Attempting to build a world that provides both satisfying big-budget narrative adventures and an online squad-based loot-grinding platform, Marvel's Avengers is an extremely impressive effort that falls short on long-term incentives (at least so far), but nails the campaign.
This is a robust and beautiful brawler featuring six of Marvel's most iconic heroes, each with distinct play styles and powers. It's organised into a huge range of activities, from story-based missions you play on your own using specific characters, to online multiplayer regions where you take on objectives with your favourite Avengers alongside friends or the AI.
Tomb Raider veterans Crystal Dynamics took the reigns here, so a certain level of polish was to be expected. But even so I was surprised at just how good the story-based campaign is. Over more than a dozen hours (much more if you dive into optional side-quests), the game tells an excellent original Avengers tale about the heroes rebuilding their lives years after being implicated in a tragic explosion that killed or mutated countless San Franciscans.
You start as Kamala Khan, a teenage Avengers fan and reluctant hero, who brings the team back together and becomes Ms. Marvel over the course of the story. In the game, as in the character's 2014 comics, Khan's Muslim and Pakistani heritage brings a welcome perspective not often showcased in the medium, and overall she's a nuanced and likeable hero to have at the centre of the action. The other five — Black Widow, Captain America, Hulk, Iron Man and Thor — take inspiration from both the comics and the MCU films to create distinct but familiar versions of the iconic characters.
As heroes are introduced one by one, I love that the game takes time to explore the people beneath the costumes with bespoke levels and heaps of dialogue, as well as exploration or destructive run-and-jump sections that make specific use of each character's movement style. It feels thin compared to something like Shadow of the Tomb Raider or Uncharted — especially as many missions have you completing objectives or beating up bad guys with any combination of heroes you like — but the hand-crafted narrative sections and heaps of nerdy Marvel lore are really well integrated and provide a great incentive to keep moving.
Combat is central to basically every level and follows and adapts the familiar hero shooter template for brawling, with combos of light and heavy attacks punctuated by special heroic abilities on cooldown timers. It's simple, but the game also does a great job of making each character distinct in their fighting and movement. As you might expect flying and blasting as Iron Man feels different to the close combos and shooting of Black Widow or the leaping and smashing of Hulk.
Once the campaign is over the game opens up into a full online multiplayer loot grind akin to Destiny or Diablo, but at least in its current incarnation it didn't do a lot to hold my attention. The loot is the weakest part of the whole game, with each new piece making you imperceptibly stronger but doing nothing to change how your characters look or play. There are unlockable outfits for your Avengers, and they're cool, but they're cosmetic only.
At first I was intrigued by the variety of mission types, the presence of faction-specific loot vendors and special "iconic" mission chains you could follow for each hero — which were all things I didn't pay too much attention to during the campaign — but every activity is just so similar it gets old very quickly. Every time I worked out an objective I wanted to work towards it boiled down to killing a certain number of enemies or running through a familiar area doing familiar things through fights with same bad guys. And since the characters always play exactly the same regardless of gear equipped, there's only so much of that I can handle.
If you're part of a regular group of four who can put time into the game together, it is awesome to see the a full squad of four Avengers taking on massive robots or supervillains together. But without the Marvel magic that makes the campaign so great I don't think there's much here to pull you away from similar, more established fare like Warframe. There are clearly plans in place to add new heroes, more story and additional areas and missions in the future though, at which point I could absolutely see myself returning for more solo play.
Marvel's Avengers is out now for PS4 (reviewed), PC and Xbox One.
Tim is the editor of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald technology sections.