Geek Interview: Assembling The War Table In Marvel’s Avengers With Crystal Dynamics Devs

Single character superhero games have had their fair share of ups and downs – for every Marvel’s Spider-Man and Rocksteady’s Batman Arkham franchise, there has been twice the number of forgettable superhero solo video game outings. For team-up games, the most notable one has been the Marvel: Ultimate Alliance series, but that one lacks the spirit of the comic books. And don’t get us started on team fighting games that simply offer players their favourite comic characters in a Street Fighter setting, and nothing more.

Come September though, true believers will finally get to feast their eyes (and hands) on Crystal Dynamics’ Marvel’s Avengers, arguably the first superhero team-up game that allows players to take on the mantle of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. As we’ve learnt before, the upcoming action-adventure title puts players in the shoes of not one, but multiple members of one of the most iconic superhero groups in all of pop culture.

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The recent War Table video earlier this week was a meaty one, featuring more aspects of gameplay never before seen in the game, including the single-player campaign, hero-specific missions, the more challenging Warzones, and player customisation. And not forgetting, the ability to kick the sorry behinds of bad guys from AIM with friends in co-op, whether it’s in single-player and Warzones, is also another aspect of the game that Crystal Dynamics aims to deliver well on.

Geek Culture managed to sit down with several Crystal Dynamics devs to get an insight on the design process of Marvel’s Avengers, including how it plays, what players can expect, and their rationale behind certain design decisions.

Despite many of its elements being inspired by the comic books, Marvel’s Avengers consists of a unique story that, the team claims, is never-before seen in any of the comics, movies, or other Marvel media. After all, this story — this universe — is one where Captain America has died in a freak catastrophe, and the world has grown to detest the Avengers and other metahumans after said calamity, as science looks to take over and govern. 

More importantly, as a game about the most iconic superhero team from Marvel Comics, playing as each member, and making them feel distinct from one another, is quintessential in ensuring that fans get the video game team-up they’ve been asking for since time immemorial. For Crystal Dynamics, it’s all about looking at the characters “as fans” first, and then translating what they would desire to see themselves into actual mechanics.

“[We said to ourselves] let’s not worry about any combat mechanics, or how the game needs to work; let’s talk about what we want to do as [the Avengers], how we want to play and experience them. And then let’s build a custom system around that,” said Vince Napoli, the game’s combat director, as he described the design process that went into building these characters in the game. 

“So if I’m Iron Man, and I want to be able to fly and shoot and switch weapons, and play almost like a jet fighter, then we need to build that [system]. Once you add that, you can talk about how the AI needs a way to deal with it. So let’s figure out how the AI can handle someone flying by at high speeds and be able to shoot them from the sky. What if [the character] can grab enemies, use them as weapons, and wield them? Now that he has this amazing ability that no one else has custom-tailored to him, let’s talk about the AI side. How would they try to counter [these abilities]? And so we sort of went hero by hero and sort of tackled it that way.”

Another part of Marvel’s Avengers that the team at Crystal Dynamics felt was going to be huge for players was the aspect of player choice. This is best exemplified by the two main gameplay modes: the campaign and Warzones. The main campaign is pretty straightforward; just follow the story from start to finish, and players will get to unlock the various heroes that appear throughout the story, as well as play through individual hero-specific missions that flesh out the individual heroes’ backstories and development throughout the story. 

Warzones, on the other hand, is the more freeform gameplay mode that accommodates up to 4 players. In essence, it pits players against various challenges across a wide variety of maps. These can range from sprawling areas for exploration-based missions, to smaller, denser maps that are more combat-focused. The challenges players face in these Warzones can vary depending on their players’ overall power levels (which is determined by gear and hero level), as well as team compositions, unlike fixed encounters in the story. This flexibility actually is what, on paper, would give Marvel’s Avengers much more replay value, and will keep players coming long after the campaign has ended.

The story campaign and Warzones are actually interchangeable and players can actually start their playthrough by jumping into either mode without having to do the other. For Warzones, there’s also the choice of playing solo with AI companions, or with friends online. Whichever path players pick, jumping between both game modes is seamless as character progression carries over for both modes.

That said, Scot Amos, the game’s head designer, pointed out that it’s recommended to follow the story campaign first, as it will not only familiarise new players with newer characters such as Kamala Khan/Ms Marvel, it will also provide players with context that would otherwise be deemed as spoilers in Warzones.

“In my opinion, playing through the campaign and dealing with Warzones is probably the recommended way,” said Amos. “But certainly, everybody’s different. There are some folks who just love getting ready to co-op and play with their friends just for the Warzone content. But I think that the campaign is so compelling to teach you about this world in the setting that doing that first, you have the context for all of it and what’s happening [in Warzones].”

Additionally, there will be incentives to play both the campaign and Warzones, as there will be exclusive unlockables in each mode, such as skins and gear.

Speaking of which, cosmetics and gear are also an important part of the Marvel’s Avengers experience. As players play through the game, they’ll not only level up and invest skill points into their heroes, but also unlock skins and emotes that change up their character’s in-game look. Drawing from Marvel’s rich, 80-year history, the dev team managed to include various suits and outfits that fans of the comics, TV shows and movies over the years. While many of these cosmetics will be locked behind the main campaign and Warzones missions, many more of them will be purchasable via the cosmetic vendor, Chastity McBryde using in-game credits, though they can also be purchased with microtransactions via the online marketplace (though this is an entirely optional thing, Amos mentions).

Gear is a little more “robust”, in that they directly impact the gameplay, as they confer different stat changes and buffs when equipped. One piece of gear might grant additional elemental damage, while the other more survivability, and these can be earned by simply playing both the campaign and Warzones. They also come in various rarities, with varying stats, which gives players an incentive to mix and match their equipment to benefit their playstyle and skill choices best.

“The simplest version is we want players to be rewarded for their playing of the game. So the more time they put in, the more stuff they can actually earn just by playing so you can unlock outfits,” said Amos. “In fact, you have to play the campaign to unlock certain outfits and certain pieces of gear. So there’s tons and tons of stuff for you to find just by playing and completing missions and challenges inside the game and both Warzones and [the] campaign.” 

In that same vein, Amos claims that the online store for Marvel’s Avengers “is only for cosmetics”, and that players can expect post-launch content, such as new heroes, villains and story, will come “at no additional cost.” 

This is big, especially since many AAA studios have perpetuated the trend of locking post-launch content (and in some more serious cases, even gameplay elements) to paywalls, which more often than not, have put players off due to the exorbitant amounts of cash they have to fork out in order to enjoy their games to the fullest extent. 

To only lock auxiliary content such as cosmetics behind paywalls and, even so, have most of it being unlockable simply as an incentive is a big move for Crystal Dynamics. It’s one that hearkens back to a much simpler time in gaming, where paid DLC was considered an alien concept — which will no doubt be a refreshing aspect for players in an era now dominated by microtransactions in every nook and cranny of titles today.

“For us, we have no paywalls for play. We want to be able to say ‘no, this is the world we want you to be in.’ We want to reward players for coming to this world and being there, leveling up their heroes, and that you have the marketplace where you can spend money to invest if you want to, for certain customizations that you can only get there,” said Amos.

Another way Marvel’s Avengers has seemingly bucked the trend for AAA titles is the lack of a sprawling open world for players to explore fully. Instead, the game has been broken up into various regions that can be accessed by the War Table, located in the Helicarrier, the game’s hub. Players will then enter these regions by taking on missions. 

As Phil Therien, the game’s Warzone director, states, this decision to go against the open-world grain was “very deliberate”. The aim was to create a more “flexible” game environment for the players, as well as give the team a bigger opportunity to maximise their output at creating more varied and interesting areas, with more to come post-launch.

“Certainly, we could have built a giant open world and one location, but that’s not related to the type of game we wanted to make — we wanted to make a game that’s got a global presence,” said Therien. “So when you look at the Avengers, especially after you reassemble them [in the campaign], you look at the war table, you’ve got the Earth in front of you, and AIM is this global threat. So we wanted to go to all sorts of places.”

Currently, instead of having one location like one big city, we have cities, forests, a desert, the Arctic; we go underwater to secret bases; we even go in orbit around the Earth. So for us, that gives us the flexibility to tell the stories that we want to tell, and it makes the War Table this really interesting environment where the players can go anywhere that AIM is active. We’re going to keep adding more regions after the game is launched. So that’s the exciting thing is if we have more interesting locations, and we certainly do, we’ll get to add them to the War Table. So that’s why we chose to make it that way.”

And indeed, Marvel’s Avengers is shaping up to be quite a well-polished title, and it looks as though the delay has certainly benefited the team, having had the time to tweak and fine-tune various aspects of the game. It’s only a matter of time before fans of the franchise can get their hands on it and experience this all-new story firsthand.

Marvel’s Avengers releases on 4 September for PC, PS4, Xbox One and Google Stadia.

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