When Marvel's Avengers debuted at E3 2019, it wasn't the slam dunk we were expecting it to be. We'd known that Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics had been hard at work on an Avengers game for several years, and after Spider-Man on PS4 resonated so strongly, it was odd that this first showing of a game based on Marvel's biggest superhero team left us slightly cold.
It looked strangely like a knock-off Marvel game, which wasn't the ideal first impression.
Now, though, following today's War Table presentation, Crystal Dynamics has clarified elements it's only really hinted at in the past. It's shown off previously-unseen parts of the game, and revealed that the main villain is the giant-headed MODOK, a comic book villain who's not yet made an appearance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
We also got to see the co-op War Zone missions in action, where you can assemble your own team of Avengers with friends or the AI, and combine powers to pull off moves called Team Finishers.
We've had an in-depth look at the dense customization and progression options, too, where you can mix your own selection of aerial, melee, ranged and 'ground pound' attacks to craft an Avenger to your liking. That's an intriguing prospect, assuming there's a genuine difference between the different permutations.
"You customize your Avengers the way you want," lead designer Philippe Therien tells us. "My Hulk, for example, is more of a range character. I love to have him chuck these cosmic-infused boulders at fights. I use him for range, as a support guy on top of a hill while my friends are fighting in the middle.
"So if I gear my Hulk up this way, and I play by myself and he's on my team, he's going to be that Hulk still and that's great. But if I'm playing with people, and we're playing together and I want to play melee and [make him] a tank, cool: I'll change my strategy and do something different. That flexibility is awesome, and that's absolutely represented in War Zone."
Crystal Dynamics is touting Marvel's Avengers as '6 games in 1', since each hero plays so differently, and has their own individual skill tree. You'll also find a ton of skins to unlock for each hero, many of them available in-game, and some that can only be acquired as paid cosmetics. These skins are derived from past Marvel comics appearances.
The combination of all of this does amount to a satisfyingly complete-looking experience. The promise of a free next-gen upgrade is a nice incentive to jump in during its September launch on PC, PS4 and Xbox One, too. This means the previously-discussed roadmap of free updates for Marvel's Avengers, which will include new locations, missions and playable superheroes after launch, will be uninterrupted if you decide to buy a PS5 or Xbox Series X console.
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Singleplayer vs co-op
During the War Table stream, Square Enix showed off a new Thor-specific mission called 'Once an Avenger', giving us an idea of what the game's singleplayer narrative is all about.
Rather than playing the whole thing in co-op, you engage in two types of missions: story-driven Hero missions in singleplayer, and Warzone with three other players or AI companions. You access all these missions from a War Table in your base, and your incentive to play or replay a War Zone mission could be resources, rare gear for your superheroes, or faction progress with the various groups that offer you missions.
War Zone missions will feature both exploration-friendly areas and packed-out interiors filled with enemies for some variety, and they branch off from the main campaign after you've unlocked the different playable heroes (confirmed so far are Iron Man, Ms Marvel, Hulk, Thor, Black Widow and Captain America, though the latter appears to die in the intro mission).
The suggestion, then, is that this game is going to be overflowing with stuff to do. We asked Crystal Dynamics' head of studio Scot Amos how long it'll take to play everything through once in Marvel's Avengers.
"We're not specifically talking about total duration for anything as the numbers get kind of silly when you start talking about maxing out each Hero’s skill tree, finding the highest power level gear, collecting all of the comics, unlocking all outfits… and that’s before we even add up playing through all of the Hero Missions and War Zone missions… and then do you play War Zones with your AI Companions or with your friends online or both? And don’t forget… new heroes, new villains, new regions, new stories all come post-launch at no additional charge so the numbers just keep growing dramatically over time…so even for 'doing everything once'…it will be quite a while."
The level of attention paid to nerdy Marvel touches is high, here. You'll see supporting characters you recognize (hi, Nick Fury!), familiar locations and detailed animations on the heroes' attacks. We're shown one Thor move where the player can manually select targets for Mjolnir to hit, before releasing the hammer to hit them all in succession, which might remind some players of Splinter Cell: Conviction's Mark and Execute feature.
We can't quite shake the sense that Marvel's Avengers only looks like an okay action game, with a lot of identical-looking robot enemies to beat up, but the collective appeal of the different ways to play and tweak your heroes is very high.
What about story?
We asked the developers what the thinking was behind the roster of heroes in this game. "When we started to explore the original story idea, we had certain inspirations, or at least I did," says creative director Shaun Escayg. "We knew we wanted to take a different [view] on superheroes. What if superheroes weren't amazing super beings we look up to on a pedestal, but what if they were seen as dangerous, powerful beings that wreak havoc on Earth?
"That was the jumping off point. The [comic] series Marvels from the perspective of Phil Sheldon, was kind of a lot of the inspiration behind the main concept and themes of what we wanted to go after." Sheldon, in the comic, is a photographer who documents the changing times of the Marvel universe.
The Avengers game starts with A-Day, a disaster which marks the end of the Avengers as a group. Both a hero (Kamala Khan, also known as Ms Marvel) and a villain (George Tarleton, also known as MODOK) are created as a result of the day's events, with each infected by the fallout in different ways. While Kamala becomes a hero with unusual powers, Tarleton is disfigured, and each has their own perspectives on the Avengers and how the heroes wield their power.
"He was the perfect villain," says Escayg on the choice of bringing MODOK into the game. "The thing about MODOK that we liked was the intelligence, in the way he could even divide the Avengers themselves. He pitted Bruce against Tony just by presenting this angle of 'you are uncontrollable'. Bruce, who has always wrestled with the Hulk, feels that way historically throughout the comics. So, if you push those buttons, you're going to have that internal conflict."
The passion for the Avengers universe is certainly there. The question is whether everything Crystal Dynamics and its collaborators have on the table – a solo campaign, various co-op missions and what sounds like a deep suite of customization options – will actually coalesce into the all-conquering superhero game this should be.
Marvel's Avengers will be released on September 4 on Xbox One, PS4, PC and Stadia, then later on PS5 and Xbox Series X.
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