Marvel's Avengers has an endgame and it's not the one you're thinking of. There won't be any Infinity Gauntlet shenanigans or Black Widow hurling herself off a cliff – and instead of Iron Man sacrificing himself for the greater good, we may get Captain America returning from the dead.
The endgame for Marvel's Avengers is technically nonexistent, as it's a live-service game with a content and patch pipeline stretching years into the future, promising the addition of superheroes beyond Hawkeye and the PS4-exclusive Spider-Man. But according to Crystal Dynamics, if you play the Marvel's Avengers beta, you'll only get a tasting menu of the smorgasbord that awaits you in the full-fat game.
I sat down with creative director Shaun Escayg and head of combat Vince Napoli to chat about the beta and the future of Crystal Dynamic's take on the most famous band of heroes, and discovered there's a lot more than meets the eye – wait, wrong universe.
System of a beta
It's not easy to encapsulate a game like Marvel's Avengers into a consumable beta that spans a short period of time. For one thing, there's the gear and upgrade systems, which appear to be as convoluted and multifaceted as Destiny 2's, with skill trees that look like that old, gnarled oak tree in your backyard and items that have detailed breakdowns designed to let you min/max yourself into the Negative Zone. Since the beta is heavily focused on multiplayer PvE experiences, those systems are front and center from the jump, which can be jarring for people like me who prefer to put their heads down and barrel through it.
And those systems aren't necessarily ones you need to interact with in the complete game – not through much of the campaign, at least. "In the main game, the gear stuff is a real slow burn in the sense that we don't demand or really even expect you to fully engage with it throughout the campaign," Napoli explains. "We kind of want it to be there as a luxury, but if you don't really want to engage with it, or you're like, 'This is not this is not my style of game, I want to just go to the story and explore the narrative,' then the game is designed to not require that."
However, Crystal Dynamics does expect (or want) you to eventually start working with those systems. The further you dig into Marvel's Avengers, the more challenging it will become, pushing you to start exploring and investing in the minutiae of the game's underlying loot and upgrade systems.
"Mid-game is where we expect players to engage with it about 60%, or we expect them to be configuring some of the skills but not really min-maxing items or caring about attributes yet - so that's how we'll tune," Napoli assures me, and it's worth noting that elements of progression have been artificially accelerated for the beta to help players through all of the content in a short span of time. "Then of course, at the endgame, we expect you to be engaging with all of it so we're going to design the enemies accordingly. It's a much slower approach in the real game."
According to Escayg, the dual gameplay styles available in Marvel's Avengers is an intentional merger. "There are the players that just want to learn about Kamala, and feel powerful, get the experience of the playable movie version," he explains, adding, "Then there's the player that is a completionist who wants to go through everything, collect at the collectibles, gear up, develop skill trees, perform and compete."
Plant a seed, grow a skill tree
Speaking of skill trees, the ones in Marvel's Avengers are designed to give players the option to create disparate versions of the same heroes. That's why they're so spanning and convoluted, because your version of Thor may end up entirely different than my version of Thor – who in my mind is absolutely wearing booty shorts.
Those complicated skill trees and unlocks are also the reason why many of the characters feel a bit same-y at the start. "We went back and forth a lot, especially when you play the campaign and you realize that you are actually jumping from characters quickly and rapidly," Napoli explains. "We needed to strike that balance where the starting point is similar enough that you can kind of pick it up and play, and if you're the player that wants to skip tutorials and not read them again, if you're like 'I'm tired of being told what to do, I want to just go and smash things,' you can get by."
I ask if the skill trees means these characters will evolve more as you go. "Definitely. There's no way we could create a game with as much depth that we wanted to not have that happen," Napoli assures me. "That's what the skill tree allows us to do. As you go further and further, you'll start to get into some pretty wacky diversions – even control scheme wise… you'll be like 'The way I use this button is totally different and it bears no resemblance to the way I'm using this other character now. Now I'm flying, and doing aerial maneuvers and shooting, and all this other stuff that is not even close to the way Thor can fly and do stuff."
So, while you may be feeling like Black Widow, Kamala Khan, and even Iron Man feel a bit same-y after that beta, which limited available skill unlocks to the first page of what seems to be three, you may not feel that way after plunging several hours into the complete game. Cleary the beta is a slice of a game, and Crystal Dynamics has purposefully held powers and abilities back to surprise us at launch.
The aforementioned skill trees will also open up the floor for you to create some incredible cooperative moments between heroes – moments that may not be obviously available from the start. During the beta, there weren't many opportunities to trigger multi-hero moves reminiscent of Marvel movie moments like the Black Widow/Okoye/Scarlet Witch Wakanda fight from Avengers: Infinity War. But those moments will be there in the game, just waiting for you to trigger them.
"So there's cooperative enemy stuff that is very, let's say it's heavy-handed in the sense that it's a required group action and there are button prompts," Napoli explains. "And to be honest, I'm not sure if you're gonna come across those enemies in the beta. But that's one aspect of the team stuff." I ask if there are multiplayer moments that are more organic, that'll allow you to fire Iron Man's repulsors off of Thor's hammer or, ya know, Cap's shield (since he's definitely not dead).
"There's more subtle, sandbox-y moments like using a heroic and hitting another character who happens to be supercharged by lightning," Napoli assures me. "We decided to let the mechanics work in a way that is a lot more sandbox-y and a lot more fluid, rather than try to deliver them all as these kind of bombastic, but more constrained, cinematic ones – because we have enough of those for the campaign."
According to Napoli, how you choose to traverse up each hero's skill tree will affect these organic interactions, giving you more chances to make some Marvel magic happen.. "There's a bunch of those moves actually hidden into the skill trees," Napoli explains. "You'll see, 'Oh, actually, if I get this skill and then I fire this one and I have this certain ability on my not-dead-character's shield skill tree, I'm able to reflect a beam around and hit enemies with it.'"
And remember, the opportunities to set off some cool hero-rippling effects will grow with the Marvel's Avengers roster, which will continue to add heroes post-launch. When discussing the confirmed last-minute inclusion of Spider-Man, Napoli reminds me that Crystal Dynamics had "a full roster in progress of all the heroes we were going to release, plans for years in advance, and certainly all the ones we've currently got underway" before the web-slinger was added mid-development.
Well, there you have it, folks. The Marvel's Avengers beta is just the gaming equivalent of a brewery's tasting flight, and Captain America is definitely not dead.