Square Enix Crystal Dynamics repetitive post-game with bland level design, unspired loot in Marvel's Avengers

Marvel’s Avengers is a great game that’s terrible at communicating its own strengths.

You see, a lot of the complaints leveled at Marvel’s Avengers have to do with expectations. To start, there are the loot drops everyone’s so underwhelmed by. As a live-service action RPG, Marvel’s Avengers has to have interesting, worthwhile loot, and it does. The potential character builds available for a single character are immense, offering more than just different damage numbers appearing over the heads of enemies.

My current Black Widow build centers around several late-game perks that emphasize generating heroic orbs that recharge my team’s powers as quickly as possible. Her takedown move is guaranteed to generate one orb, and on tougher enemies that can mean two to three orbs before we’re done, but I can’t just instantly body slam every character. Instead, I need to pepper them with my dual-SMGs, which are amped with electrical damage to stun my opponents so they can’t recover quickly. If guns aren’t optimal, I have it so my zipline is augmented with Pym particles that can shrink any opponent I want so long as I have line of sight to yank them twice. Plus, by pulling myself in closer, I’m ready for a takedown and can dart to the next opponent.

These aren’t minor adjustments. You aren’t being offered +2% damage, but massive game changers that make you rethink your abilities. I’ve altered my whole play style based on where loot has allotted my perks, and that’s just the base level attack modifiers. Other loot perks can instantly improve your chosen hero’s auxiliary weapon handling, add rewards to perfectly timed blocks and dodges, and even give you clutch saves like a 50/50 chance you’ll receive a burst of health when critically injured.

Square Enix Crystal Dynamics repetitive post-game with bland level design, unspired loot in Marvel's Avengers

Yes, none of it changes your appearance, but for some of us, that’s a welcome improvement. While most mainstream MMOs have figured out that people like to tailor their cosmetics to a specific aesthetic, most live-service games don’t seem to have wrapped their heads around this. Marvel’s Avengers is a rare instance where your appearance is freely altered separate to your character loadout, meaning you’re not forced to look a particular way to satisfy gameplay criteria. Instead, cosmetics are their own goal you earn by completing character challenges and gathering in-game currency.

I completely understand the frustrations with the game’s emphasis on microtransactions, but I’ve earned over a dozen skins just from clearing the campaign and playing casually in the post-campaign story content. You can choose how your hero looks, and that’s preferable to the alternative where everyone could have looked like Z-grade knockoffs of the original characters. There’s plenty of room for more variety, but that’s doubtless already on the horizon.

The same goes for the post-campaign content. You might not realize it right away, but there’s a lot of side missions to tear through besides the core plot during the campaign as well afterwards. You can even swap between them as the “Reassemble” Operation and the “Avengers Initiative” Operation to catch any you missed on the Wartable. Marvel’s Avengers is primed not only for future single-player stories, but the Initiative actually has a fair number of new, unique environments and scenarios. I expected to be met with retreads of familiar layouts, but often those were only sprinkled in-between the more notable sections.

Square Enix Crystal Dynamics repetitive post-game with bland level design, unspired loot in Marvel's Avengers

In a way, Marvel’s Avengers is rather like Warframe in its early days. It has quick Dropzone missions for people who just need bite-size fun — there’s even an achievement for clearing a Dropzone in three minutes. Bigger Warzones come in a wide array of sizes, some so large they verge on dwarfing some zones in the original Destiny, packed with optional objectives to track down along the way. They’re not just open fields either, but complex jungle gyms where each character’s move set offers new ways to get an angle on the enemy.

Yes, none of this is as directed as the campaign, but most of the campaign missions aren’t all that linear either. It’s primarily core plot beat missions that really push you down a specific path, and most of these missions exist to teach you how to play the newest hero. It makes sense for a tutorial to be more structured. Virtually every other mission has at least minor exploration rewards, if not whole side objectives to track down. The endgame content in the Initiative is this on an even grander scale, presenting you with arenas you can either charge through or explore fully.

All this would mean nothing if there weren’t interesting content to chew on, but there’s a glut of enemy types and difficulty settings to work with. Your opponents have cancel and vulnerability frames like in a fighting game, multiple attack patterns per unit, and alternate versions that might teleport, fly, wield overshields, or even drain your special abilities like leeches. All those combat modifiers matter immensely more when facing an enemy just five levels above, and they can massively tip the scales in a Challenge II, III, or IV-tier mission.

We’re talking multi-limbed mechs with weak points not as a boss fight but an enemy type. Flying androids who will rip up debris from the world to protect themselves, then hurl them straight at you. Laser spewing ninja bots that can send even the best players sprawling. You can’t just treat them all like rank-and-file AIM Beekeeper troopers. Thinking that you can just mash the attack button and win is delusional. It’s not even that enemies are bullet sponges; once you have the right loadout, you can tear through their health bars fine, but AIM’s forces pack a mean punch either way. And I love it.

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The amazing part of all of this is that none of it demands intense levels of execution. Obviously if you want to triumph, you have to put effort in, but performing the actions I’ve described is often one-to-two button presses on PC with a keyboard and mouse. (Though the console controls really need to offer a rebind option.) Instead of needing to memorize “X, X, Y, Y, Half-Circle” to leg sweep an AIM operative then blast them with a grenade, I just need to hit strong attack, then hold the button down. The complexity isn’t in the controls themselves like in most spectacle fighters, but instead in the strategies implemented.

Each hero is drastically different, requiring you to completely rethink your approach not only to combat but level navigation. Iron Man is a glass cannon, so you’re constantly flying around to get the best vantage point but are pulled back into dish out some melee hits to recharge his tech. Thor’s hammer can pin almost any enemy in place, making it serve not only as a ranged attack but an awesome stun move that can open up trickier enemies like the fiendish Stiletto bots that are hard to otherwise lock down. Hulk’s rage meter fills both when dealing and taking damage, encouraging you to go hog wild once you nail down when to tap into it.

It’s honestly not that surprising that most of the boss fights in the game are either modular vehicles or more flexible multi-purpose villains like Abomination and Taskmaster. I don’t envy the person who has to craft the next wave of villainy for players to face up against, because the combat sandbox is dense and fierce in Marvel’s Avengers. Maintaining all of that across dozens of regularly updated scenarios that remain accessible for any player to enjoy is kind of insane.

Crystal Dynamics didn’t just make a Marvel Ultimate Alliance clone, but instead has crafted something vastly superior. It’s an RPG, but it’s not all numbers and dice rolls. It’s a spectacle fighter that doesn’t require weeks of practice to do well. It’s a live-service game, yet tons of its content feels handcrafted. You don’t just chance upon a game like Marvel’s Avengers — many games have tried and failed to accomplish just one of the many aspects it nails. That’s remarkable, to say the least.

I’m not calling Marvel’s Avengers perfect. There are known stability and balancing tweaks that need to go into effect to iron out a few kinks. I can’t count how many fans have expressed they’d really like to mute JARVIS’s constant mid-mission prompts. Captain America isn’t quite there yet in terms of handling and abilities, not to mention a skin glitch. The campaign starting some late-story additions to your roster at Level 1 adds some unnecessary grinding right before the climax. However, for a game this big, these are expected launch quirks. Marvel’s Avengers might not be at its height yet, but that’s fine — much like its starring heroes, it has a strong base from which to build itself out into a longstanding experience.

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