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Everyone knows of the Avengers. On the silver screen, their superhero feats have amazed many times over, while their comic-loving counterparts have often been depicted in grand, breathtaking displays of noble strength and prowess in inked frames and coloured hues.
It is, thus, no easy feat to tell a brand-new original story of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, but game studio Crystal Dynamics is hardly fazed, embracing the challenge to present authenticity and originality in their assembly of the highly-anticipated title Marvel’s Avengers.
“If you know anything about us at Crystal Dynamics, we’re really all about telling original stories with iconic, established, characters like we did with Lara Croft (from the Tomb Raider series),” Editorial Director Casey Lynch said during a closed door session at TGS 2019. “Working with Marvel, for us, really comes down to two things: authenticity and originality.”
The latter point, in particular, was immediately prominent during the game’s debut reveal at E3 2019, which saw new character designs for the band of superheroes, alongside an original, standalone cinematic narrative. In the subsequent gameplay demo session, further details about the story surfaced: A-Day – where the Avengers are celebrating the opening of their second headquarters in San Francisco – quickly turns into a catastrophic event that brought on destruction to the city and the apparent death of Captain America. The Avengers gets blamed for the tragedy and are forced to disband. In their absence, the organisation called A.I.M. (Advanced ID Mechanics) rises to the occasion and exerts control over the rebuilt city. Believing that science will save the world and not superheroes, the latter is outlawed and replaced by powerful, sentient AIs, but alas, the rebuilt city is once again plunged into peril. The only hope, of course, is to reassemble the Avengers and uncover the truth behind A-Day.
Marvel’s Avengers is more than just a generic superhero-saves-the-world narrative, overlaid with colourful costumed characters however. There is an underlying intrigue that adds depth to the gameplay, as it accounts for one of the more important aspects of an original Avengers story.
“Unravelling this mystery and conspiracy is one of the parts that we mean playing an original Avengers story,” Lynch elaborated, “It also means playing these heroes in a brand new way from our perspective.”
Citing the example of Iron Man in both the comics and MCU, he explained how Tony Stark is often associated with being a know-it-all genius who has the answers to everything. Yet, the game paints him in a stark-ly (ha) different light, and instead throws him into a world where he has none of his fortune, tech, and toys. It’s Tony Stark, reborn.
The other members are in similar plights of struggle as well. Bruce Banner, for instance, questions whether the Avengers are superheroes or vigilantes. Black Widow, despite being able to save the civilians caught up in the catastrophe, failed to save Cap when she was needed the most, and returns to her life as a guilt-wrecked, lone wolf superspy. Meanwhile, Thor feels he has let Cap and the world down, and deems himself unworthy of wielding Mjonlor. He leaves it behind, and in turn, exchanges it for a humble life of serving his people. These moments of vulnerability give each Avenger a human, emotional touch that’s most certainly succinctly conveyed by Lynch, “What makes this game special is that it’s not just another superhero story about saving the world; for the player, it’s about saving the Avengers, too.”
A brief hands-on session with Marvel’s Avengers yielded some impressions of early-stage gameplay. Built and designed to give an idea of the five core roster characters, the tutorial gave players a glimpse of the differences between each Avenger in terms of play style, movement, and abilities through a cinematic combat experience. But that’s hardly representative of the entire game – past the Golden Gate Bridge level in the tutorial, the world will open up into expansive, vast spaces, such that players will be privy to more choices, increased enemy difficulty, and the complete removal of quick-time events (QTE).
Watch the full A-Day tutorial opening scene gameplay below:
As the saying goes, teamwork makes the dream work. In addition to the standard solo campaign, Crystal Dynamics’ heavyweight also comes with co-op play in tow – presented in the form of Hero Missions and Warzone Missions respectively.
Tailored to be single-player and character-focused, hero missions form a huge part of story advancement, and are needed to unlock warzone missions, which will slowly begin to populate on the map. With these missions being very hero-specific, the team’s designers have put in considerable effort to bring out the unique signature traits of each Avenger; playing as Hulk, for instance, means plenty of destructible environments to smash. Remember Cap’s “Hulk, smash” scene in The Avengers film? Yeah, that.
Where Hero Missions are a one-man affair, Warzone Missions allow for both solo and team play (of up to four players in a party). Unlike the former, this one has reduced focus on specific heroes, and instead, grants players the freedom to play any unlocked hero from the roster. Warzone missions are also where gear and resources can be earned after fending off enemies and uncovering secrets, with plenty of objectives and activity types to be explored.
What’s even better than saving the world is saving the world while looking good. Lynch enthused that the team is “really excited that we [they] get to draw from over 80 years of Marvel history to come up with the outfits”, which include a number of Iron Man outfits, a classic Black Widow suit, Joe Fixit/Grey Hulk in a suit, and many others. Essentially, players can suit up as their favourite Avenger, change up their look, and step foot onto the battlefield all classy and slick.
Just check out this Captain America outfit inspired by Secret Empire #0 (2017).
Outfits are fair game in Marvel’s Avengers. Many of them can be earned by playing the game and completing the story, although there are some that will be linked to special in-game events, and be available for purchase in the marketplace. They are purely cosmetic, however, and will not affect how each hero plays.
What will affect how each Avenger play, meanwhile, is the hero-specific gear system that comes armed with in-built perks. In a way that’s similar to Borderlands’ equip system, the gear will change in accordance to the rarity level, where rarer gear will yield better perks and stat upgrades – a blue piece of gear (Rare) may boast a rating of three stars and one perk, while a purple one (Epic) sees an upgrade of five stars and two unlockable perks. There are even some branded gear sets up for grabs, one of which is a Stark Industries creation. It is worth noting that the equipment are all tailored to a set character, which means a reactor core found by Iron Man won’t drop for Hulk or Black Widow.
In addition to gear, skill is another big part of the progression system as well. A mechanic that should prove familiar to fans of the role-playing game (RPG) genre, it involves players acquiring skill points, and investing them into one or more skill trees. Likewise, these are character-specific, too, so the abilities on Iron Man’s Repulsor Tree will not carry over to that of Hulk, Thor, Black Widow, and so on.
What’s attractive about the mechanic is the freedom to string all the special moves and create combos from the various unlocked trees, as well as the swapping of attacks on the fly. For example, Iron Man’s Repulsor tree allows for more powerful attacks; combine that with his upgraded laser and rocket strikes, and it’s totally possible to fire the Repulsor, switch to laser attacks, drop to the ground and take on the big bad guys, and swap to the rockets for a finishing volley shower on the enemies – all while in combat.
Unlike RPG titles, though, Marvel’s Avengers does not operate on a levelling system. As such, the skill point mechanic is driven by a whole different system, where one earns skill points to what’s equivalent of experience points. All of these gameplay elements are nicely packed into a flexible combat system, such that multiple play styles can be supported.
Moving forward, Crystal Dynamics will continue to roll out narrative content and gameplay over multiple years, such as introducing new hero and regions. In addition to the aforementioned releases, the team also has plans to have weekly, monthly, and bi-weekly upgrades and refreshes that include timed special events and changes in mission types. The best part of it all? Every new launch will come at no additional cost.
With so much in store, Marvel’s Avengers certainly is shaping up to be a heavy hitter worthy of all the hype and attention. There appears to be a lot going on in the game, but at the heart of it seems to be a sincere, compelling, and new telling of the worn-weary superhero genre. Anchored by a beloved cast of characters, Crystal Dynamics is certainly living up to its reputation for exceptional characterisation, with Lynch sharing how his team went back to their roots.
“In a way that always goes back to making the game, we always start with character,” he said. “When we did Lara, we thought like, okay, who has Lara always been? What was special about her? In the same way, we looked at the Avengers; we all know and love the Avengers, so it’s really about how we take these characters and act the way they should, but then express them through gameplay. So that’s what important – starting out with the character, then incorporating it into gameplay.”
The assembly of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes happens on May 15, 2020 on PS4, PC, Xbox One, and Google Stadia, with an exclusive Sony partnership granting early access to all PS4 players.