This past weekend, I finally had a chance to actually try out Marvel’s Avengers because the game was running its open beta. Certainly I’d already gotten the sense that there was a fair amount of controversy over this title right from the word go, but there was always going to be no matter what. At this point, this is a big license, it’s been getting developer by Crystal Dynamics for a long while, it’s suffered through several release delays, and so forth. So while I’d kept up with the words about it, I was reserving my opinion for, well… playing it.
Having now done so, I feel conflicted on some level because I can absolutely see where some of the negative response is coming from. I can also absolutely see where the positive response is coming from. And I find myself… still pretty firmly in neutral territory, honestly. I’m not intensely gung-ho about the game, but I can also see what it’s going for in both the best and worst lights.
See, the thing is… well, this is Destiny. Or, if you’d prefer, Anthem. It’s a game in which you go to a place with a mission, possibly with other people or with AI companions, and then you go all smashy-smashy to get loot and stuff to enhance your loot. You also level up along the way and put points into stuff. If you bring AI companions, your level of stuff on them affects your AI just as surely, but you only collect bits for your current character.
If that sounds kind of familiar – putting heroes together in a team and then collecting loot in a smashy frenzy – it’s because we MMO players kind of had that at one point. In broad strokes, that’s what Marvel Heroes was. It’s just that instead of taking top-down Diablo approach, this offers more of a third-person looter shooter approach.
Does that work? Is that an improvement? Well… thereby hangs a tale, I guess! Or at least a whole lot of speculation.
First and foremost, it’s important to note that one problem the game has is one that I don’t think the developers could entirely solve. It is really hard to see someone who is supposed to be Captain America who neither looks like Chris Evans nor sounds like he does. You have to reckon with that reality. It is 2020, the Avengers films have made all of the money, and it’s impossible not to compare portrayals of the characters with those films.
Heck, the movies don’t even want you to. Bruce Banner is clearly channeling Mark Ruffalo, Tony Stark is halfway to Robert Downey Jr., and so forth. But the result is that everybody feels… well, slightly off. To use a rather British aphorism for no reason, it’s like walking in and finding that everything has been replaced by a Poundland generic version.
What is a bit stranger is the fact that despite the licensing deal, none of the actual music from the films shows up. Alan Silvestri’s score is also deeply associated with the characters at this point, and a somber low-tempo rendition of the theme song doesn’t sound right when it’s supposed to evoke memories but you’re just thinking “that’s not what the Avengers theme sounds like.”
You might think this is just quibbling, and it is, but it’s also a pervasive problem the game has. Its first impression is universally somewhat off. Some of that is the fact that the beta gives you a brief tutorial level that doesn’t fully introduce everything, sure. Some of it is doubtlessly a function of cramming stuff in quickly. But at some point you have to stop making excuses for why the game feels off and start accepting that it just does.
For example, right from the start the basic toolkit everyone has feels a bit weird. Everyone has a ranged attack that works the same way. Everyone has a light and heavy melee combo. The exact mechanics differ, but everyone can jump and scale scenery in various fashions. The list goes on, but it feels odd to have Hulk, Black Widow, Iron Man, and Ms. Marvel all control basically the same way.
The trick, though, is that what I just typed up there is kind of a lie. They don’t all control the same way at all; they just all have a universal toolkit that allows you to refine things along the line. For example, the Hulk can pick up enemies that have been knocked around and use them as projectiles instead of just random debris; this is actually a useful tactic to deal with two threats at once. Black Widow’s guns and Iron Man’s repulsors play differently from one another and from other ranged attacks. Thor’s flinging of his hammer allows you to set up some elaborate traps for the hammer coming back from behind enemies.
But your first impressions are going to be that everyone has the same basic moveset, because that’s how the game presents itself. All of the ability to fine-tune things and change stuff around doesn’t alter that basic impression.
It’s a bit of a shame because once you start actually getting to differentiate your characters and start picking up gear, the game goes from being functional to being actually pretty fun. The multiplayer side of things in particular offers a great time. Characters have a diverse set of powers that can do different things, and there is definitely a sense of vague roles in combat, but it’s not a trinity-style tank, DPS, healer. It’s much more akin to different forms of battlefield control, and it’s great fun to rip through robots while juggling the needs of the mission.
And there’s definitely enough meat here for fans of the aforementioned Marvel Heroes to enjoy themselves. We already know some of the characters planned for the future, but the matter of getting gear and powering up is fun in and of itself, doubly so since the other characters you’re not playing can serve as bonus characters Guild Wars-style. Add plenty of costume options outside of any cash shop, and yeah, this could definitely serve a similar niche… except that it has different mechanics from that now-departed game, and a bigger up-front price tag.
None of this is touching on the other issues, either. Like, the indicators for incoming attacks to be dodged/parried are not great at this point, which becomes an issue when some of your build options seem to revolve around them. Those ones strike me as smaller issues, though, the sort of places where “it’s a beta” can actually make a difference; lack of practice and a need for refining some interface elements that are in place can actually be fixed.
Is it a good game? Does this setup actually work? Well… on the bright side, it’s not wholly reliant on online play to keep running, so that’s a good thing. But I think a lot is going to depend on how people stick with it past the first impression. It’s not a bad first impression, at least to me, but it’s not a good one either. That’s a major issue.
So I find myself still somewhat neutral. I want to like it a lot more than I actually do so far, but I don’t dislike it either. And if you really miss Marvel Heroes and want something similar, it might scratch that itch.