Sometimes curiosity gets the better of me. Like a vast chunk of the world, I’m a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s hard not to be; the sheer crushing number of films released since 2008’s Iron Man means that at least some of them have to hit, as long as you don’t mind wading through the scores of merely-okay action films, but the ones that are good managed to stick with me. It’s also no surprise that in the midst of the MCU hubbub that a game would be released to capitalise on its success. Marvels’ Avengers is that game; its a relatively recent release for this blog (only 8 months after release at time of writing!) but that it showed up for free on the PS Now service piqued my interest. The early reviews of Avengers were, to put it bluntly, not kind, and I had to dive in and see what was up.
Marvel’s Avengers (PC, PS4 [reviewed], PS5, Stadia, Xbox One, Xbox One X/S)
Released Sep 2020 | Developed: Crystal Dynamics | Published: Square Enix
Right from the off, the opening screen is a mess. The online multiplayer is front and centre, pointing you exactly where the devs/pubs expect you to, while the single player campaign is shoved off to one side. In fact, it’s not even called the “campaign” or highlighted as a single player mode; instead it’s hidden in a menu entitled “Operations”, which could mean bloody anything, so you need to dive into that menu to find out there’s a campaign in this game. Above the menu the tab for the online marketplace is prominently placed, again in the centre, enticing you to hit it and see the myriad ways you’re invited to spend more and more money on this game. Once you’re into the campaign menu it remains confusing; you don’t immediately come up on the story mode, but on whatever the most recently released expansion is, and you have to scroll to find the actual single player story included in the base game.
You might, quite fairly, ask why this is the case. It is a game, after all, which included its story, in which you play as Kamala Khan in an adaptation of the Inhumanity arc, as a major part of its marketing. Even in games with a strong multiplayer component, expecting a decent single player mode is not an outrageous thought, and it is traditional for games to place their single player campaign at the top of a list or centrally on-screen. Marvel’s Avengers, however, is a game with a clear purpose. It’s a prime example of the “games as live service” model; it’s a game designed to keep players returning to the game via a continual stream of updates and, by extension, a continuous cycle of aggressive monetisation. This monetisation is usually seen as especially galling when one has paid a premium already for a game, such as the typical £50-60 point of entry for a brand new game like Marvel’s Avengers, as players tend to not like to feel like they’re being bled for cash. Games that utilise this model tend to be heavily multiplayer-focused, and Marvel’s Avengers is no exception to this; the trick is whether or not it has been built with a good single-player and acceptable means of monetisation, or not.
The single player mode is peppered with microtransactions. Each character has a bevy of additional costumes but the majority of them are not earnable; however, they are purchasable with credits, the typical in-game currency that is only gained by spending real-world money, and the same goes for emotes, nameplates, and takedowns to use against stunned enemies. This is the insidious integration of the “games as live service” model: the constant expectation that you’re going to both buy the game and then carry on paying for pointless additions within the game. I talked about this way back in my Injustice 2 review as well, but even though it’s all largely cosmetic stuff for sale, it’s still an example of features which used to be just part of a game as standard, and a continuing pattern of predatory monetisation practices which prey on the fear of missing out to capitalise on addiction. It’s not quite lootboxes, but it’s still an unwelcome reminder of how ubiquitous nakedly anti-consumer practices are in modern gaming and how readily it has been accepted by the gaming public at large.
Even in the campaign you can’t escape the multiplayer options. The way in which the missions are structured is very obviously just training you for the multiplayer. You select your character and then you’re given a moment to invite any friends to join in; if not you can always add in AI characters to fill out the empty slots. You sit through the same kind of extended loading you would expect before starting a multiplayer mission, right down to the countdown until being dropped into the mission zone. Once in, most stages lack any kind of discernible features or specifically designed levels; your first one for example is a blank generic tundra. It’s large but also largely empty, with a few enemies encounters and some chests for you to find if you’re so inclined – and believe me I was not inclined. It’s frustrating to find yourself playing something that was obviously meant for multiplayer; it makes the campaign feel like even more of an afterthought than it already came across as.
I’ve seen various bits of praise for the narrative online but I don’t see it personally. As a rough adaptation of some of the Inhumanity arc it follows Kamala Khan, a young superhero fan who attends a special Avengers celebration day at the beginning of the game. The team uses the event to showcase a new clean energy source called Terrigen but the reactor goes critical and explodes, destroying much of San Francisco. The game then picks up 5 years later. Superheroes have been outlawed (ahh, a classic storyline) and the Avengers have disbanded. Tony Stark has eaten a large part of the blame for the Terrigen disaster and so Stark Industries is gone, replaced by Advanced Idea Mechanics, or AIM. Scores of people have been infected by Terrigen in the wake of the explosion, which causes them to develop superpowers; in an effort to protect the nation, AIM assumes a police state role, deploying sentinel robots to capture any individuals they dub “Inhuman”. Yep, it’s a good old-fashioned superhero dystopia story!
Once again, back in my Injustice and Injustice 2 reviews I talked about how balancing this kind of story has to work, and how the key thing those games got wrong was not giving the audience any hope or triumph; a story which is always dark induces an apathy in its audience, and suddenly you stop giving a toss who wins or loses. At the very least, Marvel’s Avengers doesn’t fall into that same trap. Although things look dire, much like with the MCU you can at least count on Marvel’s Avengers to give us a reason to celebrate as the story beats pass by. It’s also remembered to have at least some characters that are fun and well-written. Chief among these is Kamala. I love that she’s an unabashed dork; she writes Marvel fanfiction, she maintains a secret headquarters in her hometown that’s filled with Avengers toys and pennants, and she constantly geeks out whenever she sees various bits of paraphernalia, blurting out facts about Tony Stark’s first gauntlets or Captain America’s shield. She’s about as perfect an audience surrogate as you could ask for, plus she has the added bonus of being the excellent current version of Ms. Marvel.
However, I said I don’t share all the praise for Avengers’ story, and that holds true. Although Kamala is a bright spot, she’s one of very few within a narrative that is otherwise a mess. I don’t think it’s fair to criticise the character writing next to their portrayals in the MCU but Avengers traded very heavily on it during marketing, and it’s hard not to feel at least a pang of grim resignation as you hear veteran voice actors try to make the same wry comedy-by-committee remarks as their MCU counterparts. It’s also full of stuff that makes little sense. At one point one character remarks that it’s only a matter of time before AIM pinpoints the location of their base, despite said base being a downed airship that has been in the same spot for 5 years, and despite AIM already having swarmed over it earlier in the story; at another Kamala laments the lack of other Inhumans fighting back and yet already in the story she’s been abducted by AIM and seen the extent of their police state which hunts out and captures superhumans.
A lot of the time the story feels mostly inconsequential, and this is exacerbated by the multiplayer focus; in practice, because the focus of the game is to funnel you into the multiplayer and towards paying for microtransactions it ultimately works to undermine the impact of the narrative. It’s further compromised by the way in which the game presents its story missions. Aside from the aforementioned lifted-from-the-multiplayer stages, you also spend a huge amount of time in the campaign just walking about. Seriously – there are entire stages and parts of stages where you just wander about slowly while people talk at you or Kamala coos over some dust-covered piece of Avengers memorabilia, and that simply isn’t good game design, particularly not for an action game.
When you’re not wandering about gawking at Avengers tat, you get dropped into stages to fight some baddies. Avengers is, at its most basic, a beat-em-up. The bulk of the combat gameplay is spent slapping two buttons for light and heavy attacks; there are combos you can pull off by using different combinations of these attacks but it’s honestly hard to feel like any of them are worth it as you can reliably just mash and get through the game with relative ease. Each character has three special moves which replenish on cooldown metres; these attacks are all obviously themed to their respective characters. For example, Kamala can heal herself and do a powerful hand slap, while her ultimate move has her increase her size and stomp around on enemy mobs. Each character also has a power bar which functions differently for each one; Kamala’s lets her focus her power to automatically dodge attacks until the bar is drained, and then it replenishes over time, whereas the Hulk’s bar must be filled by dealing damage and using his character power recovers health with each hit. There really has been some serious effort put into making each character feel unique but unfortunately it falls flat when the game behind it is so lacklustre; it’s hard to get excited about playing as Thor or Iron Man when you know you’re just going to spend time running around nondescript stages beating up the same few enemies.
The reward for conquering stages is experience points, naturally, and earning enough lets you level up. Leveling up nets you skill points which you can use to beef up any of the myriad skill options; when I say myriad, I really do mean it – each character has a ton of new basic attacks and combos to unlock, plus you can power up their special abilities and their passive stats and bonuses. It’s very extensive, which makes it all the more tragic that it’s largely meaningless; the sheer volume of stats, each with their own description of percentages that each option will increase, is just so much filler, a baffling amount of visual static that will mean nothing to most folk who try and engage with it. This is compounded by the loot system, which runs into a similar problem. Plenty of enemies drop loot, requiring you to spend time between missions nose-deep in menu screens, flicking between items to compare their stats, whether you can upgrade them, which of the maddening number of different resources you need to upgrade them with, or whether they all have the same matching sign so you can get some other mediocre bonus. It’s an exhausting process, and really all it accomplishes is making your numbers higher and hopefully those numbers are high enough that the next mission you select will have lower numbers and that’s good, I suppose.
Marvel’s Avengers is a grind. That probably ought not to come as a surprise. It is, after all, the foundation upon which games-as-a-service are built. It’s a tortuous, inexorable waste of your time; you go on missions, slog through waves of identical enemies, pick up scores of loot, and return back to base. You wade through the menus and assign skill points, check all your loot to see if you get an extra point or two of damage or resistance, eye up the tempting offer on buying credits so you can get a snazzy costume, and then go back on a mission again. It’s designed to make you want to repeat the process over and over, never really questioning if you’re having fun but always returning because of the allure of nebulous “content”, the draw of whatever map or mini-story that’s been released recently, but without ever realising that it’s simply more of the same.
What I particularly despise though is the encroachment of this miserable form of games design on single player content. There was an opportunity here to build a genuinely engaging story centred around reforming the Avengers. Hell, the LEGO and older arcade-style beat-em-up games managed it, but unfortunately Marvel’s Avengers has been developed under the incorrect assumption which pervades modern AAA publishing, which is that single player games are a dying breed. It’s a blinkered viewpoint and it leads to games like this: worthless, soulless, mindless, and repetitive slogs designed purely to siphon your money from you over and over and over again. Regardless of any of the small positives I could glean from Marvel’s Avengers, that truth about it what it really was for was inescapable. There is absolutely no reason anyone should play this game or support the predatory business practices it represents.
1/7 – ABYSMAL.
Oh dear. Perhaps it’s broken, perhaps it’s savagely offensive, or perhaps it’s a barely-constructed mess. Either way, avoid it at all costs.