The powerhouse live-service action game has a lot to prove
What’s the deal with Marvel’s Avengers? That was one of the big questions going into E3 2019, and even after the reveal had run its course during Square Enix’s conference, many of us were still hazy.
On the surface, this first-look trailer was straightforward enough. It’s a big-budget game in which you play as the Avengers – in this case, Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, Black Widow, and Captain America through the lens of a Crystal Dynamics action-adventure romp. The hero designs aren’t quite gelling yet, and the footage was super bombastic, but yeah, sure, this project checks a lot of boxes for a hungry audience.
That’s not the whole picture, though. The Big Idea for Avengers is to create a living game – one that grows over time with new stories and characters and also supports multiple players teaming up to brawl with baddies. How does that pitch line up with the solo trailer we saw at E3? I wasn’t sure.
At E3, Square Enix hosted behind-closed-doors demonstrations of Avengers to help flesh out what we all saw in the public trailer. If you look closely, in between all of the cinematics, you’ll notice some HUD-less gameplay. Off the show floor, Crystal Dynamics connected these dots into a half-hour-long presentation. We saw a developer play the trailer’s stage-setting introductory level, which rotated control between the entire cast of heroes, one segment at a time. Everyone got their time to shine.
Thor called down storms and tossed Mjölnir as you’d expect. Iron Man soared over the Golden Gate Bridge, lighting up foes and dodge-rolling his way past endless exploding cars. Cap flung his shield and area-of-effect smashed some masked soldiers. Hulk – the highlight of the showcase – did Hulk things. He threw guys and crushed guys and slammed guys together, one in each meaty hand. Later, Hulk leapt around a crumbling bridge, wall-running across debris as needed. Black Widow took on Taskmaster in a dodge-heavy skirmish not unlike something you’d see in the Batman: Arkham series or even Spider-Man (PS4) – and it wasn’t a short fight! These individual segments bled into each other seamlessly.
Pre-release rough edges aside, it all looked big and exciting and slightly safe in the ways you’d expect from a game called Marvel’s Avengers. The demo showed health (it’s split up into chunks that can recover, to a point) and abilities (which run on cooldowns), but that was it for UI. There wasn’t a clear sense of what buttons were being pressed or how combos were being pulled off. That’ll come later.
For now, while the game is stuck on an early marketing beat, the team could only say so much. After our hands-off demo, I spoke to Noah Hughes, the studio creative director at Crystal Dynamics. With his insight and our ability to read between the lines, Marvel’s Avengers is finally coming into focus.
Every hero in the game will get the spotlight
“One of the more unique aspects to the game is that blend between cinematic, single-player storytelling and multiplayer, replayable experience,” Hughes explained. “In a level like [the A-Day stage from the debut trailer and E3 demo], the content is made specific to the heroes who are going to play that section. So this being an on-ramp to the world and the heroes, we’re switching [between who you’re playing as] more often than we would normally. It’s sort of a quick introduction to each.”
On that note, “One of the challenges for a game like this is you really want each of these heroes to be able to star in their own game. To feel like you’re the Hulk, you have to deliver on all aspects of that, and as a studio, we even had to push our engine – this is a full upgrade of our internal proprietary Foundation engine – and really that ability to focus on not only the traversal but the flight of the heroes, to combine ranged gameplay with a much deeper melee system than we’ve done in the past.”
“[Hulk] might be managing a crowd of enemies on the ground and Iron Man might be taking out some high-value targets in the air,” for example. “Creating that ability for each of those heroes to feel unique but then to be part of an Avengers experience – that’s one of the unique things about the Avengers is that it’s a team of superheroes, not just a [single] hero.”
How co-op play fits into the overarching structure
“As you go and reassemble the group, you’ll be unlocking your roster and playing levels as these heroes in any additional content,” according to Hughes. “We have sort of an action-adventure structure where you might have that main campaign, and then lots of additional missions that open up. In any of those missions, you can play co-op and you can choose which hero you play.”
“The campaign combines these hero-featured levels with these co-op levels that also you can play single-player as any hero you want, but I think a lot of people will enjoy teaming up with each other to take on these additional missions. So you basically have a base of operations from which you can progress your campaign or take on a number of escalating threats across the world.”
“One of the commitments [at Crystal Dynamics] is you level these heroes up and then there’s things to do that you can only do with these leveled-up heroes, but the co-op is actually first introduced in the campaign, so you will be sent on a mission, which is now a co-op-capable mission, and you can certainly choose to not match with people, but right in that campaign you’ll be matched with other Avengers in that moment. So you don’t actually have to leave the campaign in order to do co-op; you may occasionally have to do some single-player content to progress the campaign.
Taking the training wheels off after the opening
“The one other way to play [Avengers] is, as soon as you’ve gone through this introductory experience and introduced the world, you can jump straight into all co-op spoiler land. So when you play co-op in the campaign, we protect you from spoilers in that sense – even though you’re matching with other players, you’re probably matching with people who are at the same place in the campaign.”
“If you want to just jump in, play with everything unlocked, you can do that, and that’s something that sort of gets you straight to almost the end of the campaign. That’s what our hope is – you have players who normally will go through, experience the campaign and the growing of their roster and the leveling of the heroes, and then they’ll go on to take on some of that later-game content – but that doesn’t preclude you just saying ‘Don’t worry about spoilers, I just want to play co-op today.'”
Calling dibs on your hero of choice
“We’re currently limiting [hero selection in co-op] to one each. Part of that is just to feel that fantasy of being the Avengers, but part of it is celebrating the asymmetry of these heroes and saying it is actually more fun to have a diverse group, so it’s trying to cater to both a dynamic co-op experience and a feeling of assembling as a team.”
Open-world or open-ended?
“We don’t have a full open-world single-location approach, but we have a [range] of linear and non-linear spaces. Some of these spaces, it’s important that with Iron Man or Hulk that you could be flying around some of these open areas and finding things – that type of stuff.”
“Part of our hope was instead of making one giant location, [we’re] really selling that fiction of [the Avengers] defending the earth against its greatest threats and that those can happen in a number of different ways and in a number of different locations.” Further out, “it’ll be great to bring new heroes into the world and open new regions in the world and tell new stories in those regions.”
Endgame (and I don’t mean the movie)
“It’s not uncommon for an action-adventure game to sort of open up at the end. Our game really takes that action-adventure structure and just leans into the co-op and replayable experience, so you’re still playing within that narrative umbrella, but you’re able to team up and tell your own story as well. […] Our goal is to balance two things: looking forward to new content, whether that be story or gameplay or heroes, but also things that are endgame-style challenges.”
“Even though there’s a progression system, you’re starting with heroes. This isn’t an origin story of these characters. So we jump straight in, make sure you have core abilities – both move-based combos as well as special abilities – and then from there allow you to enhance those abilities or in some cases shift the focus of those abilities in different ways or add new moves that you have available to you.”
“I think it is through that sense of player choice and customization versus just pure escalation. Having said that, you kind of then create an arms race where now the enemies are more powerful and the players need to be more powerful. So it is important that even though they start as heroes, they deal with a continually escalating threat.”
Creating your own personal Avenger
According to Hughes, there are “three main facets of customization.”
- “We have a skill system with a skill tree, so as you level up the heroes, you’ll be making some choices, those choices sort of define how you want to progress through the tree as you go, but even when you fully unlocked all the skills there’s some choices that cater to a particular build of a hero. You may want to be a sturdier Hulk or a smashier Hulk for example.”
- “The second layer of customization is there’s gear and equipment slots, so that’s something you can find more and more powerful equipment that enhance the hero abilities themselves. A lot of what you’re doing is combining some of those skill choices with some of the great equipment that you’ve earned.”
- “The third layer is a visual customization layer. You can unlock outfits – some of our unlockables are inspired by fan favorites. You can have your lineup of heroes. It’s a little different in the sense that the gear doesn’t define your look, the outfit defines your look. You can rock whatever outfit you want but also dial in your build through the equipment, through things like armor inserts, tech augmentations, things like that.”
At least some of the alternate costumes are unlockable
“There are a number of outfits that you can unlock through gameplay. That is something that players can purchase as well. We’re committed to not having randomness in any of those purchases. We’re committed to that not being a gameplay advantage. This is for players to customize their own heroes.”
Who makes the cut?
“There’s sort of different quantity versus quality choices to make, and I think we’re not chasing quantity of heroes for quantity’s sake. For me, this is about every hero we introduce wants to bring you back to the game and invest you in that hero and that story and learning those moves.”
And how do they slot in?
“One of the goals of a lot of the content is to make sure that as new heroes come in, you can take on some of those existing challenges and then we’ll be announcing what kind of new content we may release alongside stuff as well.”
And where’s Hawkeye?
“We didn’t forget about Hawkeye.”
Collaborating with Marvel
“We worked really closely with Bill Rosemann who worked with the Spider-Man team as well, so he has experience working with game teams, and has just an encyclopedic knowledge of Marvel-ness.”
“We’re always taking inspiration from comics and movies and even just images, but not in a holistic way. You might find a familiar theme explored, or you might find a familiar setting, but we’re less likely to frame for frame retell a story.”
Long-term support and addressing fan feedback
“Part of why it’s important to explain the way we’ve approached [Avengers]: this game is different than other games that you’ve played in that sense. We love playing a Destiny or something like that. In the sense that we’re trying to solve a similar problem, we are doing it in a different way.”
“One of the things I love about the Avengers is this world is so big that each of these heroes can have their own story, and then they can all come together in these bigger stories. This game is bigger than just a campaign story. We’re committed to working with the fans. This is a ticket for a ride, it doesn’t stop at the end of the campaign, and we’ll work with you guys to make sure that’s the best experience that we can.”