Marvel’s Avengers feels like two helicarriers passing in the night.
It’s a cinematic, story-driven, third-person brawler from Crystal Dynamics, the developer behind the acclaimed 2013 Tomb Raider reboot and its 2015 sequel.
It’s a Destiny-style live service game that publisher Square Enix wants you to play – and spend money on – forever.
It’s pretty good at being each of those things, but never at the same time.
As a narrative action game, Marvel’s Avengers starts off on a remarkably strong foot, putting play-ers in the stretchy shoes of Kamala Khan – aka Ms. Marvel. Kamala is a finalist in an Avengers fan fiction contest and, as a result, has been invited to attend the supergroup’s A-Day celebration on their famous helicarrier in San Francisco.
Once she arrives, escorted by her loving father, she walks around the carnival-like setup, finding Avengers-themed toys and palling around with Earth’s Mightiest Heroes themselves. Little action happens at first, and the game benefits from this slow build, establishing its lesser-known heroine as worthy to hang with the billion-grossing beefcakes.
But the festivities are interrupted when AIM, a villainous scientific organisation, attacks A-Day, re-leasing a gas that turns thousands of bystanders, including Kamala, into superpowered ‘Inhumans’. The Avengers receive the blame, split up, and disappear.
The game then jumps forward five years and Kamala’s story begins in earnest as she sets out in search of the Avengers, and really, any form of resistance to AIM. These early missions are linear and cinematic, and only really slow down upon death (when, at least on a base PS4, I was treated to frustratingly long load times). They aren’t spectacularly well-designed levels, but they work well as a means of conveyance for the storytelling.
A few missions into the campaign, though, Marvel’s Avengers sends you out on your first approxi-mation of a multiplayer mission. The tightly designed corridors which facilitated Uncharted-style platforming widen out to expansive fields. Your objectives become waypoints for you to chase, hundreds of metres away.
Every few minutes, J.A.R.V.I.S. – Tony Stark’s AI butler – will alert you to the presence of gear nearby, and you can take the brief diversion to beat up a few bad guys or solve a simple puzzle to get it. These missions aren’t bad, but they do mess up the pace. Prior to this, each campaign mis-sion felt like it was advancing Kamala’s story. Once these quests arrive, it becomes clear that much of the game will consist of running errands.
Now that I’ve finished the campaign, this is what the game is: I select missions, which mostly play out in the same few levels in the same few biomes. I can complete them on higher difficulties to earn XP and gear. It’s sustained by some decent combat, which changes slightly depending on who you’re playing as. Each character has a standard moveset.
Captain America may throw his shield, and the Hulk may throw rubble, but the results are basically the same. The≈primary difference among characters is how they traverse a level. Thor can fly, Black Widow can chuck a grappling-hook, and Captain America can double-jump. It’s genuinely sur-prising how different each feels from the other. The moment-to-moment action didn’t click until I unlocked Captain America – that double-jump really made the game sing for me.
The problem is, you don’t unlock Captain America until near the end of the game. Ditto Thor, and Black Widow is also a fairly late addition. As a result, there’s a good chance that you may not be thrilled by the combat for much of the campaign. And that’s really the issue with Marvel’s Avengers as a whole: just when it’s starting to heat up, the campaign is over.
In the weeks since I finished the campaign, my experience has been kicking back for an hour or two in the morning to run some missions. It has been cosy. The post-game is a nice, comforting thing to play, and alongside the campaign, there’s plenty of entertainment on offer.
But both elements of Marvel’s Avengers tend to step on one another’s toes; the post-game wash-ing over the main campaign like a wave crashing into an unfinished sandcastle.
The mentor-mentee relationship between Bruce Banner and Kamala Khan is the emotional heart of this story. Troy Baker and Sandra Saad deliver the best performances of the game, and kept me invested in seeing the story through to its conclusion.
Marvel’s Avengers offers a pretty good single-player campaign and a pretty good post-game, but those flavours don’t taste great together.
Format: PS4 (tested) / Xbox One / PC
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Publisher: Square Enix
Release: Out now