A good comic book crossover brings all the best elements from different series together, using them in ways that wouldn’t otherwise make sense. When The Avengers launched in 1963, it was still somewhat novel to have WWII hero Captain America battle Norse gods. You could still believe the Hulk was a misunderstood monster that didn’t work well with others. Iron Man wasn’t one of the biggest names in modern media. Mashing them together provided new opportunities for wacky fun.
In 2020, Marvel’s Avengers has some of that same spirit — only more nakedly corporate. The superhero beat-em-up borrows ideas from Destiny, Star Wars: Battlefront, The Division, and of course the Marvel movie empire itself. It’s a “live game” meant to be played every possible day from now till whenever the sequel comes out, parting players from their pocketbooks via microtransactions and leveling up battle passes.
It’s also… not. And as others have already pointed out, it’s that side of the game that stands out most, even though the marketing tried hard to obfuscate it.
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I absolutely hated the Avengers beta I played pre-release. It featured a tiny taste of the story and a surprisingly generous helping of loot grind. It turns out those two should have been flipped. Avengers has a truly meaty campaign that runs about 15 hours — if you completely ignore the side quests. Throw in more than a few optional missions and, baby, you’ve got a full game going. Though Avengers can’t help but remind you this is a loot-based beater, complete with gear score, random perks, and color-coded rarities.
This is far and away the least satisfying side of the game. Ironically, that’s thanks to something they game does different. One way Avengers sets itself apart from the pack is by making gear completely invisible. It’s a tremendously odd choice — one that feels like it came late in development. Playable characters like Kamala Khan and Black Widow mug for the camera as it zooms in on body parts where loot would go. Equip a new bracelet, and Kamala flexes to show it off, only… there’s nothing there. Bizarre.
It doesn’t seem to be a canon issue, either. Some of the many, many full costumes you can equip are unique to this game — not just drawn from existing movies or comics or cartoons. Though you will see familiar facades: Joe Fixit, the black-and-gold Iron Man Model 42, etc. All of which are available for oodles of in-game cash or by completing character-specific battle passes. For now, finishing out these “challenge cards” is the main incentive to keep playing after the story wraps. And more will be added as entirely free DLC heroes and missions appear (sans the challenge cards, which run you $10 a pop).
But what about that campaign? The short version is that it’s good. It’s very good. It focuses almost entirely on the aforementioned Kamala Khan, a.k.a. Ms. Marvel. She’s one of a glut of young, popular new Marvel characters created in the last decade. Sadly her contemporaries — like Miles Morales and Gwen Stacy (of Earth-65) — might be wrapped up in console exclusivity.
Kamala is more than enough to carry the campaign, though. The surprisingly slow-paced story opens with her and her dad attending an Avengers themed celebration. Things go awry, as seen in the beta and trailers, and she gains the ability to stretch and grow at will. Think Mr. Fantastic meets Ant-Man — only with more super-sized fists. After a time jump, Kamala slowly becomes the glue binding a disassembled team of Avengers back together.
Don’t be surprised if you missed some of that. The game’s E3 reveal glossed over Kamala’s inclusion completely, letting the “porn parody” Avengers become a punchline that dogged the game right up until release, instead. Now that it’s out, I can confirm that anything involving Ms. Marvel is a joy, from heartfelt interactions with her father, Yusuf, to extended gags with her agitating Bruce Banner. It’s a condensed (but not too condensed) version of the family and legacy drama that works so well in, say, Into the Spider-Verse.
I’ve contended for years that Ms. Marvel is a better Peter Parker than Peter Parker. She’s a teenage Muslim girl living in post-911 New Jersey. She’s a forced outsider in the way 1960s nerds might have felt they were, with strong familial ties, and powers that make her powerful but not omnipotent. Life constantly pulls her in different directions that not even being a stretchy superhero can solve. For a live loot game — seemingly the crass, AAA genre du jour — Avengers does a remarkable job of expressing that to newcomers.
Besides the uninspiring loot, genre conventions only seem to clash with the villains. Don’t get me wrong! Avengers someone manages to humanize the Mental Organism Designed Only for Killing: MODOK. As the chief antagonist, he’s a surprisingly creepy Musk-type supervillain — a technocrat that teams up with police, press, and politicians to increasingly surveil the U.S. in the wake of a terrorist attack.
At the start of the game, that literally means sending militarized drones with big, brazen “POLICE” markings to hunt down a young brown girl, while asking upstanding white citizens to rate their law enforcement experience on an app. The overtones aren’t as prevalent as they could be, but they’re there.
But besides MODOK, and some very early boss battles against Taskmaster and Abomination, Avengers doesn’t draw from the wacky well of Marvel often. That gives developer Crystal Dynamics years of baddies to drip feed into future updates — just like you’d expect from a live game. But it leaves many base game battles feeling sterile.
Ninety percent of campaign missions end against a really angry AIM grunt, or a really big robot. Ninety percent of those involve you running around, opening chest, and beating up slightly smaller grunts and bots. As such the bombast rarely lives up to the quiet moments.
In a way, that’s a pleasant surprise. I expected quite the opposite. On the other hand, the lapsed Marvel fan in me wishes I got to, I dunno, fight my way to Annihilus, or have a Metal Gear Solid-style sniper fight with Bullseye. This is such an enormous toybox. And each Avenger has (mostly) unique abilities. The potential for memorable, one-off moments based around specific characters is almost endless. It still is… in future updates.
I’m not totally sold on the live game loop. Yet. But teaser trailers make it look like add-on characters get a lil’ espresso shot of the writing I came to love throughout the main game. That’s enough to keep me checking in on Avengers for a while, even if it doesn’t fully penetrate my ever-changing live game rotation.