It’s not that there haven’t been any licensed games in the last decade or so. There have always been the various LEGO games, and this summer saw the release of a Stranger Things game to coincide with the release of its third season. Still to come is Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, a game adaptation of the Netflix series and a John Wick game from Mike Bithell. Nonetheless, for an industry that once ran on licensed games, in recent times there has been a dearth of licensed titles from big AAA studios and publishers.
For indie or work-for-hire developers, there’s a clear incentive to work on a licensed game: you’re guaranteed an audience. But those same economics don’t necessarily make much sense for AAA studios. During Develop, I mentioned this to Bithell, who said “if you're a AAA publisher, there's a very strong argument that you should be spending your resources creating your own IP, that you get to own, and you get to sell merchandise of. Maybe Hollywood makes a movie spin-off one day!”
Given how lengthy and expensive the top end of game development is, you need to be talking about a huge IP that’s a worthwhile long-term investment to bet the farm on. But then they surely don’t get bigger than Marvel’s Avengers, with Avengers: Endgame being the highest-grossing movie worldwide of all time. If AAA is going to go big on an established IP, then this one is surely a banker.
Or one would think so, at least. The gamble didn’t appear to pay off when Avengers got its official unveiling at E3, with most of the criticism levelled at the look of the Avengers themselves. Rather than the comic book aesthetic of Ultimate Alliance 3 the game goes for grounded photorealism but, without the right to use likenesses of the MCU actors, there’s no escaping that any direct comparison laves the characters looking like pale imitations.
But visuals can be deceptive and when I finally got a hands-on taste of the game, my impressions improved, though I'm not quite ready to board the hype train. Mainly because the demo I got to play is just the opening tutorial mission, which gives a taste of the powers of the five core playable Avengers: Captain America, Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Black Widow.
On the positive side, each hero plays with their own distinct style. Thor especially feels great wielding Mjolnir around, which works for smacking enemies up-close or being flung in ranged attacks - and just like Kratos’s Leviathan Axe, there's a satisfying 'smack' as it's recalled and flies back to your hand.
Iron Man’s flying and ranged attacks immediately remind me of Anthem, for better or worse. Hulk smashes (duh) but is also surprisingly agile when it comes to wall-jumping from obstacles. Cap’s vibranium shield is a highlight, great for defending against attacks but also for frisbeeing foes from all sides. As the hero without flashy super powers Black Widow might have gotten the short straw, but more than makes do with CQC and dual pistols asa somewhat more badass Lara Croft (perfect sense for co-developer Crystal Dynamics).
Even if the combat feels good, however, this linear tutorial's scripted banter and regular QTEs doesn't convincingly showcase how Avengers will play as a whole. Not to mention that when you’re these supreme heroes (come on, Thor is literally a god), using the full force of superpowers like Iron Man’s repulsor beam on humans (albeit heavily armoured humans) isn’t just ridiculously one-sided, but feels slightly un-Avenger-y?
There are videos of the gameplay, so by all means make up your own mind.
More interesting then is trying to figure out what the actual meat of the game is and the long-term ambition publisher Square Enix and the developers have for it. Crystal Dynamics studio head Scot Amos laid out exactly this in a media presentation after my hands-on.
Amos began by addressing the initial backlash to the Avengers looking like B-movie copies of their MCU counterparts, saying that the game is meant to be an original version of the heroes and take them in a new direction from what's been done. Crystal Dynamics obviously managed this with the rebooted Tomb Raider, so at least it has a track record here.
The opening mission sees the Avengers out to save San Francisco from destruction, and ultimately failing, which leads to their disbandment and superheroes outlawed worldwide. Then the campaign has you slowly reassembling the Avengers five years later, with the story's core being not just saving the world but the Avengers themselves. I suppose that when the big screen version has ended on an epic battle spanning the universe and time, something more introspective is probably the way to go.
As for who you’ll be fighting against, it seems like basic human enemies are limited to that tutorial mission. But while a couple supervillains have been mentioned, including Taskmaster and Abomination, the key antagonist in Avengers is an organisation that come to power in the absence of our heroes, Advanced Idea Mechanics (AIM).
Described as a technocratic organisation that wants to redefine mankind’s future through reason and logic, AIM not only rebuilds San Francisco but replaces superheroes by building and mobilising its own powerful “synthoid AI force” - and you can guess where this is going. We haven’t yet seen any art of what they’ll look like but I wouldn’t be surprised if the majority of the enemies you encounter are essentially AIM bots of various classes, which is sounding only marginally less appealing than the generic thugs you fight in Spider-Man. For reference, here’s how they look in the comics:
So how will the rest of the game play? Fortunately it’s not going to be as linear as the tutorial mission, but there will be single-player specific Hero missions, focused on and tailored to a specific hero, while War Zones let you play as any hero in solo or online co-op with up to three other players.
The latter also vary in outcomes, so it might be story-specific or for hunting out specific gear or outfits. These also sound more expansive because ultimately, they not only have to support up to four players but also feel fun to play whichever type of superhero you’re playing as.
These missions take place across the globe, which here is composed of rather expansive mission-specific locales that you’re deployed to from the war table at your base of operations a la Destiny.
That’s actually the first of many comparisons to Bungie’s online shooter. There’s all the gear you find when playing missions, which grants different perks, and in the UI I got a glance at familiar colour-coding for common, rare, and legendary gear, with the rarest offering multiple perks. Thankfully these loot drops are also specific to the hero you’re playing, so if you’re Iron Man then you’ll only receive Iron Man gear.
There’s also branded sets, such as Stark Industries gear, which sounds a little Monster Hunter to me in that if you have a complete matching set of gear you’ll be granted extra incentives and boosts, and no doubt that will involve grinding certain missions to get them.
As well as gear there are costumes, and you’ll be able to kit your heroes out with a wide array of outfits spanning Marvel’s rich 80-year history: so, a lot of spandex. There are two important points here: firstly, the costumes are purely cosmetic and, secondly, some are unlocked by playing certain missions but others will only be available to purchase as DLC.
The good news, I suppose, is that there are no loot boxes so you’ll be able to pay for exactly what you want. But you’re also talking 80 years worth of Marvel costumes, which could in theory mean anyone who wants every single costume will be forking out big-time (for comparison, Dead or Alive 5: Last Round’s costumes reportedly add up to about a grand).
While you might have to pay for costumes, however, apparently the long-term ‘endgame’ of Avengers is that you won’t have to pay for future updates. That includes things like new heroes, new areas, and new missions. The heroes specifically aren’t just like a new class or character in a fighting game but come with their own storylines, skill trees, gear, and costumes.
Amos claims that these updates are planned “for years to come - this is just the beginning of an epic adventure.”
Another multiple title franchise like Tomb Raider I can imagine, or maybe season passes like Destiny, sure. But an ever-evolving game that you just buy at launch then be rewarded with tons more playable content down the line without paying another penny? Who knows, maybe costume DLC can fund future development, but this sounds a little too good to be true.
The other concern is that, when Avengers launches on May 15th 2020, it’s going to be at the end of this console generation, and the month afterwards will see E3 and the industry presumably gearing up for the next-gen. It’s less an issue if you’re playing on PC or Stadia, which the game has also been recently confirmed for, but it does feel like a project this ambitious and long-term may be arriving at the long time.
Crystal Dynamics clearly has the talent to create polished AAA blockbusters, and I'm sure Avengers will hit a certain quality bar. A quick look at the roll-call of talent assembled for this project inspires confidence: director Shaun Escayg (ex-Naughty Dog), director of production Stephen Barry (ex-Visceral, EA), and combat designer Vince Napoli (God of War). And despite those uncomfortable MCU comparisons, maybe the studio will reimagine the Avengers as effectively as they reimagined Lara Croft.
For publisher Square Enix it’s still a big gamble. Investing so heavily in someone else’s IP is anything but a sure thing, though maybe it’s just the next logical step in the company’s long partnership with Disney - what better way to follow up than with the Mouse House’s most profitable IP? After all, if Avengers pulls in even a fraction of the cinematic audience, who’s going to care what their faces look like.