Review | ‘Marvel’s Avengers’ needs to stop calling itself a live service

For any lapsed players wondering if it’s worth returning to “Avengers,” here’s my take: Hawkeye is tremendous fun to use, but you’re not going to find more interesting things to do besides play with his move set. If the gameplay loop of grinding for more power doesn’t compel you, it’s still here among the same old activities we’ve been playing for the last six months. If you didn’t play Kate Bishop’s story, then it might seem like substantially more content, but it just concludes on the same tired note.

Still, I’m enjoying the new playstyles. Sure, they work a bit similarly, but even a slight variance from the same old Hulk-smashing, Iron Man-zapping action for the last half year is refreshing — for a time.

After just a few hours, I hit the level cap for Hawkeye. Now, he’s now just another toy in the pile with my other Avengers action figures. And that’s why this game is not working as a live service: It offers little to compel me to play beyond tooling around with move sets. I’m still punching the same old robots, except now it’s in a post-apocalypse setting. We waited three months since Bishop’s release for practically two hours of new content.

“Avengers” was doomed as a live service from the start, thanks to its ambition to accommodate several different superheroes while balancing them. Every superhero needs to feel at least a little unique, and needs to move seamlessly among environments that account for the movement styles and abilities of every other superhero. As a result, the level designs are extremely flat, and the combat mechanics can’t be truly dynamic because the game must accommodate eight different character types. While the combat mechanics in “Avengers” have always been good, they’ll never reach the excellence of a dedicated character-action game like “Devil May Cry 5,” with four wildy-varying characters.

This problem is highlighted and exacerbated by the episodic nature of the Hawkeye and Kate Bishop story line, and how disjointed it feels from the rest of the Avengers. Kate Bishop and Hawkeye barely talk to any of the other Avengers, leaving me to assume that Crystal Dynamics couldn’t get additional lines from the original voice talent. The final enemy of Hawkeye’s story is Maestro Hulk, a demented future version of Bruce Banner. But when I bring my own Hulk to the fight, nobody has anything to say about having two Hulks in the room, not even either of the Hulks. Much of the story is about Clint Barton (a.k.a. Hawkeye) having a crisis of faith about whether he wants to remain part of the team. Team leader Captain America would probably have some inspiring words for this particular issue, but of course, he says nothing.

The road map of planned content revealed last week also had no specific dates, which means players can’t reasonably expect anything. Live service games should be a routine for players. On that front, “Avengers” has little to offer beyond overpriced skins to buy with real money. It only adds further pain to realize we’re still fighting the same supervillains, Taskmaster and Abomination, when the developers kept hyping their access to Marvel’s character vault.

Yet, I still return to the game, because I enjoy it as a simple brawler. I’ve already accepted in my heart that this will never live up to the standards set by “Fortnite,” “Destiny 2” or even “Fall Guys” for that matter. I return to this game just like I might a “Streets of Rage” or any other brawler. It’s a reason to punch robots as one of my favorite superheroes for an hour or two, maybe with another friend. It helps that load times are practically instant with the free PlayStation 5 upgrade, making everything feel like less of a grind.

The most rewarding activity is the “Mega Hive,” but it curiously only allows for a single player, and it’s going to take about the length of the Snyder cut film for me to finish it. The reward is ample, exotic gear, but the game’s loot gains are unclear. Enemies will continue to scale up, and the “Avengers” road map promises a level cap, which means anything I get will eventually be outclassed. There’s no incentive for me to engage with the game in this way, because the game still hasn’t decided what it wants to be. And it’s not like the loot (which doesn’t change your appearance) was satisfying in the first place.

I’d rather replay the single-player campaign, which was not replayable at launch for some odd reason. The only reason I can think of for that decision is that “Destiny,” from which “Avengers” liberally lifts ideas, didn’t have this feature either. Now that it’s finally been implemented, it’s a stark reminder of how much good work Crystal Dynamics already did, and raises more questions as to why this sort of energy isn’t in the live service, and why unique assets and areas are restricted to the single-player campaign, when they could add variety to the live service portion.

When I think of the game as a brawler with episodic expansions coming down the line, I think of “Avengers” in a more favorable light. Calling yourself a live service while struggling to update it live feels unfairly demanding of a very busy and easily distracted audience. It’s asking for more patience, when we’ve already given plenty. Would players be up for switching business models, and be willing to pay for less frequent, but more substantial content? I don’t know. This is where Crystal Dynamics could really test their recent commitment to opening up more communication.

Black Panther and the kingdom of Wakanda are expected to be introduced at an unknown date this year. It’s great to hear Crystal Dynamics isn’t giving up on the game. It’s still a good one. But sooner or later, we’ve got to stop kidding ourselves, and stop calling it a live service.

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