puzzles” like “stand in this blue circle for five minutes” and “find the four yellow buttons and press them to make them blue.” We get “Elite Hive” missions that are literally five floors of the aforementioned puzzles, as well as rooms of countless robots to punch. That stuff was always hard to sell, and once again, you start to wonder what could have been if they focused on the parts that worked (the combat, character-driven missions). Crystal Dynamics might have produced the kind of marketing that gets one excited about an “Avengers” game, and not the worry and concern this game left in the wake of its prerelease hype.
Then there’s the marketplace, which sells “cosmetic” items like costumes and “takedown” animations at a premium price. Do you want Hulk to slam his enemies just like he did Loki in that one movie? It’s going to cost you $12. It’s a shame that a game about costumed superheroes feels the need to sell the costumes. It’s a shame that under Activision, “Destiny” standardized the notion of commercially selling “combat animations” as cosmetic, which gives license to games like “Avengers” to do the same. There’s something underhanded about selling a game about punching people, and then charging more just to get various ways to punch.
It’s a shame I have to mention all of this in a game that I haven’t stopped playing since release. Everything good about the game could’ve been improved if it wasn’t so determined to become an “engaging platform” a la Facebook, and more like the heartwarming, inspiring superhero story like the one it already tells here. The game is too concerned about selling its extrinsic rewards, and not the engaging, complex dance of superhero violence it has buried beneath.
For now, I see “Avengers” as less an ambitious role-playing game, and more for what it is now: an engaging, captivating classic brawler experience that’s fun with friends. It’s not an “Avengers”-level marketing point. But it’s an easier sell than what we got.