Marvel’s Avengers was as plagued by buzz as it was inertia. Before the game released, it was defined by a chaotic din of muddy messaging, sky-high expectations, and that little thing called the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After launch, the conversation shifted: Would it become another success like Destiny, go the disappointing way of Anthem, or land somewhere in the middle? Six months later, here’s where things stand.
- In 2017, Square Enix announced a partnership with Marvel to make games based on Marvel franchises. Crystal Dynamics, hot off the Tomb Raider reboots, would lead development on a game based on Marvel’s enormously popular Avengers franchise. Eidos Montreal (Deus Ex: Mankind Divided) would pitch in.
- Crystal Dynamics pulled back the curtain on Marvel’s Avengers at Square Enix’s E3 2019 presentation, announcing a release date of May 15, 2020.
- About that demo. Fans noticed that something was...off. The five playable characters—Black Widow, Thor, The Hulk, Iron-Man, and Cap—bore a remarkable resemblance to their on-screen counterparts in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and even bantered like a bunch of Hollywood Chrises. It seemed a bit like Crystal Dynamics was trying to copy a facsimile of a fictional universe that already existed. Also, where was Hawkeye?
- At the 2019 New York Comic Con, Crystal Dynamics revealed that Kamala Khan (whom you may know as Ms. Marvel) would be the sixth playable character in Marvel’s Avengers. She’d turn out to be the driving force of the game’s narrative.
- Throughout much of 2019, it was clear that Marvel’s Avengers would be a single-player game with cooperative elements, and that it would have games-as-a-service elements, a la Destiny. The E3 presentation sure looked neat. But it wasn’t clear how, exactly, all the disparate parts would come together. A late-October video put things in startling clarity. Bring on that loot grind, baby!
- Two weeks into 2020, Square Enix delayed the game to September 4.
- As cities across the nation made moves to (finally) remove Confederate monuments, the official Marvel’s Avengers Twitter account posted a brief ad spot showing a defaced Captain America statue, flanked by drones flashing some very police-looking lights. The account quickly deleted the tweet and posted an apology.
- Ah, there’s Hawkeye! In July 2020, Crystal Dynamics revealed that Clint Barton, a.k.a. The Guy Who Totally Bailed On Infinity War, would be the first DLC hero for Marvel’s Avengers. A week later, Crystal Dynamics announced that Spider-Man would also join the roster—but only for the PlayStation version. Oh, yeah, and he’d be free. Console-exclusive DLC, folks: It sucks. It also doesn’t make any sense.
- Throughout August 2020, Crystal Dynamics held a series of open betas. Kotaku’s Mike Fahey gave the game a spin, but came away unimpressed, not quite inspired by the same-old-same-old combat and repetitive mission structure. Zipping around as Ms. Marvel and Iron-Man was pretty cool, though.
- Right before the game launched, one enterprising individual superimposed the actual faces of MCU actors onto the in-game models of Marvel’s Avengers. (Warning: Don’t click that link if you don’t want nightmares of the uncanny valley.)
- A third post-launch character! Crystal Dynamics announced that Kate Bishop, rather than Hawkeye, would be the game’s first post-launch hero. No hard feelings between mentor and mentee, right?
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- During a pre-launch stream, Crystal Dynamics hinted that Black Panther would also join the Marvel’s Avengers roster at some point. Following the tragic death of Chadwick Boseman, who portrayed the hero in the films, Crystal Dynamics altered the initial plans for that stream.
- Marvel’s Avengers officially released on September 4, 2020, but those who picked up the deluxe edition were able to play on September 1. With his hands on the full game, Kotaku’s Mike Fahey found himself more impressed than he was with the beta, chiefly because the game’s story missions—anchored by a scene-stealing Ms. Marvel—were creative, engaging, and a true delight for any longtime Marvel fan.
- The spectre of microtransactions, which have infringed on basically every live game to some degree, didn’t turn out nearly as intrusive as prospective players feared.
- The other big cloud hanging over Marvel’s Avengers before launch: “How bad is the grind?” That, too, didn’t turn out nearly as bad as many expected. Of course, with all of the various in-game currencies and level-up gauges, some level of watching-numbers-go-up was to be expected. But the campaign was, surprisingly, the focus, and you could play Marvel’s Avengers as a one-off single-player game. The grind was there—but only if you wanted it. What a pleasant surprise.
- Of course, those who wanted the grind quickly stumbled upon issues. Less than a week after launch, players in the endgame noticed that loot drops at the end of certain high-level missions sometimes dropped low-level gear or, worse, no gear at all—despite the fact that those same missions stood the chance of dropping top-tier gear. Crystal Dynamics acknowledged the issue about the loot drops and announced a fix, but noted that the highest-level items were dropping “as intended.”
- Marvel’s Avengers isn’t based on or even related to the Avengers movies. Easter eggs are fair game, though. In one of the game’s multiple hubs (more on that irksome design choice in a bit), players discovered a neat reference to Avengers: Age of Ultron. Who’s worthy now?
- The game was plagued with a raft of small issues, from poorly balanced combat to the occasional infinite load screen, but few things bugged players more than the computer-controlled teammates. Among other errs, AI Hulk, Cap, and co. would attack enemies when you needed a revive and would neglect to attack enemies when you were absolutely still alive. Earth’s Mightiest Heroes? Sure. Earth’s Smartest Heroes? No way.
- Crystal Dynamics dropped the first major patch for Marvel’s Avengers on a Friday evening in the middle of September. It addressed a bunch of those aforementioned small issues but did not change any of the more fundamental issues (specifically, a dearth of new content or engaging endgame activities).
- Then, crickets, for a while. As players maxed out rosters and endlessly replayed the endlessly replayable missions, enthusiasm for the game waned. In early October, more than a month after launch, the Steam playbase dipped below 2,000. Crystal Dynamics told Kotaku that the game would become exciting again, citing the then-upcoming releases of Kate Bishop, Hawkeye, and new mission types as examples of content coming to the content-starved game. Meanwhile, the most fun we were having by then was in an in-game chair.
- In mid-October, Crystal Dynamics dropped a second large patch. Much like the first one, it consisted almost entirely of quality-of-life tweaks. There was one big addition, though, with the inclusion of a new hub: the S.H.I.E.L.D. Substation. Beyond that, the patch also made it so factions weren’t relegated to specific hubs. (Prior to the update, if you wanted to collect one faction’s bounty, you’d have to load into one hub, collect all your assignments, load into the other hub, collect those assignments, and so on. The update made it so you could do all that busywork in one place. Sweet relief.)
- In October 2020, Crystal Dynamics delayed the Kate Bishop DLC from that month to an unspecified date. Further, the next-gen versions of the game, which were planned to launch alongside the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S in November, were pushed into 2021. Crystal Dynamics cited difficulties with a work-from-home framework as a reason for the delay.
- The Kate Bishop launched in early December with an Operation—that’s Marvel’s Avengers-speak for “main mission”—called, unforgivably, “Taking A.I.M.” The expansion was quite fun, at least for a little, thanks to an engaging, if brief, storyline and the sheer awesomeness of Kate’s powers.
- It took months, but, in December, Crystal Dynamics made it so Captain America could use his shield to refract Iron-Man’s laserbeam.
- Iron-Man received a suit that makes him look like a dead-eyed bug. It’s purely cosmetic—and just as terrifying as it is hilarious.
And there’s where things are at. Marvel’s Avengers no doubt generated more excitement in the weeks before it released than in the weeks after, but it’s not down for the count. On March 18, the Hawkeye DLC—which looks utterly bonkers—will come out, along with those next-gen versions. Consider, too, that there are more Marvel superheroes than grains of sand on Earth. That’s a bottomless well to draw on, and could serve as the basis for one seriously heroic comeback.
But these superhero stories always have a big bad, and for Avengers, it’s not M.O.D.O.K. or Thanos or some other purple-faced giant thumb. It’s the grind. When that Hawkeye expansion hits, the game’s grind will receive a major overhaul, switching from a linear experience-point system to an exponential one. It’ll kick in for all characters “around level 25”—the halfway point—which essentially does nothing but add more grind to the game. Crystal Dynamics explained the change by saying it could help “new players” acclimate to the game’s skill system. Now, all the game needs is those new players.