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Marvel's Avengers may look simple, but there's a deep RPG beneath that gorgeous exterior

(Image credit: Square Enix)

Crystal Dynamics knows that you're eager for more information on Marvel's Avengers. That everything it has shown to the public so far – including the Marvel's Avengers Gamescom 2019 preview build I was recently able to get my hands-on – isn't answering the right questions. That's why publisher Square Enix invited me to sit down with Crystal Dynamics to get a better sense of how Marvel's Avengers will be structured and play when it releases on May 15, 2020. 

"I want you to see that there's a lot more to this game than running around punching enemies," Casey Lynch tells me, editorial director for Marvel's Avengers. "We're going to take the time to go into all of these things in the future; the intrinsic differences in the way that each character can play, their specific attributes, and the entire stat system underlying everything... there's a lot of depth in this game."

He's right, there is a lot of depth in this game. The problem Crystal Dynamics is facing right now is that it isn't doing a good enough job of demonstrating that to the public right now. From what I have seen of the game behind-closed-doors, it's pretty clear to me that there's far more to Marvel's Avengers than meets the eye, even if it's a little rough around the edges. The truth is, the gameplay footage shown last week only scratches the surface of what this game will be capable of delivering. 

Marvel's Avengers story missions

Once you get through the A-Day fiasco and sift through the drama that will inevitably arise from the death of Captain America, Marvel's Avengers will begin to open up. The entire game is not going to play like the Golden Gate Bridge tutorial stage that you've no doubt seen online by now – or can watch above. Instead, once you've cleared the intro, you will be given the opportunity to pick your favourite of the four available Avengers – Black Widow, Hulk, Iron Man, or Thor – and then set off across the globe in an effort to try and restore some semblance of order to a world succumbing to the underhand-influence of AIM.

To progress through this story, you'll want to begin the game by playing Hero missions. These are focused, narrative-driven quests that are designed to shine a spotlight on one specific hero at a time and give you an opportunity to experiment with new powers, perks, and abilities. "Hero missions are single-players missions that showcase a specific character," Lynch reaffirms, explaining that as you push through these missions, you'll have the opportunity to find and eventually reconcile with your fellow Avengers, ultimately recruiting them back into the fold. 

As you get the band back together, each member will return with you to the reclaimed Helicarrier that acts as your secret base of operations before becoming available to play in single-player and co-operative missions. "Over the course of our original story, you will unlock and play as the four Avengers," Lynch continues. "Once each has rejoined, you'll be able to play through Hero missions that give you more dedicated time to explore each character's individual story and gameplay in more detail." 

(Image credit: Marvel)

Interestingly, these Hero missions are also giving Crystal Dynamics the opportunity to stretch some of its creative muscles – all in an effort to ensure that Hero missions feel like bespoke event scenarios that celebrate each of the characters' inherent proficiencies. "Our designers are laying out and building specific spaces for each of these Hero missions. We are tailoring them to each hero's specific type of gameplay experience. That means you should expect to find these huge open spaces for Iron Man to fly through, and these big destructible environments for Hulk to smash."

It's reassuring to hear Crystal Dynamics outline this part of the game this way. It sounds like Marvel's Avengers is trying to strike a solid balance between its content types, ensuring that players have enough to keep them interested, engaged, and challenged while waiting for new content to drop in the months following launch or for friends to come online. 

Marvel's Avengers co-op missions

(Image credit: Square Enix)

If Hero missions represent Crystal Dynamics' authored campaign, it's the Warzone missions where you'll be able to create your own stories with friends. You'll have the opportunity to choose between both mission types from your WarTable aboard the Helicarrier; Warzone missions are designed to be played in solo or co-op configurations (supporting up to four players), in which you'll be able to take any of the Avengers that you have recruited out into more open and dynamic spaces and battle it out for some of the best gear and resources that the game has to offer. 

"Our Warzone missions are spread out all across the globe, and they have expansive areas to explore," Lynch says, noting that while these missions can still provide context to the wider story and give more details on what each of the heroes have been up to since A-Day, but this is ultimately where you'll be playing with your friends and looking for new items to upgrade your heroes. "There is lots of gear and resources to find, lots of enemies to fight, and lots of secrets to uncover, with a wide variety of objectives to tackle."

The objectives are varied because they are, in a sense, dynamic. Enemy AI and objectives could shift depending on what heroes are brought into the battlegrounds and what powers/abilities they have equipped, while each mission will have an attributed Power Level to denote how much of a challenge you could expect to encounter when venturing out into the field with your fellow Avengers. 

(Image credit: Square Enix)

It's in these Warzone missions where the real promise of Marvel's Avengers comes into view. As you join with friends and other heroes online and see how each individual player has structured the Earth's Mightiest Heroes. There's a pretty good chance that each Thor or Iron Man that you encounter, for example, will be slightly different from the last – meaning you'll constantly need to be altering your strategies on the fly to tackle High-Value Targets, hordes of enemies, and other various challenges that await in these more open missions and areas. 

Thankfully, everything you do in Warzone – be it solo or online – carries back across the Hero missions, and vice-versa. Crystal Dynamics wants this to feel like a seamless experience, whereas many friction points between the fun are reduced as possible. It's up to you to decide which types of missions you want to play, or if you want to focus entirely on one type over the other – completing Hero and Warzone missions unlock more of both variants as you go. "All missions actually drive the narrative forward in meaningful ways, and your heroes progress is shared across the whole game regardless of what missions you choose to do," says Lynch, adding, "For us, this blend of story-driven single-player campaign and co-op gives you the best of both worlds."

Marvel's Avengers character customisation 

(Image credit: Square Enix)

"While we want everybody to be able to pick up and play Marvel's Avengers – because everybody loves the Avengers – it was really important to us that we can provide depth in the game too," Lynch begins as we start to get into character customisation. "The gear, skills, perks, and upgrades are all elements that work together, driving the combat to let you play your own way; these systems are for the people who love diving into stats just as much as the people who have just come for the characters and their stories."

It's in the character customisation where Marvel's Avengers will ultimately live or die. This isn't going to be a game judged on it its launch but by its first anniversary. That's because the game has surprisingly robust RPG systems working behind the otherwise slick action, designed to keep you engaged with it over a long period of time as you work to put your own spin on each of the heroes. 

By completing missions, you will level up your characters, and this will give you the chance to begin investing in skill trees, unlocking new moves, abilities, and combos. Oh, and you'll also begin to earn gear to bring yet another layer of customisation to the game. "As you explore and battle through each mission, you'll earn and upgrade gear. Our gear is character-specific, and it goes from Common all the way up to Legendary, and beyond," says Lynch, who also goes on to tease that each piece of gear also comes with its own Perks, yet another modifier that can help further refine your powers and abilities. "Perks are unique modifiers that directly change how each character plays. They allow you to tailor each hero to your tastes – the higher rarity of gear, the better the perks."

I got the opportunity to catch the briefest glimpse at some of what Lynch is talking about here, and it looks interesting enough. New pieces of armour pieces for a character like Iron Man that can boost certain stats or abilities, which can then further work in tandem with the skill trees as you work to specialise your hero into playing a certain way to suit the scenario ahead of you. I only got the chance to scratch at the surface of this, but it has filled me with great confidence all the same. 

Play it your way

(Image credit: Square Enix)

"Each of these heroes is unique, and that's how they should play," Lynch begins, bringing this entire session to an end – as he attempts to explain how all of these systems will ultimately come together to give you a unique experience, even when playing in co-op with some very familiar faces. "We built a flexible combat system that is expressly designed to support multiple play styles." 

"This is where the progression systems comes into play, because each hero actually has their own unique set of moves and combos that they can unlock," Lynch says, and now he really has my attention. From what I can tell, based on how you build your character – with the skill trees, gear, perks, and lord knows what else – you will begin to tap into what Crystal Dynamics is calling 'hero specific combo systems'. These are designed to reflect your work in the menus, giving you strings of unique and more powerful moves to reflect and reward your pursuit of speciality – in whatever form that may take. 

As an example, Lynch outlines a scenario in which, as Thor, he likes to use AOE attacks in Warzone missions for crowd control, while still having the utility to attack powerful foes (that may drop rarer loot) directly. For this he suggests "putting my stat points into recharging my hero powers, and into increasing power and damage in my lightning attacks" and I can see some quick shots of this build in action – it looks mesmerizingly awesome. 

(Image credit: Square Enix)

How you want to play each of Earth's Mightiest Heroes is up to you, and Crystal Dynamics is hard at work behind the scenes making it happen. That – the studio is suggesting – is why you are yet to see any of this just yet. Because it wants to get it just right, especially before it lets PS4 players into a planned early access beta in early 2020. The truth is, there's still a long way to go for Marvel's Avengers, and there's still plenty that needs to be detailed, but it's hard not to be enthused by the ambition and energy that the team is bringing to this game. 

The fundamentals of combat are already incredibly solid, and it's this type of expressive RPG system and flexibility that could help give Marvel's Avengers some serious shelf-life – perhaps even challenge the dominance of Destiny 2 and The Division 2. We'll see, of course; for now, take comfort in the knowledge that Marvel's Avengers may look simple on the surface, but behind those gorgeous graphics is the beating heart of an RPG.