Marvel's Avengers, the Video Game Crossover of Our Time.

Now, you might be thinking that Avengers as a singular group, as a Brand® is enough of a thing now that Avengers doesn't really count as a crossover anymore. Seeing Cap and Thor together just feels like a common thing, and not so special like it did back when the first Avengers movie (not to be confused with Captain America: The First Avenger) released.

But that's not what I mean. The crossover here isn't between various Marvel related sub brands, but between two different "genres" of game design: Traditional, story and set-piece driven single player game, and Destiny style forever loot game as a service. Games have tried this before, Anthem stumbled over itself with things like a five minute cutscene about eating weird alien crabs in the middle of a multiplayer mission, and I'd even still say that Destiny 2's campaign was really good. Certainly good enough that it getting removed from the game is a bummer, even if Bungie feels like that's what they have to do for whatever technical reasons they have.

Much more so than those other games, Avengers really feels like two entirely separate methodologies of game design crossing over into each other. Or, if I wanted to sound more cynical about it, it feels like a big budget single player game with a forever loot game stapled onto it. But I don't want to sound cynical, because I like it. A lot! I've been so skeptical of this game since its official announcement that before I played it, I was really not expecting it to be good. Everything from how closely it was aping the MCU visually (without being directly tied or based on those movies), to what was known about the set up (the Avengers get disassembled), to even this very pitch of it being both a single player story driven experience and a game as a service, it all sounded bad at worst, and at best, like it would be a mess.

The things that didn't come across in any of that, until I actually played the game, are both just how good the story/characters are, and how much fun it is to play. And let me tell you, as someone who went from a mild fan of a few Marvel properties (mostly Spider-Man and X-Men) prior to the MCU, to a big Marvel fan over the last twelve (!!) years, it's really exciting to finally have a great game starring these characters I've come to know and love so much. Even if they're slightly different takes on them, it's still super cool.

One of my favorite moments in the game is this quiet RV ride.
One of my favorite moments in the game is this quiet RV ride.

Look at it this way: The last game I played with any Avengers in it (not counting Spider-Man) was Marvel Vs. Capcom 3. Back in 2011. At that point, I was into Iron Man because that first movie was great (and even 2 I didn't hate like a lot of people). But Thor? I saw that movie, which honestly I thought was just okay at the time, it was really Avengers and onward that got me attached to Thor. And this was still months before Captain America (the movie). Back then, I looked at Cap, and thought, "he throws a shield at people? Comic books are weird." And so far as Thor went, I distinctly remember thinking, "he wouldn't even be in this game if it weren't for the movie, who cares about Thor?"

I'm sure there's die hard long time Marvel fans who would get riled up at me saying that, so just rest assured that these days, I'm super excited to be able to step into their shoes and do so much cool stuff as them! I love locking onto a whole group of enemies with Cap, letting the shield bounce around, then time my kick just right so the shield will go bounce into another group of enemies, and just keep bouncing around. I love throwing Mjolnir around, calling it back, summoning huge amounts of lightning, getting so many effects on screen that the game can't really handle it (I will say I'm looking forward to that 60 FPS PS5 version). I love when I'm playing with friends, and the one playing Thor specifically pins one enemy to a wall, and we cackle as we all gang up on the last robot, valiantly but futilely trying to wiggle free from the hammer.

Not everyone is quite as immediately fun, Hulk is a bit slow and lumbering for my taste, and I go back and forth on how much I enjoy the more ranged focused Iron Man. But Nat (Black Widow) and newcomer Kamala (Ms. Marvel) are just as fun in their own, cool ways too. Nat's attacks are so speedy, and Kamala's stretchy limbs are such goofy fun! For a game that generally goes for a realistic visual design, seeing her stretch and embiggen in such a cartoonish, comic book-y way is the right kind of silly for me, and I think it fits her character.

Which brings me to the story, probably the most endearing thing about the game. I'm a sucker for the super hero origin story, honestly. Average everyday person develops some special power, goes through some sort of emotional life changing experience, and comes out determined to use their powers to help others. It's an oldie, but a goody.

In the case of Kamala Khan, she has the added layer of already being a super fan of the Avengers. Something that I think a lot of superhero fiction ignores is the fact that if these sorts of people existed in real life, there would be lots of fans. There would be astounding amounts of merchandise, there would be fan fiction, there would be people who would spend all their free time idolizing these superheroes. Some movies acknowledge this, Captain America had Cap being used as propaganda by the US government (including actual comic books), Logan used old X-Men comics as a plot device, and Shazam featured a fight through a store filled to the brim with DC universe toys, but largely they just focus on the heroes, and their personal struggles.

Framing this story through a kid whose eyes light up at the presence of a superhero just felt so immediately relatable. Like, if I was her age and met Spider-Man (assuming he was real), I'd be just as starstruck as she was meeting Thor, or Captain America. Hell, I even would be today, and I'm almost thirty! But just being a big fan-girl thankfully isn't her only character trait, she understands the point of being a superhero is to help people, to fight for those who can't fight for themselves (or to help those that can but need the help), and to make the world a better place.

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And that's the driving force of this game, the glue that keeps it together, the thing that lets Kamala re-assemble the Avengers. That even when the actual superheroes themselves lost sight of what was important, even when they let the world, let their mistakes tear them apart, she never gave up. That all it takes is a little gumption, and a lot of heart, and anyone can do big things.

My only issue being that there's a five year time jump between kid Kamala and older teen (I'm not sure how old she's supposed to be) Kamala, and she goes from non-powered to already having use of and familiarity with her stretchy skills. The first time she's ever seen using them is when she makes her hands big to slide down a random zipline on the Jersey City rooftops, with no explanation whatsoever. Even just a little montage of her developing her powers, having some brief talks with her dad, anything would have been nice to fill that stuff in a little more.

If this was a Ms. Marvel movie (and I'm sure there will be one eventually), that'd be the whole first half of the story! But it's an Avengers game, so that had to be pushed to the side in favor of bigger names like Bruce Banner, Tony Stark, etc. And to be fair, most of that stuff is really good too. Troy Baker's Bruce is so good I not only like him better than Mark Ruffalo in the movies, I'd even say it's probably the best performance I've ever heard him give? Nolan North's Tony is, well, I think he moves back and forth between Nathan Drake and Deadpool, depending on whether it's a story cutscene or him making multiple different Ghostbusters references when summoning the Hulkbuster armor.

Laura Bailey isn't given the most exciting material for Nat, but she does the character well. Travis Willingham's Thor is a bit more over the top than Chris Hemsworth's, but in a way I like. Jeff Schine's (the one guy here I've never heard of) Captain America is kind of the weakest link of them, but he's still okay. He just doesn't have the same presence that Chris Evans has. Maybe that's an unfair comparison, but when Cap is supposed to be the heart and soul of the Avengers, I wish there was a bit more of that in this performance.

And of course since I name dropped the rest of the cast, Sandra Saad's Kamala really is the thing that sells the character. She could have come off as an annoying fan-girl, but the genuine joy in the character, along with the down moments in the story (because it's never just rainbows and lollipops), makes the whole thing work so much better than I anticipated.

I didn't really say much about the actual plot, but they assemble the team, fight a lot of robots, and beat the bad guy (only for someone else to be bad enough to build more robots for the forever game thing to go). I think more interesting to write about is the game part of this, how it moves from the single player story stuff into the co-op focused post campaign stuff.

But even that isn't quite true, because those are introduced during the course of the story, and are available alongside the story missions. The difference between the highly focused, bespoke story missions, and the co-op stuff is...Stark, haha. Okay, that was a bad pun. Everything from unique environments, to actively changing how you play as you progress (for example, Tony building a suit piece by piece over the course of a mission), and of course the much better produced cutscenes make the story missions stand out.

The co-op stuff, on the other hand, it's a lot of going through the same small number of environments, and doing the same small number of things. Clear out the enemies, stand in these points to capture them, break some generators, etc. If the game itself wasn't fun, it'd be boring and repetitive. Okay, it already is repetitive, but all games of this genre are at a certain point. How many times in Destiny 1 was the objective to just fight waves of enemies while Dinklage Ghost had to hack into something? The question isn't "does it repeat," but "does it repeat enough often and early enough to detract from the game?"

And I'm not sure how to answer that. I wish there were more environments, and some more variety in the enemies, so that could be interpreted as a yes. Is it frustrating to do a Taskmaster Villain Sector, then do an Abomination one, which involves going through LITERALLY the same EXACT level, just with different dialog spoken over it? And I mean an all caps LITERALLY, even the boss room is the same, except with a different boss.

The answer is yes, I've decided. It's frustrating, and this game needs more environments, levels, etc.

(Note, after writing this I played a different Taskmaster Villain Sector in a different level, but the fight at the end was fundamentally the same, the level still felt generic, and not like a bespoke Taskmaster focused mission.)

I put the photo mode to great use, as you can tell.
I put the photo mode to great use, as you can tell.

Not to suggest this game should just copy Destiny, but something like a Villain Sector feels like it should be more like Strikes. By which I mean each one should be in its own, bespoke spot, that feels specifically crafted around working toward a specific boss, and not just fighting through the same sorts of rooms as any other mission. Or again, LITERALLY THE SAME ONES. Also, as an aside, it's really funny to do one of these with friends, and see Captain America, Thor, Hulk, and Black Widow all just wailing on Taskmaster. Imagining the movie, or comic book where the four of them just ran into a room and started punching Taskmaster so much he could barely react.

In other words these boss fights could some more work to make them more interesting.

But I'm still having fun, and I've played a decent amount of it so far. I got Cap up to level 50, which is the current, ahem, cap. And I'm enjoying it enough that I at least want to get Kamala, Nat, and Thor to level 50 too. Probably Tony too, maybe even Hulk if enough time passes before I get another game to play, or more specifically another "forever game" to fill the ongoing game shaped hole in my life.

That's the other thing, I love big single player games, I love smaller indie games, but at some point those games all end (not counting rogue-like-lites), and I've got to move on to something else. There's a comfort in having these games that (cynically) feel like they go on forever, because it's fun to just pop in for a couple hours and mess around. Keep working toward something I never quite finished, do the new stuff that was added a while back, etc.

But this has been kind of an odd year for that, at least in my case. In the past, Destiny 2 has frequently been that game for me, and though it's not quite the same thing, a while back I played lots and lots of Overwatch for similar reasons. Thing is, I've fallen off both those games. Overwatch was kind of a longer thing in the making, just a build up of little changes here and there that slowly drove me away, culminating in Blizzard's bungled handling of that one player saying whatever he said in support of Hong Kong protests at the time. That was the moment I uninstalled the game, not that it really had any actual significance.

In the case of Destiny 2, it was last year's lousy Shadowkeep expansion and by all reports the stuff added since not being great that kept me away. I even uninstalled that too, but that was more to clean up hard drive space as that game was getting roughly as big as the Solar System itself. So, it left a vacuum in my ongoing game time, that I've filled with other stuff over the year. Played a lot of Tom Clancy's The Division 2 when that was $3, played that expansion, but fell off because the end game just got too repetitive.

I keep playing Warframe on and off, but it feels like any time I make some big amount of progress, and set my sights on something I want to unlock, I look into it, and it just feels like an impossible grind. Recently I made it to some story mission where I unlocked the ability to switch between my active Warframe and the actual human (like?) entity that controls the Warframe mid mission, and I got so excited I even spent some of my Warframe bucks (Platinum) to unlock some cool hair and clothing stuff for them. It was the first time in months I got really back into the Warframe groove, and it was right before a big update, so I was excited!

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Sorry for the random Warframe pics, but I wanted to show off my Operator. I think they look cute with my subtle hair and outfit color choices. Also Homer my good Space Dog.
Sorry for the random Warframe pics, but I wanted to show off my Operator. I think they look cute with my subtle hair and outfit color choices. Also Homer my good Space Dog.

Said update included a new open world zone to explore, new mechs to control, and of course a new Warframe. Xaku, the "first nonbinary Warframe," which for obvious reasons appealed to me. Turns out I'm easy to please when video game representation is routinely nonexistent for things like being outside the gender binary. Then Warframe's true form reared its ugly head, and after I spent hours grinding the same bounty to get the last blueprint I needed for Xaku, looking up the materials I needed, it just felt like an impossible task. Literally the first material I checked how to get involved leveling up some faction I hadn't heard of, so I could unlock this other bounty which had a chance of giving the thing I needed, or some other thing, I don't remember.

The point before that rambling aside is that I very much would like another game to be this sort of game again for me. Ideally without alienating me via the years of bloat Warframe built up before I even started. Maybe Destiny 2's Beyond Light expansion will bring it all back together again. But in lieu of that, I'm more than happy to run around with friends beating up countless waves of AIM robots as Cap, Thor, Nat, Kamala, etc. There's plenty of room for improvement, from more varied environments, enemy designs, to changes here and there to the combat (bit too much stagger off enemy projectiles), to just wanting more characters.

I'm excited for the two Hawkeyes to be added! I'm really curious how extensive the added story content will be, given how good it is in the main campaign. And I'm curious how different Old Man Hawkeye and Young Ashly Burch Hawkeye will play from each other. Adding both at the same time is either a real bold move to show that Crystal D has the chops to make two different bow users feel distinct, or a real foolish mistake if they play basically the same.

And, looking at the hacked list of upcoming characters (thank you PC gamers), I'm curious how characters not really associated with melee combat will work. Everyone in this game has some sort of ranged attack (even if it's Kamala stretchy punching or Hulk pulling up chunks of the floor to throw), but it's primarily a punching game. Will the likes of Scarlet Witch and Doctor Strange be designed in some different way? Or are they going to punch with magic instead of fists? Or just punch with fists, which I think would be the biggest cop out. Maybe Strange could punch with his magic cape?

And if we're talking requests for characters, since I know that realistically having Ant-Man shrink down and the whole game's perspective change too (especially given how low the framerate and resolution can get as is), I hope he can summon a giant ant. To ride around like a horse. And maybe he can throw random objects that he shrunk prior to the mission, and just keeps in a fanny pack or something. Please, Crystal D, lean into the comedic side of Ant-Man. I know you won't be able to afford Paul Rudd, but maybe you could spring for Michael Peña to appear, and give a long monologue that distracts all the enemies as Ant-Man's ult. I have to thank my friends for thinking of that incredible idea while we were playing the other day.

I didn't really get any good in combat screenshots, partly because I usually forget to take them. But also because the ones I did take were blurry, due to the motion blur and aggressive dynamic resolution.
I didn't really get any good in combat screenshots, partly because I usually forget to take them. But also because the ones I did take were blurry, due to the motion blur and aggressive dynamic resolution.

Here's a few things I forgot to mention until after writing this, and didn't want to spend an hour thinking about a way to more organically fit into the main text. Think of it as a day one patch for this blog.

I think a lot of the bad rap this game has been getting about the "too similar characters," or other related game play complaints has to do with how much is locked behind leveling up. Which is to say, too many basic skills, like some combo finishers, moves that can be do after dodging, etc. That, combined with leveling being pretty slow early on (at least slower in the story than post-campaign missions with far more enemies), means it takes longer than it should to get into the meat of how they work, and feel different from each other. Iron Man is a lot more fun to play once his lasers and rockets are unlocked as alternates for the repulsors, for example.

On the one hand, I kinda wish the loot had a visual aspect to it, because the game is lacking some amount of that "oh look at this cool thing I found!" But on the other hand, there have been enough games where I avoid equipping the best thing because it looks bad, that maybe keeping the aesthetics to non-game play related skins was a decent choice. So far as the economy on the cosmetics go, I haven't looked into it too much, but so far it hasn't felt as exploitative as say, having time limited skins that can only be gotten via random loot boxes. But hey, there's always room for them to screw that up in the future!

The Challenge Card (this game's Battle Pass, which has cosmetics to unlock along it) is fine. They don't expire, and apparently they give enough of the in game money to unlock the paid tier of the next "season" whenever that comes, so diligent players can keep it going without spending big. Some of the challenges (as the only way to progress the card is to complete daily and weekly challenges) are weirdly difficult (like rescuing large numbers of hostages), have bizarre requirements (like you have to be the person who rescues the hostages, your teammate doing it doesn't count), or straight up broken. It could use some adjustments.

For the game play side of the loot, I'm still in the "just equip whatever has the highest Power level" phase, which is fine, but kind of a bummer when sometimes I would rather stick with something that has some weird effect. I love the ones with Pym Particles, because they shrink the enemies! I legit laugh when I shrink someone down to like a third their normal size. It's very good, and I'd love if this game went further in the direction of having weird effects like that in the future.

One time my friend's The Hulk turned completely invisible. Except for the hair. Same thing happened to her Black Widow once too.
One time my friend's The Hulk turned completely invisible. Except for the hair. Same thing happened to her Black Widow once too.

The game has a tendency to get a lot buggier when playing online. For example, just last night I was playing with a couple friends, and we had a very interesting experience in one mission. After getting into an AIM Hive (fewer bees than you would think), I noticed that my health bar was gone, as were the health bars for all the enemies. I could still defeat them, so I didn't think much of it at first. But soon after, one of my friends said her health bar was also missing, as were the enemies'. So, we laughed it off at first, but soon we noticed that said friend was getting one shot killed a lot, or more accurately, literally every time she was hit. I, on the other hand, never died, so I like to think the game just gave me all of her health. Probably more likely is it somehow bugged her to only having 1 health, and me having infinite.

Still, we were able to finish the mission, just had to revive her more often than usual. Frankly I'm glad it went that way, because she's much better at avoiding attacks than I am.

And as a final thing, I wonder what the future of this game will be in terms of console support. It already feels like it's pushing the PS4 (Amateur) farther than it should. It's fine during the main campaign, but the drops can get really bad online, with the game just filled with tons of enemies, and wild effects from multiple characters' special moves all going at once. Is this game going to be held back by the PS4 and Xbox One? Probably. That, or those people who don't (or can't) buy new consoles but want to keep playing are going to have a less than stellar time with it. But I also just can't help but think about what if Iron Man and Thor could fly faster (but also desperately Cap needs to run faster, please), what if the areas could be bigger, less restrained? What if there didn't have to be so many elevators?

I know why they didn't do that, but I kinda wish this had been a next gen only game, so these restrictions could be a lot less...strict.

So, to sum things up, how does this crossover between story driven single player game design and ongoing co-op loot game work? Well enough. The story and characters are great, and the game is fun enough to keep me going onward, still. It's still early, and I haven't even finished all the post main campaign story, technically, but I think I've played enough to have written something halfway coherent about the game.

If literally nothing else, it's good just to have something to play with friends again, that has yet to just leave us bored, and wanting for something better to do. That may sound like a low bar, but like I keep saying, so long as we're having fun, that's the important part.