Right off the bat, Marvel's Avengers creative director Shaun Escayg is quick to vocalise what many of us are probably thinking after watching the latest live stream for Square Enix's upcoming action-RPG. "M.O.D.O.K. is a bit an extreme choice," he acknowledges of the game's newly revealed villain, with a knowing grin. But, then again, Marvel's Avengers looks to be an experience primarily characterised by its unashamed extremity.
It's an original superhero story from Eidos Montreal and Crystal Dynamics, the teams behind the incredible Deus Ex and Tomb Raider reboots. It's a PvE live service that draws heavily, and somewhat brazenly, from the Destiny playbook. It's the next major title, following Insomniac's Spider-Man PS4 project, in Marvel's new, ambitious push for high quality, licensed video games. It's a ginormous, multi-studio project that has been in the works for almost half a decade, and it looks like it could be a ton of dumb, messy fun.
Go for the head
But back to M.O.D.O.K., and why Escayg and his narrative team thought this Marvel supervillain - a former scientist turned superhuman mastermind characterised by his monstrously large head - was the right choice as the arch-nemesis for this take on Earth's mightiest heroes, explaining that his character traits balanced perfectly against the themes of one of the game's central narrative hooks: Ms. Marvel's origin story.
"I personally was inspired by the Marvels series from Alex Ross," Escayg tells me. "It follows the perspective of the Avengers from this reporter, Phil Sheldon, who looks up at these superheroes and just watches them wreak havoc. From his viewpoint, they're not heroes at all, but dangerous. George Tarleton [a.k.a M.O.D.O.K.] is someone who resembles that idea, believing science is a better solution to superpowers. Kamala Khan, on the other hand, believes that the superheroes' ability to empathise and embrace their mistakes is exactly why they should be humanity's protectors. So, put together, they were basically the perfect soup of conflict."
You've probably heard about the set-up for Marvel's Avengers story, which sees the peacekeeping team cast-off as a danger to society following an attack orchestrated by a mysterious group known as A.I.M. The campaign's opening sequence has been admittedly overused in Square Enix's marketing materials ever since it was revealed last year, but the first of several War Table live streams has finally given us a better understanding of Marvel's Avengers' combat systems, progression structure, and the distinction between its single-player campaign and standalone co-op missions called Warzones.
Warzones are objective-based, highly-replayable sandboxes that can be played as a team of four, either with three other players or a customisable squad of AI companions. Imagine if Hulk, Iron Man, and Captain America attempted one of Destiny's Strikes, and you have a half-decent idea of what to expect. Phil Therien is the man in charge of making Warzones feel just as enjoyable as Marvel's Avengers' single-player campaign, and tells me that teaming up as a superhuman squadron is as satisfying as it sounds.
"Warzones are large and open, so you can really tackle problems any way you see fit. Let's say you're trying to take out an A.I.M. outpost. You could have Thor charging in as the tank with everybody following behind him, you could have Iron Man flying in the air dropping down missiles from above, or it could be my personal playstyle, which is Hulk standing on a hill throwing giant cosmic infused boulders at the enemies like some sort of incredible trebuchet! The spaces really encourage you to come up with your own strategy."
Of course, none of these Warzones would be entertaining if Marvel's Avengers core combat systems weren't up to snuff, but true believers need not worry. Heading up the game's superhero skirmishes is lead combat designer Vince Napoli, who we have to thank for making Kratos' Leviathan axe feel so good to fight with in 2018's God of War.
The distinction between God of War and Marvel's Avengers (other than two very different portrayals of Thor), however, is that the latter is essentially offering five unique action games for the price of one. You have a third-person shooter in Black Widow's gun-fu, for example, while Hulk's fight style takes the form of a button mashing brawler. Meanwhile, Iron Man's aerial combat is akin to a dogfighting sim, whereas more versatile fighters like Captain America rely on parries and evasions that skew closer to the combat style adopted by a certain other caped crusader in the Batman: Arkham series
"We essentially approached each character as if we were making an entire game just for them, so not fitting them under the rules of an existing combat system, like you might traditionally do for a project like this," explains Napoli. "And honestly, it was really challenging, but we ended up with a system where all of these characters feel like their own very unique experiences. It's like you're looking at the game from a whole other perspective when you switch. And then when you toss in gear and skills that play off of all of their own unique components, it really does become six games, and more to come, in one."
Napoli's mention of "more to come" touches on a major design pillar for Marvel's Avengers. Day one is just the beginning for Square Enix, with a post-launch roadmap promising new heroes, story missions, and warzones throughout the years ahead, and potentially beyond, all completely free of charge to those who own a base copy of the game.
Hank Pym will act as a quest-giver throughout the events of the campaign, for example, suggesting it won't be long before Ant-Man becomes a playable addition to the roster, and while studio head Scott Amos isn't ready to reveal the details of which supes might be first to join The Avengers after release day, he teases that the amount of content the team have planned is "honestly insane".
"When we have new heroes, they will come with messaging and story around them. Some of them will even come with new named villains. So here comes this hero, and there's specifically a new villain that's dropped as well. So you actually have a very specific package, someone will come with entire new regions that have expansions to the overall story that actually will refresh content around the entire story and all the war zones that even come out day one, suddenly will feel like completely new. So for us, it is the most ambitious thing we've ever done. And so it is a huge opportunity for us to continue telling these cool stories with these heroes and then adding more heroes and more stories post-launch."
To retain that lasting value, Marvel's Avengers also features a meaty progression system centred around expansive skill trees, procedurally generated loot, and myriad outfits to collect for each character that draws from Marvel's 80-year history. Amos confirms that certain vendors found in the game's hub world, the Valkyrie, will offer exclusive microtransactions that can't be acquired anywhere else, but emphasises that these are, and always will be, cosmetic only.
"We want to reward players for their time. So the more you play, the more stuff you can earn in-game, and that earnable stuff is separate from the stuff you can buy in the microtransactions in the store. There are no paywalls for play, there's nothing that's gonna break the game, and players can always play together because it's always that team mentality and that team focus."
It'll be here, where Square Enix has decided to make a live service game out of Earth's Mightiest Heroes, where some fans will have their doubts about what kind of experience Marvel's Avengers wants to be, but everything we've seen so far suggests that its creators hold genuine love and respect for the source material. Instead, Crystal and Eidos' long-term ambition for the game, and the structures they've in place to help support that, means the sky isn't so much the limit as it is the galaxy, and the multiverse beyond that. M.O.D.O.K. may feel like an extreme choice, then, but he's really just the warm-up act.
For more, check out the biggest upcoming games of 2020 and beyond still on the way, or watch below for our hands-on impressions of Marvel's Avengers.