In the Avengers' opening level, you're more likely to die accidentally jumping off the Golden Gate bridge mid-explosion than you are at the hands of an enemy. It's a tutorial, and it feels like it: QTEs, quickly charging super moves, and linear fights show off Thor's screen-clearing lightning blast and Iron Man's steel beam-melting chest laser. Taking down baddies is easy and flashy and doesn't reveal the complex gear and stat systems that underpin the rest of the game. Those systems seem vital to keeping The Avengers playable for dozens of hours, but also pose a big challenge for keeping its heroes superpowered.
There's more than a touch of Diablo in the Avengers: Every piece of gear you collect will have stats attached to it, and there are different rarities of gear that further affect those numbers and special perks attached to gear. "The higher the gear the better, but you also need higher gear to fight higher enemies," Crystal Dynamics said. "At some point you're going to face down Abomination, or rematch with Taskmaster, so you'll have to get higher gear before you take them on, because the challenges get overwhelming."
There are a lot of numbers underneath your standard Hulk smash, which left me with a big question after playing The Avengers at PAX: How do you make that feel good? If I punch a level 20 enemy with level 1 Hulk gear, am I actually going to hurt him? And if not, how does that actually feel like the Hulk?
Crystal Dynamics' two-part answer begins with the hiring of a really good combat guy. "We hired Vince Napoli, our lead combat designer, who did the most recent God of War. Vince came in and we said, let's start with Black Widow. Take Black Widow and see if you can make her as awesome as the Hulk, because we were really struggling at some point. He pulled it off. She was badass, the most fun character. So we said 'great! Now do that with the Hulk. Now do that with Iron Man.' Vince has been a master at being able to take these heroes and make it feel like I am Black Widow, I am the Hulk, I am Iron Man, I get to play with those abilities and feel like I'm living the fantasy I want."
That explains why throwing Thor's hammer and recalling it does feel pretty awesome. What about the numbers, though? The second part of the answer wasn't as detailed as I hoped, but was a good indication of how big a project The Avengers is, with five studios working in collaboration on it.
"We have a team whose only job is taking these heroes, with the world, with the dynamic scaling we have across enemies and number of heroes—a massive dedicated subteam, who do nothing but that. They have experts data crunching, who say 'how do we balance all of this?' [along with] feedback from user tests ... We want to make sure players still have fun, because it is a game. At some point if you're just completely unstoppable, is that really fun?"
I'm not sure I actually need a progression system to have fun Hulk smashing shit, but Avengers clearly wants to keep players invested and battling for more loot for weeks and months. Iron Man's gear naturally comes in the form of upgrades for his suit, and I hope Hulk's are just a series of progressively more yoked muscles to equip.