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Marvel's Avengers is lavish and spectacular, but seems confused about its end game

Dan Silver
Marvel's Avengers is scheduled for May 2020

When a major video game is announced - with some fanfare it might be added - and then goes completely dark for two and a half years it can often mean one of two things: either that game is so good its publisher is waiting for the perfect opportunity to reveal its brilliance to the world; or conversely it’s such a hot mess that the project is put on lockdown until someone can work out how best to sell it. 

Worryingly Marvel’s Avengers’ complicated and confusing E3 2019 reveal, with its talk of single player narrative-driven action and separate yet connected long-tail multiplayer experience suggested the latter. And a subsequent behind closed doors gameplay session and chat with Crystal Dynamics creative developer Noah Hughes raised more questions than answers. Troubling times for Earth’s mightiest heroes, then. 

The game looks lavish at least. We’re shown an extended playthrough of the early level referenced in the reveal level. It’s ‘A Day’ - a superhero-themed celebration intended to mark the opening of The Avengers’ new west coast HQ and also launch SHIELD's shiny new Chimera helicarrier. Inevitably things go south when super villain Taskmaster turns up with an army of armed goons and sets about trying to destroy the Golden Gate Bridge.

The demo does a decent job of introducing each of the five core player characters and demonstrating their potential for different playstyles. First up is Thor, whose heavy, hammer-based combat moves inevitably bring to mind the axe-play Santa Monica Studio’s incredible God of War reboot. We then switch to Iron Man, who soars above the action, firing ranged rockets at armoured vehicles in what looks suspiciously like an on-rails shooter section.

Hulk’s segment features a disorientating change in scale, the green giant swinging enemy soldiers around like cricket bats and traversing the collapsing bridge structure with inhuman leaps and bounds. Holed up on the helicarrier, Captain America’s fighting style is different again, his shield being used both to block attacks and take out multiple enemies at once. Finally Black Widow gets the boss battle, using a combination of dodges, cloaking devices and dual-wielded pistols to take down Taskmaster.

It’s a dazzling if disorienting introduction. Each hero certainly seems to have a distinct playing style that embodies the skills and abilities fans will recognise from the films and comic books, and it certainly looks and sounds spectacular, with explosive set pieces and lavish attention to detail. However, it was difficult to discern how much of the action was scripted (it certainly seemed to be) and the relentless pacing did little to disguise the fact it essentially played out in long and linear corridor. 

And then there’s the question of how the multiplayer portion of the game relates to this singularly single player experience - something even Hughes struggled to articulate. 

“One of the things that’s challenging for people to understand right now is it’s actually an atypical approach,” he told me during an interview which, frustratingly, occurred before I’d had a chance to experience the gameplay demo

“You will often have that core narrative-driven experience that you can play multiplayer or not, or you might have an experience that really is that multiplayer online universe that you can become a part of. We wanted to create this online experience as something like the definitive Avengers game, we wanted it to be more than just a single story. That commitment was important but we never wanted to move away from our character-driven narratives and our crafted, well-paced experiences, so in that sense we really are creating a best of both worlds driven by our own design philosophies.”

Right… So are the two experiences connected or separate?

“They’re actually… um.. they blend in different ways so we can cater to a couple of different play types,” Hushes responds. “So if you play it like an action adventure game and you don’t want to join up with other people online you can play the story beginning to end single player. 

“If you’re interested in joining up with players you may be introduced to a hero through a particular mission that really takes you through the backstory of that hero’s particular experience and onboards you with some of their skills. 

“But then as you go into some of these optional levels and other levels which aren’t focused on a particular hero you might join up with other players in that same campaign experience. So we blend that core single player campaign with teaming up to get through that campaign.”

Nope. Still not sure. Hughes explains there are two types of levels in the game: those designed around single characters which are intended to show off their unique skills and abilities, and then others which cater for multiplayer, multi character teams - and all the associated traversal challenges given both Iron Man and Thor can fly. However, these will not be open world.

“It is a more level-based experience,” he confirms. “One of the things we really wanted to deliver was defending the earth against threats. I think for us that sense of an open world experience is almost more localised. We have the idea that The Avengers defending the world against these threats would have this base of operations, but we really wanted this global footprint where we could essentially take our campaign through multiple locations but also continue to expand the world with additional regions.”

So do these biomes function more like Destiny’s planets then? Large, self-contained areas with their own enemies and missions?

“Direct comparisons are difficult but it is important to get a sense that each biome, as we call these regions, has a distinct personality and elements and those are constructed in ways that are big enough and non-linear for fliers and things to explore. So it is more of a connected world of levels than it is an open world in that sense.”

Given the game is being released in May 2020 there’s still plenty of time to work out what this all means. But for now it’s hard to determine what Marvel’s Avengers’ end game is.