Review | Review in progress: ‘Avengers’ is somehow a good young adult, coming-of-age tale

Day 1: Better Than Beta

Before the beta, I was starting to form the opinion that the “Avengers” video game should have been free to play. After about seven hours with the final product, I’m no longer convinced that’s the case. The game might be worth the full $60 cover charge.

How is that? After all, this game is going to charge $10 per battle pass for each downloadable character in the future, news that didn’t sit well with a lot of critics. And I was inclined to agree with them. The beta gave us the impression that it’d just be a cringeworthy, jerry-built narrative designed around multiplayer arenas, similar to older loot grind titles like “Warframe” or even “Diablo.”

Immediately, the final product makes a far stronger impression. From the beta, there was good potential in telling a story where teenager Kamala Khan plays audience surrogate, and kudos to Shana Bryant and the narrative team for living up to it. By portraying her anxieties and vulnerability, her personal stakes make it easy to invest in her character. It’s all in her earnest sincerity in wanting to do the right thing, and the escalating excitement as she tests the limits of her newfound powers and courage.

This is less an Avengers tale than it is Kamala Khan’s coming-of-age story, guest-starring the Avengers. Kamala’s story is a mash-up of previous up-and-coming young superhero stories like Spider-Man, complete with wise father figure. But the tale Crystal Dynamics tells here is a good reminder of why that formula works, and Kamala’s written with enough enthusiasm and cheer to sell it.

With her driving the narrative, the game avoids forcing the audience to re-acclimate to five new iterations of the iconic Avengers heroes. Instead, they’re familiar enough to anyone who’s even remotely aware of them. And the games missions and story bits don’t feel out of place in a big-budget, single-player story, which likely comes from the studio’s experience working on the “Tomb Raider” trilogy.

This is so far the greatest unique success of the “Avengers” game. “Live service” games like “Destiny,” “Fortnite” and “The Division” don’t have narrative so much as they have a premise. Forget character arcs, these games simply lay out the circumstances in which players are grinding and fighting for loot. “Call of Duty: Warzone” has an ongoing story, but it too is a loose one.

Not so with “Avengers,” which tries to marry a multiplayer-focused game with the “prestige” storytelling of Sony’s first-party efforts like “The Last of Us.” And it’s very nearly a resounding success. There’s confidence and ease in how the cutscenes weave in with the standard, brawler-based gameplay. There’s important context driving the gameplay.

For example, one of Iron Man’s earliest scenes finds him in the desert looking for parts to build a new suit of armor. This properly contextualizes billionaire Tony Stark having to scrounge around for parts, and it all ends with a playable sequence of him tearing through a canyon blasting AC/DC, a scene ripped right out of his movies. In a beta, this might seem like pandering, like it was trying too hard to mimic the film. In the context of the game, it’s a thrilling set piece.

The other Avengers also come off strong, all based loosely around their known archetypes. Thor is aloof and noble. Black Widow is unflappable and capable. Bruce Banner is a bit more neurotic than usual, but that comes after several years of trauma that kick off the game’s plot. Only Tony Stark comes off as trying a bit too hard, with just a few one-liner jokes too many. Voice actor Nolan North hues a bit too close to the Nathan Drake brand of delivery here, and it’s hard not to notice.

After eight hours, the core gameplay loop has solidified itself in the campaign and largely remains the same from the beta. It’s a solid foundation for brawlers, but far less complicated than the combat you’d find in more robust single-player stories like Batman’s “Arkham” games and the PlayStation 4 exclusive “Spider-Man.” If that didn’t excite you, the final game won’t.

But if you thought it was engaging enough, I’d say it gets a lot better once you unlock all the characters and their skills. I have most of Iron Man’s lasers and repulsor moves unlocked, and the combat feels varied enough to turn this game into the best Iron Man video game I’ve ever played. He can fly forever, a merciful departure from EA’s “Anthem” and its flying limits. The Hulk may be the game’s weakest link, at least for me, mostly because of an inability to get over how the Hulk could “five-hit combo” a single robot. But I know other players are enjoying playing him, which speaks more to suspension of disbelief.

It’s to the studio’s credit that all heroes still control differently enough to make playing each one feel like a new game altogether. This becomes more evident as you unlock more skills and play more of the campaign.

The loot grind has yet to really settle in, but so far navigating the inventory hasn’t been as fussy as I expected. Yes, the game has several different resource types for you to track and craft for upgrades. But they also flow freely enough where I’m not having to play “fake colorful money accountant” in my head every few minutes.

As far as technical concerns go, there were a few graphical bugs, and one moment where I was unable to progress the story. A simple restart made the proper story mission pop up. And the game runs well on the PlayStation 4, with little slowdown and no crashes.

We’ll update this file with Day 2 tomorrow. I’m likely finishing the campaign tonight, and hope to start on the “endgame” loop. But so far, “Marvel’s Avengers” is shaping up to be well worth the cover charge. That’s a redemption arc I didn’t see coming.

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