Marvel’s Avengers review: OK multiplayer stitched onto a great campaign

Marvel’s Avengers isn’t the game I expected.

Marvel’s Avengers is a big budget, Ms. Marvel-focused single-player game that just so happens to have the main cast of the Avengers along for the ride. It eventually pivots to try and become a Destiny competitor after the story is finished, but that story-focused campaign is a much larger part of the overall experience than I had imagined. The game’s latter, live-service portions do show promise, but the road between the game’s two halves is currently very rocky.

Players are given two choices on the game’s main menu: campaign and Avengers Initiative. The Avengers Initiative option allows players to skip the game’s plot missions entirely and jump straight to the multiplayer, loot-grinding content. The game warns against doing this, however, and I agree.

https://youtube.com/watch?v=k-POG1-Cp1k%3Frel%3D0

Besides, the single-player campaign is where I had the most fun with the game, by far.

Getting Wrapped Up in a Hero’s Excitement

Kamala Khan’s Ms. Marvel is the protagonist of Marvel’s Avengers, contrary to the game’s marketing, demos shown at trade shows, and even the game’s beta last month. The single-player campaign is her story.

Khan is basically an over-excited, nerdy teenage fangirl with a bit of an Avengers obsession. Khan is our audience surrogate, someone just really excited to see the Avengers doing cool stuff, and who wishes she could be involved too. She’s a fanfiction-writing teenager who jumps and squeals with joy at seeing her heroes in person. She’s also a Pakistani-American Muslim, with a dorky, overprotective father and her own culturally relevant perspective on moral duty.

https://youtube.com/watch?v=FJRI3P_YBi8%3Frel%3D0

What makes Ms. Marvel work as this game’s main character is that she hasn’t really been explored in the Marvel Cinematic Universe yet, and has space to have her own narrative arc here that doesn’t feel like it’s treading on the toes of those movies. While the rest of the Avengers all have roles to play in the game’s story mode, most of them are stuck on the periphery. It’s assumed that you already know who these heroes are, and what they’re all about. She’s only the character who gets to have an arc, and grow, and develop as the game progresses, outside of the game’s villain.

The plot set up for Marvel’s Avengers is basically a take on the Inhumans story from the comics. Due to a disastrous event seemingly caused by the Avengers, a bunch of regular humans unexpectedly develop super powers all across the American West Coast. Some of these are beneficial, and some of them are people catching on fire uncontrollably. The Avengers are blamed, these new “inhumans” are treated as inherently dangerous, and the AIM corporation takes on the task of tracking down these newly created super-powered individuals. It’s not a matter of if AIM will come for an Inhuman, but when.

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The single-player campaign is largely a simplistic power fantasy. Some missions have you play as specific characters, but you’ll often be able to pick from any characters currently present in the story to play as. Here are a few waves of robots, so smash them apart with a mix of light and heavy attacks mixed with dodges. Maybe an occasional enemy will have a shield, you might have to do a ranged attack on a turret, or you will on occasion have a boss fight that requires more thoughtful combat, but the single-player encounters are about feeling like a cool, powerful superhero.

It feels a lot like playing a Marvel-themed Dynasty Warriors game at its best moments; you’re powerful as hell and are let loose to mow down waves of enemies that don’t stand a chance against you. Get in, let nothing stop you, get out.

A big part of this simplicity is due to the fact that even by the end of the single-player campaign, you’ll have barely scratched the surface of most characters’ upgrade skill trees. As you play through the campaign or post-game missions, you gain experience in the background, occasionally earning skill points to spend on new abilities. While some abilities are locked behind leveling progression, you’ve usually got multiple upgrade options available at a given time, spread across different aspects of your character. There are separate upgrade trees for light attacks, heavy attacks, ranged attack, and special abilities, with upgrades ranging from new combos, to attacks that break through new kinds of defenses.

So much fun is hidden in the upgrade path of each character
Image: Crystal Dynamics/Square Enix via Polygon

Kamala Khan is basically our window into life as an inhuman. Very early in the game she’s on the run, judged as being dangerous simply for who she is, despite not having actually done anything wrong. Considering her character is a Muslim living in modern day America, she makes for an interesting window into the struggles of the Inhumans, with a perfect motivation to want to try and change things when even the Avengers have given up. She knows what it’s like to be seen as dangerous just for being herself, but she’s also idealistic and optimistic, and that really helps keep the core “the Avengers disbanded” narrative from getting too hopeless.

The single-player campaign in Marvel’s Avengers is occasionally a little bit predictable, but the story managed to keep me on my toes even in the moments I could see a plot twist was on the way. Even when I knew something was coming, I never quite knew what it would be.

I don’t want to spoil who the game’s main villain is, for those who have avoided spoilers thus far, but I will say I very much enjoyed that the game made use of one of Marvel’s more ridiculous and over-the-top characters for this story. They went with a villain who the MCU has not yet touched, and did a great job bringing them to life.

The campaign in Marvel’s Avengers is around 12 hours long, and I was honestly surprised by how separated it felt from the game’s eventual live service content. If you are only interested in picking up Marvel’s Avengers as a single-player, action-adventure and dropping it as soon as that’s done, you can totally do that. Sure, you will have to put up with the game constantly reminding you with on-screen prompts that you’re not using the highest level gear for your character, but that’s about it.

Image: Crystal Dynamics/Square Enix via Polygon

While some plot-based missions take place in environments I would revisit in the post-game content, a decent percentage of missions are crafted experiences, designed for specific characters and integrated into the plot in meaningful ways. Missions like sneaking through a memorial park to outrun the shadowy organization AIM, putting Iron Man’s suit together while under attack, or outrunning the Hulk in a crowded and unfamiliar space delivered compelling action, especially in the context of the wider narrative. The story mode isn’t simply plot painted over multiplayer maps, in other words.

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By the end of my time with the single-player campaign, most of my characters were level 10, out of a current level cap of 50, with probably two-thirds of their combat abilities not yet unlocked. Most of your coolest attacks, and most of the attacks designed to deal with more complex enemy patterns, are likely to elude you during the single-player campaign, and it feels like enemy difficulty is set to match that experience. The story mode is more about putting you in cool situations, rather than giving you a glimpse of the mechanically coolest things each character can do.

But the most notable issue during my playthrough was a series of technical bugs, glitches, and performance issues.

From multiple cutscenes where a hero’s hair or face failed to render, to a level where voice clips were stuck playing on loop, a game-breaking crash when walking through a door, to a faction rewards alert filling up my screen during an emotional late-game cutscene, I was frequently shocked by the number of unpolished edges in the game. Most of these issues were manageable, they just felt at odds with the game’s ambition.

But overall, I thought the single-player campaign was enjoyable. From watching Kamala wrestle with feeling inadequate when suddenly thrust into working beside her idols, to the way the designers slowly reveal how bad things are getting for the Inhumans, and the small, joyous road trip interactions to the dramatic action set-pieces, it feels like a very human experience. Considering how much of the plot is centered on reducing the humanity of the Inhumans, it feels important that endearing human interactions are at the core of the story.

So, once you’ve finished playing through the single-player campaign, how is the endgame content? Well, the game has promise, even if the transition between single-player and live service is off-putting.

Oh, That Vault Interior Again?

When you initially finish up the game’s campaign, players are given a variety of missions to tackle, some more plot-based than others. While there is a continued story to explore once the credits have rolled, it is a far less guided affair, with a much less urgent sense of pace. A new villain is introduced without much fanfare, the reasons you’re sent on missions become more generic, and everything feels noticeably less structured.

My first few hours after the credits rolled felt like I had been taken from the power fantasy and thrown into content I was under-leveled for. It was weird seeing The Hulk suddenly being taken out by a handful of basic enemies because their stats were higher than mine. I hadn’t yet unlocked the new moves and attacks I needed to make the transition into the post-game’s higher-challenge missions, and the first few hours soured me on the experience until I had time to adjust.

Image: Crystal Dynamics/Square Enix

Many of the post-game missions take place in identical buildings, placed into differing overworld locations. Every underground vault where I have to hack terminals to access resources has an identical interior. Every AIM base I infiltrate features the same three corridors leading to a large encounter space. You’ll be expected to visit the same location in two back-to-back missions and believe it’s actually two separate locations, because that’s what your mission briefing told you.

Missions in the post-game all feature a fairly similar structure. Get dropped into a big overworld map, go find some optional loot chests if you feel up to it, defeat a wave of enemies guarding either a door or a mechanism that needs to be destroyed, maybe stand on some glowing squares to hack a computer, beat up some more enemies, repeat.

It’s formulaic, and the kind of experience that lives or dies by you having fun with the moment-to-moment combat, outside of any plot motivation you might have for being there. When it’s working well, the fun is in seeing how quickly and effectively you can steamroll a room full of enemies. Then you get rewarded with some upgrade resources, or a new piece of gear, or some credits toward a new outfit, and continue.

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I stuck with a single character for a while, tackling the same handful of plotless missions over and over, focused on unlocking more of their skill tree, and eventually the post-game difficulty settled down a little. I don’t tend to picture third-person brawling games this way, but I had to level grind a little, and unlock some more moves, before playing the new story content felt manageable.

New gear for all your heroes is plentiful, but ultimately feels a bit meaningless in the early post-game missions. Sure, I can get a new ribcage for The Hulk (yes, the Hulk gets new bones as mission rewards for some reason), break down any hulk ribs that have a smaller level than my current gear, then use resources from those broken down ribs to raise the level of my best set of ribs, but the act never feels like it’s making me more powerful.

The game’s loot system doesn’t make a ton of sense in-universe
Image: Crystal Dynamics/Square Enix via Polygon

Moving from a level-22 belt for Thor, to a level-28 belt rarely makes any impact I can notice in the heat of battle. Some gear has specific bonuses, such as resistance to certain damage types or buffs to some attacks, but the bonus amounts are so small in the early post-game it’s tough to feel their impact.

The gear system seems bolted onto the experience, without much care for how it connects to the narrative, or these characters. Beyond leveling up to get new moves, which does make me feel more powerful, I don’t feel any great excitement yet when stumbling on rare, high-level loot.

A Fun, if Simple, Action Romp

Marvel’s Avengers works well as a flashy single-player action-adventure if that’s all you’re looking for, particularly if you’re already a fan of Ms. Marvel, and I can see value in picking it up for that alone. I’m a bit skeptical of the live service aspect’s ability to keep me grinding for loot once I hit the level cap, or finish the story-themed post-game missions, but now I’m over that initial hurdle, it is kind of fun to bash waves of enemies with friends.

On a good day, Marvel’s Avengers is a multiplayer Marvel-themed Dynasty Warriors game, and if you’re in the right mood, that’s a decent way to spend some hours, and we don’t know where the team will take it from here. On a great day, it’s a strong single-player outing for one of my favorite under-appreciated superheroes.

Whichever of the two you’re hoping for, there’s fun to be found here, if you set your expectations right. While the multiplayer may not have come out the gate swinging, there’s room for it to level grind a little over the coming weeks, and hopefully become more impressive at some point down the line.

Marvel’s Avengers is out now on Google Stadia, PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One. The game was played on PlayStation 4 using a download code provided by Square Enix. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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