It’s no secret that Marvel’s Avengers isn’t doing well, to the extent I actually feel bad for it. I know, I know, feeling sorry for one of the world’s biggest brands taking a dive isn’t exactly man-of-the-people territory, but Avengers (a) is not a bad game and (b) gets slammed no matter what it does (though sometimes deservedly). You can almost taste the audience disdain: whenever I write about it, among the comments or replies will be repeated occurrences of ‘dead game.’ The idea was always to show the shattered Avengers re-assembling themselves: now we’re here, it does look like an impossible feat.
Crystal Dynamics deserves a bit of respect, because in a bad situation the studio has done the only thing it can: hunker down, release regular patches, and focus on making the big updates as good as it can. Last night saw the release of Hawkeye: Future Imperfect, a free mini-campaign that introduces Clint Barton as a member of the roster (and follows on directly from last year’s Kate Bishop DLC). I have a slight confession to make here, which is that I haven’t seen many of the MCU movies or know much about Hawkeye, beyond an odd cameo appearance in the comics. So I thought he was boring.
Turns out that Marvel’s Avengers has a pretty brilliant idea about that. I don’t know if Hawkeye really is boring, but here Crystal Dynamics’ narrative team pull one of their favourite tricks, and they do it with style. Hawkeye is a superhero of incredible skill, with gadgets pouring out of every orifice: but he’s depressed! He’s already failed to save the world, and the Avengers are dead! So you start Future Imperfect as grumpy old man Hawkeye, guilt-ridden at not being there when the Avengers fell, and eking out his days trying to find any sign of Nick Fury.
I’m a fan of grouchy muttering protagonists anyway, but this Hawkeye is a child of the 60s that never grew up: a big grey bouffant, John Lennon sunglasses, and not-so-smart casual attire (with practical pockets). The opening stretch of Future Imperfect sees this wisecracking boomer searching across a huge, arid biome for old Pym robots sending out a SHIELD signal, setting up a series of pretty easy encounters that allow the player to get familiar with the character’s moveset.
Probably the one thing I did know about Hawkeye is that he’s an archer, but here the character is also pretty nifty with a sword for the melee side (in the comics and MCU this is part of his ‘Ronin’ role). One of the slightly annoying things about Avengers is that certain core moves have to be unlocked with skill points, so you’ll play through these opening fights without key moves that tie the character’s abilities as a whole together. The best example is his ability to automatically fire arrows by holding light attack or heavy attack, meaning you can slide into a group of enemies with a sword slash, hold light attack to jump away while firing a ‘slow’ AoE arrow at where you just were, then hold heavy attack to send three powerful homing arrows out. This all takes place in what feels like a second.
One of the things that always impressed me about Marvel's Avengers was that Captain America felt different to Iron Man, who felt different to Ms. Marvel. Whatever other criticisms may stand, the game is good at differentiating its heroes and Hawkeye is another excellent example of this. At first I over-emphasised the melee side, being a Cap player, and Hawkeye’s options here are extensive: you could easily just play him melee and enjoy the sword slams, split-second dodges, and simply gorgeous animations.
But when you start unlocking a few of his ranged abilities, it becomes clear that Hawkeye’s a hit-and-runner. The game transitions between the normal camera and aiming camera instantly and seamlessly, meaning you can slam into a group of foes, hop away, and instantly pepper them with different flavours of arrow. One type does huge damage and hitting three shots perfectly gets an even more powerful fourth; another type fires in a spread and slows enemies; yet another are triggerable mines that become more powerful the longer they’re in the field. Various unlockable skills buff and buff Hawkeye's archery abilities, and you'll soon be popping out shots almost as a reflex when you're out of melee range.
What can I say? The main criticism of Avengers still applies, which is that you’re doing all this cool shit to the same old robots, but Hawkeye feels great in the hands and his moveset keeps on surprising with how it manages to fit arrows into his levelling curve: I’m only level 15 with the character but, believe me, when I run away there are arrows coming out my behind.
The campaign overall took between two and three hours to finish and, though it obviously re-uses environments and enemies (and a boss) from the vanilla game, it felt fresh and interesting enough I was glad I’d gone back. As the title of this expansion suggests, things soon get very timey-wimey and old Hawkeye becomes young(er) Hawkeye, and then there’s an even younger Hawkeye. The grumpy old dude remains the best by a country mile, not least because he clearly thinks his younger self is a bit of an asshole, and it’s an inspired way to give a character that doesn’t seem very interesting (to me, at least) a sense of depth and an arc in a very short space of time.
People can say what they want about Marvel’s Avengers, but the singleplayer side of it has never been the problem. I thoroughly enjoyed Kamala Khan’s journey to becoming Ms. Marvel, the regular pyrotechnics along the way, and smashing stuff about alongside the Hulk and Thor. Hawkeye is more of that good stuff, manages to make its lead character more interesting than you might expect, and builds another chapter in a genuinely fun superhero story.
Yeah, you have to feel bad for Marvel’s Avengers. After being impressed with this new DLC, kitting out my Hawkeye with all this cool new gear I’d earned, and practicing some combos in the quinjet, I went to try and play with some other Avengers. After around half an hour of searching, and a couple of failed lobbies, I gave up. An expansion like this can certainly re-ignite one’s enthusiasm. It’s just a pity when it does that, and the game itself is still on the floor.