Ever since its initial reveal at E3 2019, I have wanted desperately to like Square Enix and Crystal Dynamic’s Avengers game. Unfortunately, nearly everything about it seemed to be forcing me to be sceptical about it.
The plot was uninteresting and a culmination of some of my least favourite ‘event comic’ superhero tropes, the gameplay appeared average at best and monotonous at worst, the hyper realistic graphics made for a grey and bland-looking world, and its mere existence as a service title akin to something like Destiny meant that this was Square Enix attempting to capitalise on a trendy market by using already existing characters as the poster boys to help push it.
I wanted to give the game a chance, though, so when I was granted the opportunity to try out the game’s beta, I took it. Sometimes, you really do need a hands-on approach to better judge a product and I’ll be detailing my experiences and first impressions here.
Firstly, and I want to get this out of the way, while I’ll always prefer my comic book superhero games to be bright, cartoony, and, well, look like the comics (e.g. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3), I won’t pretend that the game isn’t visually impressive.
A lot of time, effort, and money has gone into making the characters and environments look as realistic as possible and, while I do think it results in bland and forgettable levels that can be easy to get lost in since everywhere looks the same, the characters themselves look and animate great.
There were some very noticeable frame-drops during cutscenes and gameplay, especially during later sections where I was being swarmed with enemies. I was using an original PlayStation 4 and, a couple of times, it was making so much noise, I thought it was going to catch fire.
While the game isn’t finished, it is launching in just two months. I don’t know how well the game runs on a PS4 Pro but my experiences felt like a good argument for waiting until the PS5 version releases, which hopefully will be a much smoother experience.
Anyway, the beta begins proper with, of course, the A-Day tutorial. And if I’m being honest, while Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics have been using this section to push and sell the game to people for the longest time, I don’t think it gives the best first impression.
For anyone unfamiliar with it, the tutorial throws you right into the middle of the action, when an army of hired goons launch an attack, prompting the Avengers to swoop in and sort them out.
You play as each of the five initial characters – Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America, and Black Widow – and complete a short section as each one. The point of this section is to provide a general indicator of how combat works and how each character plays.
And while it works fine and offers a decent level of difficulty for a first-time player, I feel like it doesn’t really give you enough time to get a proper feel for the combat.
Not to mention, the few tutorials you get are pretty bare bones. You get a quick flash of text to read and that’s it, and I sometimes accidentally skipped a couple of them just by pressing a button and throwing myself into the action.
You know how professional fighting game players want to go into the training mode and just spend ages getting to grips with a character? I was craving something like that during this whole section.
Fortunately, things picked up a bit with the next section, which was a story mission where Bruce Banner and Kamala Khan (aka Ms. Marvel) are navigating through a jungle area to reach an AIM base in the hopes of retrieving everyone’s favourite AI butler JARVIS.
After a short walking bit where Bruce and Kamala chat, the pair are ambushed by AIM agents, who somehow thought attacking the guy who turns into a big green monster when he gets mad was a good idea.
Anyway, you get to play as Hulk during most of this mission, which meant I was able to get a proper feel for how he played. And once I was given the freedom to mess about and experiment a bit, as opposed to the more rail-roady A-Day section, I started to have a lot more fun.
At this point, I should say that all the characters do function roughly the same, with everyone having a light attack string, a heavy attack string, a charged attack etc., and while this does come with the risk that it makes these very distinct characters feel exactly the same, there are enough differences to help make each of them stand out to each other.
For starters, each of them has some unique abilities to call their own. In Hulk’s case, holding down the light attack button lets him grab enemies, which he can either throw or use as a club a la how he beat up Loki in the Avengers movie.
Even things like their long-range attacks function differently. For example, Black Widow fires her pistols to deal rapid damage, whereas Hulk pulls chunks out of the ground to throw as a single projectiles.
While personal preference will always play a factor, I can say that I did feel like I was playing as Hulk and not as any of the other characters, and the homogeneous nature means you can easily switch between characters without needing to relearn the basics and I’d hope that unlocking further skills in the skill tree will only help make each character feel even more distinct.
I could go into a further breakdown on Hulk’s playstyle, but we’ve got more ground to cover so I’ll just say that playing Hulk is a delightful power-trip. Rampaging through that lab, breaking almost everything I came into contact with, left me smiling a lot more than the opening tutorial.
I also got to play as Kamala for a spell, where I had to activate three switches to progress, with each activation spawning a wave of enemies to beat, and I think this was when I noticed an issue with combat sections.
While there are various enemy types, there’s no real strategy for beating them. Just keep hitting them, maybe throw in a Heroic ability to deal with big crowds, and eventually they all fall over.
I don’t think it’s even possible to get through a fight unscathed. With how many enemies there can be at once, how frequently they attack, and how they can easily blend into the environment, I was always taking light damage. This was not helped by how the dodge move doesn’t cover that much ground (but maybe that can be improved with upgrades in the final game?).
Marvel’s Avengers is clearly more of a numbers game, kind of like the Diablo-esque MMO Marvel Heroes. Unlike, say, one of Platinum’s action games e.g. Bayonetta, where any combat encounter is feasible, provided you have mastered the core gameplay, fights in Avengers are determined by how big your stats are. You need to be dealing more damage to the enemies than what they’re dealing to you.
That’s where the gear system comes in. Each character can equip up to four types of gear and two additional accessories that simply make your numbers bigger. The better gear you have, the easier time you’ll have.
The loot system was one of my biggest concerns with the game but I easily stumbled across chests containing new, better gear, with some offering additional buffs like inflicting status effects, and they could be upgraded with materials I could either acquire from other chests, enemies, or by dismantling old gear I didn’t want.
And while there is a Fortnite-like in-game store that I’m sure will let you buy cosmetics and such with real money, it doesn’t appear to offer gameplay relevant gear, which is a relief.
With more of a focus on stats than skill, it does create the risk of the combat being pretty mindless, but that will depend on the player (I personally enjoy it fine) and there could be more combat skills to unlock later on that diversify things.
The same critique can’t be levelled at the boss fights, though. The beta offers two – Taskmaster and Abomination – and they required a little bit more thought, Taskmaster especially, as he can parry your moves if you use the same attacks too many times.
These were easily the highlights of my time with the beta, more so the second one as the Taskmaster fight came early enough that I was still trying to figure out the gameplay, but I had to pay attention to where he was positioned and keep an eye out for attack tells before rushing in to deal damage.
The Abomination fight was definitely the most fun I had with the beta. While he was clearly just a reskinned Hulk, boasting the same attacks and even animations, I had a goofy grin on my face throughout the whole thing, between needing to engage more with the combat and the spectacle of the whole thing. One cutscene that took place midway through had me cheering and a little disappointed it wasn’t playable.
Once that was cleared, Bruce and Kamala returned to their home base, where I was able to wander about and get a feel for the place (a map would have been nice, though) before moving to the War Table, which is where you select new missions to take.
It’s here where I got a feel for the game’s touted War Zones, essentially mini stories where you and a team of your available heroes go somewhere and complete a task for more rewards.
In this instance, Kamala and Hulk went to track down a secret SHIELD bunker to acquire… something. I kind of forget. And, to be honest, I feel after this one War Zone, I already know what the rest are going to be like – you go to a place, beat up some goons, maybe find a hidden chest or two, go into a place, beat up more goons, rinse and repeat.
I could be wrong but I can’t imagine, given the game’s pure focus on action, that other War Zones will have many opportunities to branch out and mix up the objectives, unless there’re some major mechanics which the devs have been keeping quiet about.
The main draw of these War Zones is that you get to play them with your friends, but I didn’t have the chance try out the co-op myself to see what it’s like. Fortunately, you can attempt these with AI controlled partners who seem to be perfectly competent at helping out in fights and make for great distractions and meat shields.
During one War Zone, which I may have gone into underprepared, I was the only one to get taken out. The other three seemed to be handling themselves quite well and even revived me.
I also got to try out the HARM Room, which looks like it will offer its own brand of combat challenges (e.g. beat ten waves of enemies) but I’m hoping it will offer more specific character tutorials in the full game.
When you first go there, you get a proper tutorial for Iron Man, actually explaining how his flight works and the counter and vaulting techniques, which I wish I had learned earlier on for when I was dealing with shielded enemies.
I have to admit, while Iron Man can hover and fly through the air, he’s probably my least favourite character so far. Much like Hulk, Iron Man offers the power-fantasy of manoeuvring through the air, blasting foes away, but I personally found air movement really stiff. Maybe I need more time with it, but I’m kind of praying there are no mandatory flying segments.
While I didn’t get something similar for Black Widow, I made a point to try out a mission as her and, surprisingly, I think she may be my favourite character to play as. I’m not much of a Black Widow fan to begin with, but she’s agile, has quick combos, an ability that briefly makes her invisible, and a grappling hook which almost made me feel like I was playing as Nero in Devil May Cry 5.
There was one moment where I grappled to a mid-air enemy, beat them up, and then grappled to another mid-air enemy to continue the combo and that was quite the rush.
It’s clear that this isn’t the Avengers game many of us probably wanted. Square Enix want a piece of the Destiny pie and figured making a live-service game about a popular band of recognisable characters was the best way to sell it.
There are still concerns to be had about how the final product will handle distributing loot and post-launch content (the recent news of Spider-Man being a PlayStation exclusive isn’t helping in that regard). Not to mention there was some noticeable jank and occasional moments where the gameplay felt rough (I found Hulk’s jump to be randomly stiff at points).
And I must mention that the text in menus is horrendously tiny. My TV monitor isn’t that big, and I had to stand and get right up to it to read any of it, despite there being plenty of unused space that was being wasted. Hopefully, this will be addressed in the final release, if only for the sake of accessibility.
But I can say, despite some personal issues, this beta is the best marketing Avengers has received and makes me a bit more hopeful in its future. If nothing else, it’ll be a decently entertaining time-waster for fans of these characters. Whether it will be the years-long powerhouse that will consume peoples’ lives that Square Enix is hoping for remains to be seen.