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'Avengers' review: It's less 'Destiny' and more 'Streets of Rage 4'

By The Washington Post Time of article published Sep 7, 2020

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By The Washington Post

Washington - ’Marvel's Avengers’ by Crystal Dynamics releases this Friday, and players with some preorder deals can start playing as early as Tuesday.

The PlayStation 4 version of the game went live Monday and releases Friday. This piece will be an evolving document that updates as I play through the campaign and the multiplayer.

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Day 4: It's starting to click

As repetitive as the post-game grind is, I'm starting to understand why "Avengers" is working for me in ways that other looter games haven't so far. It's all in the combat system, and how it unfolds once you start leveling up your characters and unlocking skills.

Just look at how this YouTube user plays Captain America. You can't say the combat system isn't deep.

While I can't yet complete the full combos seen above, I've pulled off smaller parts of them. The combat system works because it's actually a lot more fluid, and allows for vast experimentation. While fighting in this game can be as simple as a button masher, as early reviews have called this, there's a high skill ceiling for players who want to do more. This is not at all an easy trick to pull off for any game, let alone a looter live service game like "Avengers."

The live service stuff may still be icky and the prices too high for many of the marketplace items. But the loot is also starting to become more useful. Understanding how different elements and attacks work plays a big role in creating your endgame character. Right now, I'm experimenting with what I like to call the "Tony I shrunk the kids" Iron Man build. I'm looking to buff up his Pym Particle effects, which can shrink enemies and lower their defenses. And by unlocking and strengthening his lasers, he's no longer just the guy who flies around and pings stuff from a distance with his repulsor rays. He can now sweep the field with lasers, playing effective crowd control like he's Kratos. And if any one enemy gets too pesky, I can focus all laser energy on it, therefore shrinking it and rendering it less of a threat. These aren't builds that were possible in the first 20 hours of the game.

Here's another reason why the game clicks for me: It feels like a AAA-budgeted version of the classic arcade brawler, "Captain America and the Avengers" by Data East, released in 1991. This coin-hungry machine had everything: Four Avengers teaming up to fight endless hallways of faceless robots, occasionally fighting a boss in which all four of them have to punch it repeatedly until the life meter is drained. That's exactly the same core gameplay loop in 2020′s "Marvel's Avengers." In my mind, this game now has less to do with "Destiny," and feels more along the lines of a very expensive version of "Streets of Rage 4." Considering that game is still one of the best games of 2020 for me, this is a high compliment.

After four days with "Avengers," I'm still peeling away the layers of this game. It may be repetitive to others, but there's depth here if you look for it. I'm hoping to publish a final review sometime next week.

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Day 3: The grind burn heats up

The delightful campaign is starting to feel like a distant memory, as cutscenes and story have given away to basically what the beta promised. The "Avengers" game is a lot of doing the same activities over and over again in the same environments.

People who are used to this, "Destiny" or "World of Warcraft" veterans for example, will be familiar with the grind. I'm now able to fight the two supervillain missions in rotation, and they're repeats of the two supervillain fights of the campaign: Taskmaster and Abomination. With more health than the campaign, these fights end up feeling less like super-powered brawls, and more like the MMORPG grind of burning down health meters.

It's the level design that heightens that sense of ennui and listlessness. The more open area maps like Pacific Northwest forest or snowy tundras do give a sense that you're on some larger group mission with the Avengers, and exploring them feels a bit like speeding through a planet on "Destiny." Yes it's empty, but you'd hope that these areas are portals to more interesting, focused level design. Sadly, every facility you enter is a cookie-cutter hallway full of robots and turrets. This isn't so much level design, as they are hallways built to connect several large square rooms. It's disappointing, since the campaign proves that you can build interesting context around the limited actions of this multiplayer game. It's clear that a lot of the environmental effort focused on the campaign first.

It's disappointing, then, that currently there's no way to revisit the more interesting sections of the campaign. Once it's done, you're locked into the post-game content. They offer a few story-based missions, and I'm still making my way through them. Crystal Dynamics clearly put in a lot of effort in making the campaign look as impressive as possible, as it even has bespoke animations that you won't ever see again in the post-game. It's a shame, and I hope they're able to replicate the campaign success somehow in the later stories. Because that's all we have left. I also miss the pageantry and joy of the campaign. I finished Ms. Marvel's "iconic mission" to unlock her standard outfit, a nice reward, but I must've missed the notification for it, because I didn't even realize I finished the mission until I bothered to check what outfits I had. The mission was just done, and I barely noticed.

Combat still keeps my mind from going numb. I've now switched away from Captain America to focus more on Thor, and flying around as him feels as weighty as it is liberating. The animations do a lot to give Mjolnir the heft it needs. He's much better for managing annoying long-distance enemies like snipers and turrets (of which this game is chocked full), while still giving me the crunchy, melee combat Cap gave me.

I'm also focusing on leveling up each of the six initial heroes by unlocking their skill sets first. The flow of loot so far isn't a problem, simply because my levels aren't yet high enough for me to focus on any sort of build. Much of the post-game should be focused on simply leveling up your character to learn and improve your current move set. This seems to help solidify build choices once loot starts to matter.

A lot of critics will struggle with the nagging feeling that this game could've been better if it was focused as a single-player game. But for what it is, I'm still having fun.

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Day 2: We're (kind of) in the endgame now.

It's not a spoiler to say Captain America returns in the story. But the circumstances of it was handled well, with the appropriate amount of pageantry, along with one surprisingly beautiful scene. It's a credit to the game's writers that an Avengers story can manage to make me think, "That's a fun moment for Cap and Tony."

Once the Avengers are reassembled, the feeling of accomplishment is undeniable, and that's once again thanks to the story's strong connection with Kamala Khan, and her satisfaction in seeing her dream of reuniting the band through to the end. And it's a pretty great end. While the game so far hasn't offered many amazing villain encounters, a penultimate combat sequence with a large vehicle is a spectacular replacement. It reminded me of the Scarab setpieces from the original "Halo" trilogy, a comparison I never expected to make about the "Avengers" game.

The campaign can take you anywhere from eight to 12 hours to complete, a pretty hefty offering considering how this game is marketed heavily as a multiplayer live service. There's brewing discourse over whether the game was marketed well. Even watching Tuesday's "War Game" update announcing Kate Bishop as an upcoming playable character, I found it hard to get excited over a game I'm already playing and enjoying. Some critics are now wondering why Kamala wasn't centered more in the marketing, as the story entirely revolves around her. I agree, especially since her superhero alias Ms. Marvel is quite beloved, albeit not as iconic as the other characters. I'd also argue that makes the case for pushing her stronger, since there's less baggage around her than the rest of the team, and she offers a new perspective to the Avengers story.

The promotional material also heavily focused on the "live service" aspect of the game, promising loads of things to do once the campaign is finished. Games like "The Division 2" and "Anthem" both also heavily promised post-launch support, as these games typically see turbulent launch news cycles by offering little to do. But this aspect of the game is also much harder to review, since it takes more time than any week of play can offer. "Marvel's Avengers" is meant to be played for months, not a dozen hours. The assurances still matter, since this type of game still comes with a lot of baggage and expectations. But it also failed to communicate that this game is front-loaded with an excellent, true-to-character Avengers story. In another era, a 12-hour campaign with thrilling moments, compelling character arcs and even new surprises for old characters is well worth the price of admission alone. But this is a live service, and it's also important to judge the game as such.

The ennui of the gameplay loop is starting to settle in to my brain, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. For one, the combat system continues to surprise me in how engaging it is. First impressions of this game said the fighting system centered around "button mashing," but I'm finding it to be more considered. I'm currently using a Level 40 Captain America as my main build. Certain combo finishers can knock enemies away, which might seem counter intuitive for a short-range boxer like Cap. But sharp control of the combat system makes these blows useful for crowd control. Leveling him up and unlocking his skill tree also gives me even greater controller of his long-range shield throw, which can also be used in combos. Suddenly, he's pulling off those same crowd-pleasing, shield-kicking combos he used against Thanos in the "Endgame" movie.

My impressions of the loot grind are still incomplete, as I've only just begun to collect "legendary" class equipment. And it's hard to say how character builds will fan out. My Captain America currently wears two gold "legendary" items. His "Adept Graviton Explosion Resonator" gives me three perks, including a "17.3 percent chance of defeating enemies in their weak point" which "grants a Willpower Burst." He also sports an "Apex Blessing Protector" with a 19.8 percent chance of takedowns granting a Heroic Charge Burst for all Heroics. If that sentence put you to sleep, don't worry, the perks aren't all that exciting either. It's hard to tell how this would change the way I would play Cap. The percentages of the perks are still too low for me to gauge, and hopefully I'll start seeing improved statistics sooner rather than later. It's early yet and it's promising that legendary drops are happening early. I picked those two up from during the campaign, and random equipment continues to drop even from enemies.

The various mission types are starting to feel familiar too. Much of them are variations of defending certain areas from hordes of robots or pushing enough buttons while fighting hordes of robots. It's repetitive, but that's the nature of these games. And again, the combat keeps it feeling engaging. It just seems like so far, unlocking skills promises a more fun future than the loot I'm getting. That might be trouble if the game hopes to stay alive for longer than several months. But unlocking every hero's skills will also take up time. Once I get at least one character to a high enough level (above 100), that's when the real endgame begins.

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Day 1: Better than Beta

Before the beta, I was starting to form the opinion that the "Avengers" video game should have been free to play. After about seven hours with the final product, I'm no longer convinced that's the case. The game might be worth the full $60 cover charge.

How is that? After all, this game is going to charge $10 per battle pass for each downloadable character in the future, news that didn't sit well with a lot of critics. And I was inclined to agree with them. The beta gave us the impression that it'd just be a cringeworthy, jerry-built narrative designed around multiplayer arenas, similar to older loot grind titles like "Warframe" or even "Diablo."

Immediately, the final product makes a far stronger impression. From the beta, there was good potential in telling a story where teenager Kamala Khan plays audience surrogate, and kudos to Shana Bryant and the narrative team for living up to it. By portraying her anxieties and vulnerability, her personal stakes make it easy to invest in her character. It's all in her earnest sincerity in wanting to do the right thing, and the escalating excitement as she tests the limits of her newfound powers and courage.

This is less an Avengers tale than it is Kamala Khan's coming-of-age story, guest-starring the Avengers. Kamala's story is a mash-up of previous up-and-coming young superhero stories like Spider-Man, complete with wise father figure. But the tale Crystal Dynamics tells here is a good reminder of why that formula works, and Kamala's written with enough enthusiasm and cheer to sell it.

With her driving the narrative, the game avoids forcing the audience to re-acclimate to five new iterations of the iconic Avengers heroes. Instead, they're familiar enough to anyone who's even remotely aware of them. And the games missions and story bits don't feel out of place in a big-budget, single-player story, which likely comes from the studio's experience working on the "Tomb Raider" trilogy.

This is so far the greatest unique success of the "Avengers" game. "Live service" games like "Destiny," "Fortnite" and "The Division" don't have narrative so much as they have a premise. Forget character arcs, these games simply lay out the circumstances in which players are grinding and fighting for loot. "Call of Duty: Warzone" has an ongoing story, but it too is a loose one.

Not so with "Avengers," which tries to marry a multiplayer-focused game with the "prestige" storytelling of Sony's first-party efforts like "The Last of Us." And it's very nearly a resounding success. There's confidence and ease in how the cutscenes weave in with the standard, brawler-based gameplay. There's important context driving the gameplay.

For example, one of Iron Man's earliest scenes finds him in the desert looking for parts to build a new suit of armor. This properly contextualizes billionaire Tony Stark having to scrounge around for parts, and it all ends with a playable sequence of him tearing through a canyon blasting AC/DC, a scene ripped right out of his movies. In a beta, this might seem like pandering, like it was trying too hard to mimic the film. In the context of the game, it's a thrilling set piece.

The other Avengers also come off strong, all based loosely around their known archetypes. Thor is aloof and noble. Black Widow is unflappable and capable. Bruce Banner is a bit more neurotic than usual, but that comes after several years of trauma that kick off the game's plot. Only Tony Stark comes off as trying a bit too hard, with just a few one-liner jokes too many. Voice actor Nolan North hews a bit too close to the Nathan Drake brand of delivery here, and it's hard not to notice.

After eight hours, the core gameplay loop has solidified itself in the campaign and largely remains the same from the beta. It's a solid foundation for brawlers, but far less complicated than the combat you'd find in more robust single-player stories like Batman's "Arkham" games and the PlayStation 4 exclusive "Spider-Man." If that didn't excite you, the final game won't.

But if you thought it was engaging enough, I'd say it gets a lot better once you unlock all the characters and their skills. I have most of Iron Man's lasers and repulsor moves unlocked, and the combat feels varied enough to turn this game into the best Iron Man video game I've ever played. He can fly forever, a merciful departure from EA's "Anthem" and its flying limits. The Hulk may be the game's weakest link, at least for me, mostly because of an inability to get over how the Hulk could "five-hit combo" a single robot. But I know other players are enjoying playing him, which speaks more to suspension of disbelief.

It's to the studio's credit that all heroes still control differently enough to make playing each one feel like a new game altogether. This becomes more evident as you unlock more skills and play more of the campaign.

The loot grind has yet to really settle in, but so far navigating the inventory hasn't been as fussy as I expected. Yes, the game has several different resource types for you to track and craft for upgrades. But they also flow freely enough where I'm not having to play "fake colorful money accountant" in my head every few minutes.

As far as technical concerns go, there were a few graphical bugs, and one moment where I was unable to progress the story. A simple restart made the proper story mission pop up. And the game runs well on the PlayStation 4, with little slowdown and no crashes.

So far, "Marvel's Avengers" is shaping up to be well worth the cover charge. That's a redemption arc I didn't see coming.

The Washington Post

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