No matter how you slice it, Marvel's Avengers hasn't had the best year. From a buggy launch to dwindling player counts, it was beginning to look like it was all over for Square Enix's ambitious outing. Yet like any superhero worth their salt, Marvel's Avengers isn't going down without a fight – and if the free War For Wakanda expansion's first two missions are anything to go by, the Avengers still has a few blows left in it.
Set five years after Wakanda closed its borders to the outside world, we join our hero in this Black Panther DLC tailing some mercs lurking in a nearby jungle. T'Challa's solution? A royally decreed ass-whopping. Leaping into action, it becomes immediately apparent that War for Wakanda is a more challenging beast. As I sent our acrobatic Wakandan king hurtling into battle, his foes hit back just as hard. Instead of the mindless button mash of old, Ulysses Klaue's Vibranium-mining-mercs immediately surround me, dodging my flurry of attacks and responding with AOE moves that dole out some serious punishment.
After quickly growing tired of the base game's challenge-less slog, getting my arse instantly handed to me was a welcome surprise. Following months without endgame content and baffling XP system 'fixes', War For Wakanda immediately attempts to demonstrate that developer Crystal Dynamics is learning from its mistakes.
Welcome to Wakanda
Still, in-game difficulty is irrelevant if the actual combat isn't compelling – and thankfully, the King of Wakanda is the game's best-playing hero yet. Sprinting across the vibrant jungle with a pleasingly punchy pace, T'Challa leaps around like a gymnast possessed, hurtling through the air before landing blow after devastating blow. Kitted out with a pair of throwable Vibranium daggers, a damage absorbing block/parry, and a satisfying string of combos, Black Panther's up-close and personal play style feels a world away from Thor's floaty playstyle.
The digital dioramas you're duking it out in don't hurt either. Unlike the cramped corridors that littered the base game, the luscious locales of Wakanda's forests feel like pleasingly inviting playgrounds. Leaping across its overgrown ruins and clambering up walls to glimpse glistening waterfalls, this open vibrant space is a sight for sore eyes.
T'Challa's athletic prowess make him a natural fit for platforming too, with his pacy pounce turning sandbox traversal into a pleasingly flowing bounce. Whether we're sending his royal whiskers clambering up walls or swinging from branches, there's more than a touch of Spider-Man to Square Enix's take on the cat-eared King.
As foes are dispatched and loot is collected, the bustling jungle gives way to an eerie cavernous temple – the caves of Bashenga . Lit by the flicker of torches and surrounded by crumbling structures, this Uncharted 4 style section sees T'Challa solving puzzles and dodging traps between bouts of environmental storytelling where he recalls his training.
Black Panther will be the eighth playable hero in Marvel's Avengers. Here's more information on the War for Wakanda release date and the live event that will introduce King T'Challa.
Ducking and weaving your way through ancient traps and stepping on weighted plates to reveal hidden loot, there's a pleasingly Indiana Jones feel to the caves of Bashenga. Going from a sprawling forest to a dimly lit cave is a trick that's repeated in the game's second mission too, but both iterations feel distinct enough that the locales don't lose their sheen.
Speaking of sheen, there's one major ingredient of the War of Wakanda expansion that brings the rest of this live service hodgepot together – Christopher Judge. Finding somebody who could do justice to a role that was popularized by the legendary Chadwick Boseman was never going to be easy, but Square Enix has found an actor who can fill his vibranium-shaped boots in Judge.
As anyone who played 2018's God of War will attest, Christopher Judge's gravely tones are endlessly captivating, with the voice of Kratos lending the king of Wakanda an equally commanding presence. Thankfully, he's used to fairly good effect in the first mission, with Judge's distinctive voice lending some intriguing backstory to the smattering of environmental storytelling littered throughout each mission. With much of the base game lacking the narrative chops of other Marvel games – Insomniac's Spider-Man, for example – it's promising to see Crystal Dynamics shake off some of the live service genre trappings and attempt to deliver a narrative worthy of the universe.
Stronger than ever
The expansion's first boss battle is surprisingly enjoyable too, seeing Black Panther go claw to bullet with minigun-toting brute Crossbones. Set against the backdrop of one of Klaw's cannons reigning down fire on the city of Wakanda, this battle offers a pleasing sense of urgency. As the shielded villain attempts to protect the cannon, the fight sees you pummelling Crossbones in order to lower the shields and disable the city-levelling weapon.
It's then that War For Wakanda goes back to familiar territory. Putting you back in the shoes of Captain America, following a dramatic meeting with the crown king, you are suddenly wandering the game's highly-detailed new Wakandan social space. Littered with Royal guards who block your way and dismiss you with a stern word, filled with groups of muttering scientists and studious technicians, it's an impressively detailed hub. With the Reassemble campaign's social space taking place in a largely abandoned ship, it's a welcome evolution – and that's before Wakanda is able to offer up some captivating story moments.
From the throne-facing war room, to the candle-lit ritual chamber of the Wakandan Elder or even the humorous whispers in the corridor between Kamala Khan and Hawkeye, this shiny social space offers a glimpse of the kind of storytelling you'd expect from an Avengers game. Will these detailed touches be a constant throughout the expansion? Having seen less than half of the new expansion's content, it's hard to tell – but in terms of showcasing the team's narrative ambition, it's certainly a promising start.
As I power through the expansion's second mission, deja vu begins to set in. The general cadence of War For Wakanda consists of open jungle scraps followed by cavernous traversal with a few puzzles. Still, thanks to the solid flow of traversal and it's consistently challenging combat, it all feels satisfying, with its sprinkle of cinematic touches bringing these disparate elements together to create more than the sum of its cobbled together parts.
Before my demo ended, I briefly got to experience a fully upgraded Black Panther. Reaching max level and armed with a wide litany of skills, needless to say, a fully kitted out Black Panther is an absolute beast. Launching into battle, his already flowing combat abilities burst into life with a flow of aerial combos and upgraded projectiles making the Wakandan King feel wonderfully OP.
Like most of the people who played it, I came away from Marvel's Avengers last year feeling pretty underwhelmed. If the War for Wakanda expansion shows anything, it's that the game's tepid reception has lit a creative fire under Crystal Dynamics.
The big question is, does the War For Wakanda do enough to fix Marvel's Avengers (many )problems? Having played less than half of the new mission, it's honestly hard to say. When fending off waves of enemies as you attempt to defend some Vibranium, the mashy monotony of old certainly begins to creep back in. Yet with vastly improved combat, a brilliantly cast Wakandan king, and a bold new setting, there's more than enough to this free expansion to warrant donning the suit and cowl.
Black Panther joins Marvel's Avengers on August 17. If you're looking for a different kind of superhero experience this fall, Square Enix is also working on a Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy game.