There are many things I do not like about Marvel’s Avengers, one of the best comic book video games I’ve played.
I don’t like grinding missions to earn more powerful equipment so I can take on more difficult missions. I don’t like my heroes’ inventories slowly filling with junk until I have to pause the game and spend 30 seconds dismantling useless garbage. I don’t like having to pick up faction missions in two different social spaces separated by minutes of loading. I don’t like spending five minutes traveling to a mission location only to have the game lock up completely, forcing me to restart. I don’t like endlessly repeating the same handful of boss battles against foes a full team of seasoned Avengers should be able to make short work of.
But none of that can top the feeling of Thor’s hammer slamming into a robot’s metal body, Captain America’s shield flying true, Iron Man’s rockets hitting home, the Hulk’s Earth-shaking rage, Black Widow’s sting, and Ms. Marvel’s shapeshifting fists and feet. In the heat of battle, even a battle I’ve fought a dozen times, the sheer joy of being one of Earth’s mightiest heroes drowns out all of those little irritations. When I play Marvel’s Avengers I am a superhero. That’s exactly what I wanted out of Crystal Dynamics’ third-person comic book adventure.
It helps that the game’s story campaign is basically a 10-12 hour superhero onboarding process led by one of the best new comic characters in decades, Kamala “Ms. Marvel” Khan. The Inhuman teen with her stretchy powers and boundless optimism is the perfect bridge between fans and heroes, being both herself.
Without Kamala, there’d be no Avengers. The game opens on A-Day, a special event celebrating the esteemed super team. A young Kamala Khan is there, hoping to win an award for her Avengers fan-fiction, when disaster strikes. While the Avengers are distracted by an attack on San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge, the experimental Terrigen reactor powering the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier serving as a fairground for A-Day overloads. The resulting explosion takes up a large portion of the city and seemingly causes the death of Captain America. Losing their leader and blamed for the disaster by the public, the Avengers disband. Five years later, teenage Kamala Khan stumbles across information suggesting the A-Day disaster was a setup. Transformed by the Terrigen mists into the shapeshifting Ms. Marvel, Kamala sets off on an adventure to bring her heroes back together to face the ever-growing threat of evil science organization A.I.M.
Kamala is the heart of Marvel’s Avengers. Her enthusiasm and dauntless spirit are what drive the player as they slowly re-assemble the disassembled super team. I wasn’t as excited to unlock Iron Man or Black Widow as playable characters in the campaign as I was to see how Kamala reacted to them. The narrative isn’t quite as charming when the focus shifts to the more established heroes toward the second half of the campaign. As entertaining as Stark and Banner’s bickering is, I miss having my stretchy young hero by my side, providing her newbie hero perspective. Fortunately, the main narrative sticks the landing perfectly. I’d explain how, but that would be telling.
The campaign is broken up into a series of missions. Kamala and the growing roster of the restored Avengers set out from their helicarrier base, attempting to thwart A.I.M.’s evil plan to harvest Inhuman powers to create an army of super androids. They’re dispatched to either high-tech A.I.M. bases, free-roaming wilderness areas dotted with A.I.M. installations, or the odd cityscape crawling with A.I.M. goons. There’s generally a main objective, like infiltrating a specific base, with a bunch of optional objectives achievable along the way. It’s up to the player to either make a beeline for their goal or wander about hunting for more powerful gear and other rewards before each mission’s main event. There’s a lot of re-use of terrain and locations going on, but that’s not painful until the post-campaign mission grind kicks in.
During the campaign, I was too busy embiggening, smashing, thwacking, bashing, shooting, swinging, and flying to care too much about repetitive scenery. Fighting in Marvel’s Avengers is delightfully brutal. Punches and kicks have tangible impact. One can almost feel the recoil from Iron Man’s missile launchers. Being a third-person game and not an overhead affair like the Marvel Ultimate Alliance games, the action here is intimate and immediate. I haven’t felt as cool playing Captain America since 2011’s Captain America: Super-Soldier, the Sega game everyone forgets. And while I wish this version of the Hulk had the wall-scaling ability of the brute from 2005’s The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, I understand some sacrifices have been made to balance this team-based adventure. It wouldn’t be nearly as fun if every mission started off with Iron Man rocketing directly to the objective, so he has to fly slowly. It bugs me a little as a comic book nerd, but I get it.
What I really love is the different play styles within each individual character. In co-op, I have teamed up with players who charge into battle with Iron Man, flailing away with their fists and the odd laser blasts. My Iron Man is specced for missiles, so I like to hang back and rain down destruction. Were I more of a team player, I could spec my Ms. Marvel to have multiple charges of her heroic healing ability. I am not, so instead she kicks a lot more ass.
Were Marvel’s Avengers just the campaign with a little co-op play and some character-specific side missions thrown in for good measure, I’d be perfectly satisfied. Crystal Dynamics could have stopped right there, maybe thrown in a bit of story DLC, and I would be the happiest Avengers fan ever. I’m still pretty damn happy, but I’m not a huge fan of the Destiny/Anthem-style multiplayer endgame.
Once the campaign is over, you’re left with the “Avengers Initiative” post-campaign. It’s here I have to start travelling between the game’s two social spaces to pick up faction missions, grinding reputation so I can earn more powerful gear. Both the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier and the hidden base of the Inhuman resistance host faction coordinators who offer daily missions and assignments players can complete to earn faction reputation. The interface for accepting these missions gives me serious Destiny vibes. Meanwhile, missions are doled out via the war table. It’s a holographic map table filled with mission icons that would feel right-at-home in Anthem’s Fort Tarsis.
See the icons with check marks beneath them on the map? Those are missions I’ve already completed. They are also missions the game would like me to repeat at higher difficulty levels for greater rewards. I understand there are folks out there who crave these sorts of grindy service games, but that’s not me. I’m almost jealous of my more games-as-service loving coworkers for getting more out of the game than I do.
But I have gotten plenty out of Marvel’s Avengers. I’m still playing on a regular basis, not to level up my characters, but to enjoy the thrill of cutting loose as my favorite heroes. I’m looking forward to future character additions and the narrative missions they will bring. Some of the game’s character-specific side stories plant seeds that I’m really hoping come to fruition in future downloadable content. I’m also a huge fan of collecting alternate costumes, though not so much that I’d pay real money to do so.
Even without its occasional glitches and hiccups, Marvel’s Avengers is no Spider-Man PS4. But Spider-Man PS4 only gives players the experience of playing as one superhero. That’s relatively easy. Avengers does a damn good job of bringing six wildly diverse superheroes to life, somehow making wielding the power of a literal god as satisfying as being a normal human shooting robots in the face with a pair of pistols. And there are more heroes on the way, including not one but two bow-and-arrow-sporting Hawkeyes. I can’t wait to take down a robotic tank with a piece of wood propelled by a taut string.
Marvel’s Avengers isn’t the best comic book game out there, but it’s certainly the best team-based comic book game I’ve played. It’s not simply that it gathers iconic heroes together and lets me become them, but that each one of them is equally enjoyable. When the first couple of minutes of any session is spent picking out which character I want to play as, something has gone wonderfully right, which makes overlooking all the little things I don’t like that much easier.