Before this year’s E3, the annual video games event where publishers descend on Los Angeles to unveil and promote their wares for the next year and beyond, anticipation was high for Square Enix’s new Avengers game – an action-adventure for one to four players, in which you can fight as Hulk, Black Widow, Thor and plenty of others. In the year that Endgame grossed more than $2.7bn at the box office worldwide, surely not much could go wrong for a game proffering a personalised Marvel superhero fantasy.
As it turned out, however, the Avengers game’s big reveal fell rather flat (and was rather eclipsed by Keanu Reeves, who made a surprise appearance to reveal his top-secret cameo in the forthcoming Cyberpunk 2077 the day before). That is Iron Man, right? Why does he look nothing like Robert Downey Jr?
The Avengers characters in this online action-adventure game share absolutely no likeness with the ones we know from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In fact, they look a bit like I’ve tried to make them in The Sims 3. Black Widow’s hairstyle, colour and face are in theory in the right ballpark, but altogether just feel a little off. This is a hard barrier for fans when the MCU characters are arguably the best-known pop culture force on the planet.
Scot Amos, head of studio at developer Crystal Dynamics, told the Guardian that even he expects Marvel fans to struggle to adapt to his new-look Avengers. “I think it’ll take some time. I think [players] need to get their hands on it,” he says. “We understand that, because we’re in love with these characters as well.”
The new look for Marvel’s heroes is explained by the fact that this Avengers video game is not MCU canon: it will exist as its own, original Avengers universe. This suffers by comparison with rival blockbuster tie-in Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order from EA, which is closely linked to the Star Wars film universe (and was also shown off at E3). Developed together with Lucasfilm, the game’s story is canon, and characters resemble (and are voiced by) actors recognisable from the big screen – such as Forest Whitaker, who plays Saw Gerrera in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
On the other hand, freedom from the film franchise has its own advantages. Consider the possibilities of playing with a Marvel universe that isn’t hamstrung by messy licensing rules (Fox’s pre-Disney-takeover ownership of the X-Men, for example). Marvel’s Avengers is envisioned as an ongoing, long-term project, a “multi-game” partnership between Marvel and Square Enix for years to come, so perhaps there’s time to get used to the redesigned characters. New heroes, worlds and missions will be added in continuing updates, at no extra cost to players.
With so many characters expected to become part of the game in the future, it’s understandable that it would be too difficult or too expensive to have them all voiced by major Hollywood stars. If the game’s good, fans will forgive. Tom Holland didn’t feature in last year’s Marvel’s Spider-Man, developed by Insomniac Games and published by Sony, but it was still loved by Spidey fans and even picked up a few game-of-the-year accolades.
In developing this original Avengers plot, the Crystal Dynamics team worked with Marvel and with the comicbook authors who know these characters best. “They’ve been very successful at figuring out how to navigate where these heroes should go,” says Amos.
It begins as the Avengers are enjoying their own holiday in San Francisco, Avengers Day, when the Golden Gate bridge is attacked. Afterwards, the Avengers fall apart – a memorial shrine to Captain America is shown in the trailer – and the player’s task is to reassemble them. “The tragedy that happens on A Day is the spine of the story,” says Amos. “Along that path, as you unlock different heroes, the world then branches out.”
The reveal trailer is dramatic, cinematic and looks more like a trailer for a spinoff animated film than for a video game – although Amos insists that it’s “all captured in engine, there’s a lot of gameplay there”. I experienced how it plays behind closed doors at E3: the cutscenes seen in the trailer do appear as cinematic events in the demo, which weaves these moments and characters’ quips in between the playable action.
It’s a cinematic adventure, says Amos. “There are bespoke moments we will make and craft … but we also want people to have the ability to explore. We want those to feel like seamless transitions back and forth [between play and cinematics], all done in-engine, so everything feels like you’re in one story the entire time.”
Graphically, especially when compared with the likes of Final Fantasy VII Remake, Marvel’s Avengers is not exactly mind-blowing. But that can be forgiven when the game is still in development. Crystal Dynamics is careful to point out that the E3 gameplay demo is at the pre-alpha (very early) stage, which helps explain why Thor’s cape animation is looking a little rough in places.
More importantly, the play experience is fast and fun. I enjoyed throwing around cars as Thor while Tony Stark quipped in my ear, then having Hulk drop in from a plane to pick up a puny masked bad guy and fling him around as a weapon to beat other foes with. The game’s approach to multiplayer also sounds intriguing. As well as playing through a single-player cinematic campaign, you can assemble online with up to three of your friends.
Marvel’s Avengers has plenty of time to win people over: it’s due out on 15 May 2020, via Google Stadia, Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. There’ll be a beta test before then, too, offering players the chance to try it out. Perhaps, by then, the Endgame mania will have faded sufficiently for fans to be thirsting for something a little different.