After over a year of rumors, teases, and reveals, we have finally played the upcoming Avengers video game, slated to launch on PS4, Xbox One, and Windows PC on September 4. It’s arguably the biggest Avengers-themed game ever made, in part thanks to a massive effort by developers Crystal Dynamics (makers of the modern Tomb Raider trilogy). Many of you will soon get to play the same content when the game’s beta test opens Friday, August 7, exclusively for PS4 players who preordered the game. (By month’s end, all three platforms will have open beta periods, no purchase required; more on that below.)
We’ve been careful about covering this superhero game, in part because its performance looked suspect during E3 2019 and because we couldn’t tell how its Destiny-inspired looter-shooter system would translate to the beat-’em-up genre. This beta’s selection of missions and story sequences has firmed up our suspicions on what to expect in the final game—and the news isn’t great.
Feeling weak in a world of heroes
The beta opens with an all-star superhero brawl in San Francisco, primarily atop the Golden Gate Bridge, and it may look familiar, as this previously premiered at last year’s E3. It’s a show-of-force intro, with players jumping from one familiar superhero to the next: Thor, Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America, and Black Widow. Each comes with a mix of melee, ranged, counter, and special attacks, and each can put the serious smackdown on large crowds of generic robo-soldier foes. Pummel, run, jump, and repeat.
As a tone-setting mission, this battle in San Francisco runs on PS4 Pro at a consistent 30fps refresh while serving up a delectable variety of explosive effects and detailed characters. Really, the whole thing looks much better than prior reveals—especially the titular heroes’ faces, which no longer look like stunt doubles from the real-life Avengers films. But having actual control of this mission reveals a sluggishness to nearly every character’s attacks. Black Widow’s fisticuffs are the closest thing this game has to “snappy,” with everyone else feeling like they’ve been hit by a ray of Kryptonite (yep, I’m conflating my comics-publisher canon on purpose there).
Worse, even Black Widow, a supposed sharpshooter, suffers from a gross mix of button-press lag and jerky-aim recoil whenever she uses a ranged attack, and the same can be said for every other hero. Hulk’s ranged attack is a great example of how badly Crystal Dynamics handles this aspect of combat. Hulk must go through an animation of scooping debris from the ground and wadding it into a ball before he can begin throwing. Then, he has an additional animation cycle to actually throw the thing. Worst of all, the apparent size of that ranged attack is pea-sized, requiring precision to strike your distant target, and its visual and audio impact is piddly. Some of those issues could be tradeoffs in the right mix, like slow-but-powerful or quick-and-wimpy, but as of press time, the beta’s ranged attacks all feel unwieldy, weak, and ho-hum.
When loot isn’t quite loot
This applies even once you’ve played enough of the beta to amass new loot for a given hero, as each character has four equipment slots: one for melee attacks, one for ranged attacks, one for special attacks, and one for defense. Much like classic ARPG series (Diablo, Borderlands), you’ll grind through increasingly tough missions to find and equip increasingly powerful equipment. But unlike those series, that equipment simply changes the stats for your hero’s pre-set abilities.
Because the game revolves around archetypal heroes, the loot doesn’t drive significant differences in gameplay mechanics. In other words, you’ll never ask Captain America to switch from a shield to a flamethrower because you found one on the ground. (By the way: “Captain America with a flamethrower” would be a sweet video game, Marvel.) Customization in Marvel’s Avengers instead comes primarily from skill trees, which will let you unlock and assign different attack types over the course of the game, but the beta only includes a single skill tree to play with. The beta’s loot only lets players augment the stats of each character’s existing skill tree. In certain cases, a new loot pickup might add elemental bonuses (take less damage from “cold” attacks, or add “fire” damage to your ranged attack). That’s about it.
If Crystal Dynamics expects us to get hooked onto this game for months, that customization system better turn out more substantial than it currently looks.
After the climactic, polished opening mission completes, the beta fast forwards later in the game’s plot. Long story short: The Avengers disappointed humanity and disbanded, but Ms. Marvel and Hulk have teamed up to get the band back together. These crafted missions lose some of the intro’s momentum, as they lead players into generic jungle environments and shiny-metal bad-guy compounds. The Golden Gate intro’s sense of place is utterly lost, and you’re left pummeling uninspiring intro-sequence soldiers while grappling with a frustratingly tight camera angle in cramped interiors.
Though this game tries to combine a brawler with an ARPG formula, Marvel’s Avengers bails on a core principle of both of those genres: careful camera consideration. Keeping track of every surrounding foe in a Marvel’s Avengers brawl, while fighting alongside three allies, is an exercise in exhaustion and frustration. Crystal Dynamics tries, but fails, to help matters by filling the screen’s periphery with “hey over there!” warning icons of various colors and shapes. I couldn’t help but think back to my favorite Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 memories on Xbox 360, where four people could sit on the same couch and pummel wave after wave of baddies as aided by a fixed, easy-to-see camera angle. I just wanted to go back to that game. (The new Marvel’s Avengers, I should point out, does not currently support split-screen co-op. You’ll need to join friends online.)
Did Hulk code the motion-blur system?
Every once in a while, an incredible moment plays out that reminds me how much has advanced in gaming since the original Ultimate Alliance games launched. One of Hulk’s special attacks, a straightforward rush, sometimes triggers special animations when it connects with a boss character, and the resulting WHAM WHAM WHAM WHAM WHAM is the exact comic-combat nonsense I crave in a polished action game like this. These moments pop up often enough, whether in the course of combat or as a massive exclamation point after a significant boss battle.
But the Marvel’s Avengers beta only has so many of these moments, and otherwise, the beta suffers from two larger-scale issues: an over-serious plot and some terribly thin side missions.
Dialogue in this beta’s mission sequences is tiringly serious, all apparently scripted and directed as if this was aspiring to topple The Last of Us in cinematic polish. Characters frequently pause and sigh their way through some sort of internal conflict, only to have these moments interspersed with the utter cheese of an angry, out-of-nowhere villain or the charming, silly excitement of Ms. Marvel finding herself in the thick of official Avengers business. I don’t mind that any of these extremes exist, mind you; it’s more that the imbalanced tone had me exhausted after only two hours of the beta. (I wish they’d erred on the Ms. Marvel side of things, instead of frequently sounding like yet another Troy Baker joint.)
Once you’ve gotten through the beta’s narrative core, you’re led to a series of side missions that usually end in a series of repetitive research-laboratory corridors. Some of these begin with you running through a semi-open expanse of some sort: a wooded military outpost in the Pacific Northwest, or a building-filled facsimile of New York City, or, in the worst case, a generic, low-polygon expanse of snowy hills. But in the beta, they pretty much all end in a lab of some sort, and they each end with a few cookie-cutter mission types: kill everyone in sight, stand near a labeled zone until a meter charges, or both.
These zones include loot-filled chests that are either tucked into winding tunnels or sprinkled above your head—and, gosh, the missions’ networks of floating “I guess we should jump up there” platforms look positively ridiculous. They’re not helped by the laggy, jump-between-platforms controls of most heroes; if you’re not using Iron Man’s jetpack, Black Widow’s grappling hook, or Ms. Marvel’s stretchy arms, then get ready for frustration. Either way, the regularity of this “trudge through barren lands to find hidden chests” stuff is a momentum-slamming bummer, as if Crystal Dynamics was told to pad its hum-drum missions out with something, anything.
Weirdly, whether you’re in an open-air city zone or a network of laboratory tunnels, prepare for a disorienting beta experience. Criminally low camera angles, mixed with jumpy frame rates, aggressive motion blur, and enemies that blend in with your heroes, made me sick to my stomach by the end of my three-hour run through the content on offer. And when I recovered from that sensation, I was left unmoved by uncreative waves of enemies and all-too-similar characters and powers to fend them all off. If this is the beta’s best foot forward, to tell potential fans what to expect as they grind through both the campaign and any “endgame” content, then I’ve got a series of sarcastic, Tony Stark-like comments locked and loaded in my figurative, palm-mounted repulsor.
The promise versus the competition
Should you hold out hope for improved performance by the time the game launches next month, I suggest sticking to a series of “training” battles, which all take place in a “wireframe” warehouse and run at a locked 30fps refresh no matter how many waves of enemies appear.
In these zones, you can see the Marvel’s Avengers promise play out: screen-filling combat for up to four friends, with everybody having access to classic superheroes and their bombastic special attacks. I’ve described some nitpicks with speed and control precision, and I’m hopeful those are ironed out by the time the game launches, as well as generic AI and severely lacking enemy variety. But even in its current state, this is still reasonable superhero combat, and we’ve seen much worse, whether from the Switch-exclusive Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 or a series of VR-exclusive superhero duds.
This beta’s upcoming open period will let you decide whether there’s enough meat on these bones, so if you don’t believe my nitpicks, fair enough; you’ll get your shot for free this month. But I’ve played some fantastic superhero games in recent memory, particularly the PS4 exclusive Marvel’s Spider-man, with more captivating stories, better takes on side-quest content, and more consistent “I feel like a badass” combat opportunities. Crystal Dynamics’ salvo clearly has polish and ambition, and it invites friends to the party, but this beta’s most worrying issue is that it’s playing catch-up to games that are already great (and discounted) (and not reliant on the tiresome games-as-a-service model).