A superhero video game should make players feel like they’re embodying that superhero. The Marvel’s Avengers beta does not do that, and that’s worrying.
I played several hours of Marvel’s Avengers in a three-day closed beta on the PlayStation 4, which included the prologue and the beginning of the game’s main story, primarily starring Kamala Khan and the Hulk, along with a sprinkling of disconnected missions.
The beta is disappointingly boring. The combat is monotonous even with the variety of characters to play as, and the lack of enemy variety doesn’t help there. There are so many hordes of robots that I feel like I’m up against the Trade Federation’s army of droids in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. The random gear drops strewn around the world don’t feel appropriate for the setting. The missions selected for the beta are very generic.
I was completely underwhelmed. But this is a beta. The experience in the beta can’t reasonably be extrapolated into a review of the full game.
After playing the beta, I was able to ask Crystal Dynamics senior producer Shana Bryant and game designer Lauryn Ash about some of these points and get their take on what they’re trying to accomplish with the whole Avengers game and the beta. Their answers weren’t exactly reassuring.
I played as Hulk quite a bit in the beta, punching through a seemingly endless ocean of nameless guards and robots. As the giant green beast who earlier smashed a tank with ease, I felt like my punches were weak, taking three or four hits to take down a regular human. I asked whether some heroes had to be weakened as a gameplay concession to level the playing field a bit.
“I wouldn’t say that at all,” Ash said. “Every super is just as super as each other but all in their own unique ways. When you look at Hulk for example, Hulk is a massive damage dealer and he can take a ton of damage. All of his moves are super powerful.”
She compared him to Black Widow, and noted that she’s more agile, evasive, and faster than Hulk. That may be true, but it still doesn’t feel right that Hulk’s punches don’t just immediately send smaller enemies flying.
The issue of variety comes up a few times in this beta
Another facet of the game that pulled me away from feeling like a real superhero were the RPG-style gear drops. In comics, movies, and TV shows featuring superheroes, most of these heroes don’t get new gear, or if they do it’s usually a pretty big deal. Costumes will change from year to year, artist to artist, or story to story, but that’s generally a purely aesthetic choice. The gear drops only change a hero’s stats, not their appearance.
It feels odd for Kamala Khan to meander through a decrepit facility and stumble upon some bracelets that barely improve her stats. It feels even more odd for Hulk to open a chest and pick up a genetic mutation that changes his bone structure to give him a little more power. Yes, this is a popular method of allowing players to power up and customize their characters in RPGs, but it really doesn’t fit Marvel’s Avengers.
The idea for having loot like this stems from one of the team’s design philosophies, Ash explained.
“The biggest design philosophy was about character customization,” she said. “This isn’t just you playing Hulk, it is you playing your version of Hulk. If you look at the comic book series for Hulk himself, there are so many versions of Hulk.”
To get that kind of variability of powers in the game while adhering to the idea of customization for players, Ash said that gear made sense. From my experience, I disagree, but perhaps that was just due to the small variety of gear in the limited scope of the beta.
The issue of variety comes up a few times in this beta. With unsatisfying combat and a lack of diversity in enemies, encounters in missions become tiresome quickly and all blend into a bland string of same-ness. A question was asked from another reporter in the interview about what the developers are doing to make other missions in the full game stand out.
“What we provided in the beta is just a small taste of what the game has or has to offer,” Bryant said, a point that she iterated a few times in the conversation.
She said there will be more locations in the full game and pieces of dialogue between characters, but that doesn’t really get to the heart of the issue. Ash mentioned that missions can be repeated and there are modifiers in the game that change what kinds of enemies spawn and what loot drops, but you’d still be repeating a mission so that isn’t exactly a win for variety.
Even without a ton of variety in gameplay, a game can stand strong if it has a strong narrative core. In the beta’s prologue, playing as Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, Black Widow, and Captain America in the midst of a crisis in San Francisco, the story feels really strong. But immediately after the Avengers’ helicarrier crashes and Captain America is allegedly killed, the story really takes a dip and feels tenuous at best.
With so many playable characters, I asked whether we’d have strong character development for lots of different heroes or if the game would be more focused on just a few characters.
“We have a really tight, really well-crafted narrative within the campaign mode,” Bryant said. “You play as all of the Avengers but you really follow the path of Kamala Khan. She’s our narrator.”
In the beta, Khan is funny, she’s bright, and she’s motivated. Bryant said Khan is her favorite character in the game and it shows. The other characters, comparatively, feel like wet rags. Maybe that’s because they didn’t get enough of a spotlight in the beta. In the full game, some missions will focus on individual characters and their stories, but Bryant said that will be outside of the main campaign.
Ash mentioned several times that when developing characters for Marvel’s Avengers, the team thought about what a game for that specific character would feel like and how they could do that character justice.
It’s an interesting idea, because Marvel’s Avengers isn’t a game for a specific character, like, say, 2018’s Spider-Man. It’s a game built for lots of different superheroes, right? I asked whether there would be missions designed for specific characters, and Ash said, “Absolutely,” but elaborated in a way that made it sound like these missions were only related to certain characters story-wise, not necessarily gameplay-wise.
“A good example of this type of moment for emotional storytelling is both in the campaign but also you’ll have access to another sect of those hero missions and war zone missions that kind of feature around a certain hero as well,” she said. “What’s more of their story in our world?”
After my time with the beta, I’m concerned that the game being designed to work with so many different characters with different abilities turns the world into a broad, generic denominator. If anyone can fit into the world, then the world starts to lack any discernible personality.
As the beta opens up to more players over the month of August, perhaps feedback will drive Crystal Dynamics to make some changes. Bryant noted that they’re excited to hear what people think and can tune and adjust the game to make it as good as possible.
Marvel’s Avengers is scheduled to release on Sept. 4.