Coming off the climactic conclusion to the Infinity Saga with Avengers: Endgame a month prior, Marvel’s most iconic heroes had a full head of steam going into E3 2019. However, its reveal drew a broad range of criticisms based on everything from how the game ran to the way the characters looked. As a result, the hype train slammed on the brakes as widespread concern grew about the state of the game.
A few months later, at Gamescom 2019, I played through the opening mission of the game, and while I enjoyed most of the experience, it wasn’t the game that Earth’s Mightiest Heroes deserved. Then, much like the Avengers themselves do in the opening of their game, Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix went dark. The studio delayed the game from spring to fall in order to address player feedback, with its big reemergence happening today. The result was an Avengers game that look renewed from the version that was widely criticized in 2019. I spoke to the developers to not only learn more about how the team is creating a unique Avengers story, the various systems in place, and what players can expect from the game following launch, but how the delay helped the studio fine tune the experience.
Picking Up The Pieces
The opening mission that Crystal Dynamics showed off last year took place during A-Day, a celebratory festival in San Francisco honoring the Avengers and the opening of their west-coast headquarters. Unfortunately, this event erupts into violence as a mysterious foe led by the deadly mercenary Taskmaster attacks the Golden Gate Bridge. In this section, the player gets to experience brief sequences as each of the marquee heroes: Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America, and Black Widow. While the Avengers do their best to take down this force, it’s not good enough, as the bridge attack turns out to be a distraction while the enemy targets the Avengers’ helicarrier. The hovering leviathan, which is powered by a Terrigen crystal, is destroyed, killing Captain America and raining Terrigen Mist onto the city, granting uncontrolled powers to countless civilians.
With San Francisco reeling and the world watching in horror, the superpowered are outlawed, creating a void of security the world had become accustomed to since the establishment of the Avengers. To fill this vacuum, in steps tech giant Advanced Idea Mechanics (AIM), with a mission to replace the now-disbanded heroes. “They were offering a very noble solution, which is, ‘With science and technology, we can offer safety and protection,’ so a science-versus-superpowers solution was offered,” says creative director Shaun Escayg.
AIM promises to use science to not only protect the world, but also cure the “Inhuman” infection that spread across the now-quarantined San Francisco due to the Terrigen explosion. Unfortunately, while AIM may appear to have the best interests of the population in mind, the organization is anything but noble. The company, led by founding member George Tarleton, twists the public fear of the Inhumans into a fear of all who possess superpowers.
Pretty soon, Avengers fangirl Kamala Khan, who was at the A-Day celebration and remains steadfast in her belief in Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, uncovers a conspiracy that not only is AIM experimenting on the Inhumans, but the company might have even been behind the bridge attack and subsequent helicarrier explosion. While Kamala needs the help of the remaining heroes, she is anything but powerless.
In fact, being at A-Day, she is exposed to the Terrigen Mist and undergoes an Inhuman transformation of her own that allows her to embiggen and stretch parts of her body. She takes up the name Ms. Marvel, modeled after one of her favorite heroes, Captain Marvel. Unfortunately, since she now has powers, she, along with many other San Franciscans, must go into hiding. Following this turn, she becomes a central and key component to not only the reassembly of the Avengers, but the story of the game as a whole.
An Ignoble AIM
While the emergence of Ms. Marvel is a positive side effect of the catastrophic events of A-Day, she isn’t the only central character affected by the Terrigen blast in San Francisco. George Tarleton was also caught in the explosion and left injured and disfigured. The aftereffects of the blast and exposure to the Terrigen cause Tarleton’s brain to grow massive. Tarleton tries to recruit Kamala, saying he can help “cure” her of the Inhuman “sickness,” but she doesn’t buy it and she escapes AIM custody to bring the conspiracy to Bruce Banner, Tony Stark, and the rest of the Avengers.
However, reuniting the Avengers is a task easier said than done. Not only are the heroes spread out and isolated, but they are often at odds with each other thanks to distrust sown by AIM and Tarleton, or MODOK as he’s come to be known. In fact, Tarleton’s transformation has made him even more brilliant than before. This combination of technological might and super-genius intellect make him a major threat to the Avengers.
While those who have only watched the Marvel Cinematic Universe films might not know who MODOK is, comic readers are well-versed in the character’s insidious nature. “We wanted a villain that was a formidable, Avenger-level threat, but more intelligent than the average villain, not just using technological might, but his ability to divide from within, his ability to propose a very provocative solution – even noble in some ways,” Escayg says. “He’s got Bruce Banner and Tony Stark at war; they can’t even see eye-to-eye because Bruce believes that Hulk is a dangerous being and maybe the Avengers are as well, and Tony shares the opposite view, like Kamala, that without them, the world would be in jeopardy. This villain in particular was smarter, mighty, could wield that might and sway public opinion even within the Avengers themselves about how they view or perceive themselves.”
Crystal Dynamics looked at the story it wanted to tell and realized that the malicious pessimism that AIM and MODOK operate under are perfect foils to the unfettered optimism Ms. Marvel has for the Avengers. Not only that, but they each personified the public conflict that’s unfolding in the world regarding those who are superpowered.
“It created the best conflict of the two opposing themes: Are these people really superheroes? Or are they just mostly dangerous, powerful beings? Can we use science and technology to control and harness that power? Or is it their humanity, their empathy, or their differences that truly make them the greatest protectors of Earth?” Escayg says. “It was the perfect recipe for conflict and to showcase these opposing themes.”
With a menacing and sophisticated organization led by a deranged-but-brilliant figurehead, the world needs the Avengers now more than ever. However, with the public opinion of the Avengers and distrust within the ranks of the heroes at an all-time low, Kamala Khan has her work cut out for her if she wants to get the team back together. So begins Operation Reassemble.
Assembling Your Own Avengers
While bringing together a team of Iron Man, Thor, Black Widow, Hulk, and Ms. Marvel is an exciting prospect, players can make the heroes their own by utilizing a deep customization system. Each hero has skills, Heroic moves, and gear that can be customized in depth to deliver the playstyle you want. Each hero’s skills consist of four distinct categories and are upgraded through these skill trees. By using skill points earned through play, you can unlock new moves, combos, and attacks. For example, one of Thor’s melee skills is the Hammer Spin, which lets him twirl Mjolnir around his wrist, or Mjolnir Cyclone, which lets him spin to perform a fierce area-of-effect attack. Meanwhile, one of Thor’s ranged abilities is Manual Targeting, which lets you mark enemies to bounce your hammer off like a pinball.
On the Heroic moves side, each hero has three categories to fill: Assault, Ultimate, and Support. The Assault Heroic is the fastest to charge, with some moves allowing you to store multiple charges. These moves include attacks like Thor’s ground pound and Black Widow’s electrified projectile called Widow’s Bite. Support Heroics focus on helping your teammates. Warrior’s Fury is Thor’s, which calls down a special essence from the sky to grant nearby teammates temporary invulnerability. Ultimate Heroics take the longest to charge, but they can change the course of battle. For example, Thor’s God Blast calls down the power of the Bifrost from the Nine Realms to deliver a devastating attack that can pierce shields.
Thor is one of the most versatile heroes, but he’s not the only one that can be played the way you want. By configuring your heroes your way, you’re able to create different gameplay archetypes, even going as far as creating a support Iron Man or a ranged Hulk. You can even go deeper into the abilities you equip and use with a Mastery Tree, which lets you use a fine-toothed comb to configure and tweak every last piece of your heroes.
In addition to these skills and Heroic abilities, players can further customize their heroes using Gear, Perks, Artifacts, and more. Gear works much like it does in other games, giving stat boosts, while Gear Perks give you modifiers and buffs in specific situations. One piece of Epic Gear for Black Widow grants Perks like ranged power attacks buffing defense and heavy combos increasing stun damage. Some Gear even uses things like Pym Particles to shrink enemies, or Gamma Radiation to grant bonus damage modifiers.
“On top of all the unique powers the heroes had, we wanted to figure out what is something that none of them can do?” combat director Vince Napoli says. “We really leaned into the technological aspects of Marvel and some of the core concepts that are global to all heroes, which is the ability to use the Pym Particle technology and shrink enemies, or use Gamma Radiation to create a Gamma status effect. We also have Cosmic status effects and some other ones.”
On top of all this, the team at Crystal Dynamics has created tons of cosmetics, including emotes and outfits. I’m particularly excited to see the various uniforms and suits from across Marvel’s rich history for its most iconic characters. Some cosmetics are earned through mission completion, while others must be purchased via the in-game vendor, SHIELD’s own Chastity McBryde. Some outfits also require you to complete iconic mission chains, while others can only be purchased through the game’s online store. Players can choose from outfits like Iron Man’s Stark Tech outfit inspired by The Invincible Iron Man or Thor’s Donald Blake alias outfit from his first appearance in Journey into Mystery.
While this might sound overwhelming to people who just want to jump into a mission and mash buttons to victory, Napoli says Marvel’s Avengers is still, at its base, an action game about playing as your favorite superhero. “You always want to make that an option; all great action games have that tuning where you can get in there and really quickly pick it up and have it feel really, really satisfying with little investment,” he says. “The idea is once you’re invested in that, you’re more likely to go in and say, ‘You know what? I do kind of like smashing guys around. What’s the low barrier-to-entry to creating a better way to smash guys?’ Then, once you’re in there, we hope you take the next step, and then the next step, and the next step.”
From the cosmetic tweaks to the way you progress your skill trees, all these customizations come together to allow you to play how you want to. In our first glimpse of gameplay since Crystal Dynamics’ original A-Day reveal, we got a good look at how all of these components come together to deliver the experience you feel on the sticks.
Rising To Heroism
As Ms. Marvel begins looking at how to bring the team back together, she brings the proof of her conspiracies to Bruce Banner, who then travels with her to Tony Stark’s home. The two former Avengers continue butting heads over whether those with superpowers should be viewed as threats. In a later scene, we see a confrontation between Iron Man and Hulk. We don’t see how this fight ends, but before the screen cuts to black, Iron Man summons a giant fist from his Hulkbuster suit to punch the enraged Banner off him.
That appears to be just the beginning of Kamala’s quest to reassemble the Avengers. As Ms. Marvel continues tracking down the members of the disbanded team, the single-player story progresses, opening additional hero-specific missions. These Hero missions are cinematic, single-player campaign stages focused on a particular member of the Avengers.
One such hero-specific mission we got a look at is Thor’s “Once an Avenger…” mission. AIM is attacking the Avengers’ newly rebuilt helicarrier and the team must work together to prevent it from being destroyed once again. AIM drops several robotic walkers onto the deck of the Chimera helicarrier as Ms. Marvel watches. Iron Man swoops down and blasts one off the craft and onto the streets below. The crowd runs in horror as a Daily Bugle newscaster recounts that this is the same day that AIM promised to reveal its Adaptoid program.
The mission appears to be one of his earliest missions in the game, as Thor walks up to the scene dressed in his Donald Blake alias outfit, complete with volunteer T-shirt and jeans. He calls Mjolnir from the Captain America memorial statue as if to say he’s coming out of retirement. Thor rushes to the newscaster’s side and pushes him away as another metallic meteorite crashes down from the helicarrier right where he was standing. The god of thunder then goes from street level to the ship using a hefty swing of his hammer to help his fellow Avengers do battle.
The scene on the helicarrier as Thor arrives is dire; the AIM walkers are breaching the hull with their drills and the likes of Iron Man and Ms. Marvel look in danger of being overwhelmed. Thor flies up and with a proclamation of, “You should know, I’m not in the best of moods!” smashes into the deck, sending electric shockwaves to destroy a group of Adaptoid robots and walkers.
As the gameplay sequence commences, Thor wields his hammer mightily as the rest of the Avengers chime in on comms to talk about how glad they are to see him back in action. Every swing of Mjolnir looks as though it carries the weight I felt like it was missing during my initial hands-on experience last year, and every time the hammer smashes into an enemy, it rings out with a satisfying clang. Players can weave together combos using heavy and light attacks or use long presses to use signature attacks.
Thor turns his attention to one of the walkers, which not only protects itself with an electromagnetic field, but can blast projectiles, shoot flames, and take a hefty helping of damage. Once Thor gets inside the radius of the shield, he unloads on it with heavy combos using the hammer and lightning. Thor finally does the walker in by throwing his hammer into the core, grabbing it and uppercutting before calling down a barrage of lightning to finish it off.
Thor spots Hulk on a higher deck and joins him. Hulk doesn’t seem happy to see the Asgardian and reacts by throwing the AIM robot he just dismantled at the god of thunder, to which Thor remarks, “Just like old times.” The two then hurtle forward, blasting, smashing, and destroying encroaching mechs. Thor possesses a wide range of abilities that make him viable both from range and up close. His heavy hits make him a nightmare for the mechs that swarm him, while his hammer tosses and lightning summons let him pick apart enemies from medium range.
Thor and Hulk zero in on another walker. After they knock its health down, the two perform a Team Finisher where Thor flips the walker over, Hulk jumps on top with a chunk of the ground and smashes it, and Thor channels electricity through Mjolnir to deliver the final blow. In another team-up instance, the two collaborate with Thor slamming down into the middle of the walker, Hulk ripping its leg off and bludgeoning the walker with it. Thor and Hulk aren’t the only ones who can team up; in another gameplay sequence, I see Ms. Marvel and Hulk dismantling a robot together.
The deck continues to flood with more mechs, drones, and walkers, with Thor, Iron Man, and Hulk doing their best to keep up. MODOK announces he has one last card to play: a giant walker, which he drops right onto the middle of the ship to drill down into the engine room. Thor remarks that he can handle it himself, to which Iron Man rebuts, “You don’t have to! That’s the whole point.”
Thor gets knocked to a lower deck to once again join Hulk in battling some Adaptoids. He summons his Warrior’s Fury Support Heroic onto Hulk to grant the green behemoth temporarily invulnerability and let him smash to his heart’s content. Thor then redirects his attention to the giant walker, which possesses a special Stark Tech shield that Iron Man can’t penetrate with his beams. Luckily, Thor has an Ultimate ready, and he calls down the power of the Bifrost to bypass the shield, demolish the walker, and thwart MODOK’s plan.
Despite the threat being neutralized, the damage is done, and Black Widow comes over the radio to say there’s not enough power to restart the engines. Tony gives Thor his cue and the Asgardian blasts electricity into the front engines just in time to prevent the Chimera from crashing into the city below. This taste of the cinematic Hero missions made me excited to see how else Crystal Dynamics can capture the feeling of being a powerful superhero through curated missions designed with specific heroes in mind. However, with so much customization and gameplay variables on the field, Warzone might be where Marvel’s Avengers really flexes its muscles.
All Together Now
Learning more about each individual character through the Hero missions seems like a great way to delve into the lore of this title and the universe it exists in, but the Avengers are all about teaming up to save the day. With Warzones, you can take on missions with up to four players online, or offline alongside A.I. companions. All the customization you do with your heroes plays an even bigger role in Warzone missions, as not only are you bringing your tailor-made Avenger into the mission, but any A.I. characters you fight alongside are the versions you made using the Skills, Gear, and cosmetics.
The Hero missions are meant to advance the story, but Warzones also take place within the narrative, with the team coming together to fight AIM. As such, you continue earning experience and upgrades from completing these missions, even if they aren’t primarily designed with advancing the story in mind. You get missions from peripheral Marvel characters like Tony Stark’s A.I. Jarvis, SHIELD’s Maria Hill, or brilliant scientist Hank Pym. Once you select a mission, you jump into the Quinjet for matchmaking and hero selection.
Warzones take you all over the world, from remote locations to dense cities. Some Warzones are designed for team exploration and traversal, while others take place in tight corridors and buildings with a focus on combat. Each Warzone has a variety of objective-based missions and battles from which you can reap the rewards.
“There’s all these different things going on, and all of these are in different regions, so we could have built this giant, open-world game, but that wouldn’t have allowed us to have the Avengers be this global presence that can pretty much go anywhere and react to any threat,” Warzone director Phil Therien says. “Instead, we built regions that are basically small subsets of open world where we have many missions. That’s allowed us to have cities, forests, deserts, we can go underwater, we can go into orbit around the Earth. That really lets us tell the stories that we want to be telling with the Avengers.”
In addition to Warzones, you also work to repair your helicarrier and work with different resistance factions, headed up by recognizable comic characters like Dum Dum Dugan and Nick Fury. As you raise your reputation with these various factions, you gain access to new vendors, challenges, and items. You’ll want to have access to these powerful allies as new heroes, threats, and regions emerge as a part of Crystal Dynamics’ live-service roadmap.
The Journey To Be Worthy
While Marvel’s Avengers is much larger in scope than the A-Day footage Crystal Dynamics debuted with, feedback on that small slice was intense and plentiful, which helped the team decide on the four-month delay. “We wanted to respond to fan feedback,” creative director Shaun Escayg says. “We wanted to get the opportunity to polish and create a world worth playing in for years to come, but also give the opportunity to hear what the fans wanted, see how we could improve in areas that we have already invested in the storyline and timeline, and also perceive what the future of this game could be, how big it can be, how powerful it can be, how moving it can be.”
When I played the opening sequence last year, I loved how Black Widow, Hulk, and Captain America felt, but playing as the powerful Thor or the tech-loaded Iron Man just didn’t give me the sense of power I wanted to feel as I blasted through waves of enemies. When I ask Escayg what exactly the team addressed with the added time, he specifically references those two heroes as if on cue. “We wanted the characters to look, feel, especially play certain ways so that you weren’t just passively watching or feeling like you were bombarded by cutscenes, but you would feel that power on the stick,” Escayg says. “You would experience Thor’s hammer, experience Iron Man’s blast, and feel mighty as opposed to simply looking at mighty stuff.”
With the delay behind them, and the release date a few short months away, the team at Crystal Dynamics doubled down on its commitment to releasing a game worthy of wielding Thor’s Mjolnir or Iron Man’s suit. The result, as shown in the War Table presentation, is a game that appears to have learned from its early missteps and has transformed into a game to once again be excited for.
The Road Forward
At launch, Marvel’s Avengers hopes to deliver an all-in-one superhero experience in line with the rich pedigree of Crystal Dynamics, but much like the comics and movies, the universe is always expanding. While you can purchase items from the in-game store, heroes, villains, and regions are planned to be added at no additional cost.
“If we look at the main campaign, that’s kind of Kamala in that perspective as the point-of-view character, reassembling your heroes, getting through the campaign, understanding AIM and MODOK, and that story, that’s just getting your team together,” studio head Scot Amos says. “Then, as we start adding more heroes and more regions, we actually will add more stories – like full stories that actually have a front and an end and like, ‘Hey, we’re introducing a new hero, and here’s an actual story arc through that particular region they may be a part of.’ That also includes new villains. We’ll actually get new villains – named villains – will start showing up. This world continually expands. It starts with AIM and it’s very much about understanding AIM and the situation with them, that will start evolving further and further as we get more content released month to month and even months past that.”
Much like in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Crystal Dynamics is dropping subtle hints throughout the launch content to give players fuel to theorize about what’s next. “Some of the hooks we cast into the water on day one, you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s kind of cool. AIM has this undersea base. It’s doing some cool technology. I wonder if that ever goes somewhere.’ Then later, we pay that off with, ‘Oh my gosh! That tied to this, and now this other character showed up!’” Amos says. “Those types of arcs are things we’re starting at the core level and then adding these heroes, regions, and villains at no additional cost.”
Crystal Dynamics hopes to regularly support Marvel’s Avengers with post-launch content for years to come, but first, it needs to drive home a strong launch to establish a fan base that would necessitate such a long-term roadmap. Following the success of another modern Marvel superhero game, Insomniac’s Spider-Man in 2018, Marvel’s Avengers has a lot to live up to. However, with the improvements shown in the recent footage, as well as the understanding the studio demonstrates about what it needed to improve upon from its initial reveal, the Avengers are once again looking mighty.
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