Masked superhero Chris Orr played the beta version of Marvel's Avengers on Playstation 4 Pro, but did Hulk smash it or was it an Infinity Bore...
Over the last two weekends I have been playing the beta for Crystal Dynamics' newest game: Marvel's Avengers. According to publisher Square Enix, Marvel's Avengers is a "third-person, action adventure game that combines an original, cinematic story with single-player and co-operative gameplay". Whilst the minute-by-minute action in Marvel's Avengers definitely meets this definition, the overall structure has taken inspiration from loot shooters like Destiny and Anthem in order to shape Marvel's Avengers' long-term service model.
The beta started with the San Francisco mission - which was featured in the game's E3 2019 reveal - allowing me to sample the play style of each of the five Avengers available in the full game at launch: Thor, Iron Man, the Hulk, Black Widow and Captain America. Following this, I was introduced to Kamala Khan (aka Ms. Marvel) and played through a couple of additional missions from the game's main story. The rest of the beta centred around the War Table, the game's hub for selecting both single-player missions that advance the story and multiplayer missions that you can play over and over with friends online, or with AI Avengers if you prefer. Captain America and Thor weren't available outside of the San Francisco introduction, but Iron Man, Black Widow, the Hulk and Kamala Khan were all playable in the beta's multiplayer missions.
Playing as each of these heroes, I immediately noticed that they felt different from each other. It was enjoyable to alternate between each character and experiment with their move sets, powers and ways of traversing the map. For example, the Hulk is a tank character and it feels like he can take more damage than the other Avengers as well as dish it out. This is balanced by the fact the Hulk feels a little slower and heavier, and has to leap across the maps. This contrasts well with Iron Man who plays best at range, blasting enemies from the air, swooping in for some quick close quarters attacks, and then flying off across the map to a safe distance again.
At the same time, each character also felt similar - due to the fundamentals of the game's combat system - which made it easy to switch from one to another. At no point did it feel like it would become a chore to have to play as someone specific in order to progress the story. It does feel a little strange that both the Hulk and Black Widow can stand toe-to-toe in a fight against the same enemy, but this is needed to ensure the game is balanced. The important thing is that, even though you know that the Hulk isn't a lot more powerful than Black Widow in the game, he still feels like he is.
These characters all felt so good to play as thanks to the combat system at the heart of Marvel's Avengers, which is simple, but enjoyable. Combat is built on a structure of light attacks, heavy attacks, ranged attacks, special attacks, dodges, and counters. As I became more familiar with the combat, I was able to perform more advanced combos leading to effects heavy scenes featuring Kamala pounding her enlarged fists into enemies and high fiving them across the map, whilst Black Widow simultaneously twisted and spun from attacking one enemy to another.
The only part of the combat that didn't work that well in the beta was the counter-attack mechanic. This should probably be renamed the 'counter-intuitive' mechanic on account of how awkward it was to perform. It was difficult to time pressing the right trigger with the flashing halo that briefly appeared around the head of an enemy to indicate they were open to a counter. This was confounded by the fact there were often a lot of enemies on screen at once, with a lot of effects, which made it difficult to see this halo and keep track of who was attacking me at any given moment. The indecisive and finicky auto-lock didn't help much either. For the most part though, the combat was fun and it seems like it's going to work well; Iron Man feels nimble, Black Widow feels agile and the Hulk... well the Hulk smashes!
The basic combat system is supported by the much more interesting hero abilities. These unique super-moves are character specific, and in the beta each hero had three moves available. I'm not sure if more will be available in the full game, but I hope so. Although unique to each character the three moves always had similar functions. One provided a buff to me and my team of Avengers (a support ability), one was a strong offensive move (an assault ability), and one was a much more powerful super move (an ultimate ability). For example, Iron Man could overcharge his suit providing a damage buff to his attacks (support), release a short powerful blast of his chest mounted laser unibeam (assault), and - once it had charged up - call in the devastatingly powerful Hulkbuster armour to deal out massive amounts of damage for a limited period of time (ultimate).
If that sounds like good fun then that's because it is. The combat at the heart of Marvel's Avengers didn't do anything new, but it worked solidly and I genuinely enjoyed it. Wrecking up enemies whilst loads of over the top superhero moves were getting dished out looked and felt fantastic and in that respect Crystal Dynamics have absolutely nailed the Avengers fantasy.
Just as importantly, the beta also hinted at an intriguing story, which looks like it is going to be told from Kamala's perspective in the full game. I won't go into details in case you're wanting to go in completely fresh, but Kamala isn't an Avenger and so - like you - she is an outsider, learning about each of the heroes she looks up to as the story progresses. It's a clever framing device and the beta left me more than interested in seeing what twists and turns would unfold during the game's full plot.
Whilst these elements work well, they are unfortunately undermined by some very key, but very poor, design decisions by Crystal Dynamics.
Underpinning the combat and main gameplay mechanics are not one, not two, but THREE grinding systems: a levelling system, a power (gear) score, and a battle pass style system known as the challenge card.
The level system is an RPG mechanic that most gamers will be familiar with where, as you earn XP, you level up and unlock skill points that allow you to improve and enhance each hero with new moves, combos, and abilities. This system was absolutely fine and the beta hinted at a surprising amount of depth here in the final game. The power score is linked to gear and this is where the game's 'Destiny' inspired loot shooter mechanics are most keenly felt. This system is based on collecting, equipping and upgrading gear with drops ranging from basic to legendary. Finally, each character has a challenge card working away in the background, and as you amass points you unlock different costumes, emotes, nameplates and various amounts of the games many, many resources (which can be used to make marginal improvements to your gear).
There are two problems with Crystal Dynamics' games as a service model that the beta exposed, however. The first is to do with how these systems work and the second is in how design choices don't make these systems much fun to engage with.
Let's start with how these systems work. Each character has a completely separate level score, power score, and battle pass level. That means that if you only ever play as Iron Man, you're only going to increase Iron Man's level and power, and unlock Iron Man specific cosmetics in the battle pass system. In games like Destiny or Anthem this feels natural, as you choose a base character that meets your play style and then build them up from there. In Marvel's Avengers, however, it feels much less natural and at odds with the single-player story. Crystal Dynamics clearly want you to spend time playing as and enjoying being each Avenger, but if you do want to have multiple characters to use in the multiplayer missions then you're going to need to grind these missions over and over again as each Avenger.
This is a particular problem with the power system. No matter what gear I played around with in the beta, this system never felt like it actually did anything. Most of the gear I unlocked made such a marginal change to my character's stats that it was imperceptible during gameplay. Even when I took on missions requiring a gear score significantly higher than mine, I didn't feel like my lower level gear was causing me much of a problem. It was very difficult to tell what my power score was actually doing, and why the gear I was collecting was important.
What's worse is that the gear you get doesn't even change the appearance of your character. Different costumes for characters are earned through the battle pass system that works away in the background and this means that the gear you're constantly collecting, swapping and upgrading has no impact on your appearance. Half of the fun with the loot in games like Destiny and Anthem is that you get the payoff of making your character look unique. You get that "HEY LOOK AT ME!" moment. That's not the case in Marvel's Avengers.
For example, when I was playing as Kamala Khan I unlocked several different vests, each more powerful than the last. Each time I did this I jumped into the character menu, equipped my new more powerful vest so that my power score increased by a tiny percentage, and then jumped back into playing the game. And there was Kamala, stood there, looking exactly the same. Then I'd start fighting and nothing would feel any different.
I honestly don't know if I have missed something, if I was being stupid, if this was a bug, or if this is just really poor game design. I suspect it's the latter. What it meant, however, was that all of the gear felt boring and completely pointless. The loot system feels been tacked on in order to turn Marvel's Avengers from a finite action adventure with RPG-lite elements, into a potentially infinite grind to maximise some marginal percentage points in a menu. Eventually I just started ignoring what the gear actually did and simply focused on whether the headline numbers were moving upwards. It all felt very corporate, like something born out of a Stark Industries Shareholders meeting. Welcome to Marvel's Avengers: Age of Excel, I guess.
Together, these three systems are what drive the game's live service model, based on players undertaking multiplayer missions over and over to unlock cosmetics for their characters, build a unique skills loadout and increase their gear score. It seems that there's more grinding to be found in Marvel's Avengers than all of the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater games combined!
"Dread it. Run from it. Destiny still arrives".All of this grinding wouldn't be quite so bad if the beta hadn't also highlighted that second problem I alluded to. Despite The Avengers being arguably one of the hottest properties available to work with at the moment, Crystal Dynamics have designed an alarmingly dull multiplayer game.
THANOS, AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR TRAILER.
The main antagonist in Marvel's Avengers is A.I.M., and as such - if the beta is an accurate reflection of the final game - you are going to be fighting wave after wave of generic robots and men in identical costumes. At least there were plenty of variants of each enemy in the beta - gamma, fire, electric, etc. - although Crystal Dynamics seem to have applied a philosophy of just making these variants increasingly bigger to increase the difficulty. Weaker enemies were normal human size, mid-strength enemies were bigger - usually in an exo-suit that looked like the Power Loader from Aliens - and the toughest enemies were even bigger four-legged spider robots. Honestly, it was all a little underwhelming.
As mentioned, the beta did feature one boss fight with a well known Marvel villain within one of the single-player missions (as well as featuring the Taskmaster boss fight from the San Francisco opener), but the other boss fight was against... wait for it... an EVEN BIGGER SPIDER ROBOT.
*Sigh*Maybe that spider robot has some deep significance within the lore of the game, but I wouldn't know, as on beating it, the beta crashed. I hope there's more varied enemy design in the full game because fighting wave after wave of identically designed baddies got tiresome and detracted from the otherwise engaging combat. More than that, it began to highlight how boring the grind was, particularly on the second, third or fourth run of a mission
Sadly, these dull enemies are joined by bland environments and repetitive mission design. Graphically the environments are actually very nice looking, but as settings for the game's action they were generic and unimaginative. In the beta there was a city landscape, which was labelled up as New York but had no features to distinguish it from any other cityscape, a snowy landscape - imaginatively named "the snowy tundra" -, a desert landscape and a wooded landscape. Marvel has a rich history of iconic locations and environments, but none of them were featured in the beta. The one iconic location that was included was the Helicarrier, but there were only a couple of rooms to explore in the beta. Hopefully this environment will expand and be of more interest in the full game.
Outside of the story missions, the beta featured two core multiplayer mission types. One involved larger outdoor environments, where you were tasked with completing a main objective alongside optional side quests marked by a '?' icon. The main objectives always involved travelling to the entrance of an A.I.M. or S.H.I.E.L.D. base, fighting the enemies outside, and then entering the base. The side missions were just as uninspired, with tasks limited to 'go here, fight robots and rescue the hostages' and 'go here, fight robots and open a loot crate'. Sometimes, Crystal Dynamics didn't even bother to try that hard and the side quest was simply 'go here and fight robots' or 'go here and open a loot crate'.
These larger outdoor missions were the more interesting - believe it or not - but they all ended inside an A.I.M. or S.H.I.E.LD. base. The other core mission type was a faster, shorter, affair that simply cut out the larger environments and side missions, skipping straight to the end base fight. Either way, whatever mission I did in the beta, I was guaranteed to end up in a generic, repetitive indoor environment fighting robots, whilst J.A.R.V.I.S. tasked me with either protecting, or destroying, some important equipment.
Crystal Dynamics have promised that all content following Marvel's Avengers release will be free, and they have already announced that they will be releasing more missions and heroes to build Marvel's Avengers into a long-term service. We know that Hawkeye will be added to PC, Xbox One and PS4 at some point in the future, whilst Spider-Man will be released for the PS4 version as an exclusive character in early 2021. We also know that Xbox Series X and PS5 upgrades will be released for free too. Based on what I have played in the beta, however, I am concerned that it is through this future content that Crystal Dynamics will add variety to Marvel's Avengers. With the generic enemies, dull environments, and uninspired mission design, I am not convinced that the game's launch content will be interesting enough to keep the majority players engaged.
For a game so focused on the grind - and so clearly inspired by the loot shooter genre - it is extremely worrying to play the beta and feel that the enemy, environmental, and mission design all put me off replaying missions. In order to grind, you need engaging content that is fun to play time and time again, and this is the vitally important ingredient that appears to be missing from Marvel's Avengers.
On a more positive note, I only experienced a few bugs when playing the beta, which hopefully suggests the full release will be nicely polished. Occasionally I found defeated enemies floating in mid-air, or my attack animations wouldn't connect properly as enemies were a little too far away when the animation began. As mentioned, I also experienced one hard crash as I defeated the giant spider boss. For the most part though, bugs were minimal, particularly considering the generous amount of content in the beta.
I played the beta on a PS4 Pro and initially opted to use the "high frame rate" mode. With this selected, however, I found that the game's frame rate would stutter and lurch a lot. The "4K" mode felt much more fluid and, with the exception of the busiest scenes, the frame rate remained pretty stable. For now, on PS4 Pro, the 4K option seems like it will be the best way to play Marvel's Avengers, though the higher frame rate mode might provide a hint at what a PS5 upgrade patch will be looking to offer.
I did, however, find the text font size to be way too small, especially considering the amount of time I had to spend in menus fiddling around with gear and checking out the marginal percentage differences between one chest plate and another. I was also annoyed that the subtitle system forced me to have closed captions enabled as well. These options can, and should, be independent of each other. Hopefully both of these can be sorted prior to release on 4th September 2020.
The character models in the beta were extremely detailed and, whilst the environments themselves were dull and unimaginative, they did at least look nice. A lot has been said about the fact that these Avengers do not look or sound like the Avengers we're all used to from the MCU and, whilst it does feel jarring at first, it doesn't take long to adjust and I really don't think that this element should be a deal breaker for anyone.
The design choices Crystal Dynamics have made, particularly in respect of the loot shooter mechanics, may be a deal breaker though. Overall, the beta has shown that Crystal Dynamics can build a good Avengers game, and that there are some solid ideas and mechanics working alongside an intriguing single-player story. The loot shooter mechanics and dull design choices undermine this good work though.
Replaying missions just wasn't that much fun and, if the beta is an accurate reflection of the full game, then this could become a major issue. The multiplayer missions are the portion of the game that players are meant to keep coming back to, time and time again, but the uninspired design and the pointlessness of the gear system makes this a tough sell. I would go as far as argue that the loot shooter mechanics feel bolted on and that many of Crystal Dynamics' best ideas risk getting buried beneath the weight of a slow, boring and uninteresting grind. Crystal Dynamics have a history of making great looking, engaging, single-player games, but this transition to a live service model just doesn't feel like it works. That's confounded by the fact an Avengers game naturally makes you want to play as multiple characters, but the time investment required to do that within this game's systems is unfathomable
In the short-term, the beta has me thinking that there's a good game worth playing in Marvel's Avengers. But in the long-term? It's the Endgame that has me really worried.
Follow Chris on Twitter @Orr_Man_Worcs
The beta was played on PlayStation 4 Pro. All images captured on PlayStation 4 Pro.
Marvel's Avengers will be released on 4th September 2020 on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC.