Marvel's Avengers game, which kicks off its public beta Friday, has been a surprisingly tough sell. Despite the game being based on the most popular super hero team in the world, Square Enix and developer Crystal Dynamics have struggled to regain momentum ever since the game's E3 2019 reveal, when the internet collectively guffawed at how different Tony Stark and company's faces looked from their Marvel Cinematic Universe counterparts.
Regardless, I've been confident they'd deliver when the full game hits PS4, Xbox One and PC on Sept. 4. Giving Kamala Khan (aka Ms. Marvel) a major role suggests the story would be grounded. She acts as our point of view as a new superhero trying to reassemble the Avengers, who've disbanded after the disastrous mission -- the same one they used for the initial E3 trailer -- that makes up the game's playable introduction.
Kamala has cool shapeshifting powers, an awesome costume and super relatable fangirl attitude -- I'd probably squee if I met Black Widow or Iron Man too -- so I was thrilled about her addition. She joins Thor, Black Widow, Iron Man and Hulk as a playable character in this co-op multiplayer-centric adventure. You can also play as Captain America during the intro.
Read more: GameSpot's Marvel's Avengers preview
I got to spend a couple of hours playing the beta with Will Potter, my colleague over at CNET sister site GameSpot, and on my own this past weekend. I also got to chat with Crystal Dynamics studio chief Scot Amos and creative director Shaun Escayg (who worked on Uncharted: Lost Legacy) about what we can expect from the full game.
The beta kicks off with the intro mission, basically a flashy single player tutorial for the playable Avengers as you fend off an attack on the Golden Gate Bridge. It's more engaging than the E3 trailer as you jump from hero to hero, but only gives you enough time to learn a few basic moves for each before whisking you to the next level.
The demo then takes us on another single player mission, featuring Kamala and Bruce Banner. It's not long before he Hulks out and you play as the big guy for much of the mission as you leap and fight your way through a forest.
It's at this point the dissonance between the game's characters and its RPG elements became clear. I expected Hulk to be able to crush masses of enemies, but the game wants players to build up to that. His moves are beautifully animated and match the character as I know him, but lacked the immediate sense of power I wanted. I just didn't find him much fun to use.
Amos also suggested that Hulk's apparent weakness was a function of the game's narrative.
"Hulk's in a somewhat broken state when we first find him, and it's reflected in his look, tone and power," he told me. "As you level up, you Hulk and get more advanced high-level gear, you will see his attributes climb, as will his power levels and effectiveness."
The game also pushes players to collect character-enhancing gear in chests scattered around each area (I just automatically equipped the best ones). These all seem to be invisible nanotech accessories that enhance your stats, but make no cosmetic difference. I suspected they want to preserve the looks of the many iconic costumes you can deck your heroes out in -- a notion Amos confirmed.
"We wanted you to be able to play as your favorite heroes without sacrificing or deviating from the artistic integrity of the original comic books and other inspirations," he said, but noted that the team is open to player suggestions on changes to its cosmetic customization system.
After the Hulk's section, you change over to Kamala. Her shapeshifting powers are immediately satisfying, and her giant hand slap and stretched-out "Embiggened" form are visually delightful. Voice actor Sandra Saad (whom you might have heard in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2019 and Fallout 76) infuses her with loads of enthusiasm too, bringing a sense of joy to this section.
Escayg also pointed out that Kamala's fangirl attitude sees her using her powers to imitate the other Avengers' moves in battle.
"Like you'll see a bit of 'Hulk Smash' in there, you'll feel that 'Widow Kick' -- they're sloppy versions, but that's her as a fan," he said.
Will and I played these single-player segments at the same time using voice chatting, which probably isn't the ideal approach if you want to take in the narrative and tutorial elements fully. I'd recommend playing solo for the first hour and a half, then linking up with a friend as the first multiplayer mission unlocks.
In the full game, Escayg said, multiplayer will be open to you immediately.
"You can definitely jump right in and play with your friends," he told me. "It was really important for us that we created player choice; there are some key outfits and upgrades that you get only in the campaign."
When Will and I got to play together -- he was Hulk and I was Kamala -- the game's co-op superhero fun clicked, like a more sophisticated version of Marvel Ultimate Alliance. The first objective was straightforward: Reach a highlighted area and fight off baddies as you stand within it. Not particularly engaging, but standard for this kind of brawler.
In a glorious moment of beta jankiness, Hulk fell into a rock and was briefly trapped. It's the kind of glitch that'll be patched out of the final game, but Will and I loved it (mostly me, since I wasn't the one who got stuck).
After this, the beta takes you to another training session before opening up more multiplayer missions and unlocking Iron Man and Black Widow. I liked how distinctive Black Widow's stealthiness and Iron Man's armor abilities felt, and the prospect of seeing people's different builds through online play is exciting -- the beta's scope was too limited to showcase the long-term impact of customization.
Diving into the small selection of missions on my own over the weekend, I found them quite repetitive -- often some variation of "smash the bad guys' servers" or "hack the computer by standing on a highlighted point" -- and didn't feel much urge to continue.
Escayg promised we'd see more variety in the finished version, especially as the game grows through free updates.
"This is just a small slice, to give you a feel of each different facet of the game. So the variety and stories within it are going to continue to expand. This is just us trying to create a living organism, that world where we could tell new stories, add new heroes, add new villains, and there is a plan to do that very shortly," he said. "The variety of content we're planning will remove some of that repetitious feel."
I've been reading Marvel Comics religiously for 25 years, and the dev team's love of this universe shines through in the decision to make ludicrously comic book-y villain MODOK the game's big bad, along with Easter eggs like Phil Sheldon (from classic '90s tale Marvels) showing up as a reporter.
The announcement that Spidey would join the PS4 and PS5 versions for free made me particularly excited, even though Escayg confirmed this isn't the same version of the character from 2018's Spider-Man or the upcoming Miles Morales games.
"He's our Spider Man. Whenever we add characters to our world, we have to ground those characters in our story," he told me, before hinting that the wallcrawler will be joined by a member of his iconic rogue's gallery. "Every hero will have their story and arc, as well as a villain that accompanies them."
My money's on Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus. Spidey and his enemy won't be joining the fun until 2021, suggesting that Crystal Dynamics is planning major updates well into next year at least. In the more immediate term, fan demand meant that Hawkeye will be the first additional hero to join the roster.
Join the beta battle
If you want to try out Marvel's Avengers, Square Enix is running betas for the game each upcoming weekend in August, so you can try out a chunk for free before it launches on Sept. 4. Some of the weekends are restricted for people who've preordered on a certain platform:
- PS4 preorder beta: Aug. 7-9
- PS4 open beta: Aug. 14-16
- Xbox One, PC preorder beta: Aug. 14-16
- Open beta for all platforms: Aug. 21-23
Marvel fans and anyone looking for a little multiplayer chaos should definitely give it a go -- I'll certainly be jumping in again next weekend.