Despite its mixed reception at E3 2019, I have hope for Marvel’s Avengers to show a new side of its iconic superheroes in a compelling story.
When Marvel’s Avengers was finally unveiled earlier this year at Square Enix’s E3 2019 press conference, it’s safe to say that the reveal elicited a lot of mixed reactions. It doesn’t come as too much of a surprise that expectations for Square’s “Avengers Project” were exceedingly high, especially just two months after Avengers: Endgame capped off a decade-long saga in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The comparisons to the MCU were only going to be inevitable, and as much as I fell into that camp of being a bit disappointed by what we saw of the game at E3, I also have to recognize that Crystal Dynamics had this working against them, especially for a game that has been in development for the past few years.
That being said, despite some of that initial disappointment to the first footage from Marvel’s Avengers, I’ve still had a keen interest in the game over the past few months. The character designs notwithstanding, I still wanted to experience for myself what Marvel’s Avengers would bring to the table that we haven’t seen already of its iconic superheroes in a compelling, original story. After playing it for a bit myself recently, I’m starting to see where the game can (hopefully) break out on its own from under the shadow of the MCU.
During New York Comic Con 2019, I played through the show-floor demo of Marvel’s Avengers. This was perhaps the perfect place to experience the game as I was surrounded by Marvel fans and cosplayers dressed as their favorite characters. The demo itself was the same demo that we’ve seen previously at other events this year like E3 and PAX West (as played by our own Logan Moore and Cameron Hawkins), while Chris Compendio played a demo earlier in the week that included the newly-revealed Kamala Khan.
This demo, of course, was what we saw brief glimpses of in the E3 reveal trailer, where the Avengers battle it out on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco against waves of enemy forces. As expected, it was a largely action-packed demo that mainly focused on getting players accustomed to the combat style of each playable Avenger, with the action switching between Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America, and Black Widow over the course of about 20 minutes of gameplay.
After playing the demo of Marvel’s Avengers, I mostly found myself in agreement with a lot of my colleagues’ critiques. While the demo itself was exciting and full of spectacle, there were also instances where that action and scale felt a bit empty, especially when combined with the game’s relatively simple combat system that doesn’t really involve more than button mashing.
So far, I’ve found the mix of playable characters in Marvel’s Avengers to be a bit uneven after trying out all five of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. Thor was fun to play as at first with his combination of hammer-throwing and electric attacks, while Hulk, well…smashed. Iron Man was the character I was most looking forward to playing as, and I was initially thrilled at the on-rails flight section of his portion of the demo. Unfortunately, I was then disappointed at his combat section, where he felt underpowered as he awkwardly fought enemies on the ground. Ironically, I found the most enjoyment from playing as Captain America and Black Widow, who were the two characters that I didn’t quite expect to find as satisfying as the others with their relative lack of superpowers.
By and large, I enjoyed my time with Marvel’s Avengers, even when the gameplay and combat felt “expected” and a little too simplistic. To me, it just felt that more often than not, Marvel’s Avengers was trying too hard to be “a playable MCU movie” by prioritizing action and spectacle over character and story. But in those instances where I reflected on those moments of the demo that evoked the Marvel films, there were also the moments that caught me by surprise at how Marvel’s Avengers has the opportunity to go beyond just replicating the scale and action that we have seen from the MCU films.
Specifically, this came up for me in the demo’s ending section where Black Widow fights Taskmaster on the crumbling Golden Gate Bridge. While it’s a thrilling fight in its own way as Black Widow jumps over obstacles and goes one-on-one against Taskmaster, it was the first section of the demo that really made me think about the unexplored characters and regions of the Marvel universe that we haven’t seen yet from the films that could be utilized by Crystal Dynamics, and how they can be woven through the original story they are trying to tell.
This is a big reason why I (and I’m assuming so many others) connected with Marvel’s Spider-Man last year, and how Insomniac Games managed to breath new life into an iconic character that so many of us are familiar with. Between the various films and other renditions of Spider-Man that we’ve had in the past decade alone, Insomniac managed to find the perfect balance between playing to fan expectations while also acknowledging and playing with those conventions: they gave us a story for Spider-Man/Peter Parker that managed to feel fresh despite the countless depictions of him over the years. Insomniac perfectly tapped into the elements that make us love Spider-Man as a character (both from his powers and his personality), and it’s here that I hope Crystal Dynamics can expand on these iconic heroes with compelling storytelling and their relationships between other characters.
This is especially combined with the recent reveal that Kamala Khan (aka Ms. Marvel) will not only be the game’s sixth playable character, but is also implied to be the main character of the story. Aside from the fact that having a hero like Ms. Marvel headlining a major AAA game is intriguing in its own right, it really changed my perception of what I am hoping that Marvel’s Avengers accomplishes when it comes to its depiction of these well-known characters. While the initial reveal of the game was perhaps criticized in trying to emulate what fans would expect of these characters from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the addition of Kamala Khan feels like a bolder attempt to make this experience one that doesn’t adhere so strongly to fan expectations from the MCU.
Part of what has made the Marvel Cinematic Universe so effective in the last ten years is the fact that it has been able to take lesser-known superheroes and make them household names. Fifteen years ago, Iron Man would have never been expected to be the foundation of a major movie franchise. Yet in the last decade alone, we’ve seen other relatively obscure characters like the Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, and Captain Marvel all rise to stardom with their own blockbuster films as part of a larger cinematic tapestry, and earning their place alongside iconic heroes like Captain America and the Hulk. That’s because above all else, Marvel found what made each of these characters and their stories unique and gave them a chance to shine.
This approach is what I hope to see from Marvel’s Avengers when it comes to the heroes that end up making their way to the game. Kamala Khan, for instance, is a character that I’m certainly familiar with, but don’t have a ton of context for her backstory. The fact that she will be playable in the game makes me excited to discover more about her role in the larger Marvel universe through Marvel’s Avengers. It makes me even more excited to see who else Crystal Dynamics may have in mind to bring into the fold of their game, and how they can diverge from the MCU by giving these lesser-known characters a chance in the spotlight.
While it’s still over six months away from release, playing through Marvel’s Avengers has perhaps left me even more interested in what we haven’t seen from the game yet more so than what we know about it. Though in a lot of ways the demo that I played at New York Comic Con didn’t fall too far outside of my expectations, I’m still left wondering how Crystal Dynamics can give us a gameplay experience that evokes the best elements of the MCU while crafting a story that can still exist completely outside of it. While it’s far from perfect, thanks to the inclusion of some unexpected fan favorite heroes, I think that Crystal Dynamics has the opportunity to give us a rendition of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes that can stand alongside the Avengers that we all know and love.
Marvel’s Avengers will release for PS4, Xbox One, PC, and Google Stadia on May 15, 2020. For more impressions on the game, you can read through our most recent preview of the game during New York Comic Con 2019, including our take on what it was like to play as Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel.