There was an air of disappointment around the look of Square Enix's Avengers game when it was announced on Monday, and it was easy to pin down why: The slightly muted colour palette of Marvel's Avengers approximates the look of the Marvel films rather than the comics, but without the actors playing those roles, it ends up looking like an uncanny, slightly drab cover version. Seeing more of the game in action behind closed doors at E3 2019 (about 20 minutes of an early mission) couldn't overcome that initial reaction to capture my imagination. But the long-term ambition at play here is very exciting, and this is only a tiny introduction to what Crystal Dynamics and company have planned.
This hands-off demo takes place during A-Day in San Francisco, a celebration of all things Avengers. As the reveal footage showed, this attack gets pinned on the heroes, Captain America is seemingly dead, and the team goes on hiatus for five years. That's where the rest of the game begins, as you rebuild the team in a world where superheroes are outlawed, but in this demo we see a mission that showcases all the primary Avengers in action on A-Day just as it's going to hell.
We start with Thor, who does all the things you'd want the God of Thunder to do. This demo pits him against a lot of generic-looking army guys (a fixture of the demo generally), who he hits liberally with his hammer in a way that would certainly result in their deaths. He's got an area of effect attack that shocks everyone in its radius with lightning, and he can throw his hammer at enemies then recall it, swatting other enemies along the way much like the axe in the PS4's God of War game. His hammer moves look and sound good, and throughout the demo, the attention to detail of the combat animations is one of the highlights for me.
The mission then takes us through sequences of gameplay with the other characters. Iron Man can fire sticky bombs at enemies and unleash his chest laser, which I'm near certain killed a lot of people in this demo. The Hulk bounds across the burning Golden Gate bridge, picking up a generic army dude and using him as a weapon to beat other army dudes. He'll slam two enemies into one another, and he can rip out a lump of concrete and use that to damage enemies as well. Black Widow can use her pistols at long range, plus she has an acrobatic leg throw ability that will remind you of the character's fighting style in the Avengers films.
The action swaps between them as the mission goes on, which is a neat conceit, even if we never really see the heroes interacting in-game in the demo. You see the other Avengers off in the background, but this demo doesn't sell the sense of them working together as a team. And the action just isn't that exciting to watch, even with all those different special abilities in play.
Maybe it's that the Avengers' combat and camera positioning just made me think of the Batman Arkham games straight off, though with admittedly no discernible use of counterattacks. Even though all the Avengers' moves look fantastic, fighting these forgettable enemies didn't look so exciting that it stopped me from zoning out during Captain America's duels aboard a doomed helicarrier. I definitely don't mind the game's combat reminding me of the Arkham games, but this gameplay didn't demonstrate enough twists on that formula to get me truly excited about the idea of playing it one day.
I do appreciate that the combat in Marvel's Avengers is not all about melee, though, as Iron Man and Black Widow have longer range attacks and several characters can fly. It's just that the basic close-range punching doesn't look that fun. And I really love the Avengers movies. This game should be a slam dunk for me. We are almost an entire year away from release, though, which is a long time to refine what was shown here.
Another disappointment for me is that Marvel's Avengers has quick time events. If you're not familiar with them, they were popularised by Shenmue and then Resident Evil 4, and involve you pressing a button during a cinematic to make your character perform a certain action. They mostly died out after becoming a fixture of blockbuster games about a decade ago, though they did appear in the PS4 Spider-Man game last year. The QTEs are underwhelming in this demo, and make it look like some of the most exciting moments are happening away from the actual in-game action.
Towards the end of this level, Black Widow fights the Marvel villain Taskmaster in a multi-part boss battle. At one point, Natasha grabs onto her opponent while he's flying his jetpack over the near-destroyed Golden Gate bridge. A QTE prompt lets her punch him mid-flight, over and over again, but it's more of a drag than a dramatic peak. These moments make the game look more outdated than it probably is.
As Crystal Dynamics' head of studio Scot Amos points out when I ask why they added QTEs to the game, Avengers is meant to be played by everyone.
"For us, this audience is so broad. This isn't just some hardcore gamer's game." Matching button prompts to specific actions is meant to remind players of the controls in a natural way, too. "It's a way for us to integrate QTEs in a kind of tutorialised way. They're also cinematic moments we want to make sure land from a narrative perspective. So there might be a point where we use them just to give that moment for players to get the best experience on the narrative side." I see the logic to that even if I'm not fond of QTEs.
I was disappointed by this demo, then, but it's clearly such a brief slice of what Crystal Dynamics has in the works. I see a perfectly fine action game with high production values, but I'm not sure what would motivate people to play it over a long period of time. In my interview with Amos, though, I'm more encouraged by the long-term vision for the game: More characters, more levels and more story over multiple years, all without any extra charge, which almost sounds too good to be true.
"We're not joking when we say, for years to come," Amos says. "And we're not joking when we say every new superhero and every new region comes at no additional cost. We want you to buy into this, learn what this world is, and then we want to keep feeding that audience new heroes, new stories, new places to explore. We do really mean it. This is multiple years of new stories and new evolutions of these superheroes."
Amos explains how the single and multiplayer elements work in tandem. "The game is structured like a lot of Crystal Dynamics games in the past where you have a bespoke singleplayer campaign," and co-op sounds like it's layered on top of that, with specific missions earmarked for that kind of play. "But we have all these branches that go off of that main narrative, where the characters you've unlocked at that point, you can actually play alone. Or you can have friends pile in and do a lot of those missions in multiplayer. So we actually have tons of content, [like a] bespoke campaign, these branching stories, these other arcs you can build that you can play individually—90% of our content will be singleplayer—but you can also do most of those missions in multiplayer.
"You can pile in with friends you know, random people joining in with you. [We] have this bespoke story arc that [you] will play the way we want you to play to get the narrative fiction and set the world up. But then this world goes all over the place with tons of stuff to go do. So co-op is designed to have very specific story elements that you can go and do, but all of those missions are still stories. They're not just random missions, they're crafted to be part of this global story arc that we have."
I'll publish this interview in full next week, because Amos offers a lot more detail than what we saw in Square Enix's conference. For clarification, though, 'branching stories' doesn't mean BioWare-esque choices. It's more just a comment on the structure of missions in the game. Amos mentions that you'll be dealing with 'all-new threats' in co-op, too, as a result of what happens in the main story.
I also start to get a sense of what Avengers' endgame, so to speak, will be in relation to the campaign. "We have so much we want to talk about when we start showing more and more of the multiplayer stuff, but from our side, these characters, you can level them up. You can customise their skills, their look, the gear that they have. Those characters are your persistent element, that go down all the other stories and pathways we want to add as you go through the world. So for us, there's a state of the world that will happen at the end of our core campaign that sets up the rest of what's going to happen, and then there'll be changes to that world as more things unlock and more stories come along."
It sounds ambitious, but what I saw at E3 doesn't really hint at that ambition. It just looks like a short slice of a decent enough third-person action game that happens to feature multiple characters. The reveal would've benefited from being more comprehensive in my opinion, connecting the dots between this one level of set pieces and the scope of this overall years-long plan. A game starring these characters, by this collection of strong developers, should be a surefire win. Hopefully, as we learn more about what sounds like a massive game, it will start to come together.