Marvel’s Avengers review – earth’s mightiest loot quest

GameCentral gives its final verdict on Square Enix’s would-be blockbuster and finds a game with a secret identity crisis.

The one benefit of reviewing a game after it’s launched – which is all you can ever do with games as a service titles – is that you get an early indication of how well it has been received by the general public. Not especially well seems to be the implication of the first week’s physical sales, with suggestions that the generously sized beta put off more people than it managed to attract. Which means the main question for this review is whether the beta undersold the final game or if the real problem is that it gave an all too accurate impression.

One thing you certainly wouldn’t have guessed from the beta is that the main character is Kamala Khan, aka Ms. Marvel, and that the story campaign is both primarily single-player and – relatively – good. We use that qualifier carefully as there are an awful lot of problems with Marvel’s Avengers, many of them on conceptual level. Most of them, though, stem from the fact that this is both a single-player action adventure in the style of Marvel’s Spider-Man and a live service looter shooter (well, looter puncher most of the time), inspired by Destiny.

If that seems like an odd mix to you then you wouldn’t be wrong, as not only does the combination not work but the loot elements drag down everything else good about the game. However, things definitely start well, as the story focuses on Kamala coming to terms with her superpowers in a world where the Avengers have disbanded and an evil organisation called AIM has taken over. And yet by the time you reach the multiplayer-only end game everything has devolved into Destiny with punching… only somehow even more repetitive.

The good news is that the first few hours with Kamala are great. She’s enthusiastic, charismatic, and empathetic in a way that most video game characters – even when they’re superheroes – rarely are. She’s also a Muslim, whose parents were originally from Pakistan, but her presence in the game’s roster is important in many ways beyond just improving diversity. As the only one out of the five heroes (Hulk, Iron Man, Black Widow, Thor, and Captain America) that hasn’t been in the movies yet she’s also the only one that doesn’t look like a cheap knock-off of their cinematic counterpart.

Although the game is ostensibly set in its own universe most of the character and vehicle designs are near identical to the movies, except never quite as good. The voice actors are all doing vague impressions of their filmic equivalents and the dialogue often tries to be quippy and funny (except when it comes to the tiresomely dour Bruce Banner and Hank Pym) but without ever raising a laugh.

The game’s choice to copy the films – except not really because they haven’t got that part of the Marvel licence – rather than create its own style means it suffers in every comparison, from the instantly forgettable music to the generic dialogue and plot (the story steals liberally from X-Men 3, of all things).

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For a game that has more than 80 years’ worth of comic book history, and 12 years’ worth of movies, to pull on for inspiration this makes bizarrely little use of it. We mentioned in our review in progress that Taskmaster and Abomination are two of the supervillains in the game but what we didn’t realise at the time is that apart from the final boss they’re the ONLY supervillains, even though they both turn up in the first couple of hours and then play no further role in the story campaign.

You can fight them again in various post-game multiplayer missions but for the rest of the game your only opponents are robots and nameless grunts in hazmat suits. The robots never talk or show any intelligence (even though it’s implied that head bad guy MODOK is controlling them with his mind), which makes for one of the least interesting line-up of enemies in any game ever – let alone one based on a licence that is filled with hundreds of bizarre and variously powered villains.

The complete lack of characterisation for any of the enemies you fight is bizarre and really takes the edge off what is otherwise an enjoyable and relatively nuanced combat system. The lead designer worked on God Of War and there’s a similar sense of heft and impact no matter what character you’re playing as, but with a more complex array of moves and abilities that begins to creep into Devil May Cry and Bayonetta territory.

However, since you can beat most opponents on normal difficulty just by button mashing the combat system never really gets the chance to shine, especially if you’re playing in co-op. Having multiplayer options in an Avengers game makes sense, obviously, but the way it’s implemented the screen just becomes an unreadable mess of colour and movement, with enemies constantly teleporting in or initiating unblockable attacks you never saw coming because the camera, including the useless lock-on, are so unhelpful.

Your team-mates get in the way just as much as they help and the game offers no tools to aid communication or encourage tactical play. And for the obvious reason that neither are necessary: just keep punching and if you’re levelled up enough you’ll win eventually. If you’re not levelled up enough you have almost no chance, no matter how skilled you are, and so you’ll just have to go off and level grind in an easier mission (thankfully this is not really an issue for the story campaign, just everything afterwards).

The entire game can be played in single-player if you want, with computer allies filling in if matchmaking can’t find a partner – or you don’t want one. Relatively few of the story missions involve co-op though, and even then rarely more than one team-mate. It’s the end game where the focus is squarely on four-player co-op, although by that time you’ve probably already had enough.

There’s only the most basic puzzle-solving and platforming in Avengers, especially after Kamala stops being the main focus, with most missions quickly conforming to one of a disappointingly small number of templates. The one where you have to defend a small area, a bit like King of the Hill, while JARVIS hacks a computer, seems like half the game at times, but whether you’re destroying lab equipment or just beating up everyone in the room the actual objective doesn’t really matter.

The location is irrelevant too, as you explore small open world areas in various outdoor locations, and a couple of cities, all of which are completely devoid of civilians and inevitably end with fighting indoors, in some kind of non-descript science lab. Avengers is another superhero game that fails to let you do anything actively heroic. A lot of bad guys get their faces punched in, but you rarely rescue anyone and never help foil a bank robbery or any of the fun stuff that actually happens in the comics and movies.

The levelling up and impressively complex skill trees make sense in the context of superheroes but collecting loot certainly doesn’t. You might have a favourite gun or helmet in Destiny but here all the cosmetic changes are obtained purely through skins, so what you’re collecting are entirely abstract upgrades that exist only as a stat on your inventory page. Many only have a half-life of a few minutes before they’re replaced with another equally meaningless piece of loot, with the whole cycle quickly becoming a chore to deal with.

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The strangest thing is while this may have been originally designed to fleece you with microtransactions, the furore over Star Wars: Battlefront 2 seems to have caused a redesign mid-development and there’s actually relatively little to buy and almost all of it is purely cosmetic (each hero has what is essentially a battle pass, which includes resources to upgrade loot – which you can unlock by spending real money rather than earning it in-game, but that’s only of minor benefit).

If Marvel’s Avengers is supposed to be a means to trick people out of their virtual small change it does very a poor job of it. The only thing it gets right is the combat and those parts of the story campaign that feel most like a handcrafted adventure and not just random multiplayer missions with a cut scene before you start – which accounts for roughly half of the 10-hour running time.

From a technology point of view the graphics are decent, with some nice destruction effects, and while there are some problems with bugs and glitches, including crash bugs and broken matchmaking, we’ve certainly seen worse from an online game at launch. Although the mammoth load times are certainly an unpleasant comedown from recent Sony first party titles.

It’s not the tech we’re worried about though but the basic design. With the right focus this could have been a great story-driven superhero game but instead it’s a muddled mess of incompatible gameplay ideas that bury enjoyable combat and a charismatic lead beneath a never-ending slurry of banal mission design. Marvel’s Avengers isn’t even very good at being a cynical cash grab, in a game that tries to do far too much and yet never wholly succeeds at anything.

Marvel’s Avengers review summary

In Short: A jumbled mess that’s trying to be at least three different types of game at once, drowning out the enjoyable combat with a tsunami of repetition and meaningless loot.

Pros: The combat system is good, with just the right amount of variety between heroes and their expansive skill trees. Kamala is great and deserves her own game.

Cons: Insanely repetitive, with the worst loot system this side of Anthem. Unengaging plot and unambitious takes on the movie heroes and their world. No supervillains of note and lots of bugs.

Score: 5/10

Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, Xbox Series X, PlayStation 5, PC, and Stadia
Price: £59.99
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Crystal Dynamics and Eidos-Montréal
Release Date: 4th September 2020
Age Rating: 16

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