After an early and more limited beta period, the beta is rolling out to pre-order players this week. Barring some significant changes to the nature of that content, players can expect to uncover several hours of missions and leveling to explore, including the oft-seen bridge sequence from the game’s opening, and a later story-driven sequence involving Ms. Marvel and Hulk. From there, the beta opens up into multiplayer-enabled missions, adding Iron Man and Black Widow into the mix, so that up to four players can duke it out together in their battles against Advanced Idea Mechanics (A.I.M.). As you fight through the available encounters, you also gradually improve your heroes, both through leveling to gain more skill points and combat moves, as well as with gear that increases their offensive and defensive potential.
There are several things that Avengers ably manages in those hours of play. The hero character models look good (especially in slow-motion animated loading screens), and unlockable costumes help to add some variation to their respective styles. The basics of character control and brawling mechanics feel up to the task, allowing for a familiar range of light and heavy attacks, interspersed with dodges, blocks, and special moves. And perhaps most importantly, the game offers a fantasy that many players have longed for – a chance to hop into the personas of characters like Hulk and Iron Man, and beat up some bad guys in big cooperative throwdowns. Multiplayer sequences easily support up to four friends (or strangers, through matchmaking) joining up and playing together, but also offer options to let companion A.I. characters join in on the fight, so there’s always a sense of a big team-based superhero battles. For some players, that alone will be worth the price of admission.
Unfortunately, I can’t escape a sense of plodding sameness and tedium at the center of the action. Avengers frequently reminds me of the brawling comic-book movie games of the late 2000s, in which button-mashy battles, canned animations, and too-often repeated quips failed to elicit laughter or engagement. Here, that style of action features the addition of potential other players joining in on the fight, but more often than not, those extra onscreen characters lead to exchanges that are confusing to look at, and all blur together, as an array of animated sequences fire off all at once, with little sense of reactivity between the characters I’m looking at. Even when enemies sometimes do respond to my punches, I usually feel like the battles are simply a matter of me moving from one bad guy to the next, tapping wildly on the attack buttons as I watch a health bar deplete. Recent years have given us the melee combat systems of games like God of War and Spider-Man, and by comparison, Avengers often feels archaic.
Lighter and faster characters, like Black Widow and Ms. Marvel, feel floaty as I move them around the environments. But the worse offender is the plodding Hulk, whose sprint is painfully slow and disconnected from his supposedly overwhelming athleticism. In any case, the actual fistfights lack the visceral punch I want in a comic-book-inspired exchange. Attacks don’t feel like they carry any weight behind them, and a seemingly endless series of flashing icons lead to a sense of being overwhelmed and disoriented. Flight, for characters like Iron Man, is handled relatively well, with controls that successfully allow for transitions between ground and air. But even here, I found targeting of enemies to be a notable problem, and the environments often ill-suited to the large spaces needed for freeform aerial battles.
I’m hopeful that the final game offers a more robust and interesting set of environments, but the levels in the beta were uninteresting, and didn’t feature the crafted touch I’d expect in a triple-A game in 2020. Whether it is an underground base of interconnected rooms, or a more open outdoor setting of towering trees in the Pacific Northwest, many of the environments lack verticality or variation. Worse still, both hero characters and enemies fail to “pop” within the gameplay spaces, further accentuating a sense of visual confusion from the already hard-to-track battle sequences.
Both during missions, and in cinematic sequences between those missions, Avengers also aims to weave a narrative appropriate to these incredibly popular characters. I’m eager to see the full scope of that story when the final game releases, but the beta content simply didn’t suck me in. Ms. Marvel, while a wonderful character in the comics, feels ill-suited to carry the role of point-of-view character. Her breathless fangirl exclamations about how cool it is to be hanging out with the Avengers just never land, and instead come across as grating. Meanwhile, the rest of the characters, with their almost-but-not-quite photo-realistic faces, can’t escape the doom of feeling like copycats trying to fill the shoes of film versions of the same leads. In-mission, attempts at levity rarely work, because lines are repeated too frequently. Hearing Stark shout: “Who you gonna call? Hulkbuster!” the first time didn’t really make me chuckle, but it definitely didn’t on the 10th time I heard it.
I enjoyed unlocking new combat moves as I leveled, and I like that individual gear sets can help you prepare for certain mission modifiers. For instance, if you know you’re facing a bunch of cryo-enabled baddies, you can equip items that help defend against the cold. But I am deeply worried about the long-term engagement that such gear provides. In other living games like this, such as The Division or Destiny, the focus on distinct weapons and armor that fundamentally change your playstyle is a big part of the appeal to continue playing. I don’t see any indication of that approach in Avengers, but I’ll be the first to acknowledge that the beta simply may not reveal that level of depth within the equipment experience.
I’m a dedicated Marvel comic-book enthusiast, and have been since childhood. And living games like Destiny have emerged as a big part of my gaming hobby in recent years – a formula that Avengers is clearly trying to emulate in some regards. I am squarely in the target audience for Marvel’s Avengers video game. And yet, my early hours with Marvel’s Avengers left me cold. The combat feels stale, the art style is generic, the storytelling didn’t grab my attention, and the sense of character development didn’t leave me excited to move forward. There’s no doubt that Crystal Dynamics is a talented development studio, and the team has already been active in discussing plans beyond launch. And these kinds of games are always changing and evolving, so I absolutely wouldn’t write off the game as a whole. But even as I plan to play more of the public beta in the coming days, I’m forced to offer caution at this juncture. A month before actual launch, the Avengers need a lot of work to be ready for the big fight ahead.