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When I was younger, I didn’t pay much attention to Captain America. Upon first sight of him, I didn’t find him as interesting in comparison to Wolverine or Spider-man. To my naive younger self, Captain America was a man in tights with a shield. He didn’t have claws, walk on walls, or even shoot lasers out of his eyes; he looked like a regular dude who wanted to fight. Thanks to Chris Evan’s portrayal of the Captain, I have since discovered a newfound respect for the character. He’s strong willed and represents more than just an overly patriotic color scheme. My judgement of the beloved character was misplaced, and ignorant.
Crystal Dynamics’ The Avengers revisits the moment where I opened my eyes and experienced a new take. My opinion on the title has greatly changed since I provided my first look at the beta. To say that I am eating crow might be a more apt statement. The Avengers provides an interesting experience into what I always jested as the “store-brand Avengers”. Instead, I have seen this game become an alternate perspective to a world that needs to exist beyond the Hollywood actors that cultivated the new zeitgeist. The Avengers can be a wonderful experience that delivers as long as you are willing to indulge in the suspension of disbelief that the game relies on. Without any adieu, let’s take a look at perhaps the second most divided game of the year.
If you have played the beta, you know how The Avengers begins. There is a holiday called A-Day that celebrates our super heroes. That happens to be a day where many villains decide to take advantage and attempt to cause chaos, which then aptly ensues. After a series of events, we are led to believe that Captain America is dead, despite what marketing says. From there we experience the rest of the story through the eyes of Kamala Khan as she rises from reluctant teenager who writes Avengers fan-fiction to inhuman compatriot and member of the newly reformed Avengers.
Kamala is the breath of fresh air that I needed after the 10+ years of sarcastic banter from other Marvel properties. As the team makes snide remarks to each other, Kamala is just happy to be where she is at all times. She walks around in wonderment at the Chimera, taking in the surreal moments as she examines the various rooms and tools. She is in constant bewilderment of her situation, and it’s adorable.
As Kamala offers a sense of whimsy, the regular cast of characters feel cynical and otherwise miserable, and they have every right to be. The loss of their leader still lingers with every waking moment. It haunts them with every mission they take on. Assembling the Avengers was just one task for Kamala, and she struggles with watching her idols fight; bickering back and forth endlessly. It’s a tiring cliche but with a title like this, it was always bound to happen.
Alas, the story comes together with various plot points that feel well paced. There wasn’t a moment where I felt a scene or event was inherently useless, but I did feel as if there was a strong lack of necessary scenes. Kamala doesn’t have the moment where she obtains her powers and explores that aspect, it happens off screen. Other cases, I felt like a greater explanation could have sufficed in certain elements. The game uses your knowledge of super heroes as a crutch. When certain elements come into play, I can’t help but think that we are playing a second iteration of a franchise. This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to suspension of disbelief.
Crystal Dynamics hit a new high when it comes to graphical intensity. Whether it is Hulk’s big beefy muscles and strands of saliva gracing your loading screen or Iron Man’s gleaming armor; you can’t help but wonder how this game was developed for this current generation of hardware. Aside from maybe one instance where a segment of rocks didn’t load in correctly, everything felt so eloquently detailed. The crevices within Utah’s rocky surfaces are crisp and clean. AIM buildings don this hexagonal motif showered in a spectacular array of light that provides this clear aura of evil and dominance. Characters facial animation and outfits look stunning, to the point where you can see the texture in Captain America’s straps, and the skin texture of Kamala’s polymorphing hands. All of this leaves me in awe, until the action kicks in.
I will cut to the chase on this one, the frame rate is consistently choppy, and it gets incredibly bothersome. Anytime there are more than five enemies on screen, the game begins to slow down, practically to a halt. In small environments, I noticed my framerate is pretty solid, but in big open environments it becomes a slow, unoptimized mess. If I focused my camera on areas where there happens to be less moving parts on screen, the game runs fine. For example, fighting in the HARM room doesn’t present a problem at all. But on some missions when I turn my camera and join Thor and Black Widow in battle, the game’s framerate drops down to practically 10 to 15 frames-per-second. This frame drop happens in performance mode, making resolution mode practically unplayable for me.
When I consider the performance of this game, I often wonder why Square-Enix even bothered to release it in this shape. When I look at the lighting and the buildings, I have this constant question of how much better this could be if the game was able to keep up with itself. Due to my experience, I can’t help but feel that The Avengers is nothing short of an example of the importance of next-gen hardware.
One of the aspects of graphics that I don’t normally tackle is the aspect of user interface. This is because I can usually make due even when games feature a particularly bad system. The Avengers takes the cake as the absolute worst interface I have ever experienced from this high-profile game. I do not know what happened during several meetings between Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics, but everything about this UI design is terrible. From the mission selection to the character menus, everything could have been easily contextualized as opposed to controlling a mouse-like cursor.
Some of the item boxes are too close to each other, so that when I select one item slot and end up backing out of that spot and into another item category. I’m constantly going back and forth attempting to equip the right piece of gear that the game somehow doesn’t want me to have.
I’m also left in a confusing state of awe when I load up a multiplayer quick match only to be put into another social space. The terminology thrown around within the menus is not coherent at times. These elements feel rushed, unpolished, and uninspired. But I look at this and let it slide, knowing that there are other elements of enjoyment, and perhaps this isn’t the hill I want to die on.
The voice acting is amazing in this title, and it carries the game. When you have voice actors such as Nolan North, Troy Baker, and Laura Bailey, you know you are going to get great performances. But the star of this title is clearly the energetic and perfect casting of Sandra Saad as Kamala Khan. Even though it is important to nail the nuances of Tony Stark and Bruce Banner, you need to have a voice actor who is going to carry a particular point of view, and Saad carries that weight with gusto. It’s a wonderful performance by all, but if the central character’s direction is poor, it would be a detriment to the rest of the game. This is where the high quality sound design starts to take a pitfall.
As great as the voice acting is, the audio leaves more to be desired. Hearing the sound of Iron Man’s repulsors charging up with whirl is fantastic, but when the shot hits the target it doesn’t have that level of impact you might expect. Even worse, in situations where a lot of sound was occurring, it would crack and break, leaving gaps of silence. Hulk’s punches sound impactful but when you engage in his rage mode, they sound like overly-compressed, static thuds. When the rage mechanic is supposed to sound more fierce and damaging, it just sounds like he is trying to punch his way out of a wet paper bag. Even the soundtrack feels uninspired, generic, and bland thus leaving it completely forgettable except for one Iron Maiden track which might be where the entire sound budget went.
The needle begins to waver back and forth from really bland to somewhat interesting. Gameplay is simple and becomes more complex as you dive deeper into each character’s combat tree. The more you level up, the more advanced moves you gain. Once you hit a high enough level, you can start fine tuning aspects of your character and really mold them into a robot destroying machine.
Crystal Dynamics nailed each character on fundamental combat design. Each one feels incredibly different and you can visualize their thought process when it comes to core character concepts. Black Widow is fast and agile, so it makes sense to give her complimenting abilities and a combat set for her faster style of gameplay. Hulk is a slow behemoth, but he hits hard where it counts and acts as the more tanky character of the bunch. Add the intrinsic abilities that each character has, and you have a varied mix of character identity that most other games seem to lack.
Alas, like everything else in this game, combat style only brings us about halfway into the interesting category. The enemies always seem to be more powerful than you, even if your characters are over-equipped. Each mission has a challenge rating which tells you if your gear is good enough for that mission. If it isn’t, then go and get more if you wish, but you will always find upgrades in the field so don’t sweat it too much.
Even though fighting and general combat feels good, you’re still in the middle of perhaps the most unflattering combat scenarios. The attacks inflicted upon you can sometimes be too powerful, almost one shot killing my over-equipped Hulk without so much as a warning. Icons will pop up, multiple enemies will attack me, and somehow I am supposed to simultaneously take a defensive and offensive stance. This doesn’t include the off-screen laser blasts that come hurling my way, stopping me mid-combo and rendering me useless until I can recover. Keep in mind, this is all on top of the frame rate and sound issues as well as the occasional glitch where an enemy get stuck somewhere and I can’t damage it, preventing me from progressing.
Sure, when I defeated a wave of enemies I felt good, but I didn’t feel proud. All I could muster is a simple sense of apathy, thinking to myself, “thank god that’s over”. I just felt myself going through the motions, not really taking in any positive aspect. I honestly can’t think of an amazing maneuver I performed that saved the team in the neck of time or anything. There was no, “damn, that was close.” moments for me, because it was either done or I died and had to restart the mission due to said glitchy robots.
There are many questionable concepts in this game that attempt to lend itself to a positive gameplay loop but make me question the validity of its components. No matter where I turn my head, I can’t help but think there were a lot of last minute changes in order to help perpetuate this title as a “game as a service.” The evidence is abundantly clear with every little menu and mechanic. That suspension of disbelief begins to really sink in, as if Crystal Dynamics is blinking constantly, sending you a message that they are being held captive by Square Enix corporate oversight.
The combat is fine and works for the most part. The concept of a skill tree works until you start to really question why some characters who are seasoned super heroes need to relearn simple abilities. Granted there is a time gap, but that doesn’t excuse the plot lines for other characters whose plot elements don’t adhere to this restart.
The archaic gear system doesn’t make any sense. I don’t think the items really do much of anything besides inflate a score that doesn’t actually mean anything. The gear upgrades seem to be more focused on the additional effects they provide as the “power level” seems absolutely arbitrary. On top of that, the entire concept of having a loot based system is seeing that loot on a character, and seeing a visual representation of your time and effort pay off. Instead, we have a system that randomly generates skins that either drop or can be purchased with real money. I’m not so much as tied up in the concept of micro-transactions, but more-so with the idea that if this game were to have this loot based progression system, then perhaps armor pieces would have been prepared from the start of production as a core concept.
When I start to examine this title from a distance, the painfully obvious cracks begin to show. I can’t help but shake this feeling that The Avengers was a clear and concise single player title that wanted players to dive into a rich story of some beloved characters. Then someone came in and divided the game up in order to push the “games as a service” agenda. It all seems contrite and by the books, as if someone went “Do what Destiny does but for Avengers” late in production.
At one point you gain access to various factions. You can level up these factions by completing bounties in order to gain permission to purchase items from their respective shops. If you were trying to save the world, why would Shield, the faction that is so closely tied to The Avengers, need you to gain the reputation to use tools developed by Stark Industries? It doesn’t make any logistical sense at all. Especially since there is a tool on the Chimera called “the fabricator” that should be able to actually make all of these nifty toys. Instead it is used to unlock outfits, most of which are just pallet swaps that also just feel uninspired and bland.
Each character also has a battle pass which has challenges you can complete in order to progress through the stages. There are weekly and daily challenges, but once you complete those, that is it. You can continue to earn points to increase your way through the battle pass-like concept when the timer expires. I don’t have a reason to dislike this concept because it’s just a part of the character (and free), but the rewards aren’t great. Nothing in each character lineup made me go “I have to have this”. It all seems like more arbitrary rewards made to give this illusion of progression, making you feel as if your time has been respected.
To add insult to injury, if you do decide to dive into the multiplayer aspects of the game, you cannot have duplicate characters. If you really like Iron Man, but someone else gets to Iron Man before you, then you will have to pick a character that you might not like. As the Avengers banter back and forth, it would be odd to have four Hulks shouting nonsense at each other, but I honestly think that would be one of the more humorous aspects that I wish this game indulged itself in. It also says more about future problems as everyone rushes to play the newest characters as they drop. I wish I could discuss more about this, but I am unable to connect to any online games at all.
Let’s also not forget that there doesn’t seem to be any major end game concepts at the moment. Usually with games like this, you are gathering items to face off against a challenge that requires all of your time and effort. Instead it just seems to cycle the content you have already experienced. There also happens to be a strong lack of super villains in a game about superheroes. If anything, the villains look to be tied to the sense of gear progression, and can’t be fought till you gain a certain power level, meaning you will have to subject yourself to countless hours of repetition in order to get to “the good stuff.”
I need to also address the multitude of consoles within the Chimera that give the impression that more than one person should be able to use it at a time. There is even a player bank with multiple access points, and makes me wonder why there needs to be so many. It makes me believe that there was supposed to be more social aspects to this game. Perhaps these are just remnants of concepts that just didn’t make it into the game in time.
With all of my disdain I have for the game, and all the clear evidence that points to an entirely different concept for this game, I can’t help but admit how I am having fun with it right now. I couldn’t stop thinking about the characters and the combat and grinding out gear and levels. I waited patiently for my child to go to bed so I could continue the story. But now that I am done with it, I am left with this fleeting feeling.
This feeling was only exasperated by my inability to connect to a single multiplayer match. For a game that really wants to rise to the aspirations of Destiny, it doesn’t have the gruff that Destiny has. There is a trend with “games as a service” titles that drop and seem to be complete messes and “get good” after a year or so, but how long can we use this excuse? We live in a post-Destiny/Division world now, we know how these games should be at launch. If anything, The Avengers is another example of the blatant disconnect between consumers and the corporate ignorance. No matter where I look in this title, I just can’t help but see the broken spirits of a staff that was forced to manipulate an otherwise fantastic idea into a lifeless thrall of the industry. Which is strange because I still enjoyed my time with it and thought it was pretty fun.
This games as a service title makes me think about the concept of longevity. Sure, extra characters will come out and perhaps we will revisit the game to see how they live up to their respective hype. But how many of us will be playing this game a month, six months, or a year from now? How many of us will become bored and burnt out, discovering that at the end of this grind, there isn’t really much left? Should I stop playing now and just wait a year when an updated version for next gen is released with a new expansion that better exemplifies the core ideals that Crystal Dynamics wants to represent?
The Avengers is a game filled with massive technological issues but it’s fun. Square Enix’s paint-by-numbers title tries so hard to mold itself into something that it isn’t, but I kind of like it. Despite all of it’s problems it has a sense of charm that I still appreciate. Not everything works as intended, or at all, but I still found myself thinking about it. Mulling the ideas over and over in my head I don’t know what to really make of it all. It’s a good first attempt, but we are at the unfortunate mercy of time. Can Square-Enix and Crystal Dynamics keep this game relevant over time especially with next gen hardware coming? It’s a shame we have to wait to find out.