Marvel’s Avengers beta hands-on review – the start of a new universe

The most ambitious Marvel tie-in so far lets you plays as any Avenger you like, but does it have the depth and variety to be a long-term hit?

We’re not sure what kind of response Square Enix and Sony were expecting, when they announced that Spider-Man, and a number of other extras, would be exclusive to the PlayStation version of Marvel’s Avengers, but we don’t think they can be surprised that many are not happy with the situation.

Even most PlayStation owners recognise the random unfairness of exclusive content, which means that as Marvel’s Avengers finally approaches release the general sentiment is one of simmering anger rather than excited anticipation.

One of those PlayStation exclusives was the chance to play the beta a week before anyone else, if you’d already pre-ordered (this weekend is for pre-orders on Xbox One and PC, with the following weekend open to everyone). We were able to join in the beta, which turned out to be unexpectedly generous in terms of the amount of options and stages – giving a pretty clear idea of what the final game is going to be like.

Marvel’s Avengers is a third person action game that can be played alone but which also has a four-player co-op option for many of its modes and missions. The lead combat designer also worked on the most recent God Of War game, so there is a fair amount of depth to the action – as well as a Destiny style upgrade system for your gear and individual skill trees for each character.

Square Enix is very keen for the game to not be seen as a shallow button-basher and yet not only is that what it often comes across as but we’re not sure that’s necessarily a bad thing. It’s hard not to immediately make comparisons with Marvel Ultimate Alliance, which in turn was the modern-day equivalent of old co-op scrolling beat ‘em-ups like Konami’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and X-Men.

Marvel’s Avengers feels like a direct evolution of both and we really don’t mean that as a knock. Not least because we’re not sure how much depth anyone expects of a four-player game based on the Avengers. Importantly, the combat is a lot of fun no matter who you’re playing as and no matter which moves you’re using. The core concept and gameplay seems very solid, but after playing the beta we do have other concerns…

We’re assuming the beta is going to be more or less the same for everyone but it starts of with what is essentially a tutorial mission, where you get to control each of the five core Avengers (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, and Black Widow) for brief sections before the game proper begins. We’d already played this at Gamescom last year, so you can read what we thought of it in detail here, but it’s a fun little tutorial that gives you a good feel for how each character is used.

The controls for each hero always work in the same basic way, with fighting revolving around – you guessed it – light and heavy attacks. Whether it’s Hulk ripping up the ground in front of him or Iron Man firing a repulsor blast the control input is the same, as is using a ranged attack with the trigger buttons, dodging, and activating one of three slowly recharging special abilities. Everyone also has a recharging meter, variously described as willpower or ‘intrinsic energy’ which enables things like Hulk’s rage mode.

Special abilities can range from Iron Man putting on the Hulkbuster armour for a short time to Thor bringing down a lighting storm, so they are pretty special, but there’s more to each character than just that. Black Widow is the most technical to play as, since she has a grappling hook she can use to snag enemies and ledges, as well as the ability to turn invisible; while Iron Man can fly and switch between multiple weapons, including a laser and rockets.

Arguably the most enjoyable character to play as, though, is Ms. Marvel, who is the catalyst for the main story and is someone that hasn’t been seen in the movies yet. Her powers are a lot more comic book-y than the others, with stretchy limbs and the ability to ‘embiggen’ herself as a giant. She can also swing on ledges in a way that is probably similar to how Spider-Man will work.

The best bit about Ms. Marvel though is that she actually has some kind of personality, as opposed to the others who are played very straight. Tony Stark has his quips but, apart from one joke involving the Ghostbusters theme tune, they’re never very funny and the whole game seems to have a strangely dour tone to it. That seems to be entirely intentional, as the story kicks off with a disaster that almost wipes out a city, and for which the Avengers are blamed, but it all seems a bit unnecessary.

If you hate the Marvel movies for their constant one-liners that may seem like a positive but there’s nothing to replace the jokes, in terms of more complex characterisation or storytelling. It’s also odd because in every other way the game is desperate to act as much like the movies as possible, with costumes, and things like the helicarrier, that look almost identical to their cinematic incarnations and a version of JARVIS that intentionally sounds like an off-brand Paul Bettany.

The other problem with the storytelling is that the enemies seem worryingly unexciting. The only supervillains we’ve seen so far are a brief appearance by Taskmaster and a fight with Hulk bad guy Abomination. For 95% of the time you’re just fighting personality-free robots (some of them might be men in suits, we’re not sure, but it makes no difference in terms of how you interact with them) that are reminiscent of nobody’s favourite Avengers movie Age of Ultron.

You need cannon fodder enemies to fight, and we’re sure Marvel didn’t want you to be constantly murdering ordinary humans, but it gets old really quick. Although one of the plot points involves Terrigen mist giving a portion of the population superpowers, so maybe that comes into it later. The big bad seems to be MODOK, who is represented as just a mad scientist that can control robots with his mind. Whether he’s going to turn into a big grinning head in a floating chair by the end we don’t know but given the tone of the rest of the game we have our doubts.

Most of the superhero powers have to be unlocked first (the beta allows you access to an abridged version of each characters’ skill tree) and are also augmented by their gear. This is one of many elements that is inspired by Destiny, and not just in terms of the interface used to ‘augment’ gear with collected resources. You’re constantly collecting loot from enemies that can improve your stats and while the difference it makes is never immediately obvious it is necessary once you start facing off against higher level enemies.

Apart from the initial purchase, the game intends to make its money from sales of cosmetic items, which are accessed from an in-game marketplace and a battle pass equivalent. That seems very generous and there’s nothing in the beta to suggest there’s any kind of catch. Except… we barely recognised any of the costumes or found any of them especially interesting. We wouldn’t claim to be Marvel comic experts but a lot of them just seemed to be different colour variants or outfits with a slightly different seam down the side.

One Iron Man suit, for example, is coloured a dull grey to evoke the Mark I model but the actual suit is still the default design same underneath. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder but there certainly didn’t seem to be anything that would tempt us to spend real world money. We were assuming that all the goofy 60s comic book outfits would be amongst the choices but instead everything seemed disappointingly sensible and unexciting.

Perhaps that will come later but the focus of the beta is in convincing you that there’s enough to the game to keep playing on a regular basis. This is where the continued influences from Destiny come in, as not only are there standard campaign missions (which can be played in single-player) but also a wide range of co-op missions that vary from structured story levels to brief challenge modes that only last 15 minutes or so.

These are constantly updating from the ‘War Table’ menu and allow you to use whatever hero you want. The beta included three that were just straight wave-based survival modes in a holographic room and yet the novelty of four-player co-op and being Iron Man (or whoever) was still enough to keep our interest. There were more complex missions though, with one involving exploring an open world area – the Russian tundra in this case – which is reminiscent of a Destiny patrol.

Not only does Marvel’s Avengers have tons of content but playing it again with a different hero can feel very different. Especially with ‘mission modifier’ effects that can add restrictions like not recharging willpower automatically or giving all enemies freeze powers. The lack of variation in objectives does quickly become obvious though, especially having to stand close to a control point to hack it – which gets old very quickly.

There’s also the fact that despite unlocking half the skill tree for each character we still found ourselves just mashing the heavy attack button most of the time and winning quite easily. We’re not certain that’s necessarily a problem though, not if the overall context is that of a breezy arcade style co-op game.

Marvel’s Avengers isn’t trying to be The Last Of Us Part 2, it’s trying to be an accessible, all-ages action game that both casual players and core gamers can get something out of at the same time. That certainly has been achieved but the real question is whether there’s enough variety in its gameplay and premise to works as a games as a service title that lasts an entire generation. But that’s a question that’s going to need a lot more than a weekend-long beta to answer.

Formats: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Stadia, and PC
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Crystal Dynamics and Eidos-Montréal
Release Date: 15th May 2020

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