Ms. Marvel is the heart and soul of Crystal Dynamics’ take on Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, and the introductory level that kicks off the game’s story establishes her as the nerdy, hilarious, over-the-top fangirl that anchors the entire experience. The Avengers end up disbanded after a huge accident that remakes the world, but it’s Kamala’s experiences–finding her identity, searching for community, struggling with adults in her life letting her down or failing to understand her–that are grounding Marvel’s Avengers.
It all starts with an opening mission that focuses less on punching bad guys and more on what makes the Avengers heroic as people. A number of times now, we’ve seen the A-Day mission, in which you play as each Avenger as they fight an army of bad guys who want to do terrorism. It’s a quick snapshot of how each character handles before the game moves into its real story, in which you play Kamala trying to find and reassemble the Avengers to fight off the totalitarian threat of the villainous organization AIM. But it’s Kamala’s introduction with her father, wandering around the pre-attack A-Day celebration, that centers Marvel’s Avengers. She’s a kid who meets her heroes, who finds them caring (if awkward), and who takes from them all the best lessons to grow, after a five-year time skip, into a hero in her own right.
And so far, when Marvel’s Avengers goes hard on its story mode, I’m really enjoying it. It begins with Kamala accidentally getting the attention of AIM and outing herself as an Inhuman–a person who gained potentially dangerous superpowers after the events of A-Day in San Francisco. AIM has basically taken over the US as a security force, rounding up Inhumans with the backing of anti-superhero sentiment from the traumatized public. Kamala sees the injustice and sets out to find a fabled “resistance” that’s fighting back against AIM’s growing authoritarian power. She quickly becomes the game’s moral center as she starts working to re-recruit each of the broken Avengers to her cause.
The single-player campaign is full of character moments that tap into the best of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s take on the Avengers, with lots of beats that feel like they could have been lifted from deleted scenes in Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War, and Avengers: Infinity War. Bruce Banner believes he and the other Avengers were responsible for what happened in San Francisco, and feels the group’s bravado to be its downfall. Tony Stark is pissed at Banner for betraying the team in admitting his ambivalent feelings to Congress, resulting in the Avengers’ disbanding. But like Banner, Tony is also struggling with his own feelings of responsibility, and rubber-banding between that and his arrogant belief that he could have fixed all the problems. Both are incredibly guilty over Cap’s death. And Kamala sees mentors in them both, but imperfect ones who she keeps having to drag back toward doing what’s right.
The story is full of human moments that make me want to keep going, like when Kamala meets other Inhumans for the first time or when Bruce and Tony speak after four years apart and hash out all their issues. The jokes and quips between all the characters are release valves for their trauma and their issues, and they’re quickly coming to rely on each other thanks to Kamala’s steadfast resolve. My feeling is that I’m about halfway through the main campaign (from what I can tell), and it’s a good story–the kind of thing that made me really come to like the MCU, especially around and after Captain America: Civil War.
It’s when Marvel’s Avengers pivots to its trappings as a live game that it stalls, so far. You slowly build up the defunct Chimera, the Avengers’ helicarrier that was at the epicenter of A-Day, unlocking rooms that let you do virtual reality training, store extra gear, and buy stuff from SHIELD agents acting as shopkeepers. Sweeping War Zone missions have you exploring big open areas full of AIM enemies, where you spend a lot of time breaking open boxes to get crafting resources and picking up loot and comparing gear numbers, and not really engaging with the characters beyond radio instructions from Stark’s AI, Jarvis.
The further into the story you get, the more Marvel’s Avengers takes on the feel of something like Destiny 2. I’m now taking challenges from faction leaders so I can increase faction reputation so I can unlock new gear in their stores that I can buy with the 10 different kinds of in-game currency I find on missions. I have a ton of gear with a lot of different perks that increase specific kinds of damage by granular, small percentages. Getting funneled into War Zones to hunt down components to fix the Chimera and earn gear drops kills the pace of the game, when all I really want are more scenes of Kamala and her awkward Avengers dads trying to work through their issues.
It’s not that those live game things are bad, necessarily–although they are all really, really dense. It’s that they’re crowding up a much more interesting portion of the game. Loose from the story, getting into the minute details of character-building may well be pretty engaging. I’m enjoying unlocking new skills for my characters and slowly figuring out how best to use each of them, after all. But those things are holding my attention far less than my growing relationships with the characters of Marvel’s Avengers, and I’m eager to get out of the sprawling, hour-long War Zones and back to the more character-driven moments.
As with the beta, the longer I play with any given character, the more I’m enjoying the combat, although there’s a learning curve here that isn’t helped much by the game itself. You don’t get a good, proper combat tutorial until you open the HARM room about two hours into the game, but various chase scenes and small-scale fights with Kamala are, frankly, more exciting. That said, I like the depth inherent to each of the characters, especially as I unlock new skill-based abilities like better parries and more effective combos. Knowing which enemies to dodge, which to juggle, which to take out quickly, and which to parry is making combat more and more engaging as I get the hang of it. The drawback is that you need to get the hang of it for each character in turn, since they’re all just different enough to require their own bit of training.
I still have a long way to go in Marvel’s Avengers to get the full experience. I’m sitting on several character-specific questlines to complete, plus a bunch of missions that can be played in multiplayer (something I haven’t touched yet), and I haven’t put in the time just yet to really dive deep into the gear system. I’m especially interested to see how Marvel’s Avengers focuses on those aspects after the story content is exhausted and it starts to roll out its biggest challenges, like its raid encounter.
So far, though, I’m really enjoying what Crystal Dynamics is doing with these characters and with the Avengers story the developer is able to tell. It’s the heavily video gamey portions that are dragging me down, and I’m hoping Marvel’s Avengers will grow into them as I continue my adventures.
Stay tuned for my final review in the coming days.