Crystal Dynamics’ take on Avengers looks like a slightly skewed version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – just similar enough to pique your interest, but just different enough to make you feel itchy. Five of the most film-famous Avengers star in a 25-minute gameplay demo that Kotaku saw behind closed doors at E3: Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, and Black Widow. In action, their moves look great, but visually, it all feels ever so slightly off.
In a meeting room at Square Enix’s E3 booth alongside other reporters, I watched a Crystal Dynamics rep play through the demo. It showed off each of the five characters and their different powers, like Thor’s hammer throwing and lightning strikes and Black Widow’s dual pistol firing and backflipping.
The campaign will feature a totally new and original story. In the bit we saw, the five heroes fought against a team of non-superpowered baddies wearing skull masks who had high-tech military equipment and who, apparently, had stolen some of their tech from Tony Stark himself, to Tony’s chagrin. Their leader turned out to be Taskmaster, a former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent turned mercenary who wants to blow up San Francisco for unclear reasons. The Avengers team up to stop him and his cohorts, but ultimately, they fail, and San Francisco gets melted by a bunch of sparkly sci-fi energy beams, which seems bad. Also, Captain America dies – or, at least, a memorial statue of Cap gets shown at the end of the demo, so he’s dead as far as we know.
Before the gameplay presentation, a Crystal Dynamics rep told the room that Avengers would have a single-player campaign with the option for cooperative play as well for some of the missions. The demo footage kept the characters on rails in a fairly linear progression of fights, most of which took place on and around the Golden Gate bridge. Aside from a brief moment when Iron Man joined Thor, not much cooperative or multiplayer team-based gameplay was shown – only individual superheroes from the team, each in separate areas, fighting their own fights.
The good news is that each character does appear to have a distinctive fighting style and lineup of moves that jibe with what you’d expect from them, which in this game does appear to be very inspired by their live-action movie counterparts. Even though their faces and voice actors are different, they’re wearing the same costumes and doing the same kinds of moves. Thor’s collection of moves looked robust and complicated; he can use his hammer for a variety of close-up melee attacks that appear to chain in a way that looks similar to Batman’s moves in the Arkham games or Kratos in the latest God of War. Thor can throw his hammer to pin down enemies, continue fighting with his fists, call back his hammer for more strikes, and even use a big, flashy lightning strike in the vein of the climactic final fight scene in Thor: Ragnarok.
At the end of Thor’s section, Iron Man flew in briefly to fire some blasts at enemies from his position in the sky. I thought we were getting a glimpse of what cooperative gameplay could look like in this moment, but it didn’t last long. Soon, the player’s perspective changed to Iron Man, who flew off to fight his own solo fight on the bridge. It wasn’t clear why the game chose to switch the player’s perspective from Thor to Iron Man, and that type of sudden switching continued throughout the demo without any narrative justification provided. While it did result in a tight E3 demo that showed off each of the characters, I’m not sure how this will translate to the final game. While playing a campaign like this, it’s not clear how much control the player will actually have over which character they get to choose in a given situation, or if they’ll just be forced to switch around according to the whims of the game.
Iron Man appears to have one set of moves on the ground and another set when he’s in the air, the latter of which looks a lot cooler. As he hovers above ground, the game becomes more of an over-the-shoulder shooter, allowing the player to aim Tony’s blasts at targets. He can also call in guided missiles to blow up enemy turrets. After Tony finished clearing out his section of the bridge, the Marvel’s Avengers demo did another quick-cut between characters, unceremoniously tossing our vantage point up into a jet with Black Widow and Bruce Banner, the latter of whom rose from his chair and hopped out of the jet to transform into the Hulk and commence the bad-assery.
The Hulk’s move set looks simple but undeniably fun, not least because of his massive, careening jump and apparent ability to toss cars off a bridge with a mere flick of a huge green hand. He has a move where he can pick up a bad guy and fling him down on the ground, the way the Hulk famously did to Loki in the first Avengers movie. The Hulk can also grab two guys and slam them into each other, which looks satisfying as well. He also has the power to clap his hands to generate a shockwave, a move that the Hulk actually did at the climax of that Edward Norton Hulk movie that no one besides me saw but which is technically also a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
At the end of the Hulk’s section, as the green guy picked up a tank to throw at the remaining bad guys, the Marvel’s Avengers demo revealed its first of what would be several quick-time events. These are moments when a player gets thrust into watching a cool cinematic that can only be completed by pressing one button at the right time. Hulk throwing the tank looked cool, but it was also basically just a cutscene, and not really something the player appeared to have much control over.
Then, the demo shunted us off into Captain America’s perspective. His lineup of punches looked similar to Thor’s when Thor didn’t have his hammer on him, although Cap also has some cool kicks in the mix as well. Plus, he’s got that shield, which he can throw at enemies. It’s not clear whether Cap can target the boomerang arc of his shield, or if the player just lets go of it and the shield does the work. It looked more like the latter.
Cap’s section didn’t last long before transitioning into a segment featuring the fifth and final character, Black Widow. Since she’s a human, Black Widow has been tricked out with all kinds of tech in Marvel’s Avengers, even more than she got in the movies. Some of her moves are straight out of Scarlett Johansson’s fight choreography repertoire: She has dual pistols and thighs that can kill anyone whose neck is unfortunate enough to end up between them. Instead of a back-dash, she can do a backflip, and she can also roll out of the way of incoming attacks.
As a result, Widow seems much more acrobatic and fluid than the heavy, slow punching of Thor and Captain America, which fits her character and abilities given that she doesn’t have super-strength on her side. She does also have some new tech built into her suit, most notably the ability to turn invisible, which she whips out in her final showdown with Taskmaster.
Black Widow is the only Avenger who ends up fighting Taskmaster, which is weird because you’d think they would all team up to fight the big bad guy at the end of this ordeal. Where were the other four dudes while Nat was kicking this skull guy’s butt? Captain America was, apparently, flying back into San Francisco because he had figured out that the Golden Gate Bridge fight was a distraction from the real threat, the source of which was honestly unclear, but whatever it was, it ended up destroying San Francisco and Captain America with it. Thor, Iron Man, and the Hulk busied themselves with saving civilians in vehicles from falling off the bridge, which was in the process of getting destroyed, but that mostly felt like an excuse not to show how powerful this lineup would be if they could only work together.
The dialogue didn’t ring true, either. Marvel’s Avengers felt like it wanted to be funny, but it couldn’t quite pull off the dense, back-to-back quips that unfold in a typical Marvel movie. At one point, Tony made a joke about not reading any mission briefs ahead of time, and another character responded, “Tony, those are important.” In response, Tony said, “Yeah, whatever.” It was delivered like a joke, but there’s no joke there, except that apparently this version of Tony Stark is wildly irresponsible – an odd choice for a character who is self-centred and self-destructive but who, ultimately, has always cared about taking responsibility for his work. Sure, Tony Stark has also dealt with alcoholism in the comic books, but he’s always been a high-functioning egomaniac whose work matters more to him than his personal relationships. And you’re going to tell me that he suddenly doesn’t care about reading mission briefs? It feels particularly careless given that this is a scene that ends with the destruction of a major city, due to the fact that the Avengers appear to have done an abysmal job of planning any of this.
That’s the really weird part about this demo: the total lack of communication between the Avengers. They each fight individually, perhaps because that’s all that the developers could show at this stage. In a game like Spider-Man or Arkham Asylum, the lead character is one who can work alone. The Avengers don’t work alone, though. The Marvel movies got better and better at choreographing and showing off fight scenes featuring each of the characters’ powers working in tandem with one another. That would be very difficult to show in a video game, but it’s also what most people would expect of a game like this, having been primed with the movies.
The real difficulty for Crystal Dynamics is that by choosing this particular lineup of Avengers characters and putting them in the exact same outfits and giving them such similar moves, this game will invariably live in the shadow of the live-action movies that clearly inspired it. The Crystal Dynamics rep told us that the team had been working with Marvel “for years” on this concept, and maybe this is what Marvel wanted.
Having seen the trailer and the footage so far, I think that choice was a big mistake. I’m not just saying that because I’d much rather play a game inspired by my favourite ‘80s era Avengers comic books, in which The Wasp assumes leadership of the team and taps She-Hulk and Captain Marvel (the Monica Rambeau version) to join the ranks. The mistake, in my view, is creating a game that so closely mimics the movies. There are some cool ideas in this gameplay demo: Thor’s hammer-throwing looks fantastic, and Black Widow’s blend of acrobatics and pistols looks bad-ass. But it’s hard to let any of those ideas stand on their own when they’re inevitably going to be compared to the movies.
The Arkham Batman games and the recent Spider-Man game had the benefit of being adaptations of characters who have been adapted many, many times. No one saw Insomniac Games’ Spider-Man game and thought, “Why isn’t that Tom Holland?” Okay, maybe someone did, but then there’s also Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, and any number of animated TV versions of Spider-Man in the mix as well. By contrast, it’s weird that Black Widow doesn’t look or sound like Scarlett Johansson, yet is wearing her exact same outfit and doing the moves that we’ve seen her do in so many movies.
Perhaps Crystal Dynamics intends to introduce more characters from Avengers canon who are not intrinsically associated with the famous actors from the Marvel movies. The introduction of Taskmaster as a villain seems promising in this regard, given that he’s never been in any of the movies, which means that the game’s team can come up with their own way to bring him to life in this particular Avengers story (except for the part where Taskmaster was also in that Spider-Man game). Again, each of the characters’ move sets look cool, although it’s just not clear how they could all work together in a way that actually works and doesn’t reduce the game into being a series of boring, codified missions that only allow the player to inhabit certain specific heroes with the powers needed to get a specific job done.
Marvel’s Avengers comes out on May 15, 2020, meaning the Crystal Dynamics team has only a year left to make this work. I hope the final product gels together just as well as the Avengers always do in the movies. But, above all, I hope that the final product is able to escape the shadow of those movies and create something that can stand on its own.