When The Avengers, Marvel’s ultimate superhero team, finally assembled on screen in 2012, audiences were primed for big-time heroics. The Marvel Cinematic Universe had spent four years building up to something that had never been seen before. The individual hero movies, especially the Iron Man movies, had already captivated audiences. Bringing them all together in once place felt like the cinematic equivalent of the moon landing. Years of testing, experimentation, false starts, and fine-tuning were finally coming together to form a whole that was bigger than the individual parts. As long as it worked, The Avengers was going to be something unforgettable. And it worked.
But that staying power was something that very quickly started working against Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. As the scope of the Marvel Cinematic Universe began to expand into Phase 2, there was a point when audiences were a little confused. What exactly constituted an Avengers-level threat? When the Dark Elf Malekith attacked London, why was that just a Thor problem? It felt like we were living in a world where now The Avengers were a fully assembled team. Why were they only allowed to assemble every three years? The Avengers was supposed to make the universe feel big and all-inclusive. Instead, it meant all the other MCU movies ended up feeling small.
Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics’ new video game The Avengers does not take place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s very obvious from the first beat that this game exists in its own world. In a lot of ways, the game actually feels more closely tied to the comic books than the movies. The game itself is loud, and fun, and exciting. The levels are fully realized, with lots of nooks and crannies to explore. The characters feel individual but work in similar enough ways that they’re easy to jump between. Despite this, the game never really feels like an Avengers game. Some missions feel like Hulk missions, or Iron Man missions, or Ms. Marvel missions. But, like in the movies, the individual parts end up feeling small. And, worse yet, those parts don’t come together to make something bigger than themselves. Which is, of course, what assembling the Avengers is supposed to be all about.
Part of A Bigger Universe
It was always going to be difficult to make a video game out of the highest-grossing film franchise in the world. Honestly, that challenge may be part of the reason why it took so long for us to get a proper Avengers video game. Yes, mobile apps and VR experiences have been bumping around for years now. But Marvel’s The Avengers is the first proper video game featuring Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. And it’s release comes eight years after Tony Stark and his super friends made $1.5 billion at the box office.
And fans should consider themselves lucky that the video game industry didn’t jump at the chance to make an Avengers video game sooner. While films like Sonic the Hedgehog from earlier this year continue to remind us that video games don’t always make good movies, the early 00s also taught us the reverse. Dozens of poorly thought through film adaptations floundered when they hit interactive platforms. Even the phrase Godfather Video Game should be enough to realize that the transition is rarely smooth.
Fortunately, Marvel’s The Avengers takes almost nothing from The Avengers (2012) except the name. The roster is different. The villains are different. The story is entirely original. And the basic ethos of the game is different. The Marvel Cinematic Universe was almost entirely about bad dads. Marvel’s The Avengers is about the ideals we hold ourselves to. it shifts the focus away from Captain America and Iron Man and instead gives the main role to Ms. Marvel, a character whom audiences will be obsessing over soon enough. The game clearly recognizes that it is
burdened by tied to the legacy of the MCU. But it finds a way to be its own thing.
Burdened With Glorious Purpose
While players can switch between heroes from mission to mission, the main plot of the campaign in Marvel’s The Avengers centers around Kamala Kahn, aka Ms. Marvel. Kamala is a teenage superhero enthusiast who gets superpowers after exposure to a dangerous chemical called Terrigen. And she’s not the only one. A special group of people, known as Inhumans, all inherit powers after the Terrigen is released into the atmosphere. When the Avengers are framed for the accident, and a nefarious group called AIM starts disappearing Inhumans, Kamala must reassemble the Avengers and save the world.
There’s a lot of good stuff happening in Marvel’s The Avengers. The main narrative of the campaign clips along quickly, but there are a good number of side-missions always popping up to help bolster a character’s stats, if they need the extra training. Each hero gets their own mini-story in a series of side missions that are all a good length. And the game is fun! I’ve especially enjoyed playing as The Hulk. In the last few days, I’ve mastered some of his unique abilities, and have found it really satisfying to watch him absolutely level enemy bases. I may have even let out a few self-satisfied mumbles of “Hulk smash.”
The only real downside about Marvel’s The Avengers is that it does not let you play as The Avengers. It lets you play as an Avenger. Sure, you can switch between them whenever you start a new level. But that just feels like going from an Iron Man movie to a Thor movie. Without the ability to swap from one character to another within a single fight, the heroes feel self-contained. I can see Black Widow taking guys down in the background of the fight. But I don’t feel any more connected to her than I do any other AI. The solution to that is — of course — simple.
Marvel’s The Avengers is, also, the latest attempt by a major developer to deploy a “Game as a service” or “Forever game.” The fad in video games lately has been to try and find a game that players will never stop playing. Games like Grand Theft Auto Online, Rocket League, and Overwatch have changed the industry with this model. Marvel’s The Avengers fits much more closely with the lifestyle game model deployed by Destiny and Tom Clancy’s The Division. These so-called lifestyle games are played entirely online — even in single-player mode — and push new content more often to try and encourage players to check in constantly for new updates.
To be honest, this model kind of drives me crazy. But I’m an old man. So instead of focusing on that, I want to focus on the strength of this decision. Playing Marvel’s The Avengers as a lifestyle game with a core group of friends sounds like it would be a blast. And it’s the solution to what makes the game feel stale. Suddenly, I’m not just an Avengers. We are the Avengers. I’m not just watching an AI Tony Stark fight bad guys in the background. I’m coordinating an assault with my teammates.
The reason that some of the stand-alone Marvel movies started to feel stale, is that it didn’t make sense why the Avengers would fight without their team. If Iron Man is having a hard time in his fight against Mandarin, why not call up Hulk and Captain America? In a world where the Avengers were already assembled, it felt silly to break them up again. Playing Marvel’s The Avengers alone feels the same way. So buyer beware. While the game is great when it is at it’s best, there is some assembly required.
Marvel’s The Avengers is available now on PC, Xbox, and Playstation.