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Why Marvel's Avengers could evolve into my 2021 game of the year

Commentary: This game's Ms. Marvel-centric campaign is engaging and fun, even if repetitive multiplayer elements and occasional glitches sour the overall experience.

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Black Widow and an embiggened Kamala Khan battle the forces of AIM in Marvel's Avengers.

Square Enix/Screenshot by Sean Keane/CNET

Within minutes of starting Marvel's Avengers' campaign, I breathed a sigh of relief. The sense of fun Kamala Khan (AKA Ms. Marvel) gave last month's beta was immediately apparent and I quickly got swept up in Crystal Dynamics' take on Earth's Mightiest Heroes. It may not be part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it doesn't feel as different as the game's E3 2019 reveal suggested it'd be.

The sense of reassurance came from the game's emotionally engaging introduction, which sees a young Kamala connecting with the Avengers one by one. Her first encounter with Captain America, just after she quotes an iconic line from the Civil War movie and comic arc, is particularly touching and highlights the developers' deep love for the universe.

Read more: The secret Avengers video game the world never got to play

Telling a Marvel story

In the early chapters of Marvel's Avengers, you mostly play as Kamala, taking advantage of her superstretchy polymorphic abilities, as she navigates the rooftops of her native Jersey City and then a decommissioned helicarrier (which later becomes your base). These sequences feel straight out of one of the modern Tomb Raider games -- also developed by Crystal Dynamics -- with stretchy arms adding a super-powered twist to traversal. Some of the quick time events (QTEs) and obviously scripted moments feel mechanical, but it's still fun to explore these areas.

After you encounter a down-on-his-luck Bruce Banner and go on the first team mission with the Hulk, the game's Marvel Ultimate Alliance-style squad elements become apparent. Throughout the rest of the campaign and beyond, you'll fight endless hordes of AIM robots -- there's some variety in how you have to fight different units, but they're visually repetitive. The game also suffers from a lack of supervillains; there are a total of four in the game at launch. Given the legion of incredible villains from Marvel's 81-year history, it's disappointing that you don't see a wider assortment of baddies as the story progresses.

The campaign lasts 12 to 15 hours if you focus on the main missions -- it's a brisk cinematic ride that'll satisfy anyone who's even mildly invested in super heroics and set you up or the postgame elements.

Reuniting the band

After the early missions as Kamala, you'll be forced to play as different Avengers as you recruit them -- Iron Man, Black Widow and Thor are all re-introduced in suitably spectacular moments. It's nice to get a taste of each, but I was happiest when I could choose who I wanted to play as. Leveling up Kamala and learning her combos added satisfying depth to combat. 

If you're not sure which hero you want to focus on in the post-campaign content, you should definitely play the HARM training missions that unlock as recruit them. Everyone feels completely different, and the short training sessions will teach you how to apply Black's Widow's Veil of Shadows invisibility and Hulk's Rage -- he's more technical than you'd expect. If you just button-mash your way through the game, it'll be a dull, frustrating experience.

Read more: Marvel's Avengers: Which Hero Is Right For You? 

Seeing the helicarrier come back to life as you recruit characters creates a fun hub to wander around, but it also highlights the game's weak live service elements; a bunch of faction vendors start offering gear that rotates periodically and it's a bit overwhelming at first.

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Iron Man has plenty of weapons to choose from, but I liked his rockets most.

Square Enix/Screenshot by Sean Keane/CNET

There are a bunch of different currencies to gather and perks to choose between, but I didn't feel compelled to do so. Using the best gear I came across naturally was more than enough to get me through the story -- maxing out my characters at every turn would have slowed the pace too much.

I also encountered a few disruptive glitches -- a frustrating musical loop didn't right itself until I went into the next area, and a chest-opening button prompt similarly remained on the screen. Not disastrous, but thinking I'd have to reset the game to get rid of them utterly broke my immersion. Those were also plenty of odd graphical glitches and the loading into a mission took a little too long. Otherwise, it ran pretty smoothly on my base PS4.

Keep on Assembling

Diving into the Avengers Initiative co-op multiplayer -- you can team up with up to three friends -- adds a whole new dimension to the experience. However, it's best left until after you've finished the campaign, as evidenced by the great big SPOILER warning you'll get the first time you choose it in the menu. 

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A young Kamala is awed by her heroes, and it's delightful.

Square Enix/Screenshot by Sean Keane/CNET

I assumed that the post-campaign content would be devoid of any narrative, but was pleasantly surprised to discover that it ties into the story (mostly through voice acting rather than full-blown cutscenes). It isn't nearly as engaging as the campaign's story, but expands this version of the Marvel universe a bit more.

Read more: Marvel's Avengers endgame guide and tips

Unfortunately, it's offset by the repetitive nature of the missions. You'll go through a bunch of near-identical enemy bases and complete the same objectives; AIM apparently has a lot of servers that need hacking or destroying. It can make you question how much actual progress you're making -- more than once, I wondered if I'd accidentally replayed a mission instead of picking a new one. 

If you dive into this part of the game, multiplayer is definitely the way to go -- your CPU allies are so unfocused that they feel a bit useless. Playing with random people online is more fun than going solo, but teaming up with a trio of friends is the best way to play. Planning out a mission and maximizing your team's strengths makes everything more satisfying, though you'll likely get fed up with the tedious tasks before too long.

For those concerned about the game's microtransactions, they're pretty mild and limited to cosmetic items like costumes, emotes and nameplates for character profiles. You can buy in-game credits with real money or earn a limited amount through rotating challenges like killing a certain type of enemy or completing a particular mission -- the latter option is slower, but will unlock many of the items on offer.

Read more: GameSpot's early Marvel's Avengers review impressions

Playing the the long game

Since Crystal Dynamics has revealed ambitious plans for adding new characters for free -- Kate Bishop Hawkeye, Clint Barton Hawkeye and the PlayStation exclusive Spider-Man are confirmed, with a bunch of unrevealed characters coming too -- it's clear that Avengers will evolve massively over the next year or so (PS4 and Xbox One owners you also get a free upgrade to the PS5 and Xbox Series X versions). Each of those characters will come with a new villain, addressing one of the repetitive elements. If the developers add a wider variety of missions and patch the various glitches, it'll feel so much more complete.

At launch, Avengers is a fun, messy first draft. There's enough in the campaign to satisfy your immediate hankering for Marvel, but the other elements are unlikely to hold your attention for long. So it's an iffy Age of Ultron for the moment, but a few months of updates and tweaks could bring it closer to an epic Endgame

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