Real Talk By: Cmack The Don
The Avengers from Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix is better than the movie tie-in video games of the 90s and early 00s, but not nearly on the level of Rocksteady’s Arkham series or Insomniac’s Spidey installment on the PS4 (shaking my fist like J.Jonah Jameson at the fact that one isn’t all-platform).
We’ve been spoiled in recent years by single-player superhero games that are so high quality that we forget that something like The Avengers (2020), would’ve been considered well above average if not great in the not-too recent past. But that only holds so much water when times have changed and expectations are higher, so I understand why there’s been so much criticism of this title, and trust me True Believer, it’s far from perfect, but maybe not quite as bad as some of the savage takes you’ve seen out there would have you believe.
Things the game does right:
-Story and voice acting. Marvel is a lot more than just action and set-piece scenes, although those should definitely be in there. What sets Marvel and good comic books above generic action content is the (ideally speaking) commitment to character and good storytelling that goes along with the action, and Square and Crystal Dynamics really understood that people love these characters.
Any adaptation of Marvel that fails or has failed in the past, and superheroes/comics as an extension, underestimates how much people love these characters and want to see them in their true form, and whenever they succeed, the opposite is the case. The game makes the smart choice that has become a refreshing trend in superhero video games of creating a whole new “video-game verse” for the characters. Both Marvel and DC have acknowledged the video game universes of their characters, with comics now being regularly printed that use the framework of the Arkham games, the Insomniac Spider-Man, Injustice, and more for their material, which shows how influential this concept can be when done properly.
A comic book storyline is hard to adapt into a game completely, and…well…we’ve seen what happens when video games try to adapt the stories of superhero movies.
The story is based around relatively new Marvel character Kamala Khan, AKA the new Ms.Marvel. Previously I had been just at a “meh” about her character, but this game singlehandledly made me a fan and boosted her appeal to me by a lot.
They chose a story in which she shines, and because the presentation of the game itself sometimes feels a but unpolished, a new character like Kamala, one who hasn’t debuted in the MCU yet, is a bold move that pays off well. I respect the game a lot for choosing a relatively untested character as the game’s anchor, who becomes the player’s window into this version of The Avenger’s world. She’s a teenage hero, which is something we’ve all seen before, but the game highlights her personality and what makes her unique, as well as giving her fun combat moves and gameplay.
While not perfect, there are unique combat mechanics and systems for each character that feel satisfying. They each have different weight and feel to them, and serve different functions on the battlefield like you’d expect. I really like that there’s a mid-level offensive special, a non-attacking buff or effect-type of special for everyone, and the standard screen-clearer. The gameplay and fighting system isn’t the deepest out there, but when you begin to use the different buffs and effects as well as understand your character’s mechanics, you can have some fun thrashing the hordes of goons you’ll fight. In particular, as a fanboy of the old star-spangled shield-slinging super soldier, I can say that being able to lock on to several enemies and have Cap automatically throw a ricocheting shield-toss at all of them with reliable tracking, while being able to do melee and evasive moves while your shield is in the background clocking fools, only to come right back to you when you’re in the middle of fighting another goon, felt very satisfying and like something from the comics. From Iron Man having more ranged weapon options than anyone to Hulk being able to literally use enemies as weapons in his hands, each character has an ability that makes them worth playing as.
As for gameplay, this ties in with the story, but there’s several segments where you play through a story-event in real time, and I really enjoyed how cinematic and fast-paced these felt. Not to get too deep into spoilers, but there’s a sequence where Tony Stark is gradually getting more and more pieces of armor throughout the level, until you’re suited up in a makeshift suit at the end, and it feels like a scene I could see playing out on film.
-Skill Tree/Improvement Options:
There’s a lot of ways to develop your character, and aside from the standard unlockable moves, you can also unlock ways to affect how your character’s moves function, what stats they have, and also what area of gameplay your build of the character can focus on. I really like being able to customize a character’s abilities in any game, and the fact that there’s three different leveling screens was something that surprised me in a good way.
Things the game does wrong:
I feel a lot has been said about this aspect of the game, and I will say, I got used to it. But they’re The Avengers, not The Looters. Imagine if Cap shouted out everyone’s orders in that scene in the end of the first Avengers movie, and then at the end mentioned he was planning on jogging around the map for 20 minutes to find a treasure chest of gloves that make him punch harder. It doesn’t work with the vibe of the franchise. These are Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, and the story itself sets up the idea that they don’t have time to lollygag around looking for vests, bracelets, and other doodads, but since missions aren’t usually timed, you have the voice acting and writing telling you it’s a desperate situation, but in reality you can roam around the map, going on a loot quest and fighting random enemies until you decide to get back to the main mission. AIM is planning on wiping out a chunk of the population? I mean that sucks, but what about me finding a new helmet?
Even the Riddler side-quests in the Arkham games were a sick game The Riddler was playing with you the player/Batman. Each trophy you achieved got you one step closer to unlocking a room where The Riddler had an innocent person hostage. The side quest had a theme that fit the story and character of the Batman world. Sure, it did artificially lengthen the game and give you more to do, but it did so in-character and in the style of the game’s world that made sense, and that’s all we’re asking here.
The fact that gear-grinding is the way to level up your character and not accomplishing demanding combos, last-minute escapes, teammate assists, or more just doesn’t make sense. The looting and treasure aspect is something that would feel more at-home in Diablo or a dungeon-crawler, not a game where time is running out to save the world with the mightiest heroes in the Marvel Universe. But…I mean…I guess Black Widow gotta get her belt to look cute.
-Enemy Variation and Design:
I have to make it clear that as a longtime Marvel fanboy, I really enjoyed the way they develop the game’s main villain, and I was very pleased that he wasn’t a character who has been used in the MCU yet. It makes it feel even more like an authentic product instead of a cheap tie-in, using only characters that moviegoers would know to get a quick buck. The villain development and setting genuinely fits for a Marvel story, and I would totally watch a high-budget animated adaptation of this story.
That said, presumably the developers didn’t have restrictions on what Marvel characters they can use, and they essentially only have two, yes you read that right, two villains with actual superpowers in the game, and a third original big bad who’s just yet another evil mad scientist.
The Avengers have adventures throughout the cosmos, in other universes, realities, dimensions (yes there’s a difference between those three), time periods, planets, other nations both fictional and real, interacting with every known and unknown form of life in the universe, and really, the enemies in this game are almost all just goons with laser guns, jetpacks, security drones, and mech suits. Some super-powered droids in there for good measure. These are all fine, fine designs for enemies and what I would expect. But I would also expect Doombots, Kree/Skrull henchman, maybe the Annihilation Wave, The Chituari, Asgardian beasts, mutates in the Savage Land, the beings of the High Evolutionary, the army of Atlantis, The Hand, and freaking HYDRA, who are all nowhere in sight. That list didn’t even cover close to the amount of goons (both evil and circumstantial) lurking around the Marvel Universe that The Avengers could stomp.
This is one area that the 16-bit brawler in arcades, Sega Genesis, and SNES from the 90s exceeds past this one in. The Ultimate Alliance games understand this as well. Even with a central threat, there’s no reason at all that we shouldn’t have seen a horde of Marvel’s villains and locations show up in this story, and with a story that effects the whole world and even goes to space, there would’ve been room for it. And don’t give me that “grounded” crap as an excuse not to, this is the world of Marvel Comics, and if you’re faithful to it and have Gamma-powered rage monsters and Asgardian Gods running around, then you’ve lost all claims towards being grounded. That’s not what people want, and they need to recognize that.
-Lack of Team Control/Tag-Team Attacks:
This is yet another feature earlier games of this variety understood. I should instantly be able to take control of any of my 4 strike-team members on the map at any time, being able to toggle between each without having to play as a dedicated character. They could’ve even capitalized on this feature more by having certain missions actually force you to switch between characters to complete them. This would give you the feel the movies and comics have: for example while the more powerful Avengers keep Ultron busy in direct battle, the less powerful but stealthier and mobile team members are infiltrating, hacking, and taking down a missle-station he’s taken control of. Now imagine having to quickly swap between each character contributing to that scene in their own unique way, and having the pace of the swaps pick up as the game gradually builds its skill in this aspect organically. That would make you feel like you were playing the movies. It would make you feel like you were playing as a team. You can switch player characters during a mission and complete the mission as someone else at any time, but you can’t instantly shift play to another character, and this makes no sense, as Ultimate Alliance had this feature more than a decade before this game came out.
There’s no team specials or tag-team moves, which is beyond confusing. This is in Ultimate Alliance also, and even shown in The Avengers films all the time. What’s the point of playing as a team of superheroes that don’t…work as a team? The days of Konami’s X-Men arcade are over, I’m gonna need to see integrated team specials and tag-team attacks that are unique to each character. In a $60, AAA title based off of one of the most dominant brands in media right now, that isn’t asking a lot at all. Kamala using her stretch powers to slingshot The Hulk as a living projectile (their version of the Fastball Special from the X-Men) through waves of enemies. Iron Man reflecting his repulsor off of Cap’s shield into a dozen laser splinters that clears the screen, Thor adding increased range and electrical charge to Black Widow’s stingers, making a wave of destructive force, and a dozen other combinations for each character pairing in the game. I just thought of those combos while typing this review, and not to break my arm patting myself on the back, but I think those sound decently cool. Where are they in the game?
Picturing a once-a-level, high cost 4-player devastating attack where your whole team attacks as one with the camera sweeping over the crew just absolutely wrecking the opposition while the theme swells up and blares loudly over the action (pepper in an “Avengers, Assemble!!” in there for extra flavor) is something that would make my wallet open a lot faster to buy this title (I rented it for the review from one of the last remaining Family Video locations near me).
Last but not least, some of the character facial models look like they lost a brawl with Galactus, and some of the textures of the game aren’t polished. My copy of the game had some sound glitches at some moments, but that could’ve been the disc I had or my system, also.
Overall, I admit I give this more leeway than other reviewers because of how much I love the characters, this universe, and the story they went with for the game. If you’re not a Marvel fan/stan, you can probably just skip this entirely. If you do love or just enjoy Marvel, this is still worth a play through the campaign, but after that, I’m not so sure. I also didn’t sample the multi-player and can’t speak to that. But I can say that this title has a good core and solid idea, but needs some polish and a few more features thrown in. It feels rushed and unfinished, which is odd, because I’ve heard rumors and rumblings of this project seemingly since the first movie came out in 2012. If this had come out in early 2007, it would’ve gotten rave reviews, but you can’t judge things based off of the time they would’ve functioned best in, you have to judge them as they are. So I can’t recommend paying full price for Square Enix’s Avengers to anyone, but after the price comes down and you’re looking for a fun story to occupy a day or a few evenings when you get home, it’s good for that.
The Avengers on XBOX One and PS4 assembles a
2.5 out of 5