Marvel’s Avengers: Next Gen Upgrade (Review)

An epic tale of reassembling a disassembled superhero team most notable for… Assembling

Here we are now, all the lads. Source: Marvel’s Avengers Twitter

Played on: PlayStation 5

Platforms: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, Windows, Stadia

Genre: Action-adventure / MMORPG

Developer: Crystal Dynamics

Publisher: Square Enix

Release: September 4th, 2020

Face front, True Believers!

E3 2019 was an opportunity like no other. Mere months after the explosive conclusion of Avengers: Endgame and less than a year after the roaring success of Sony’s Spider-Man on PS4, the world was poised for a superhero team-up like no other.

Square Enix had previously announced that they would be working with Marvel Game Studios under the then Nick Fury-Esque title “The Avengers Project.” In the two years between announcement and trailers, there was little to be said and about as much excitement from those outside the Marvel fandom.

Now, I’d consider myself a bit of a Marvel nut – so much so that I visibly wept on my couch when I heard Stan Lee had passed (something which my girlfriend found preposterously hilarious) – so it’s safe to say I was pretty hyped to hear this was being developed. The developers in question also added to my excitement, considering I’m a big fan of Crystal Dynamics’ Legacy of Kain series from way back and I’ve been squarely in Square Enix’s pocket since Final Fantasy X. All my boxes were checked.

The coming of… uncertainty!

Unfortunately, the release of the E3 trailer created more boos than buzz. The chief complaint was that the character models didn’t suit people’s expectations, which is an understandably difficult position for the devs to be in. Obviously wanting to create their own take on the Avengers, as Sony did with our white-emblazoned wall-crawler, Crystal Dynamics went to the source material rather than the silver screen. This would be a sensible option had they not chosen the wrong material.

Both Marvel’s Avengers and their MCU counterparts took the majority of their inspiration from the Ultimate Marvel universe. The reason for this is that the Ultimate label leaned more on the practical and *cough* realism than the more fantastical 616. This led to the population at large believing these new Avengers to be a cheap rip off-of those that had been at the forefront for over ten years. Add to this a complaint that the gameplay looked repetitive and clunky, and we soon found Crystal Dynamics retreating to the drawing board.

Marvel’s Avengers comes with a significant backstory available as a series of comic tie-ins. Source: Marvel Comics Cover Database

The move meant a delay in the release of the game in order to make necessary changes and ensure a level of polish that stood to the publisher’s standard – a welcome development in light of the standard inflicted on gamers in the last number of years. Beta testing started in August 2020 with noticeable improvements but remaining gripes with gameplay. Following the release, a roadmap of DLCs was announced and re-announced, along with dates for next-gen upgrades.

Enter… the Game

The reason I began with a minor history lesson on the game was to give you insight into my state of mind before playing it. I followed the development of the game closely and decided to wait until after the next-gen update to get started. This meant that not only did I have access to the base story and online content, but also the Kate Bishop and Clint Barton DLCs along with any patches to date. The five Marvel’s Avengers comic tie-in also made it into my pull list prior to release, which set a good narrative foundation in terms of Hero/Villain relationships and how Iron Man’s tech was out in the baddies’ hands. At the time of writing, I had played up until the main story’s point of no return and the early portions of the two DLCs.

***Spoilers Ahead***

The game offers some compelling storytelling, both for newcomers and those like myself who are deep in Marvel lore. You begin as Kamala Khan, a young prodigy who is attending A-Day as a VIP having won a story writing contest. A die-hard Avengers fan herself, your excitement grows with hers as she collects some iconic comics and meets the various members of the team. Learning that Cap read her story himself is a particularly heart-warming moment. At this point, you’re developing a feel for who the Avengers are outside of their costumes.

We’re already getting a bit of fan service – shady conversations with George and Monica and talk of a Terrigen reactor – superficial glimpses of what are icebergs of Marvel history. We battle Tasky, the lads get duped and A-Day turns into a catastrophe that no doubt most people gleaned from the trailers.

We begin again 5 years later with a “dead” Captain America and an Inhuman Kamala diligently working to find out the cause of A-Day and the fate of the Avengers. The world is now under the dystopian rule of Advanced Idea Mechanics or AIM – the same villainous group we met in Iron Man 3 – run by the aforementioned Dr George Tarleton and his second in command Dr Monica Rappaccini. AIM used the narrative that Inhumans are a danger to the world and must be apprehended for study and “curing” and operates in a similar way to the Sentinels pursue mutants. Humanity – and indeed inhumanity – make for the central narrative theme to this story.

The Hulkbuster Armour is Iron Man’s Ultimate Heroic move. Source: Marvel’s Avengers Twitter

With help from a hacker named “Tiny Dancer” (a set up for a very predictable yet delightful pun later on) you are guided in your effort to re-assemble the superhero squad in a relatively linear fashion. Along the way, we meet such personalities as O.G. Ant-Man Hank Pym and SHIELD’s Agent Maria Hill. The path to finding your teammates and expanding your allies isn’t a particular challenge and contains a few hero-specific side missions in order to flesh out the characters.

One aspect I felt was done quite well was Banner’s interactions with Kamala – a veteran who has dealt with a lifetime of being ostracised and self-doubt helping a fledgeling, Inhuman deal with similar feelings of loneliness and imposter syndrome. The juxtaposition between Banner’s humanity and Hulk’s savagery was done so surprisingly well you’d almost wonder how so many have struggled to replicate it on screen or between pages.

Another plotline I enjoyed was the development of George Tarleton from scheming scientist into the beloved arch-villain MODOK. The manner in which this occurs was a much more original take on the canonical origin of the character, and from our dealings with our heroes in that we see the inevitable loss of his humanity in his quest.

After MODOK’s inevitable defeat at the hand of the Avengers, we meet former Hawkeye of the Young Avengers – Kate Bishop. Now an Agent of SHIELD, Kate is tasked with the clean-up of what’s left of AIM and discovers a conspiracy between Monica Rappanacci and her former mentor Clint Barton – the original Hawkeye. The story continues as we take the helm with Clint and delve into something taken almost straight from the pages of Old Man Hawkeye. We meet Maestro, the overlord of a desolate Earth and what will eventually become of the meek Bruce Banner. As I haven’t progressed much into these plots so far, I’ll leave it there.

Stupid, sexy Hawkeye. Source: Marvel’s Avengers Twitter

Overall, the story told throughout the game is very compelling and one with very well-rounded characters. Barton’s one, in particular, is one I’m keen to continue, as the Old Man Hawkeye – an excellent book that runs parallel to Old Man Logan – is an iteration of the character I love. One drawback I’ve yet to see, and therefore hope to see in future DLCs, is that on the surface there seems to be very little at stake throughout the story. Very little weight is given to the fact the San Francisco suffered the equivalent of a nuclear holocaust on the Avengers’ watch. At no point do you fear for the lives of the Avengers, not even an assumed KIA Captain America, as the overwhelming sense of the game is that everything will work out in the end.

This man… This monster!

Having learned from the critiques of the announcement trailer and the beta release, the gameplay and combat have become accessible and fluid such as what we saw in the likes of Spider-man and Final Fantasy…

… is what I wish I could say about this game. Unfortunately, with a fully bejewelled Infinity Gauntlet, I could not make it so. What’s worse is that the clunk that we had previously seen permeates beyond the main game and can be seen in the main menus, interactive objects and mission select screens. The UI overall lacks any sense of ergonomics and even on a next-gen console reeks of lazy hidden loading screens.

Set on some of the most boring and uninspired landscapes I’ve seen in years, the gameplay itself ranges from fun to just-about-bearable depending on the character you’re playing. Cap and Black Widow edge out as the most fun to play as. Their combat styles are intuitive and fluid as one would expect for supposed combat experts. Kamala and Hulk are middling in that their fun overshadows their so-so versatility in battle. Surprisingly – mainly because these would be my favourite available characters overall and the ones I put the most hours into - Iron Man and Thor were the most frustrating to play as. This is predominantly due to them being the only members capable of flight, only in the same sense, Buzz Lightyear is capable of flight. To its credit, the game really brings home the feeling of being in a suit of titanium-gold alloy, albeit flying dead-stick.

The landscapes throughout the game tend to be desolate sandboxes littered with basic fort structures. Rinse and repeat. Source: Marvel’s Avengers Twitter

Overall, the movement and reaction time is sluggish at what feels almost a second behind the input. The method of building your heroic bar is mashing different combinations of light and heavy attacks until you have enough gain to unleash your various special attacks. These have a relatively long cooldown period so can only be used sparingly, and you can get caught if employed too early. Together it makes combat overly reliant on dodging and parrying where it could have been a more spectacular experience if they had developed more coordinated combos with your accompanying characters – Thor and Cap putting hammer and shield together to create massive shockwaves or a Kamala – Hulk equivalent of a Fastball Special. It’s a disappointing missed opportunity.

One final note on gameplay, and one specific to the PS5. It was abundantly clear that this was a last-gen game optimised for next-gen, and it was summed up best in the haptics. They were unpredictable and very unrelated to the task at hand – one would expect to feel each foot drop as the character sprinted and yet are met instead with an earthquake sensation, not unlike the original DualShock. What’s more – and I totally understand this is a Sony issue more than an Avengers issue – the adaptive trigger mechanism from the game ended up banjaxing my right trigger. The audacity!

Amid the chaos, there comes a costume--!

There’s no denying that Marvel’s Avengers is a good-looking game. Many of the heroes’ special abilities are fairly iconic and will be instantly recognisable, many of which are photo-worthy.

As good as the game may look though, it's poorly served by the photo mode. Again, delay from the input is a big contributor. Imagine hitting someone with the mother-of-all lightning bolts only to miss out because the game is seemingly distracted by how shiny it is. The FOV offered by the photo mode is far too narrow and instead of a free cam you are stuck focused on your character. This might allow for some decent one-shots of whoever you’re playing as but is unnecessarily limited and prevents you from taking team inclusive photos while everyone is engaged in combat.

I did my best, but photo mode just doesn’t live up to what other games are offering. Source: Self

There is an excellent variety of skins available for each character, some more true to the source material than others, and some unfortunately kept behind paywalls. These add little more than nostalgia and some personal touch to your game, especially if you’re playing online, but I wouldn’t go ahead breaking the bank unnecessarily (is what I repeatedly tell myself looking at the Superior Iron Man and Unworthy Thor skins).

As I mentioned before, the character models have been a controversial topic from the get-go. They’ve definitely improved since the initial trailer, but even I will admit there was something a little off about a couple. It took a while to really put my finger on the issues but the answers came with enough quips.

One such issue was Thor’s voice acting. Obviously, we’re used seven movies worth of the rugged Aussie/British hybrid accent of Chris Helmsworth, so anyone else attempting to follow suit has a rather large codpiece to fill. Enter American voice acting powerhouse Travis Willingham. A veteran of anime, animation and gaming, Travis has actually voiced Thor in several of the Avengers animated series. Now, I have not seen them, and therefore cannot comment, but can draw a conclusion that his renditions are of such quality that he got the part of this game. It's hard to convey my issue at this point. To me, it's just too American. It's not an American attempting a British accent, it's more an American frat boy failing to do an impression of Brian Blessed.

My other issue lands with Cap. I just never liked how he looked, but there was something more than irked me beyond rationality. His shield. That star is just too big. I hated it. I had no reason to hate it, objectively it's completely fine and has no impact on the game, but it was like having an aneurysm behind my eye any time I saw it. Then, a few weeks ago as I hungoverly scrolled through Twitter, a glimmer into my subconscious was revealed.

My eyes! Source: Self. Dan Slott’s Twitter

Marvel’s award-winning writer supreme, Dan Slott (Fantastic Four, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Superior Spider-Man, Batman Adventures, Tony Stark: Iron Man, you get the idea…) revealed a little factoid about his time in the editing room. Apparently, the unwritten rule of Cap’s shield is that the stripe after the star should be red. Now, I’m nit-picking for sure, and I’ve had conflicting opinions from my contemporaries, but you’re already 2000 words into my opinion so what’s another one? This is what critiquing is all about. Basically, I hate the shield and have been subconsciously trained to do so by Big-Comics.

If this be… Mediocre!

It pains me to say that at the sum of its parts, Avengers assembles itself into a very average game. Its pros are the strong plotlines and in-depth storytelling while the cons include the clunky and slow gameplay of certain characters. It's something that I can see being quite fun with friends, but judging by the $63 million loss Avengers made, it's unlikely your friends and waiting for you in the lobby.

Who knows? Maybe the additions of Spider-Man (PS Exclusive mind you) and Black Panther will inject some life into the game. While I might sound overly harsh, I do fully intend to continue exploring the game as it develops over time, for the stories if not for anything else. This is a game aimed squarely at fans of all things Marvel but unfortunately is unlikely to resonate with the average gamer.

Play this game if:

  • You’re a fan of all things Marvel.

  • Enjoy games with strong narratives.

  • Have an interest in supported games with an always-expanding scope.

  • Think Hawkeye is Hawt.

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