After swinging between skyscrapers in Insomniac’s Spider-man or beating Gotham’s City’s thugs into a pulp with Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham Asylum it’s easy to get excited about the potential of another blockbuster superhero game adaptation. Modern design technology has the power to make us feel like we’re part of their own miniature Marvel Cinematic Universe when we step into the shoes of Iron Man or Captain America.
But Crystal Dynamics has a much bigger challenge than designing an entire game around one super-powered character, it has to account for multiple with Marvel’s Avengers, due out May 15 on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC. Despite a shaky reveal at E3 earlier this year, Marvel’s Avengers is starting to show some promise. I got to play the short opening segment we’ve seen in a number of trailers and gameplay reveals in a behind closed doors session at PAX West.
A mysterious force of soldiers has attacked San Francisco during Avengers Day celebrations and your favorite team of supes have to suit up and save the day. The level had me approach the Golden Gate Bridge as Thor and beat up a bunch of generic soldiers, jump into Iron Man’s shoes and soar across the bridge and shoot down flying enemies, take over as Hulk as he smashes more goons, fight on the deck of the helicarrier as Captain America, and then fight Taskmaster as Black Widow.
An Avengers Power Fantasy
Marvel’s Avengers felt like a basic mixture of a third-person shooter and brawler, with an over the shoulder camera and standard controls for aiming, melee attacks, and projectiles. It was tight and responsive, but not incredibly unique. Iron Man was a clear standout with his ability to soar down the bridge, firing his pulsar cannons and rockets. His flying was loose, with every adjustment moving him more than I anticipated. He felt great to use, but was limited by the parameters of the level I played.
Unfortunately, as head of studio Scot Amos had to clarify multiple times, the short segment we played was not indicative of the full game. It was a linear tutorial level; the full game wouldn’t have as many button prompts or quick time events. I found it odd that Crystal Dynamics would have a tutorial be the first-time players got their hands on Marvel’s Avengers, rather than a later segment that would immediately sell us on the game’s deeper mechanics.
”I would say that level is particularly linear,” Amos said. “It’s designed as an on-ramp for the rest of the game. There are other levels like it, like the linear sections in the Tomb Raider games. But one of the things we haven’t shown is how expansive these spaces become.”
The segment I played was far more linear than similar segments in games like Uncharted. Even the slightest wrong move during Black Widow’s mid-air battle with Taskmaster sent me careening towards the water below. Piloting Iron Man in the air and throwing Thor’s hammer are bright spots of the gameplay, but ultimately the demo fell short of what I expected from a blockbuster Avengers game. My idea of fun isn’t beating up the same grunts over and over again through what’s effectively a very small level. I have hope the expansive levels will be better, but I can’t say for sure until I try one myself.
Each hero has their own unique play style, but they felt more like classes in a team-based action game instead of the mighty heroes they are meant to be. It almost reminded me of the final scene in the original Avengers movie where Captain America doles out orders in the fight against the Chitauri. Hulk was the tank that cause a distraction and draw enemy fire, Iron Man has quick traversal and can handle containment, Thor could use his hammer and lighting as ranged weapons, all while Captain America and Black Widow handle specific tasks more suited to their weaker powers.
It’s somewhat disappointing. I never felt as powerful using these heroes as I did in a game centered around one, singular character, and it highlights the challenge of fitting a huge range of heroes into one experience.
A Cinematic Superhero Story
Crystal Dynamics needed to clear the air since E3; the first gameplay presentation for Marvels Avengers left a lot of fans confused. During my demo, Amos spelled out Marvel’s Avengers’ core gameplay loop: Players tackle standalone missions, then return to a base to apply experience and equip new gear. Amos confirmed that the entire core campaign would only feature the five main heroes and act as a starting point for the larger universe. It sounded like the primary campaign, which sees a corporation try to replace heroes with super-powered AI, might just be a taste of the additional content the developers want to bring.
Amos also talked about the importance of loot and how it would be an incentive of its own. “There’s so much opportunity for you to [customize] how you want your hero to play and there are items you’re going to want to go off and get. Those are paths that you’re going to go down as a way to chase narrative and loot,” he said. “But the idea of going into different areas at different difficulty levels happens because you’ll want it to. If you’re someone that wants to be that hero and … get that higher level, get a legendary version of that equipment. If that’s you then we got you covered.”
Missions will be broken up into two categories: Hero Missions, where you play solo as one hero, and War Zone Missions, played cooperatively with four different heroes. Hero Missions progress the story while War Zone Missions can be played for rewards. The rewards look to be mostly made up of gear and hero progression. Crystal Dynamics plans to have a complete story mode ready for launch, but it will also have a stream of new stories and heroes post-launch.
Having missions that can be played by any combination of heroes means that all characters have to be balanced to the same power level. All five heroes, for example, had the same health bar in the demo. “You’re going to sense that we had to go to very flexible combat system to accommodate multiple players and support multiple play styles,” Amos said.
Have the Avengers your way
One of the biggest pieces of new information from the demo was how customizable each hero would be. Outside of applying different skins and gear, you’ll be able to level up a number of skill trees that unlock new abilities for every character. They include different weapons, special moves, and improved abilities.
”When you play as Iron Man, we want you to feel like a flying fortress as an arsenal of different weapons. Or if you’re playing as the Hulk you should feel like a freight train where you can actually grab enemies,” Amos said. “If you like to play that way, imagine upgrading so you can grab two enemies, and then again so you have moves that can deal with multiple enemies. We’re trying to give you a sense of how much there is to do.”
Amos used the example as playing as Thor as an “area control” hero; he can maintain a high position and use his lightning to attack at range, while communicating threats to his teammates. To use a similar playstyle,you’d want to invest in his hero points so Thor’s lighting has has more lighting charge and affect more enemies in a single blast. Amos also mentioned a melee-focused approach that required upgrades to health and individual attacks. I didn’t get to see any of these playstyles in action or play them myself, but I can see how they would work from my time with the demo.
Overall, as a huge fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’m excited after what I experienced with Marvel’s Avengers and what Crystal Dynamics has planned. While it’s easy to get disappointed that we aren’t exploring an open world with an expanded list of heroes, a flexible combat system that emphasizes each character’s unique playstyle is a smart way to make each Avenger feel unique.
Unfortunately the demo I played didn’t show that, so we’re going off the word of the developer — a challenge when the game should speak for itself. We’ll have to wait and see if Marvel’s Avengers skill trees make each character play like the heroes they’re supposed to be, instead of classes in an all-too-familiar genre.