Marvel's Avengers Academy, a mobile game set in what is best described as a Marvel Movies High School AU, has a glacial pace and begs me for micro-transaction money at every opportunity. And yet, I've been hooked on it for two weeks.
I've upgraded the dorms and the shooting range, built the Wasp her superhero fashion outlet and almost cleared up all of Hank Pym's mess in the back field. I've helped the Enchantress mess with all the boys on campus, defeated two Hydra plots and thrown a party with Tony Stark and Janet van Dyne that Nick Fury had to personally shut down. If I can just get Black Widow to stop tearing pages out of books in the library for "evidence" I think I might be on the path to recruiting Captain America.
Every review cites the slow pace (I've started hitting "Heroic"-level actions with timers of 8 hours) and its insistent push toward spending real money (stop presenting me with a new optional quest to pay money every day, please) as the game's biggest hang ups, and I don't disagree. So why am I counting the minutes until the timer on my next quest action ends?
Is it because the game is too freakin' cute? To be fair, the character designs are great and I can't wait to see cosplay of them. The animation is far more emotive than it has a right to be, and while the voice acting isn't extensive, it's (mostly) on point. Dave Franco's Iron Man is grating (though honestly, that's in-character), but there are some real gems here, like Alison Brie as Black Widow.
But the game would have to have a lot more idle animations for cuteness alone to be a selling point.
Underneath Avengers Academy's cuteness, the story seems to be hinting that there's a Very Bad Secret Super Science Multiverse explanation for why all the Avengers are teenagers except for Nick Fury and Hank Pym.
On the surface, Avengers Academy is that most hallowed of fanfiction settings: the High School Alternate Universe, where the characters are the same except they're all teenagers who go to high school together. The game's writing does a surprisingly good job with the potential of the idea.
How could we find a smashed up Iron Man helmet in the timefog if Tony hasn't even designed a full suit yet?
Janet van Dyne (the Wasp) — a founding member of the Avengers who, in the movies, was killed in a flashback so that Hank Pym could have Angst about it — is the second student recruited after Tony Stark, specifically because her powerful social media presence will help the school bring in more students. Selfies are literally her superpower, second only to designing clothes. Expertly designed, exquisitely crafted superhero clothes, that is. It's an interpretation of her character that's both true to comics and a progressive take on what are considered traditionally feminine — and therefore "undesirable" and "impractical" — occupations.
Black Widow is the "Spooky Mulder" on campus, with a strong conviction that Nick Fury is hiding huge secrets from the world (which he is, because he's Nick Fury). Her classmates love her despite her sour demeanor and never miss a moment to bring up their discovery that she used to do ballet.
Tony Stark is his own biggest cheerleader, but none of his classmates are interested in the show. Except maybe for Wasp, and then only because he's the only other person who likes to party as much as she does.
All of this is very silly, and Avengers Academy knows it. This is a game that announced itself with the news that you could date Loki (dating is a promised feature that has yet to make it into the app). The bombastic personalities of the superhero genre — the monologuing, the egos, the rivalries, the Evil as Ultimate Style — become recognizable traits of the teenage dirtbag. Just look at Red Skull.
Yes, he's so mad that he's burning a picture of Nick Fury.
But Avengers Academy is also kind of adorably earnest. Take Hank Pym's "idle" animation when students are working in his laboratory. He watches thoughtfully for a moment, and then, in a sparkle of Pym Particles, he gets big and casually cops a squat on his own laboratory building, the better to observe from.
That, my friends, is charming.
Sometimes the mechanics of the game even create their own fun. Loki is one of the first students you're handed, and for a good long while he only has one long action. This means that more often than not you're given quests, usually from Odin, to send him to go dance at the Academy's hang out spot for hours. Why does Odin, of all people, think that Midgardians will be impressed by Loki spending most of his time dancing in Club A? He has the same dance loop as all of the other male characters. Is it some sort of Asgardian practical joke?
Speaking of unanswered questions
Here's the core story of Avengers Academy: Nick Fury is recruiting teenage superheroes to an institution that will educate and train them to meet supervillain threats, particularly those of the Academy's rival Hydra school, which keeps attempting to dominate the world with various evil schemes. In order to do that, they'll need to recruit more students and clear the Academy grounds of a mysterious barrier called "timefog" in order to build more of the school's facilities.
there's a Very Bad Secret Super Science Multiverse explanation for this
Right, right, the player says: get more workers to do more tasks so we can build more buildings on more area, I know how this goes. But within this premise, our precious baby Avengers (OK, mostly Black Widow) start asking some real questions about the faulty in-game logic behind those game mechanics.
Why did Nick Fury decide to set up Avengers Academy so close to this dangerous timefog? Why is everything under the timefog some flavor of rubble? How could we find a smashed up Iron Man helmet in the timefog if Tony hasn't even designed a full suit yet? And if even Marvel characters like Red Skull, Captain America and Madame Hydra are teenagers, why are Nick Fury, Hank Pym and Odin still adults?
It kinda seems like Fury, Pym and Odin know what's going on and won't tell the Avengers. It kinda seems like it might have to do with why the timefog surrounds the Academy, and it kinda seems like the stuff in the timefog is from a universe where the Avengers have their regular, adult origin stories.
And then there's stuff like this:
This is why I can't stop poking and tapping this game, despite its often frustrating pace. I've got to know what's going on here, because the hints indicate that it's totally bananas. And in the meantime, I've got exchanges like this to keep me going.
So you've hooked me, Avengers Academy. And if you did it with story and character instead of engrossing game mechanics ... I think I'm OK with that.