I experienced a strange, involuntary reaction during my Marvel's Avengers hands-on session at Gamescom 2019. It wasn’t the first time it had happened to me, because it wasn't all that dissimilar to a sensation I felt back in 2012, when I first set eyes on The Avengers battling to save New York on the big screen. In both instances, I could feel it steadily creeping across my face, as the focus of the camera switched rapidly between five of Earth's Mightiest Heroes amidst a city-sweeping battle; a wide-eyed, uncontainable smile.
As a kid that grew up consuming panel after panel of comic books bearing the iconic Marvel branding, there's still this little part of me that recognises just how lucky we are to be in this position. Where we can see characters like Black Widow, Captain America, Hulk, Iron Man, and Thor not only appear on screens, but hold an unrivalled dominance over them. Given how deeply these characters have embedded themselves into the public consciousness since Iron Man helped change the landscape of event cinema back in 2008, it can be all too easy to lose perspective on just how incredible that is – particularly for those that found more comfort in the adventures of Earth-616 than they did in their own reality.
And now, it is interactive entertainment's turn to repeat the impossible, taking a group of complex characters, each as unique and iconic as the last, and pulling them together seamlessly into a singular, all-encompassing experience. In its pre-alpha condition, Marvel's Avengers isn't spectacular, but then again, I'm not entirely convinced that it needs to be.
The section of Marvel's Avengers that I was able to play represents a work-in-progress tutorial, which a developer would later tell me barely represents the scope and polish of the game as it exists today in the offices of Crystal Dynamics. This is then but a taste of what to expect. This is an opportunity to get a read of the work that is going into making each of these characters feel distinct, to make the controls malleable enough to properly service each hero's unique combat quirks, and to get a better sense of the visuals after the internet had a contentious reaction to the game's debut.
Marvel's Avengers story
Learn more about Marvel's Avengers story in this interview with the game's creative director Shaun Escayg.
I'm going to allow myself the opportunity to make a sweeping statement: Marvel's Avengers is a truly gorgeous video game. That shouldn't be all that surprising, as this is Crystal Dynamics we are talking about, after all. It's hard not to be utterly enraptured by the sight of the Golden Gate Bridge crumbling into the bay beneath it; San Francisco pulsing with energy on the horizon, caught in stolen glimpses as you pull your focus towards the scenes of chaotic action unfolding around you.
I have no particular issue with the character designs, so I'm not going to rehash that old argument (visual changes between entertainment mediums are not only expected, but anticipated for many longtime Marvel fans, myself included) though there is still some work to be done with areas of animation. Movement could occasionally look a little stilted, especially as Hulk took to leaping between locations of the environment. On other (rarer) occasions, it felt like the characters were a little slow to react to my direction, which can be frustrating when facing off against a gaggle of enemies. Developers on hand stressed that this was a pre-alpha build for a reason – there's still work to be done!
Marvel's Avengers has a release date of May 15, 2020, leaving plenty of time for Crystal Dynamics – and the army of satellite studios brought in to support it on this project – to refine the movements and motions of the five playable Avengers that it's launching the game with. That's a monumental undertaking in itself, and so perhaps a few blemishes here and there were to be expected. What really matters is how it plays, and the truth is there's nothing quite like Marvel's Avengers out there.
Marvel's Avengers hands-on
What is it about the way Marvel's Avengers plays that had me smiling? It's difficult to pinpoint, but I'd suppose that it's in the way that each character feels once you're facing down a group of Stark tech-enhanced antagonists, each under the command of Taskmaster. Thor and Captain America handle exactly as you'd hope they would – the clear standouts of the group for me. The pair are similar in that they both use projectile-based weaponry to supplement their focus on melee attacks, but the former hits a little heavier compared to Cap’s more acrobatic pugilism. That's reflected not only in the way the heroes have been animated – and the way that enemies can crumble beneath them – but in their control schemes and combat combinations, too.
Mjolnir is awesome to wield, particularly as you begin to work out the quirks in the mystical hammer's movement. At one point, I was able to pin an enemy to the side of a van – the metal crumpling upon impact, the foe hollering in pain as a current of electric courses through their body – before going in firsts first to another hastily assembling group, only pulling the hammer back to my side once they had me surrounded, knocking them to the floor in an instant. Cap's shield had a similar feel, with the hero’s famous Vibranium frisbee able to intuitively ricochet between surfaces and enemies, making you feel effortlessly powerful in the process. The only game to truly nail the underlying feeling of these weapons was God of War – a game that endured no less than four years of development, in part to get get Kratos' Leviathan Axe just right. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that God of War's combat designer is working on Marvel's Avengers, you can feel that as soon as you take control of these characters.
Iron Man feels fluid in movement, and his Repulsors are as fun to fire off as I had always hoped they would be. What caught my attention was just how great the suit felt in the air, an accomplishment that only BioWare can really claim to have mastered through Anthem.
Hulk is a riot to wield, too, with the rampaging Bruce Banner able to sweep enemies off the floor and use them as a makeshift club – the infamous Loki moment of The Avengers made real. Black Widow felt off for me, but I think that speaks more to the part she was forced to play in the tutorial stage, more so than anything indicative of a broader problem with the character's mechanical design. Natasha Romanoff was primarily contained to a lacklustre boss battle against Taskmaster, an encounter that felt like it had been torn from a game design manual written in the early '00s – complete with frustrating button-bashing QTEs. When Black Widow is given a little room to breathe in the game proper (including the yet to be revealed co-op missions), I expect her particular proficiencies in combat will be more effectively realised.
There's more to come
What I'm trying to tell you, then, is that I had a good time with Marvel's Avengers. It isn't going to change the world, but then whoever said it had to? I never thought I would get to see all of these characters fully realised and brought together like this, let alone have the opportunity to play as them. I hear the criticisms that Marvel's Avengers looks like an Ultimate Alliance game with a bigger budget, but the more I think about it after playing even a small slice of it, the less I believe that it's a fair comparison to draw.
Crystal Dynamics is pouring time, energy, and resources into making each of the Avengers feel distinctive and unique. That's a ridiculous undertaking for a studio, even for one of big and supported as this. That's why, for now, I'm only too happy to embrace the feeling of joy that playing Marvel's Avengers left me with. There's still a long way for Crystal Dynamics to go here – it's still yet to properly detail the mission structure, customisation options, and co-op systems, for starters – but what's here is a foundation for something that has the potential to be a dream come true for millions of people, particularly for those of us who have wasted away our twilight years dreaming of smashing somebody in the face with Captain America's shield. It's the little things in life that matter the most, after all.