With Marvel’s Avengers, Crystal Dynamics has managed to do what many reviews, screeds from established film directors, and anti-mainstream voices couldn’t: They’ve made me question my devotion to the titular superheroes. Namely, whether there really is nothing more to the latter-day iteration of the Avengers than fighting robots in between spouting Whedonesque dialogue. But, then, all it took was an afternoon of revisiting how they’ve been portrayed in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, comic books, and beyond across the last decade or so to see that Marvel’s Avengers alone does a disservice to the legacy of its superhero characters by making it seem as if they’re saving the world with empty promise.
While the characters here largely take their visual cues and personalities from their portrayals in the MCU, you won’t know them from their faces, voices, and histories. That isn’t a problem in and of itself, except that Marvel’s Avengers doesn’t do the legwork of endearing them to us. And because they feel like strangers, it’s impossible to buy into the way they’re put at odds with one another after Captain America meets his demise and S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers are blamed for the cosmic explosion that killed him, as well as the mutations that occurred in many of those who were in the blast’s range. Much of the game involves trying to put the band back together to stop the evil A.I.M. corporation from capitalizing on the world’s new state of chaos.
The bones of a good, old-fashioned, linear action game are evident here. Brawling is a straightforward affair, with each Avenger’s special powers mapped to the shoulder buttons. Traversal feels right, with every superhero having their own snazzy method of getting around, from swinging on wires to clinging to and bouncing off walls; characters like Iron Man and Thor can even fly around the battlefield at will. Pity, then, that the battlefields often get too chaotic for their own good, choked with explosions, lasers, and exploding machine parts. The camera is sometimes a source of struggle. Level designs are bland, generic industrial wastelands surrounded by empty wilderness, and many of your objectives for each level have no sense of urgency. Worst of all, the game’s obscenely long load times make retrying a stage feel extra aggravating.
Crafting a sturdy Avengers beat ‘em up, a modern-day spiritual successor to the classic Captain America and the Avengers arcade game from the early ‘90s, is a noble aim. Which is to say, the aforementioned flaws aren’t a deal breaker, except that Marvel’s Avengers doesn’t make its stages feel vital to its story, nor does it deliver truly memorable high-stakes surprises or introduce creative or well-known foes into the mix. Had it delivered on all those fronts, the game wouldn’t have been too far removed from the breezy, top-down action titles in the Marvel Ultimate Alliance series. And if Marvel’s Avengers doesn’t, it’s because it’s too beholden, a la Destiny, to a live-service model—more interested in ensnaring than entertaining the player.
The core gameplay mechanic of Marvel’s Avengers doesn’t hinge on making players feel the exhilaration of saving the world, but on the allure of amassing stuff. The only real way to proceed in the game is by constantly collecting more and better gear for each character, upgrading their stats, and adding to a preposterous list of currencies, resources, and random junk that you need to, yes, keep upgrading. And all of that is worse here than it is in Destiny, because at least the new items that you collect in that game can change the parts of a character’s costume or the way a weapon fires; even a basic mission nets quite a bit in rewards. By contrast, none of the gear you collect in Marvel’s Avengers even changes the way a character looks. The only way to do that is to grind through stages and complete a character’s challenge card, and if you rightfully start to feel the snail’s pace of your progress, you can always just buy the cosmetics with real world money.
When the game, on its normal difficulty, starts to ramp up to the point where three hits from an enemy decimates your lifebar, there are no patterns to learn or strategies to change. What you feel instead of determination is the urgency of having to find another mission to take on and grind for better numbers, and the motivations aren’t strong enough to justify repetitive tasks for paltry rewards. Yes, there’s the base gratification of watching those numbers tick up, but with little else going on between its ears, Marvel’s Avengers feels creatively bankrupt. And while this sort of monotonous grinding typically makes it easy to just loathe and ignore a game, there’s collateral damage involved in completely writing this one off: Kamala Khan.
Kamala is already one of the best things to happen to Marvel Comics just by being who she is: a 16-year-old Pakistani Muslim female superhero whose ethnicity, culture, and religion aren’t played to inspire controversy or feed into easy stereotypes. And even then, those aspects aren’t the whole of who she is. At least, all those things don’t outweigh the fact that she’s also just a dorky superhero stan living out her wildest dreams after she gets super powers. Somehow, despite all the despicable trappings of games as a service, everything special about her in the comics has made it into this game. She’s the star here, the one who decides to bring the Avengers together again, who wrestles with the implications of what to do with her power. She believes, without question, that she has to use it to face down the various injustices around her. As opposed to almost every other major hero in the game, she doesn’t lack for nuance. The game makes room for a moment in which she implements a burkini into her superhero outfit, as well as foregrounds her pride in knowing that she belongs with the Avengers, while also not ignoring that she’s still a kid who makes huge tactical mistakes.
Kamala is this game’s heart and soul, joyfully written and lovingly and enthusiastically performed by Sandra Saad. Much of the story centers on her presence and actions, and even as a playable character, her polymorph powers are by far the most blissfully fun mechanics in the game. As such, it’s easy to imagine what Marvel’s Avengers could’ve been completely about: the focused, straightforward story of a girl coming to grips with who she is, what she’s capable of, and where she fits among Earth’s Mightiest Heroes as she defies an evil corporation who wants people who look and act like her dead. That story is there in Marvel’s Avengers, but unfortunately it’s one that’s swept aside often and awkwardly by wheel-spinning missions that exist only to teach players how to run that import-free, gear-garnering games-as-a-service hamster wheel of missions, never reaching a place where your job is ever done. And the fact that players must suffer that to experience one of the best crafted characters in gaming this year makes Marvel’s Avengers all the more infuriating.
There’s an oft-repeated mantra in Marvel’s Avengers that goes, “Good isn’t a thing you are; it’s a thing you do.” And it’s one that’s recited in a game where doing good largely means “smash more robots” and “open more glowy chests.” Everything truly good in Marvel’s Avengers is compromised by its mercenary feature set. Live-service engagement is ultimately its guiding principle, and that’s a principle that’s never been heroic.
This game was reviewed using a retail copy purchased by the reviewer.
Developer: Crystal Dynamics Publisher: Square Enix Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: September 4, 2020 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Language, Mild Blood, Violence Buy: Game
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