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‘Marvel’s Avengers’ is Crystal Dynamics’ Indistinct Take on a Comic Classic

After 22 films in the leadup to “Avengers: Endgame,” the culmination of everything the Marvel Cinematic Universe built up towards, you’d think any other take on the classic team of superheroes would fall flat on its face. New faces would be eclipsed by the likes of Chris Evans’ perfect Captain America, Robert Downey Jr.’s dashing Tony Stark, and Chris Hemsworth’s chiseled Thor.

Yet here we are with “Marvel’s Avengers,” Crystal Dynamics’s (“Shadow of the Tomb Raider”) specialized take on the Avengers storyline. It’s a third person action adventure with a variety of individual missions and superheroes that can be played cooperatively or as a single player experience. It was announced back in 2017 and is launching on May 15, 2020 on PS4, Xbox One, Google Stadia, and PC.

“Marvel’s Avengers” was unveiled at Square Enix’s press conference earlier in the week to a  confused audience who viewed the character designs for heroes like Captain America, Black Widow, and Thor as knockoffs. They looked eerily similar to their MCU counterparts, with comparable design choices and costumes, with enough subtle differences to make them seem a bit off.

“The choices we make are specific to the story we’re telling you. Our selection of heroes, NPCs, and even villains is driven by some of our favorite Marvel content but also in a lot of cases who is the right character to fit in the story,” said Crystal Dynamics studio creative director Noah Hughes in a response to a question about the fans comparing the characters to their MCU counterparts.

Hughes was tight-lipped for the majority of the interview, avoiding answering questions about “Marvel Avengers” story, design choices, character models, and other topics in a one on one interview with Variety. Topics we were able to touch on included the overall structure of “Marvel’s Avengers,” the hands-off demo I watched before the interview, accessibility, crunch, difficulty of boss fights, the overall theme of the game, and a few other subjects.

One of the biggest questions I went into the interview with was about the overall theme of the game. Avengers stories have been handled in many different ways, including the overarching story of the MCU most recently. Hughes tied all the systems, gameplay mechanics, and structures within “Marvel’s Avengers” to a single idea.

“It’s the sense of defending Earth against escalating threats and the fact that, as an assembled group, they can take on any threat even if it is greater than a single hero,” he said. “So delivering on that scale of experience and that scale of importance of the group within that experience as part of the narrative is very important.”

The hands-off demo opened with Avengers A-Day, a celebration of the superhero team in San Francisco. Celebrations were short lived though as a mysterious force of soldiers, led by the infamous villain Taskmaster, tried to set off a bomb in the San Francisco Bay. We see them blow up and attack part of the Golden Gate Bridgesending civilians into rubble-filled chaos.

Iron-Man and Thor immediately jump into action soaring across the bay and landing on the bridge. Thor immediately starts pounding dozens of soldiers into submission with Mjolnir. At this point the game leaves the cinematic mode it opened with and enters direct gameplay. Thor continues to fight along the bridge, helping the police save people trapped within their cars. If not for Thor’s distinct look and weapon the fighting would look like somewhat generic third-person action.

We jump from Thor to Iron-Man, who zooms across the bridge Anthem-style with slick, intense motion. He dodges enemy fire (which is from his own stolen tech as he soon learns). Around this time Bruce Banner joins the fight by diving out of an Avengers jet, transforming into the Hulk mid-fall, and crashing down on the bridge.

Hulk’s playstyle was especially brutal with him smashing enemy soldiers together and into the ground, absolutely decimating their bodies although there wasn’t much blood, as far as I could tell. The action segments with Thor, Iron-Man, Hulk, and eventually Captain America (positioned in the giant helicarrier in the bay) were all beat-em-ups with various differences in playstyles (although the flying segment appeared to be vastly different).

These short bursts of action contained a good number of quick time events with single button presses which Hughes sited as a way for players of all skill levels to get acclimated to the large number of different abilities that the heroes showcase. “It’s very much the open sequence of the game and in a lot of cases we are using the [QTEs] to introduce players to core functionality,” he said. “We’re using it here as an onboarding experience although it is not that significant a part of gameplay. There are exotic moments that might have unique interfaces like that, but it’s not a constant part of the experience.”

Hughes and I also talked about the QTEs and their greater role in any accessibility features that “Marvel’s Avengers” might have, although he didn’t confirm if any specific features would be included. “It’s something that’s very important to us across the board with the project,” he said. “There is such a vast world of fans out there and we want to make a game that can be enjoyed by as many of them as possible.”

After a few more fight sequences Taskmaster appears on the bridge alongside a futuristic truck bomb, it sends out a surge of energy that starts to destroy the cables holding the rest of the bridge up. Most of the team jump to secure the bridge before it collapses while Black Widow starts to face off against Taskmaster.

The fight that follows stretches across the bridge as Black Widow grabs Taskmaster as he tries to fly away. They trade punches, gunshots, and various other moves (Taskmasters abilities include the quick absorption of knowledge so he can learn how to counter Black Widow) in a sequence of brawls before Black Widow uses camouflage to get the better of the villain.

“Strategy is an important part of these boss fights. We challenged individual heroes with particular bosses as a test of skill to make sure players master each heroes abilities. Then threats escalate and become harder to take on,” Hughes said. “One of the challenges is in a multiplayer context were playing a specific role in a fight becomes important as well.”

The hands-off demo also showed a short compilation of clips that included Abomination, a fight designed for Hulk’s unique abilities. Both he and Taskmaster are simple examples of boss fights designed for a particular hero.

“Taskmasters ability is reflected in his memory basically, he uses the hero’s moves against them and understands all their fighting styles in a way so they can be countered,” Hughes said. “Each of these matchups is a special fit for specific heroes. Similarly, we have some larger bosses that have a sense of fighting a giant threat together.”

While the opening segment was linear, Hughes confirmed that there would be more open world-esque parts in “Marvel’s Avengers.” The entire game is based around a central hub where players can customize their heroes with skins and equipment as well as upgrade their abilities through a progression system. Specific details on these elements weren’t included.

“One of the things that we’re delivering with the heroes is that sense of empowered traversal, it’s really fun to get around the world. Some of our areas are catered to that sense of exploration,” Hughes said. “We’ll have areas where you’ll have more freedom with various objectives to complete and part of that concept is a larger sense of player-driven choice.

So as the world opens up you have a base of operations that you take on missions from,” he added. “The world is under constant threat. So each location is telling part of the story together.” Hughes added that some levels are specifically designed for certain heroes while others are catered to team-based gameplay.

A big promise that both Crystal Dynamics and Marvel made during the Square Enix E3 press conference was the additional content, in the form of both new areas and superheroes, that would become after launch at no additional cost to the player. Hughes wasn’t able to confirm how much content would be included at launch, but did say they were focusing on creating a complete cinematic experience.

“Something that’s really important for us as a studio is to deliver an amazing cinematic campaign first and foremost. We really want to give you the sense that you are these heroes living in this story,” he said. “It’s the same thing you’d find in a Tomb Raider game, a full game experience that drives players to level up their heroes.” Hughes emphasized that point again when I asked him about Anthem’s lofty promises of post-launch support that hasn’t been fulfilled four months after launch. He didn’t confirm any details about what “Marvel’s Avengers” post-launch support would look like.

We don’t know how long “Marvel’s Avengers” has been in development, but we know it’s been at least two and a half years since the original teaser trailer. It’s a huge project that includes one of the biggest intellectual properties in the world. This kind of project naturally demands a lot of work so I asked Hughes about Crystal Dynamics approach to crunch.

“We are so passionate about the game we’re making and we pour our hearts and souls into it,” he said. “It’s an exciting process but we make sure that employees aren’t working too hard. We want to create a work-life balance that makes for happy, healthy employees. They are what make awesome games.

As much as we really invest ourselves in the screen as a studio we really want to maintain a happy working environment.”

Even though Hughes was reserved in most of his answers and the general response to “Marvel’s Avengers” has been mixed, I was impressed by what I watched. The boss fight with Taskmaster seemed somewhat strategic, traversal looked fun, and individual heroes appeared to be distinct. It’s difficult to tell how the game would feel without playing it directly though.

At the end of the hands-off demo the helicarrier crashes into the Bay and explodes due to tampering by an unknown villain or force. It’s presumed that Captain America is dead. The demo then jumped into a future where heroes are outlawed. We don’t know much else about the story outside the idea that the Earth comes under threat again and the Avengers must assemble to save it.

Of all the features, superhero abilities, visuals, and other elements of “Marvel’s Avengers,” Hughes seemed most excited about the story. “We’re telling an original story through a very cinematic action adventure campaign,” he said. “It introduces players to each of these heroes, helps them learn their abilities, and then pushes them to master them. That, combined with coop experience, is something we’re really excited about.”

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