This past weekend I got a chance to step into the sneakers, armored boots, and severely distressed cut-offs of some of my favorite comic book heroes as part of an early beta event for Marvel’s Avengers. I was hoping my brief time with the game would quell the nagging feeling that it’s little more than BioWare flop Anthem with superheroes. It did not.
I’ve read so much about the opening scenes of Avengers that I felt a sense of déjà vu as I played through them for the first time. The beta opens with the bridge sequence Square Enix has been showing off since E3 2019. Gameplay switches between the Hulk, Captain America, Black Widow, Iron Man, and Thor as they battle robotic soldiers across the Golden Gate Bridge and the deck of a S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier.
We get a taste of each hero’s particular brand of battle in the opening sequence. Hulk wall jumps between battles, grabbing enemies and using them to bludgeon other enemies. Thor’s hammer is mighty, especially when thrown and recalled, doing damage both ways. We get some Iron Man flying and shooting action. Captain America throws his mighty shield, causing those who chose to oppose said shield to yield. The sequence culminates in a battle between the villainous Taskmaster and Black Widow, who saves the day with her mastery of hand-to-hand combat and timed button presses.
We’ve seen how the bridge battle ends. A Terrigen bomb explodes on the helicarrier, taking Captain America and huge swaths of San Francisco with it. Cut to five years later, as super-powered super-fan Kamala “Ms. Marvel” Khan contacts Bruce Banner in the hopes of getting the band back together and exposing the evil A.I.M. plot that caused the Avengers to fall out of public favor.
Kamala is by far the best thing about Marvel’s Avengers. Her fangirl-ish enthusiasm is infectious as she explores the remote wilderness with Banner/Hulk in the game’s second story mission. Much of the focus of said mission is on the Green Goliath, and pounding robots as the nigh-indestructible Hulk is fine, but when control passes over to Kamala it’s like the entire game brightens up. Her stretchy powers are a delight. She swings through levels like PS4-exclusive Spider-Man. You can hear the excitement in her voice as she speaks. She’s so happy to be part of the Avengers she gets winded. I wish she was in one of the screenshots Square Enix provided for this preview post. I’ll just use an old one.
The Hulk/Kamala story mission ends with Banner and Ms. Marvel establishing a base on a defunct helicarrier. Once more Kamala’s enthusiasm for all things Avengers is infectious, making exploring the nooks and crannies of the massive S.H.I.E.L.D. vehicle as the Pakistani-American teen a real joy. One particular highlight is the introduction of the HARM (Holographic Augmented Reality Machine) challenge room, which uses virtual reality to transform Kamala into Iron Man to battle A.I. drones. She’s so freaking adorable. If only the rest of the game were as endearing.
I played several multiplayer missions during my brief time with the beta, though mostly using A.I. teammates instead of real players. This is where the Anthem-feelings kicked in. The player selects a mission for two to four players from the helicarrier’s war table. A group is formed and the player or players deploy to the mission location. Punching, shooting, and looting chests ensues.
Here the experience fell apart for me. Traveling between waypoints with a full team of Avengers is a pretty cool feeling. Adjusting the camera while swinging along as Kamala to see the Hulk bounding and Iron Man flying after you is nifty. Getting to an objective and beating on hordes of samey robots, not nearly as nifty.
My first open world-ish mission sent me to a base where the Hulk and Kamala had to defend a point from waves of A.I.M. robots while Iron Man’s trusty A.I. Jarvis did some uploading or hacking or whatever. It’s not new. It’s not fun. As much as I enjoy Kamala’s stretchy powers, using them to beat-up the same robot foes again and again quickly goes stale.
I imagine I would have a whole lot more fun with a band of three friends by my side instead of strangers or computer-controlled teammates, though the right friends can make any co-op experience tolerable. It doesn’t help that said computer-controller teammates can be unreliable in a big battle. I wiped several times during my first big four-player mission, enemies swarming my Iron Man while Hulk, Ms. Marvel, and Black Widow tussled in the background. What should be coordinated battles feel more like free-for-alls, with distinctive characters with unique abilities getting lost in the shuffle.
I want to be excited by Marvel’s Avengers. Maybe it will happen as I continue through the beta weekends leading up to the September 4 launch. Maybe I’ll get invested in my characters’ talent trees, or I’ll understand the random stat enhancements (complete with arbitrary decimal points) granted by my equipment, adding a more thrilling element to opening random chests on robot-littered battlefields. Avengers should be a dream come true to lifelong Marvel Comics fan like myself. It should bring me endless joy. I’m not feeling that joy so far, but I’m not giving up yet.