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11/10/20 Square Enix
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11/10/20 Square Enix

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Marvel's Avengers (XS)

By Lee Mehr 11th Apr 2021 | 3,959 views 

In almost every respect, Marvel's Avengers is a confused title with a grinding structure that takes an Infinity War to reach its true Endgame.

Note: I can't avoid spoilers when going over my critique of Marvel's Avengers' storyline.  Viewer discretion is advised.

When you get past the commercialism of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), there's something to admire about The Avengers.  It was an exercise in pure comic book fandom translated to the big screen.  The synthesis of studio pre-planning individual films, with producers and various journeymen directors, worked so naturally that the project felt the genuine voice of ‘geek-auteur’ Joss Whedon.  Marvel's Avengers is the inverse of that.  Between the smorgasbord of developers, including Crystal Dynamics, Eidos Montreal, and Nixxes, along with a confused campaign structure, this GaaS (Games as a Service) action RPG/beat 'em up is only saved from disassembling thanks to spare screws and duct tape.  Despite having some extra time for its 9th-gen arrival, this fusion of miscalculated design, poor storytelling, and avaricious behavior will dampen your enthusiasm to see the endgame.

The tumultuous A-Day has finally arrived.  After becoming a writing finalist for an Avengers comic book story, Kamala Khan is invited onto the latest helicarrier, the Chimera, hovering in San Francisco.  This ceremony is for these young writers and the first public announcement of Terrigen, a new clean energy source with immense power.  After Taskmaster's successful terrorist attack results in Captain America's death and thousands of mutated Inhumans, the Avengers disband and the technological AIM (Advanced Idea Mechanics) effectively supplants them.  5 years after A-Day, Kamala Khan, now an Inhuman, must find a way to get the gang back together.

For someone who tried to remain as ignorant as possible about the story or the wider game at large, Avengers pulls off one of the biggest bait-n-switches I've ever seen.  For a couple of hours, the idea of GaaS being incorporated into the main campaign was lost on me.  Kamala Khan's quest made an earnest attempt in simply being a story of a young girl who still believed in the Avengers' noble intentions.  But as the team begins to reassemble, the preposterously-fractured and visually-irritating panoply of vendors, training rooms, faction quest-givers, and other baubles pollute each crevice of the helicarrier.  That's when the sad reality of its lack of focus came into play; it's not a game about splitting up separate entrees but collecting them into an undercooked stew.

This invasive structure makes it tougher to judge which parts of the story were ever influenced by any human being – let alone a committee.  Every story beat, line of dialogue, and 'twist' feels like it was spewed out by an algorithm that had exclusively watched all of the MCU films to date.  It almost feels like a mass-media psychological test to see if AI-driven scripts can fool a mass audience.  The results are in: computers aren’t far behind the average blockbuster screenwriter.

The first victim betrayed of their true potential is Kamala Khan.  She simply can't be a fan of these heroes; instead, her obsequious idolizing is replaced with a genuine character arc.  One of her first character moments may as well be a cringe-inducing sermon against comic book gatekeeping and, like most of her story, feels like a moment designed to receive adulation from her peers.  Some of the heaviest internal & external dilemmas she faces are comfortably resolved in a couple minutes (if that).  I suppose the one save in her favor is not being a total Mary Sue, so I appreciate Kamala saving me that headache of a conversation.  Still, it's a script filled with performative emptiness that wastes Sandra Saad's great voice acting effort.

Ms. Marvel is one of many symptoms, however.  The key adjective to recognize is 'performative.'  Players are lazily handed a voiceover narration of AIM controlling everything in five years, The Avengers going underground, and the general public's newfound distrust of heroes with little time to spare.  Kamala's 'hacking' skills amount to surfing a subreddit and guessing an easy password which gets AIM’s attention.  There are multiple plot holes and conveniences papered over by smashing another wave of bad guys.  Each of the team's obstacles is so preordained by surrounding Marvel media that you can see the cheat sheets with your mind's eye.

It's disheartening to spot how often this campaign stumbles.  But there's a clear lesson here: being a cheap facsimile of other Marvel stories isn't what made these stories connect with millions.  They succeed when harnessing the authenticity of their characters, and the actors to some extent too.  Outside a select few, it seems like the story's directors here were content with paying professionals to go through the motions.  An Avengers game with such lopsided playing time with chief members, an obsessive need to throw in discount-Joss Whedon quips, and effortless plot manufacturing damages the otherwise inspired moments sprinkled between the start and finish.

Story issues aside, the herculean task of juggling such disparate fighters within a pseudo-MMO third-person shooter/brawler deserves some credit.  How do you make Black Widow's martial arts and akimbo Glocks as 'sexy' as The Hulk's insane level of brute force, aside from the outfits?  Well... you nerf Hulk to the point of being one of the least interesting characters.  I'll touch on that later.  There are a plethora of elements to consider in a game trying to be a 'cinematic' AAA blockbuster that can't translate over from the Marvel's Ultimate Alliance series.  Those ambitions nevertheless lead to one of the most confused titles I've recently played.

To its credit, there's something that successfully feeds your lizard brain.  Similar to Destiny (vanilla), seeing bigger numbers go up against stronger adversaries feels satisfying.  When not glitching in the geometry, the smacking, slashing, and shooting has a satisfying rhythm for most characters.  Kamala Khan's stretchiness, Iron Man's arsenal, Thor's hammer, and so on all have abilities that translate to managing melee & ranged enemies.  Each of said heroes' attacks, from basic to cooldown specials, emphasize different strengths.  The thought of these multifarious dynamics bouncing off each other with other players can set your ambitions sky-high.

If you look through a very particular lens, perhaps some of those ambitions are met.  The cycle of destroying enemies, dismantling old items, and equipping new ones for a greater power level can maintain interest.  The more investigative work you put into your Basic/Mastery skillset the more you realize how many extra moves and specializations can be at your disposal.  The work towards 50 may be slow (too slow!), but the reward is there.  There's also an interesting dynamic with acquired loot involving more than bigger power numbers.  Even if a new arrow blueprint has a higher number, the perk tiers may be underwhelming by comparison.  There are these neat micro-decisions to consider should you want to multiply secondary cryo damage through some base stats and gear, for example.  It's a glorified Skinner Box, but an effective one.

Despite each hero having a means to vault across large gaps and destroy foes, they're not all given the same treatment.  Iron Man will likely be a favorite for more than just having tremendous potential when reaching high level and unlocking Mastery abilities; he's also overpowered in his array of close-quarters and ranged options.  On the other side, Hulk saw better days in Ultimate Destruction's undistilled, unapologetic chaos; now, he's become as susceptible to chained knockbacks as Hawkeye.  I also don't feel the correct sense of weight and heft were given to Thor's basics either.  The visceral sensation for swords feels kinesthetically better than Thor's or Black Widow's blunt weapons.

Being like several of this clade that came before, the detailed animations and visceral fighting obfuscates a poisonous tendency in GaaS titles: generic level manufacturing.  Level design is less about infiltrating unique landmasses overrun by AIM agents and more prefabricated acres with some loot hidden away and high-tech facilities that start to blend together.  The “diverse” selections are snowy tundra, desert, city, forest, and so on; regardless of locale, no polygon count can replace the oft-absent personality.  Since other games in this sub-genre have found ways to tie more expressiveness with repeated arenas, Avengers doesn't really have a good excuse.

When the visuals aren't dulling your enjoyment, the world design may do the trick.  It's amazing how many moments of ludonarrative dissonance appear during the campaign.  Since each open area promises rewards for exploration, JARVIS could be saying two different things within a minute of each other:

"AIM's radio chatter is saying the prisoners will be moved soon.  You have to hurry!"
"A hidden chest/a lieutenant enemy is nearby."

It's hell-bent on announcing distractions for minor upgrades in the middle of a bomb defusal.

In a sub-genre containing modern military shooters (see: The Division series) it really says something about the game having the most homogenous art style.  The recycled AIM robots (adaptoids, synthoids, etc.) are about as generic as they come.  Various human enemies are blended in too, but there's little extra flavor from them either.  One would think they'd have more pep than color-coded suits to indicate if they do frost or gamma damage.  Half of the big bosses in the main game and current expansions are robots, robot ships, and robot tanks.  Considering the incredible roster and this game’s scope, the current rouge’s gallery of classic villains is paltry.  The antiseptic sheen applied to so much of the world leaves no lasting impressions.

With respect to heroes, any hint of uniqueness will require your wallet.  New gear alters stats without visibly altering your character's look.  Regardless of its Legendary, Epic, Rare, or Common status, you're effectively picking up blueprints with higher numbers.  No mixing and matching disparate aesthetics between SHIELD, Stark, or Pym-engraved loot.  You'll have to go to the in-game marketplace and exchange real currency for fake coins.  The options vary from outfits, emotes, animated takedowns, nameplates, and hero-specific battle passes.  Considering how each post-launch character is promised to be free, I understand taking the route that's been successful for dozens of other companies.  That doesn't mean they're not predatory here.  Although one could defend how several Legendary & Epic skins are limited to color schemes, I think the pay-to-play takedown animations are more egregious.

There are a number of other questions that bottle my annoyances:

  • How does it still remain engaging enough to plow through?  Well, the hidden perks of the loot/grind system feel substantial enough to keep moving.  The grind fest towards more abilities and mastery suggests it's worth it.
  • Why did the developers decide the climb to level 50 wasn't good enough so made it more intractable for the likes of me to max out?  The poor initial sales resulted in Square Enix cutting off its office's internet connection.  They've never visited the forums to realize everyone wants the opposite.
  • Can this ship be turned around?  Perhaps the opportunity has come and gone.

For someone who memory-holed the game until the eventual 9th-gen version, I came away less distracted by bugs and more by its design intention and execution.  For a game that initially promises mechanical complexity fit for a mobile phone in its tutorial, there are underlying systems that belie more individual expressiveness and technical sophistication; sadly, they’re buried beneath unintuitive menu layouts, mismanaged level design, loathsome grinding, and more issues.

Since I dodged the reportedly horrid launch, my experience appears to be quite different.  Considering the rare hard crash and various bugs I've encountered now, I can't imagine what this played like six months ago.  Although not polished to a mirror sheen (yet), the action was at least rarely interrupted on my Xbox Series X.  This is further helped by having different graphical options to fit any playstyle.  Indoor fighting can result in some camera wonkiness and visual overstimulation, but it's easier to get used to after making more deliberate approaches to combat.

Similar to what's been said about voice performances, sound falls into that range of being serviceable.  There are plenty of micro-details to the crashes and booms of AIM forces, but there's that missing level of extra atmosphere to several locales.  The scripted campaign missions succeeded most often, but that's not where most playing time will inevitably be spent.  Similar to how the MCU's iconic tracks are limited in number, Bobby Tahouri's musical assemblage is more fitting background music for fights than a must-have OST on its own.  Practically every major sound aspect is technically satisfactory & unadventurous. 

The main campaign, along with the new expansions for Hawkeye and Kate Bishop (Hawkingbird?), will net ~15 hours of content.  This being a GaaS game, there are a plethora of other side missions ranging from story-focused iconic missions to Villain Sectors (the closest equivalent to dungeons/instances).  Of course, the issue is less about the amount of content to do with three other people but rather the quality and the nature of the grind.  It's not exactly sexy to do villain sectors with repeated Taskmaster clones or recycled Dreadbots.  Staring at the Avengers Initiative table after completing the three campaigns wasn't easy to stomach.

Even the combined efforts of superheroes can't prevent the coming cataclysm, it seems.  Marvel's Avengers has been a live-service punching bag since arrival.  After a good amount of time with it, I can't help but contribute to the brutalizing.  But I feel my frustration comes out of seeing the wonderful fossils buried deep beneath the top layers of dirt.  It's just that at every turn – storytelling, confused level design, unrepentant grinding – it feels like corporate wants to reward you only after ridiculous time investments.  They know exactly what they're doing.  From top to bottom, Crystal Dynamics & co. have made an inherently-confused title that takes an Infinity War to reach an Endgame. 

That sounded better in my head.


Despite being one of newest writers on VGChartz, Lee has been a part of the community for over a decade. His gaming history spans several console generations: N64 & NES at home while enjoying some Playstation, SEGA, and PC titles elsewhere. Being an Independent Contractor by trade (electric, plumbing, etc.) affords him more gaming luxuries today though. Reader warning: each click given to his articles only helps to inflate his Texas-sized ego. Proceed with caution.

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This review is based on a digital copy of Marvel's Avengers for the XS

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