At Gamescom 2019 we finally got our chance to see a decent chunk of Marvel's Avengers gameplay, and it seems some of our fears weren't unfounded.
From its announcement until last night, we'd been told a lot about Crystal Dynamics and Eidos Montreal's superhero brawler. It's like Destiny. You can play with your friends. It's a co-op game with years of planned updates. Captain America's dead. Nolan North is Iron Man. The Avengers have disbanded. You can buy alternate costumes as DLC. It's going to be on Google Stadia. All of which is well and good and pretty standard for a game's hype period roll-up. But it doesn't really mean anything when we still don't know what the gameplay is like.
So it was with some mix of excitement and trepidation (mostly fueled by the plastic sheen on Cap's face above) that we watched on as Marvel's Avengers revealed itself to us last night in a slick prologue gameplay walkthrough. We'll start with a basic assessment that probably could have been made before we watched it: it's a superhero game. It's clear Crystal Dynamics and Eidos have done their homework here, there are elements in the combat system from Arkham, from Insomniac's Spider-Man (PS4™), from God of War (PS4™), from any number of games where we're supposed to believe a god-like being can take on any number of minions but also still take damage from them.
You have your standard-issue disposable enemies: the gun guy, the electrically-enhanced fist-punch guy, the shield guy that your normal attacks won't work on so you need to use an alternate attack, the flying gun guy who is the gun guy but harder to punch. They're all in here, like a greatest hits yearbook. The gameplay of Thor taking on a wave of each of them might as well be copied and pasted three or four more times for the other playable characters, they always pop out in the same order, but such is the risk of showing off your prologue mission.
A lot of what we saw to gripe about hinges on a lot of the decisions that make this a run-of-the-mill tutorial level. While the minions seem basic on their own, you may, later on in the game, be expected to deal with various combinations of them that amp up the challenge. Whether or not that challenge will be fun depends on the versatility of each character's moveset. There's what looks like a couple of different ranged attacks for each, with super-charged variants such as Thor's ability to call down a thunderstorm on the entire area. The skill trees promised for later in the game might give you some fun loadouts to clobber the cannon fodder with, but hopefully the enemy design ups its game significantly from these ten-a-penny military ragdolls.
The balance between making the player feel as powerful as their perception of the character they're playing is definitely going to be one of the team's most difficult hurdles. In the Gamescom gameplay we see Hulk, whom we know as potentially one of the strongest beings in the entire universe after watching Infinity War, having to wait until after a battle sequence is over to bust through a bit of reinforced concrete blocking his path. And when Iron Man takes to the skies to shoot down some Flying Gun Guys, he's locked to a curiously strict predetermined flight path, as if he's worried about getting an irate call from San Francisco International's air traffic control tower. This gave it the impression of an on-rails shooter, with all the freedom of Ace Combat or a 90s shmup, rather than the power fantasy of pulling a loop and firing your palm cannons into anything that flies.
Again, we're very aware that what we're watching is an introductory spectacle. An opening sequence for what is promising to be a grand adventure with pop culture's most action-packed super squad. There are plenty of on-rails flying segments after Black Widow jumps onto Taskmaster's jetpack that feature all the trappings of a Michael Bay blockbuster. Tapping button prompts while tanks fire shells and trucks drop inches in front of you is par for the course in manufacturing that Hollywood Feel. But what isn't going to carry that feeling over is the quality of the writing.
Taskmaster's sole introductory line is: "Romanov! From one former S.H.I.E.L.D Agent to another: keep up!" There's just so little time to cram in character relations that it comes off as incredibly forced. Nathan Drake's mid-combat quips do very little to liven up Hulk's corridor-running segment, and by the time we get to the inevitable 1v1 showdown with Taskmaster, the only voice line that lands deeper than the rest of the background noise is Black Widow shouting "It's called unoriginal!" It sure is, Natasha. It sure is.
Marvel's Avengers' Gamescom gameplay isn't the complete car crash that it depicts on the Golden Gate bridge, nor is it the reassurance many were looking for after ropey voice acting and CG faces in previous trailers. It's a game that is very much still on the rails, for better and for worse.