‘Marvel’s Avengers’ review: movie magic turns to dust thanks to uninspired grind

Fantastic storyline and well-realised characters are ultimately let down by the service game millstone around its neck

A co-op game starring Earth’s Mightiest Heroes feels like a no-brainer, especially when it’s being developed by Crystal Dynamics and Eidos Montreal, two studios who know character action games inside out. Yet Marvel’s Avengers has arrived half-baked and harbours a brutal identity crisis, which feels like an avoidable consequence of the game’s misleading messaging.

As is standard for modern big-budget multiplayer titles, Marvel’s Avengers is a service game, a “living” project that develops over the years with new storylines, characters and features in the pipeline. Yet the ace up its sleeve is that it also offers a nuanced, character-led campaign with super scripted sequences that could ship as its own experience.

This feels like a peanut butter and chocolate situation. Players are growing tired of the service game model, and long for substance and consequence – they want narratives that mean something within a framework that lets them be social and play with their friends.

Marvel's Avengers
Marvel’s Avengers. Credit: Square Enix

The game was billed as a great unifier of these two genres, but its execution of this brave ambition is ultimately divisive. There’s too much service game peanut butter in the single-player chocolate if you will. In the campaign, you play as Kamala Khan, a magnificently written protagonist, performed with emotion and flair by Sandra Saad.

At points, I was genuinely choked up rooting for her to succeed against A.I.M, the antagonistic force trying to exterminate the “Inhuman disease” that gave Khan her abilities. Clocking in at around eight hours, it’s a great story with a few interesting twists that does a good job of making you feel like an Avenger. Mission accomplished, in that department.

For all of the campaign’s awesome set pieces and heartfelt moments, however, it never truly manages to shake its service game framework, which lingers over the narrative like a bad smell. There’s this promising scene where Thor makes his grand return after a long hiatus, using Mjölnir to make short work of an A.I.M Warbot.

Yet as the God Of Thunder crushes through its hull and the player assumes control, you watch as the robot’s chassis crumbles away into GaaS cannon fodder, with coloured globs of loot and a few of the game’s many maddening resources shooting into the air like tephra from a volcano. Suddenly the movie magic is gone, and I’m grounded by the grind that awaits.

This issue manages to spoil many of the game’s best moments. You’ll play through a fantastic scripted mission where you escape from a crumbling space station, only to then be dropped into a mind-numbingly dull multiplayer map to “find protocols”, activate elevators and fight wave after thankless wave of robots. Then when you’ve wrapped that up, the game will hit you with an emotional scene out of nowhere that it has by no means earned, a jarring aside that arrives after hours of disjointed toil.

The tonal whiplash is staggering; the disparity between the good campaign missions and the obvious padding is something to behold. This also extends to the boss fights. Beyond the three or four villains to fight, the game just loves to plonk various robots of increasing size in front of the player, asking them to lazily squeeze the sponge.

Marvel's Avengers
Marvel’s Avengers. Credit: Square Enix

Plenty of the maps don’t feel like genuine locations either. They just feel like baby-gated service game playgrounds for superheroes, with random jump pads, puzzles and optional patrols to engage with. A glitch in one of the game’s final scenes made the social space war table icons appear in the background as The Avengers were having a heartfelt moment. About right, I thought…

The game feels like it’s constantly preparing you for the slog, and once you get there, a slog it is. Playing the Avengers Initiative multiplayer mode in co-op can be fun, especially when you’re following one of the Iconic Mission Chains, which delves into the backstory of a particular character. Thor’s Mjölnir feels incredible to control so I’ve been focusing on him, but after two measly missions, the promising side narrative was over and I had to head back and bore myself to death doing dull drop zones.

On an endorphin-based level, watching the numbers rise and fleshing out your skill tree to make your Avenger stronger feels fine, but doubt about the meaning of your playtime inevitably starts to creep in. I’ve managed to make it all the way through to some of the end-game content, hoping that it would eventually dish out the goods, but I’m still completing the same old objectives in familiar corridors, zipping between quest givers to follow meaningless data packets and villain leads, fighting “clones” of the bosses from the main game. For a game so ambitious, the grind is uninspired.

The most frustrating part of all this is that the combat is heaps of fun. The moment to moment gameplay of Marvel’s Avengers is fluid and each hero feels like a highlight from the last decade of character action games. I absolutely adore pinning enemies to walls with Mjölnir and wailing on them with my fists, then pulling the hammer back from afar and slamming it into a crowd of enemies. The developers have really thought out and nailed how each Avenger should feel, and I’d play a full scripted standalone campaign focusing on each of them.

Yet I’m let down by how poorly they harmonise with each other. Black Widow’s campaign mission paints her as a stealthy character who excels in clandestine combat, but that approach is laughably impossible in the multiplayer open-world, especially with The Incredible bloody Hulk at your side.

Even in four-player co-op, I rarely found it necessary to communicate with my teammates about the situation at hand. Most of the time you can just button-mash solo and the hordes of forgettable robots will waste away. The campaign is all about assembling The Avengers, but in multiplayer I rarely feel like I’m part of a team.

I wrote in my preview of the beta that I’d like to specialise my Avenger so that they aren’t the same as everybody else online, and that is still something of a pipe dream at launch. A lot of the issue stems from the fact that the loot isn’t modular. You just have cosmetic skins that change how characters look, rather than specific visible armour pieces for different body parts. In a service game like this, this is concrete boots.

Marvel’s Avengers has definitely learned from Destiny, yet it has failed to acquiesce a few of its most important innovations. Nobody cares about meaningless loot! I spend so much time in the pause menu holding X and holding Y to upgrade and dismantle forgettable items that get replaced within the hour.

This approach saps all of the game’s potential for watercooler moments. Given the lack of incentive to communicate and the fact that players don’t interact together too well, you never feel as if that one piece of loot or that one ability you’ve worked on has saved the day.

The problems become existential when you consider the meaningless end-game. Where do we go from here? There are raids and mega hives which are just repeated objectives. I love playing as Thor, but I cannot stomach more button-mashing monotony, so I’m finding it tricky to work up to the level cap.

Marvel's Avengers
Marvel’s Avengers. Credit: Square Enix

We’ve got this far without talking about the fact that Marvel’s Avengers is plagued with glitches. The game looks incredible and plays with fluidity when you actually manage to get into a match, but merely joining your friends’ game can be a nightmare.

I encountered tons of trouble where my friend would vanish during loading screens or the game would bug out when jumping between outposts, forcing us to a black screen and on occasion, sending us to Task Manager to end the process manually.

When we do make it in, we might have two of the same hero on our side or the back door we came through might be wide open, allowing us to explore the unloaded map, with doors locking at random and important enemies made inaccessible by the architecture.

Even in the campaign, there were situations where I’d spawn into the next area and find myself underneath the map. Multiplayer vendors will repeat the same line indefinitely, and the UI can trick out and trap you in the game’s unwieldy menus as the mission loads. The subtitles don’t line up with the text on occasion, voice lines clip or throw up stock responses and character models can freak out when you least expect it, with visual artefacts getting in the way of your objectives. It’s abundantly clear that this game needed a lot more time in the oven.

‘Marvel’s Avengers’ is now available for PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Google Stadia.

Our Verdict

I was really looking forward to Marvel’s Avengers, and I thought if anyone was going to combine a fun single-player narrative with an awesome co-op experience, it would have been Crystal Dynamics. It manages to offer both sides, but the game is haunted by the spectre of service throughout, a monetisation millstone around its neck that does a disservice to its well-realised combat and super story.

I’ve enjoyed some of my time with it, but it feels like Marvel’s Avengers is one of those games that will find its feet long after launch, like Destiny or Rainbow Six: Siege before it. When the developers finally figure out what this game wants to be, I’m sure I’ll be back to pick up Thor’s hammer and save the world with my friends. For now, though, there are many other games that are far more worthy of your attention.

Pros

  • A worthwhile campaign led by an incredible Kamala Khan
  • Each Avenger is well-realised in combat and fun to play as
  • Incredible graphics and great fluidity on PC

Cons

  • The service game spectre is a tremendous burden on the narrative
  • Lacklustre maps feel like baby-gated superhero playgrounds
  • Limited specialisation, lacking loot and little incentive to communicate paint a worrying picture for the endgame
  • Bugs galore
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