How much you enjoy the new Square-Enix game “Marvel’s The Avengers” is going to come down to expectations. So let me try and prepare you for it better than I did myself. With the massive success of Sony’s “Spider-Man” last year, critically and commercially, I expected something similar in terms of gameplay, but “The Avengers” is much closer to an experience like “Destiny,” believe it or not. Like that game, it encourages cooperative play across a structure of campaign and multiplayer events that grant your characters increasingly powerful skills and gear. Yes, it’s like a loot-hunting shooter but with the Hulk instead of a space dude with a gun. If that’s not weird enough to adjust to, it’s also distinctly removed from the world of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
So don’t come in expecting the Chris Evans or Mark Ruffalo versions of Captain America and The Incredible Hulk. If you’re looking for something to scratch that MCU itch after the delay of “Black Widow,” this may not do it (despite some similarities narratively to "The Avengers: Age of Ultron"). However, it’s a game that started to really work for me as I adjusted to its flaws and strengths (much like “Destiny,” which went from a flawed game at launch to one of my all-time favorite franchises). And it’s a game that the developers promise is just getting started with new events, gear, updates, etc. planned for the rest of the year and into next. There are some major issues here and some kinks to work out, but I think I’m going to be returning to “Marvel’s The Avengers” more than most movie and comic book games, especially now that I know what I’m getting when I do.
One of the first shocks in “Marvel’s The Avengers” comes in the fact that you start the game as an outsider, taking on the role of Kamala Khan instead of a more familiar face. The storytelling here can be clunky in ways that reminded me how much more refined “Spider-Man” was last year. Khan is an ordinary girl who has some crazy powers, including stretching, punching arms that may remind older comic book fans of Mr. Fantastic. She’s cast here as a fan of The Avengers, and the game opens with her at an event for the world’s most famous superheroes, at which all hell breaks loose, introducing you to the different combat styles of each hero in a sequence on the Golden Gate Bridge. The player moves through different heroes like Hulk, Iron Man, Black Widow, and Captain America, but then the narrative eliminates all of them, becoming another “Avengers Assemble” narrative as Kamala and Bruce Banner seek to get the band back together.
Each mission for the bulk of the game is about finding new heroes or upgrading the ones you have. As you unlock each hero through the story, you also build each character’s skill sets and gear through unlocked items and XP. It is a game of intense grinding with some side missions designed merely to get you new things and more power before you get back to the main narrative. (Again, much like “Destiny,” in which you literally have to repeat missions to get better stuff to do new ones.)
For the most part, “The Avengers” is a button-masher, one in which you have an increasingly broad range of attack options and combos but one in which you will really just alternate a whole lot of light/heavy attacks, dodges, and special powers. Each character has different skill trees and different powers, leading to an overabundance of choices. It’s a game that literally still feels like a tutorial at times when it’s ten hours in as you keep unlocking new things to do. Maybe I’m an old man, but give me a limited but detailed tree of powers to unlock and master like in Sony’s “Ghost of Tsushima” over literally dozens of possibilities across multiple characters that I’m expected to keep track of. Those who love detail in their button-mashers will dig finding new ways to express Hulk or Iron Man’s powers. I didn’t know what I was doing half the time.
Having said that, I didn’t mind after a while. As your party grows, other online players can take on the roles of different heroes, and there’s something undeniably fun for people who grew up reading comic books about getting your friends together to literally play as different Avengers on various missions. If Square Enix lives up to their promises to grow and develop this game over time (including new characters via DLC like Hawkeye and Spider-Man), it could become something really special. I wish it was more refined in terms of gameplay and I wish it told a better story, but it checks what’s arguably the most important box for gamers: it’s fun. There’s something about bashing through enemies as the Hulk or firing lasers at them as Iron Man that can make a fortysomething feel like a kid playing with his action figures again.
“Marvel’s The Avengers” is an undeniably cluttered game but digging through that clutter unearths some truly enjoyable combat missions and special gameplay experiences. Maybe I’m just a sucker for something that feels this much like pure escapism in a time when we could all use more of that. Can you blame me?