'Marvel's Avengers' Is a Good Game Buried Under Bad Marketing

If you just want a fun Marvel story and want to ignore the Avengers x Destiny mashup, you'll be fine.
September 4, 2020, 1:00pm
A screen shot from the video game Marvel's Avengers.
Screen shot courtesy of Square Enix

I do not have time for so-called "games as a service" games. They do not fit into my life, one that requires intense time management to play games at all, let alone ones that involve other people and hundreds of hours in order to engage with what makes them click. To be clear, I do not wish these games to disappear—I'm simply jealous I can't play them and so their popularity, both in the broader gaming culture and for stockholders, drives me up a wall, because every game announced in that template is, inevitably, one I probably can't enjoy.

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To that end, a week ago, if you'd asked me to explain Marvel's Avengers to you, I would have just shrugged. It's Destiny with Captain America and friends…I think? It's an interactive story about the most popular characters in pop culture right now, but you can also keep playing after the credits roll…possibly? I cannot remember a game more confused about how to explain itself than Avengers, and I can't remember a recent game whose marketing has been so thoroughly confused. I don't know what Square Enix was thinking here, especially after playing a bunch of hours this week and coming away thinking "huh, this is pretty good."

The truth is Avengers is both of those pitches, but for whatever reason, they've only been sharing one of them publicly, and it's not because Avengers is secretly hiding a bad story. Quite the contrary, it leverages one of the more recently popular Marvel characters, superhero fangirl Kamala Khan (aka Ms Marvel), as a way to ground the story from a unique perspective. It works, and if you squint hard enough, it's possible to look past all the loot grind stuff that's also part of it and find yourself utterly charmed by Khan's origin tale.

But it's also the case Avengers is trying to serve two approaches simultaneously, and it's impossible for one to avoid diluting the other. This is especially true if you're coming at the game like me, who wants to hang out with his Avengers buddies and fight supervillains. Gimme the cool cutscenes. Gimme the big set pieces. Gimme the flashy scripted moments. In other words, gimme Insomniac's Spider-Man but with a whole bunch of other people in it!

That might seem like the most slam dunk pitch, given Avengers: Endgame is the biggest movie of all-time, but making games is absurdly expensive and companies want to mitigate risk. Just slapping a bunch of Marvel characters on the box won't solve it. That worked in the PlayStation 2 era, but these days, people are too smart and there are too many games to play. But one way to mitigate risk is finding ways for people to keep playing and paying, and it's hard to not look at every part of Avengers through that lens, regardless of the merit.

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Which is all to say I've been so skeptical of Avengers since it was announced last year. So far, we've yet to really see a game manage to pull off two things at once: a traditionally engaging single-player experience that wraps its story and design arc into a pretty bow by the end credits and an experience meant to extract equal parts money and time out for years on end. These are designs with fundamentally different goals, which is why you saw a game like Destiny eventually shed any pretense it was one or the other. You're either here for the long haul, playing the game day in and day out, or you're going to be left behind. And that's fine, because as it turns out, it's incredibly hard to make both simultaneously and do it well.

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Avengers, to its credit, really tries to pull off this tricky design heist. The first few hours are a fascinating smokescreen, with leveling up, faction quests, and endless loot drops far from view. (These types of games are often about navigating menus as much as they are playing a thing.) Instead, it drills down on the story of a fractured and broken Avengers by way of Kamala Khan, a girl who, like us in the real world, has grown up worshipping superheroes. The game's opening sequence, where she attends a big Avengers celebration because of some fan fiction contest she won, is delightful. Her interactions with all the Avengers, Thor and Cap especially, sell this specific take on these Marvel characters more than any trailer, and help give it some distance from inevitable comparisons to their cinematic counterparts.

Then, the story quickly and frustratingly blows past Khan discovering her powers and having to balance being able to stretch their body into Ant-Man-like proportions while being a teenager, an arc that could have filled its own game. But at least in the hours I've played, it eventually returns the viewpoint of events back to Khan, who, despite being in the presence of demigods, manages to stay her embarrassingly quirky self. The reason an otherwise rote Avengers story works is because of Khan, and the game smartly does not forget that.

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The tension in the design eventually surfaces, though, as the game is forced to start acknowledging its other parts, the ones more truer to the game that's been marketed as.

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You soon start picking up enough loot to require inventory management, even though most of it is totally useless. In a game more focused on a streamlined linear experience, you'd imagine each upgrade would be a big deal. Not here, the game that loves trash. Numbers appear everywhere, and it's not clear if any actually matter, largely because the game makes a lot of bad assumptions about you knowing how these types of games play and what to pay attention to. When new characters are introduced, they have very limited move sets and their special powers take such an absurdly long time to recharge that it's easy to find yourself tapping the same buttons over and over again. (This is especially true for Hulk.)

The weird part about Avengers is that every mission I complete in the campaign brings me one step closer to the game I don't want (or can't) play. Hitting a new story beat means getting dropped into a new zone that introduces another faction I won't have time for, another set of high-level missions that I will never, ever grind enough to take on. And so the whole time, it's not hard to look at Avengers as a half-measure game, because while what's in front of me is definitely fun, could it have been so much more if that was the whole focus?

And yet, I've still been enjoying it because the set pieces are fun and it's a decent brawler. It's not Bayonetta or Devil May Cry, but that was never my expectation, either. In Avengers, the characters and setting do a lot of heavy lifting, and the game does enough to properly satisfy the fantasy of playing with these characters that I've grown to love so much. As such, your mileage is likely to vary based on how much this fantasy means to you, because this is not a game that, compared to something like Destiny, holds up solely on mechanics alone.

And from what it looks like, you’ll be able to fully enjoy the story without selling your soul to loot. You can just play the fun superhero game.

From what I understand, I'm halfway through the story, maybe a little more. Some of the overly positive reaction to the story has struck me as hyperbolic, a whiplash consequence to a series of betas that, more than anything else, seemed to drastically lower expectations.

Those lowered expectations have resulted in me, the Marvel stan, enjoying this Marvel story. The question is what happens when the credits roll. I'm not going to stick around and play the same missions over and over for better gear, and I'm not going to team up with my friends to take on whatever is the equivalent of a raid. But if the game is dropping new characters with story content every so often, I can definitely see myself coming back again.

It'll probably be hard to not selfishly wish they'd made a different game, though.

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).