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Prior to the release of Marvel’s Avengers, developers Crystal Dynamics and Eidos Montreal spent most of the time building up hype for the prospect of playing as five of the MCU’s biggest characters in an evolving world with more heroes added for free in future updates. Wielding the powers of iconic MCU alums like Captain America, Thor, and Hulk was what the developers, along with Marvel and Square Enix, were banking on as the biggest appeal for this action-RPG. But in doing so, the developers undersold their actual greatest asset.
**Spoiler warning: This story contains spoilers for Marvel’s Avengers.**
When the game was finally released this past September, what drew everyone’s attention and praise was its story mode. The base campaign feels like the movies in the best of ways, cinema-worthy plot beats like the reunion between Captain America and Iron Man and everything going on between Bruce Banner and Kamala Khan, aka Ms. Marvel.
Underplayed in the game’s marketing, Kamala provides a unique and earnest perspective compared to the other jaded veteran heroes. After playing as Kamala for just a few hours, the campaign makes it clear why her upcoming Disney+ series is so anticipated. It feels more like a game for her than it does the Avengers team, and the game’s story mode seems to understand this on some level. All six heroes are playable, but she gets the most playtime out of them all, and serves as the catalyst for reuniting the heroes to defeat the villainous AIM and MODOK. After switching between the heroes during the final showdown, Kamala is the one who fittingly gets to take MODOK down, completing her journey from fangirl to hero in a satisfying way.
The December content drop featuring the best Hawkeye, Kate Bishop, as the newest recruit proves the base game’s entertaining story mode wasn’t a fluke. Forced to team up with the Avengers to save fellow archer Clint Barton from AIM’s clutches, Kate is fun to play thanks to her archery skills, sword, and teleportation gadgets. Though her campaign is much shorter compared to the base game, there’s a clear affection for Kate that comes through in the writing and actor Ashly Burch’s performance. Kate’s banter with Clint is rock solid, and when the older archer reunites with the Avengers at the end of the DLC, it feels like a fitting end for Kate and Clint. Like with Insomniac and its two Spider-Man games, the team behind Marvel’s Avengers gets the sensation of playing as these characters and their characterizations down pat. It’s just the other half of the game where it stumbles.
Avengers is a live service game that wants to release new content on a semi-regular basis. It wants to be Square’s answer to Destiny, something many a game has tried imitating since 2014. The MMO-lite elements are all there, be it the various hub vendors who give you gear and bounties that rotate on a daily (or weekly or monthly) basis, the loot system, and so on. But where Bungie’s online shooter has found a comfortable niche for itself, Avengers isn’t quite there yet. It isn’t that the game is particularly bad at being what it is, the problem is that its existence as such a game feels obligatory.
Whereas Destiny makes it clear what content is for solo play versus cooperative play, Avengers just wants you to be all co-op all the time — and if you’re not playing with a real-life trio of friends, you’ll have to partner up with AI companions rather than truly go it solo.
There’s a hypothetical version of this game that is strictly single-player, and DLC adds additional heroes every couple of months, all of whom have their own individual stories that feed into the overall narrative. That version of Avengers feels more right for what this game is trying to be. Single-player service games can exist; the last several Assassin’s Creed games have gone this route and seen great success. As for the co-op the game wants to build itself around? Do what another Ubisoft game, this fall’s Watch Dogs: Legion did, and add co-op via a free update some months after launch.
Marvel’s Avengers isn’t bad, by the standards of either other live service titles, fellow Marvel games, or even the gracious curve you may apply to a game clearly affected by the 2020 pandemic. It certainly has the potential to be a fun superheroic co-op delight, but right now its solitary outings are much stronger than its loot pools or many purchasable costumes. And since we’re devoid of MCU content for 2020, this is a solid enough substitute or holdover until WandaVision in 2021. But as you play it, you’ll definitely notice the identity crisis. To borrow the tagline of another superhero game, Marvel’s Avengers needs to quit trying to be something it’s not and simply be itself.