Last week at E3, Square Enix showed us the upcoming Marvel’s Avengers. I’ve been saying for years that we need more superhero games. The Arkham games and the latest Spider-Man help make the case even stronger. Superheroes have taken over the cinema, but they’ve barely made a dent in the world of games. I think the superhero genre is a perfect fit for the medium, and I’d love to play something that does more of these characters justice. Sadly, I don’t think that’s where this game is headed.
The entire Avengers segment of the Square Enix show was 15 minutes long, but somehow the publisher didn’t see fit to use any of that time to show us some gameplay. Instead, we’re left to make our judgement based on the three-minute cinematic trailer. This was a pervasive problem at E3 this year, and I’m really hoping it was an anomaly and not the start of a horrible new trend.
Reactions to the cinematic trailer were mixed. Bob Chipman didn’t have a strong reaction one way or the other, except to speculate on what the developers might have planned and talk about some industry stuff in a video that you should probably go and watch for yourself. Riley Constantine wasn’t impressed at all. I think the lack of gameplay footage is worrisome, but what Square Enix did choose to show us is equally worrying. I want to pick apart the trailer and what I see as some strange design choices and shortcomings.
Whenever I analyze a preview like this, there are always a few people that respond with the attitude of, “It’s not fair to judge the game so soon. You have no way of knowing if it’ll be good or not. You should really wait and see.”
This trade show exists to sell us games, build hype, create social media engagement, harvest audience reaction data, and entice us to pre-order things. The publishers are trying to get our money while minimizing our ability to accurately appraise the quality of the product, and we’re trying to make informed decisions about how to spend our finite gaming dollars. If you see an ad for something promising to be available in April 2020, it would be nice to know if it would be better to spend your money on that or to wait a month for Marvel’s Avengers. This is an adversarial relationship. You have no obligation to be “fair” to a game.
Judging a game before it comes out is literally the entire point of this show. If I go to a preorder page, I’m not going to see a warning to the effect of, “Woah there buddy! Are you sure you want to spend $60 on this? You have no idea if it’s going to be any good yet.” The big publishers are perfectly willing to take your money based on what you see here. They’re also willing to be deceptive and make promises they’ll be happy to break once they have your money. Judging a game before it comes out isn’t unfair, it’s basic self defense.
With that in mind, let’s nitpick this trailer.
The first concerning thing is the general blandness of the visuals. The character models look stiff and dead-eyed, and their skin looks like dull plastic. They’re not stylized enough to look like a cartoon or comic book. Instead it looks like the developers were aiming for photorealism and missed. It doesn’t help that this trailer came at the very end of a long series of Square Enix presentations that had stronger art and more vibrant scenes.
This isn’t a problem with the graphics engine, but with how it’s being used. It’s an art problem, not a technology one. The developer has also inexplicably decided to adopt the notoriously bland color grading of the MCU, which isn’t doing the visuals any favors.
I realize there’s no way the studio could get the likeness rights for all of these superstars, and I’m not faulting them for the fact that Thor doesn’t look like Chris Hemsworth. It’s fine that they changed the look of the characters. What I can’t understand is why they went out of their way to make the characters less interesting. Captain America and Thor both have awkward bulky outfits. These look like the kinds of costumes you’d see on a cosplayer that’s trying to hide their normal-person physique. It looks like Cap has a bit of a gut. The developers can’t use Chris Hemsworth’s face, but there’s nothing stopping them from using his abs. Since they don’t need to pay a famous actor to spend hours in the gym every day, there’s no reason our heroes can’t look like idealized supers. It’s like the developers have embraced the most boring option at every step along the creative process.
Consider this image:
On the left, Black Widow seems to have a head that’s just a tad large for her body. This is a common technique for making stylized characters. Overall, I think this would be a good style for the entire game. With the right texturing, it could give the world a slightly cartoonish look that would suit the comic book source material. But then on the right we have Iron Man whose head seems to be too small for his body. You might think that’s just an effect created by his bulky suit, but look past the armor and picture the skeleton underneath. Given the position of his shoulders and his waistline, his head is tiny. Then in the center we have Captain America, who has more or less realistic proportions. Any of these designs might look reasonable in isolation, but they’re not really on the same page in terms of art style, and this contributes to the general feeling that something is off with the characters.
Moving past the visuals, the writing doesn’t fare much better. Watch any Marvel trailer and you’ll see there’s a focus on relationships and character arcs. The movies might portray gigantic battles and special effects blowouts, but their scripts are focused on friendships, rivalries, and personal journeys. We don’t see anything like that here. Instead, the game feels more like the sound and fury of a Michael Bay movie.
Compare this trailer to the original Avengers trailer of the MCU. The movie trailer is two minutes long and it uses lots of dialogue from Nick Fury to set the mood. It takes time to portray the personality clashes going on between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark, as well as the bromance between Stark and Bruce Banner. We get some jokes, some emotional moments, and some fireworks. In contrast, the video game trailer is three minutes long and doesn’t manage to convey much in the way of personality. It has a narrator like the movie trailer, but we don’t know who she is. She’s just telling us what we’re already being shown, so her dialogue isn’t doing anything to engage us. The only things we know about these characters comes from their more interesting counterparts in the MCU. Most of the dialogue is expositional. At one point, Iron Man acts like Thor made a joke, but he didn’t actually say anything funny.
This is part of an ongoing problem for developer Crystal Dynamics. I complained about this three years ago with Rise of the Tomb Raider and six years ago with Tomb Raider. The team is eager to stuff their games full of cutscenes, but the writing has not been strong enough to justify all the screen time or the constant interruptions of gameplay. The writing is serviceable, and would be fine for something mechanics-focused, but Crystal Dynamics keeps trying to turn its games into movies.
I don’t want to make it sound like Marvel’s Avengers is doomed. I’m saying that based on what we’ve been shown so far, there is very little reason to be excited. E3 is a video game trade show, and the company chose not to show off the game parts of this video game to the public. It’s natural to assume that publisher Square Enix wanted to show off the strongest parts of Marvel’s Avengers, and what we were shown was weak art, flat visuals, and boring dialogue.
The team still has about 10 months before this game ships, so there’s plenty of time for them to turn things around. But I’d feel a lot better about this project if they’d shown us what it’s like to play this thing.