This week on Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews Marvel’s Avengers.
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You know, Robert Downey Jr deserves more praise for his portrayal of Tony Stark in the Marvel movies. Yes, I know he’s made more money than a glazier in the Gaza Strip, but he did a really quite impressive job playing a character who could be simultaneously abrasive, charismatic, and sympathetic. I was thinking about this while watching Tony Stark as portrayed in Marvel’s Avengers, Square Enix’s new shiny chrome-plated hamster wheel for the micropayment masses. Because if all of his dialogue lines had been cut out and been replaced by Tony Stark getting clipped around the ear by whoever was standing closest to him then that would have earned the game at least another star. It’s still confusing to me that this game that is obviously trying to crib off the success of the Marvel movies deliberately replaced all the leads with their poorly received spin-off low budget TV show versions, but maybe it’s easier on the kiddies this way. They don’t have to watch their heroes repeating an infinite cycle of copy pasted combat missions and resource grinds and ask their parents “Mummy, why is Iron Man trapped in a hypothetical tenth layer of Dante’s Hell?” Speaking of Hell, the triple-A trend for games as live services primarily designed to sucker players into infinite meaningless grinds and milk them for their money and souls, can obviously go to it.
But Marvel’s Avarvels puts an almost admirable degree of effort into not resembling a live service game for some ways into the campaign. It starts with a bunch of linear story missions focussing on Kamala Khan, the amazing human diversity quota, attending an Avengers convention and just totally impressing the shoulder pads off of several poorly dressed smug white dudes with her obsequious fangirling. It’s about as excruciating as it sounds, and not a little Mary Sue-y, but I leave that discussion to my frothier correspondents. Then there’s a big disaster, funnily enough immediately after Tony Stark’s introduction, and the Avengers get blamed for it and shunned and ostracised for no greater crime than wanting to wield literal godlike levels of power and resources with zero regulation or oversight. Evil corporation takes over and starts oppressing people and it’s up to Kamala to reunite the Avengers and remind them that being a hero isn’t about glory or power, it’s about having ready access to a cosmetics retailer. These first few missions mostly play like running down one corridor after another, but hey, they’re nice corridors.
There’s an actual story focus and at the end of some of the corridors there’s colourful boss fights against Marvel supervillains like Taskmaster registered trademark and Abomination registered trademark. But then the live service shit starts insidiously to creep in. Funnily enough immediately after Tony Stark rejoins the crew. You really are the fucking monkey’s paw curse on this game, aren’t you, Tone. The lovely approachable face flakes off bit by bit to reveal the cold, eyeless skull underneath. You unlocked the confusingly laid out mission hub area. You unlocked the gear crafting station. The cosmetic crafting station. The faction missions. The storage lockers. Your next mission objective is to talk to all the gear vendors. We will literally hold up the plot until you fucking do that. And every single one of them has a line of dialogue specifically designed to guilt you if you leave without buying anything. “Oh, you don’t want any new emotes? Welp, better tell the kids that it’ll be sawdust porridge for dinner again.” Then all those story-focussed corridor missions are replaced by missions in which we go to one of a handful of pocket sandboxes, are directed to a specific location, and all the way there copy pasted side objectives appear all around us like we’re dodging mortar shells in fucking No Man’s Land.
There’s a treasure box nearby! There’s a group of bland copy pasted enemies nearby! Why not kill them before you kill the group of bland copy pasted enemies you actually came here to deal with? It’s like being trapped in the IKEA showroom when all you want is a fucking egg whisk. I just ran straight to the objective every time and was never the least bit underlevelled. Can’t say I felt like it was worth slowing down for a new codpiece with +4% chance of critical parry against custard damage but then not everyone’s a pro challenge runner like me. Does it really not bother you, target audience of Varvel’s Amingers, how this game fucking reeks of algorithms? How opening the in-game menu is like sticking your head in a dumpster full of shredded accounting documents ‘cos there’s like five gear menus and seventeen different currencies and it feels like it’s been workshopped to oblivion by marketing experts refining the most efficient system for making you want things that have no value? “Oh those tactics don’t work on me, Yahtzee, I am a savvy consumer.” Yeah, we all think that, that’s how they get you.
I didn’t particularly want those level 9 uncommon underpants of facetious example but then my gear inventory filled up and the game said I couldn’t have them til I cleared a space. Why the game thought I wanted to hold onto my old level 2 underpants I found in a bin I did not know, nor why it needed me to laboriously hold down the dismantle button to get rid of every unwanted item one by one, until I realised that they’d done it. They’d made me want the new underpants I didn’t want just by slightly withholding them until I had proved I knew how to efficiently pack a suitcase. How else have you rewired my brain, games industry? Are these even my thoughts I’m having? Do I actually fancy Jenny Agutter? What? The combat? Oh yeah, that thing. I guess it’s inoffensive enough to not put you off the all-important grind, it is a bit glitchy and unresponsive at times and I did run into a repeating bug at a point where I was supposed to kill five generic dudes to proceed but they kept disappearing into the floor where I couldn’t reach. Can’t fault their combat strategy but I still had to reboot the fucking game. As for how the primary loop feels, it depends on what character you’re controlling.
Play as the Hulk or Kamala Khan and your blows have a satisfying enough impact to them, but play as Iron Man and it feels like we’re attacking the enemy by very aggressively shining flashlights at them. Yes, I’m ripping on you again, Tony Stark, but it’s your own fault for still being in this game and not choking to death on your own come. In summary, Marvel’s Avengers is exactly what it always seemed to be: a game designed not to engage or electrify but to take up space, inside your head, on your hard drive, in human culture in general. But the plot takes on a deeper meaning if you look at the Avengers as an analogy for the Disney corporation. Assembling a team of franchise and media companies in order to fight against an oppressive government-backed regime bent on corporate regulation, taxation, and the dreaded monopolies commission. So in this metaphor Kamala Khan as the protagonist represents an approved citizen of the corporatocracy who buys all the merch and dutifully wets her Stan Lee autographed knickers over the right brands. And then each Avenger represents one of Disney’s acquisitions. Thor represents Pixar, old school fantasy hero popular with the kids. The Hulk represents Fox, a veneer of respectability over an instrument of total societal destruction. And Iron Man represents Star Wars. Used to be good when better actors were involved, now deserves to choke to death on its own come.