Marvel's Avengers clearly wants to be many things to many people. You can see that in the A-Day opening, where it gives you a brief tour of what each of Earth's Mightiest Heroes will (eventually) be able to do, from Hulk's rampaging to Iron Man's graceful gliding, promising the power fantasy of embodying characters who have got relatively short shrift when it comes to games. Then there's the menus, which are overflowing with the sort of stats that Destiny fans have become accustomed to, with character and power levels, gear that can be upgraded, and percentage point bonuses assaulting the senses. The question the upcoming beta poses is simple: Does Marvel's Avengers manage to successfully thread the needle between stats and spectacle?
Taking the Initiative
After the A-Day intro, the beta starts to show off missions that we haven't seen before. It thrusts us into the soon-to-be-ripped chinos of Bruce Banner, joined on his search for Tony Stark by Kamala Khan. While the goal was to quietly infiltrate an AIM facility hidden in the depths of a verdant forest – all in the hopes of recovering J.A.R.V.I.S – it isn't long before we are given a chance to really put the combat through its paces. For Hulk, that includes grabbing enemies into his palm, thrashing them around, as well as being able to rip chunks from the ground and hurl them at his foes. Initially, there's a lot of uncomplicated fun to be had in being a green wrecking ball, but we'll circle back to that later.
It's also in this mission where the game's Naughty Dog influence is most felt. After all, it's hardly the first time a Troy Baker-voiced character has guided a teenager through a forest in recent months, but more importantly, it's in the pacing. After starting the mission as the Hulk, we're then put into Kamala Khan's, aka Ms. Marvel, stretchy shoes and the game starts to find its voice. Kamala's got a wide-eyed buoyancy that is infectious, and this single player mission does well to give you moments where you're fighting through waves of goons with a full range of unique powers, and then drop the pace enough that you can spend a bit of time with her. One scene in particular, where you're discovering old Avengers trinkets that got hoarded reminds me of Uncharted's 4 attic, as you see her light up as she browses the past glories of the heroes she idolises.
It's fair to say that putting the spotlight on Kamala is a shrewd move. Her powers, being able to shapeshift her body like a Stretch Armstrong, lead to some of the most impressive moments in my time during the beta. She swings her arms in a way that allows you to whip through crowds or create giant fists that can come smashing down into people. This type of combat might not be revolutionary, expect a lot of combos that rely on mixing up light attacks and strong attacks, but it offers some pleasingly effortless spectacle.
The longer I spent with the beta, however, the clearer it became that the combat offerings of each of the various heroes isn't nearly as diverse as I expected it to be. Ms. Marvel, Hulk, Black Widow all have differences, but none so pronounced that it feels like I have to change the way I play. I dive into waves, slam through combos, maybe chuck in a few ranged attacks, and wait for the next wave. Given how iconic each of these heroes are – and how, famously, identifiable each of their power sets are at a glance – it's quite disappointing to see so little separating them once the action starts, although this could change as Crystal Dynamics gives us access to the full suite of skill trees and powers in the final game.
There's also the now obligatory powers mapped to L1, R1, and L1 + R1, and these offer up some more noticeable differences between the heroes. For instance, Black Widow's Iconic power allows her to briefly turn herself and allies invisible, whereas Kamala Khan's is to turn herself into a giant, greatly increasing the damage she does. These varying powers offer the greatest differences between the heroes, but that's only for a few pockets in every mission. While I don't get to delve too deep into the skill trees of each character in the beta, there's a nagging feeling that depth in combat might be more visual than systematic.
Of course, another major part of the beta is the Destiny-equse looting and gearing of the game. Each character has a Power level, alongside a character level, which are both upgraded independently of each other. Your character level is tied into the skills you can unlock for your characters, such as new attacks, while the Power lever is decided by the gear you obtain. The better the gear, the higher your level, and you can upgrade gear with resources you can find in levels or by dismantling old gear you find.
And look, if you're exhausted reading that, then this might not be the game for you. It's here where Marvel's Avengers feels most disjointed, especially after the more scripted single player missions that kick the beta off. Because in these moments, where we pour over what incremental upgrade we could give to Hulk, it's hard not to feel that Marvel's Avengers loves numbers more than a mathematician. Add on the fact that you need to level up each hero individually, and it's clear that this is another live service game that wants to be the only thing you play.
Like any multiplayer game, the addition of mates does help inject some fun to the proceedings and is clearly where you'll spend most of your time once the main story campaign is wrapped up. The beta gives you a few different types of missions to try, from the HARM Challenge Rooms (which see you take on waves of enemies), shorter Drop Zone missions, which take around 5-10 minutes to complete and focus on a single objective, or longer War Zone missions, which have multiple objectives and are closer in style to a Destiny Strike. The mix of mission types means there's a few bits of surface variety, but in truth, the majority of them focus on you moving to an area, working over groups of enemies, before then moving to the next. If you're not too interested in constantly updating your gear, then these tend to feel a little rote the longer you spend doing them.
On top of that, the missions I played didn't really offer too much for strategic teamwork. No objectives really felt like we'd need to think about each hero's individual abilities, such as Iron Man's ability to fly or Kamala's elastic limbs, which makes sense if you decide to tackle missions with AI companions (who, to be fair, are pretty intelligent and help out a fair bit if you do decide you don't want to play online) but means each level we face ends not requiring too much thought. On top of that, outside of the occasional superpower - such as Black Widow being able to make squadmates invisible - there's little in the way of specific power link-up in the beta, which again diluted the power fantasy. Hopefully the final game will offer some hero specific puzzles, especially considering that Iconic missions in the game will put the focus on a particular hero.
Some assembly required
Despite both the shortcomings and promises, it's still hard to see if Marvel's Avengers can achieve its lofty ambitions. In its weaker moments, it's hard not to think that focusing on a single element like simplifying the looting or adding more concrete differences to the combat could make for a better moment-to-moment experience. Likewise, is this a game for players of Destiny who want to swap Bungie's shooter for a Marvel-flavoured world or MCU fans who want to fill the space between films with a different type of comic book wish fulfillment? If Crystal Dynamics can figure out how to smooth off some of the more noticeable joins, then it might just appeal to both audiences.