Crystal Dynamics’ Avengers is definitely a curious case. Since its announcement in 2017, fans— myself included— have been foaming at the mouth for news about the videogame featuring Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. When footage of the game was finally released it was met with some mixed reactions, to say the least. It was great to finally see our favorite Avengers– Iron-Man, Hulk, Thor, Cap, and Black Widow– in a AAA videogame but a lot of the game wasn’t what we expected. Bland character designs, generic-looking gameplay and a serious lack of that good ol’ Marvel charm set the bar of expectations from feverishly ecstatic to cautiously optimistic in a hurry.
This weekend was the open beta for PS4 and PC users for Avengers and we dove in to finally see how it all stacks up. Here are our thoughts:
So what’s in the BETA? Well, it starts off with the introductory level that we’ve seen previously via Gamescom 2019. Then it follows up with a couple of story-based missions with Hulk and Kamala Khan before unlocking the Chimera helicarrier hub world where you can launch on the variety of missions solo with AI companions or multiplayer.
The introductory stage is by far the weakest part of the whole Beta. It acts as the tutorial for the game’s combat systems and gives you a glimpse of how each of the Avengers play but thanks to its jarring transitions and extremely linear presentation fails to do the job of showing how enjoyable this game can be.
We’ve dissected this sequence from watching the footage before and we had a few reservations about it. Unfortunately, actually playing through the sequence doesn’t do much to change our initial misgivings. The action here is very linear, loaded with obvious quick-time events, and even resembled an on-the-rails shooter at some point. The game gives you a few moments to beat up bad guys in a specific prescribed way, before being prompted to try out a special move then it’s on to the next thing. As a tutorial, this bit feels like it just teaches you what button to press for cool stuff to happen and when you’ve done it you’re barely given any chance to play around with it before transitioning to the next cutscene/gameplay segment. Sometimes you don’t even get to finish off the foes you were fighting before the game decides to move on.
Most of what we figured out in our previous video analysis of this segment—stop/start gameplay, conspicuously scripted events, etc—still mostly holds up so check it out if you can.
Thankfully, after you complete the first section, it only gets better from there. We jump cut to later on in the game where you get to play as the Hulk and Kamala Khan as they infiltrate an A.I.M. facility to find the whereabouts of Tony Stark. The sequence opens up with a well-appreciated reprieve from the bombastic action as Bruce Banner and Kamala are walking through the forest and exchanging small talk before getting into the bad guys show up.
Here we finally get to cut loose as the Hulk and explore all the different combat moves and abilities that you can use. This new-found freedom paved the way to a very comforting revelation: The combat is actually pretty fun. It may look bland on the surface but actually fighting enemies the way you want—mixing up light and heavy combos, performing takedowns, using Rage to regain health, dropping elbows, and throwing chunks of the ground at folks— at your own leisure is really satisfying and enjoyable.
Granted you don’t feel as absurdly powerful as the Hulk should be off the bat which could be attributed as a side effect to the progression that comes with typical Looter RPGs (more on that later) but the basic fundamentals are fun to pull off, which is a huge relief considering that initial taste we got from the first level.
This is also where we get more of a sense of how heroic abilities work which are powerful abilities that do massive damage and even provide buffs and other effects to your teammates. These are all tied to individual cooldowns which are primarily time-based which admittedly feels rather contrived. I would have preferred if there were ways to influence the cooldowns through gameplay feats such as defeating enemies or taking damage instead of just a plain timer. We did run into some gear that allows you to do this but it feels like it should have been baked into the base systems rather than from perks from gear.
You also get a little playtime with Kamala at this point which is where the game finally offers up something new and fresh: a heroine and a powerset has never been in a AAA videogame. For the most part, it’s a lot of fun to wail on bad guys and grapple to certain points with Kamala’s giant elongating limbs. Plus points for Kamala’s aimed projectile attack which is just her fist.
Here is also when Kamala’s story begins to take shape as well. Before this point, all we’ve seen from her so far has been about how much of a giant an Avengers fangirl she is but as this part of the story progresses we get a deeper glimpse of her character. They show her being conflicted between being such a big superhero fan but also desperately yearning for a normal life without powers–all while Bruce Banner tries his bumbling best to keep her spirits up. It’s a fine bit of storytelling and character exploration that gives me hope for the narrative here and I’m looking forward to seeing more.
Finally, in the last segment of the beta, you unlock the Chimera, the Terrigen-powered Helicarrier base that blew up in the opening segment, which will serve as the hub from which you launch the different missions. Unlocking the Chimera will also give you access to the game’s multiplayer aspect which allows you to matchmake or team up with up to 3 of your friends as you take on missions from the War Table.
You’ll have access to a total of 4 of the Avengers in the roster to run War Table missions with, namely: Kamala Khan, Iron-Man, Hulk, and Black Widow. Each of the characters feels fun to play, again despite what we initially thought from the opening level. Each is a slightly different spin in playing the game. Black widow can zip to enemies with her Widow’s line or keep them at bay with her different guns; Hulk is about smashing stuff while in Rage to gain life; Iron-Man can take to the air and charge his projectiles to do more damage and break shields, and Kamala can swing and smash with the best of them.
However, a fundamental flaw here is that all the characters basically fill the exact same role. Each can deal a large amount of damage, throw projectiles, and complete objectives roughly as good as everyone else. For example, Iron-Man and Black Widow’s projectiles are more accurate than Hulk or Kamala’s but both the latter characters can take down drones and far away enemies almost just as easily as the former do. The end result is that it feels like these characters aren’t specialized to suit any specific situation, they’re all viable in every situation and, to paraphrase Syndrome from The Incredibles, when everyone is viable, no one is.
Ideally, there should’ve been more specialization to the characters to bring out what makes each Avenger stand out. For example, maybe bringing Iron-Man to the fight makes hacking segments easier or Hulk can do more damage to destruction-based objectives or maybe Black Widow can access areas or short cuts that only she can. I would’ve wanted just anything to make each Avenger more unique and add a different incentive to selecting them for missions other than “this person can kill things” because that’s basically what they all do.
It doesn’t help that all the missions within the Beta devolve down to large scale brawls most of the time. Whether it’s the long-form War Zones or the shorter Drop Zones you can expect that you’ll be beating up A.I.M infantry and robots by the dozens. There’s no real finesse required in the execution of the objectives or even any nuance in them at all. It’s just variations of “Go to this place, beat up everybody, destroy something” rinse repeat. Here’s hoping there will be a lot more varied and complex mission structures in the final game.
The bulk of my major reservations about the game so far are side effects of the general Looter RPG gameplay archetype. Every character is tame and toned down to accommodate the level grinding and gear acquisition. Every character is basically made the same way to be good at everything so that every character is viable in both solo and multiplayer. The base costume designs are bland and stale to accommodate the sweet new cosmetic skins from the marketplace.
The constraints of the looter genre severely limit the Avengers in its current form. However despite that, Crystal Dynamics looks like its doing its best with what it has considering the limitations of the genre while accounting for things like long-term progression and other multiplayer looter conventions. As soon as I was able to realize that and make peace with that direction I was able to shed my previous expectations and started to appreciate the game for what it was.
It’s not all bad though. The Gear system is actually pretty rewarding if that’s your jam. You can set up your Avenger with 4 different kinds of gear: the Melee, Ranged, Heroic, and Defense. You can also give them major and minor artifacts that give them bonuses to resistances and other assorted stat buffs. Gear from uncommon, rare, and epic will have special perks that affect gameplay such as give you gamma based damage and give attacks a life drain quality. Perhaps the most interesting thing we found was an armband that expelled Pym Particles which in turn shrunk enemies to a fraction of their original size. You can also upgrade the gear using the various crafting materials that you collect in every mission to give them an added power total as well as possibly unlock a cool additional perk.
It’s kind of a bummer that the gear you acquire doesn’t really manifest in your appearance. Every piece of gear is tailor-fitted to individual characters such as Kamala’s Armbands and T-shirt logos or Hulk’s generic upgrades or Iron-Man’s various doodads. It would have been really cool if you could customize/accessorize your look this way to make it truly yours. From a tactical standpoint, it would also be cool if we were able to tell which upgrades a teammate had just by looking at them.
As far as minor gripes go there’s the subject of how murky the objectives are sometimes. There are moments where it’s not made clear what you have to do to progress, there’s no marker showing you where to go or what to do and you’re stuck for a few minutes wandering around aimlessly before stumbling to your objective.
There’s also the game’s lack of in-game communication. There’s basically no way to communicate what you’re doing or where you’re going to your team unless you hop on a third-party app. It’s not that the game requires heavy team coordination but it would still be nice to be able to somehow interact with other players other than emotes. Maybe a simple ping system and chat wheel would suffice?
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention that Iron-Man’s flying is egregiously slow. When you take to the air and click the left stick in, the Crimson Avenger flies forward and everything around him blurs to show him going really fast–except he really isn’t. Other players can still keep pace with him just by sprinting which feels really bad. This might again be attributed to multiplayer balancing issues but it just feels really wrong and unfun.
Overall, though not what I initially expected, I admittedly had fun with my little taste of the Avengers. Once I was able to make peace with the Looter RPG structure and all its various side effects, I found myself genuinely enjoying beating up bad guys by the boatload, unlocking sweet new moves and grinding for loot.
Going into the beta, I had a lot of negative preconceptions that were thankfully, ironed out. The combat is a lot more fun than it looks; the gear system is quite satisfying; and there’s a deep unique Avenger’s story here that’s worth telling underneath it’s bombastic exterior.
I spent most time with the Hulk levelling him up to the level cap for the beta and tricking him up with gear that best suits my playstyle. With more moves than in the start, the Jade Giant was very satisfying to plow through enemies and barrel through missions.
My favorite mission was a Hulk-centric one called Condition Green. In it the Avengers have to assault an A.I.M facility that’s run by one of Banner’s old flames. The mission itself followed the usual formula of “go to place and destroy all the things” but it was the dressing around it that got me invested in it.
Before you drop in, Jarvis plays an audio recording from Dr. Banner addressed to the Hulk. Bruce gives a heartfelt message to his other self stating that even though their former lover Monica might be there, he still has to carry out the mission. He offers up some encouragement and empathy before thanking the Hulk for doing what Bruce can’t do. All throughout the stage, Monica is on the comms angry and heartbroken as Hulk does his work and then finding an audio recording fills us in on how Monica and Bruce got together. It’s a fine bit of storytelling satisfyingly told through the game’s limitations that in turn gives me hope about Avengers. If the final game is filled with more thoughtful explorations into our favorite Marvel heroes such as Condition Green then we might have something great in our hands.
I left the first weekend beta with some good experiences mixed in with the bad, an acceptance of the direction that this game wants to go to, and a lot of hope that the joint forces of some of Earth’s mightiest studios, can make this game good and make a true believer out of me, whatever it takes.
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