Marvel’s Avengers isn’t out until May 15, 2020, but Square Enix has already encountered one big issue: struggling to bring clarity to what the game actually is. At E3 2019, a trailer and description of the game left a lot of people confused. Explaining that it featured a “bespoke campaign,” cooperative play, and additional heroes who are not the core members of the Avengers didn’t help matters. At Gamescom 2019, Square Enix provided a much closer, less muddy look at Marvel’s Avengers, and now we have a much better sense of what it is: Think Marvel’s Spider-Man meets Destiny, and you’re pretty close.
We played the opening 20 or so minutes of Avengers at Gamescom, which consisted of the prologue portion shown at both E3 and San Diego International Comic-Con 2019. The A-Day level, which introduces the story of a mentally anguished and disbanded Avengers team who are trying to deal with the loss of Captain America, isn’t anything new. But actually putting hands on Avengers really cleared up how the game will play on a moment-by-moment basis, and Square Enix’s presentation helped us to understand what the larger picture of Avengers looks like.
The A-Day level takes you through a cinematic battle on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, which is a fairly on-rails experience. As minions of Taskmaster attack the bridge, you take on the role of each of the Avengers in turn and get a sense for how they handle. The combat is mostly of the melee variety, and each Avenger has a light attack and heavy attack, as well as a quick dodge move that lets them get out of trouble. Incoming enemy attacks are marked with indicators on the screen to tell you when to move, and holding down the attack buttons triggers different versions of the attacks. In the case of Thor, your first character, holding down the light attack lets him spin his hammer around to pummel enemies with rapid hits, while holding down the heavy attack triggered a blast of lightning along the ground that could zap multiple enemies in front of him. If your character has a ranged ability, you can aim it by holding down the right trigger and fire it by hitting your attack button. Thor throws his hammer, Iron Man fires repulsor blasts, Cap hucks his shield, and so on.
You try out each of the characters on A-Day and get a sense of their strengths and weaknesses. Thor is great for crowd-control and dealing with groups of melee fighters, while Iron Man can hover over the battlefield and snipe away at more irritating enemies. Hulk is more or less a runaway train, picking up enemies and smashing them into each other to dispatch them quickly or leaping into the air for devastating impact attacks upon landing. Black Widow can whip a grapple at enemies to fling herself at them for melee combos, or fire away with a pair of handguns. And Cap’s shield means he can close distances on dangerous enemies and avoid their attacks.
The core combat of Avengers has the feel of something like Spider-Man or God of War. You have a handful of close-combat abilities, some ranged attacks, and some powerful “heroic” moves that charge up and let you unleash things like Hulk’s Sonic Clap or Iron Man’s Unibeam, rocking multiple enemies and dealing high damage. Everyone plays similarly enough that you can pick up any hero and go to work, with key differences based on their abilities and powers that make them all feel distinct.
Combat is satisfying thanks to the breadth of moves you have at your disposal. Avengers’ core combat encourages you to chain together moves to keep opponents off-balance. Walloping one guy with Thor’s hammer to send him flying before you throw Mjolnir at another and pin him to a truck has the same kind of tight fluidity as other big third-person action games. Each of the heroes has their own capabilities and requires a different style, adding variety to the fights. At least in the brief portion we played, Avengers did a pretty good job of making you feel you’re inhabiting one of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, complete with their unique set of powers.
The prologue ends with Black Widow taking on Taskmaster alone, in a fight that’s full of prompts for quick-time events as she dodges the villain’s jetpack-powered dives. It’s a cool fight in which Widow has to constantly change her tactics to deal with Taskmaster’s ability to adapt to her style, but relies largely on prompts, and thus feels tightly controlled. According to Rich Briggs, senior brand manager at Crystal Dynamics, the game will move away from QTEs soon after the prologue. The focus is still on making a cinematic, story-driven action game, but don’t expect anything as directed as what’s been shown so far. Briggs said players can expect big, open levels.
Once you’re through A-Day, Briggs said, Avengers opens up. The game consists of two kinds of missions: story missions that will be somewhat similar to A-Day, but focus on one hero at a time; and Warzones, which are looser missions that you can play with up to three other people cooperatively. Working through the story campaign has you re-assembling your Avengers team by convincing each hurt, broken hero to rejoin the team to face a new enemy: longtime Marvel evil corporation Advanced Idea Mechanics, or AIM. In the absence of the Avengers, AIM has stepped in with “advanced synthoid AI soldiers” to protect the world from superpowered people. Of course, AIM is evil, and there’s a conspiracy afoot the Avengers will need to unravel to stop the bad guys and their world-dominating ambitions.
Recruiting the characters returns them to a reclaimed helicarrier you’ll use as a base of operations, adding them to the team you can then take into more missions. They’re going to take some convincing, though. Tony Stark has withdrawn from the world because he feels he’s failed it; Thor abandoned Mjolnir at Cap’s memorial site and no longer feels worthy of fighting as a hero; Black Widow is back to her life as a lone-wolf spy; and Bruce Banner’s anguish has him trapped in a Hulk state, unable to revert to his human form.
As you progress through the narrative, you’ll unlock additional story and Warzone missions that you can choose to play at your own pace, which are spread across the globe. Briggs said all the missions will feed back into the narrative; completing a story mission might give you access to new Warzones, and finishing Warzones might in turn unlock more missions of both types.
But while story missions make up what Crystal Dynamics previously referred to as Avengers’ bespoke campaign, Warzone games take on more of an open-world flavor. Playable alone or in co-op, they’re a bit more generic in that they send you out to cool down conflict “hot spots,” but have less of a narrative hook. You can take any hero you’ve recruited into Warzones, and the missions are dynamic based on which heroes you bring along for the fight and what powers and abilities they have. All the missions include a Power level ranking number when you see them on the world map, which gives you a sense of what you’ll encounter–but you’ll also set your own difficulty levels for missions.
This is where Avengers starts to approach the more loot-focused live-game end of the spectrum. Completing missions helps you level up your heroes, which allows you to customize them using skill trees, unlocking new moves, abilities, and combos. Over time, your Tony Stark will become different from another player’s Tony Stark based on your choices. At the same time, you’ll also earn gear during your missions to outfit your heroes. Like in Destiny, Anthem, or Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, that gear comes in a variety of rarities, and the rarer it is, the more powerful it is. Briggs showed off some gear drops for Iron Man, including armor pieces that gave bonus perks to amp up some of his stats and abilities. You’ll also be able to grab complete sets of gear for additional bonuses.
Gear drops mostly come as mission rewards, and missions you take on tell you what kind of rewards you can expect for completing them so you can take on tougher challenges to chase better rewards. You can also expect some random drops as you play, though, and all the gear drops you receive will be specific to the character you’re playing–which sounds similar to Destiny and Anthem.
Your gear, skills, and decisions as you level up all work together to help you adjust your Avengers to match your playstyle for each hero. To customize how they look, you’ll use cosmetic items that range from both classic comic looks and new, original spins. Like in other live-service games, expect to earn some just through playing, while others you’ll purchase from Avengers’ marketplace. Cosmetics won’t affect how your heroes perform, but they’ll make them stand out more from other players’ heroes.
There are other elements in play we haven’t seen yet that further expand on the RPG-esque systems at work in Avengers. Briggs mentioned a resources system that Square Enix will explain further down the road. He also said that we can expect the story of Avengers to span years as new heroes and story missions are added along the way, all of which will be free. And we’ll also get more information about how the co-op experience works in early 2020, Briggs said, ahead of Avengers’ launch on May 15, 2020.