Friday, March 1, 2024

I just don’t care about the Avengers game

I’m sorry, but I just don’t care about Marvel’s Avengers. No, not the movie franchise, currently taking a breather after the triumphant Avengers: Endgame drew the staggering Infinity Saga to a close. Nor am I apathetic towards the current run in the comics, with a flagship title on a roll – currently under the stewardship of writer Jason Aaron and artist Javier Garrón – and coming off the back of the excellent Empyre crossover (gay space kings for the win). I mean, rather, that I cannot rouse even the slightest interest in the recent Avengers game, developed by Crystal Dynamics.

This lack of concern, this apathy, feels wrong. I, of all people, should be disproportionately excited by an Avengers game – being Gayming Mag’s resident comic book nutjob specialist and the columnist of Comics Corner, I ought to be champing at the bit for a game that lets me play as not only the line-up of the 2012 movie (well, almost – sorry Hawkeye, you’re DLC fodder), but as Kamala Khan, the newest Ms Marvel and one of Marvel’s best new characters of the last decade.

Instead, the game has felt hollow since the first gameplay trailer dropped, showing what looked like extremely linear gameplay, with Iron Man and Thor beating up generic bad guys while making their way along a highway – literally a straight road. It’s an impression that proved correct, as the final result proves to be little more than a run from one end of a corridor to another.

A saving grace is that the story mode is focussed on Ms Marvel, brilliantly brought to life by voice actor Sandra Saad. She’s the heart and soul of the game, a neophyte hero still learning her powers but out to redeem and reunite her own heroes in the Avengers, disgraced in the opening section of the game. However, the story descends into what feel like tag-team sections as Kamala seeks out each member of the team, a rote progression through the ranks, always running down more corridors.

Even this could be forgiven, perhaps, if the combat wasn’t so relentlessly bland. Sure, you’ve got RPG-style skill trees for each Avenger, allowing you to unlock and customise new abilities as you go, but why bother when alternating between heavy and light attacks does the job around 80% of the time?

Tap, tap, tap. Punch, punch, punch. Oh, might as well use a super-move. Guess we’re moving on…

The heart of the problem is, in my opinion, the focus on multiplayer. This is a game that clearly wants to be a live service game, such as The Division or Destiny 2 – an endless stream of content forever enticing players to dive in, get more gear, unlock costumes, upgrade everything eleventy-squillion times, and farm innumerable resources along the way to do so. This would-be power creep floods into the story mode too, with upgrades found as you play – including pretty nonsensical ones such as nanites to power-up the Hulk. You know, that unstoppable engine of rage, who canonically gets stronger the angrier he gets – Avengers finds a way to cram collectible, swappable, upgradable items in for him too.

The thing is, I don’t actually blame developer Crystal Dynamics for how bland Avengers’ single player is, or even how exploitative its multiplayer is. I blame, at the top of the pile, Disney. Since the House of Mouse bought Marvel in 2009, there’s been a marked shift in how the superhero publisher’s characters appear in non-comics media – especially video games. While earlier Marvel games such as Ultimate Alliance would offer scrappy fun with tonnes of characters, post-Disney there was a noticeable shift to games on mobile and social platforms, all run as games-as-a-service, and packed with microtransactions.

Marvel Avengers Alliance, a 2012 Facebook game, was one of the first-and-worst offenders, introducing a power-up called Iso-8 that came in eight colours reflecting different stats, five different potencies, and boosted heroes’ powers. It then polluted almost every other Marvel game, such as Puzzle Quest and Spider-Man Unlimited. While ostensibly free to play, if you wanted to progress in these games you needed to commit serious time, or serious bank, via microtransactions. Regular drops of new heroes would keep players hooked, and although publishers would never say they were necessary, certain special events in the flimsy shells that passed for story in these games wouldn’t be completable if you lacked certain heroes.

All these problems are rearing their heads in 2020’s Avengers game, despite it being a “triple A” game from a major publisher and developer. The story, linear as it is, serves as a glorified training mode for the multiplayer. Already, new characters are scheduled to be added to the competitive side, starting with both Hawkeyes – Clint Barton and Kate Bishop – then Spider-Man for PS4 players, with strong hints of Black Panther and Captain Marvel to follow. Already, there’s a near-impossible race to keep your heroes powered up. Already, Iso-Bloody-8 has poisoned yet another Marvel game.

The most frustrating part of all this is that you can clearly see a potentially great game trying to claw its way out from the rubble that’s collapsed on top of Avengers. It looks phenomenal, especially if you’re able to experience it in 4K HDR, and Ms Marvel herself is a delight to play – gamers can easily get a feel for how incredible a game dedicated to Kamala’s exploits could be. Crystal Dynamics obviously have a lot of love for the characters and this universe, but seems to have given up at some point during the likely long and arduous approvals process for anything they wanted to do in the game.

It seems to have gotten trapped in development hell sometime around 2016 – the first teaser for the game dropped in 2017, so would have been in early development before then. Its story taps into elements the comics were exploring at the time – chiefly centred on the wider emergence of the Inhumans, one of Marvel’s super-powered offshoots of humanity, who were getting a big push at the time since Marvel lacked screen rights to the X-Men – that now feel dated to anyone who’s been reading the source material for the last half-decade.

Avengers should be a tour de force for Marvel games, especially with the PS4’s Spider-Man – which manages to cram in plenty of upgrades, alternate suits, and extra features without turning into a gacha game – having laid the groundwork. Instead, we’re left with a game that feels out of date at launch, offering only glimpses of what could have been a great single player game, and a multiplayer mode that channels the absolute worst time-sink demands and randomised unlock mechanics of mobile games. Faced with that, I just don’t care.

Matt Kamen

[He/Him] Matt Kamen is a veteran media writer based in the UK, specialising in video games, film, and comics. If found, return to nearest coffee shop.