When I first played Marvel’s Avengers, I thought it had a fun campaign and some great moments of escapism, but was hobbled by a repetitive, slow-paced endgame. Since then, I’ve put many additional hours into the game and changed my mind. Once your superhero is fully powered up — with the best Gear and all of his or her acquirable Skills — the game reaches a new height. Marvel’s Avengers became the game I wanted it to be, but I had to work for it.
There is an inherent narrative problem with designing a loot-based game around established, famous characters: the customisation is limited from the jump. Players aren’t choosing skills and gear tailored to their preferences so much as choosing the character that best exemplifies their playstyle. Choose Iron Man if you like to fight from a distance. Choose Hulk if you want to fight up close and personal. You could, in theory, try to make a melee-based Iron Man or a range-based Hulk, but since all of their unique upgrades correspond to their traditional strengths, the decision is pretty much made for you.
This isn’t a problem in a game like 2018’s Spider-Man, which focuses on a single iconic character. In that game I don’t want to subvert the established template of who Peter Parker is; the more he resembles a highlight reel of past glories and visual callbacks, the better. It’s fitting that players start the game with nearly every one of Spidey’s signature abilities. The upgrades merely enhance those abilities or use them as a jumpoff point for new ones.
I wanted the same thing in Avengers. Captain America, for instance, has 80 years of comics that flesh out his background and abilities, not to mention a multi-billion dollar Marvel Cinematic Universe. So when I selected Captain America, I wanted him to recreate my favourite scenes from Civil War and The Winter Soldier. I wanted to throw my vibranium Shield vertically. I wanted to kick my Shield into an opponent’s chest. I wanted to ricochet it off multiple enemies. I wanted it to reflect projectiles at the enemy who launched them.
But I quickly realised, in the first few hours I played as him, that Captain America could do none of those signature moves at first. His offence and defence were so thin that he could only take down one enemy at a time — two, if he was positioned properly. A crowd could beat him down with embarrassingly little effort. For me, this narrative dissonance reached its nadir when I played as Hulk. You’re a massive, green rage monster, but you’re getting your arse handed to you by a small band of robots.
To play as the Avengers we know and love — the ones who decimate enemies and live up to their reputation as “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” — you need to upgrade multiple skills trees and equip character-specific gear to further enhance those skills. For Captain America, you upgrade his shield to make it ricochet as a ranged attack; you can eventually target up to five enemies on a single throw. His Heroic Assault move can eventually target up to eight enemies, as I did in the clip below.
— Kevin Wong (@KevinJamesWong) September 30, 2020
Cap also has an Ultimate Heroic move called Brooklyn Brawler, which dramatically increases his damage output and allows him to perform multi-hit, short range Shield combos. The skill initially lasts for a short amount of time, but it can be upgraded to last longer. And eventually, you can use it almost indefinitely, once you equip gear that increases its charge rate. You’ll also spawn “Heroic Orbs” that boost your charge even further. Here’s a clip of me decimating an entire army of robots off a single Ultimate charge. I’m particularly proud of the Shield kick that takes out the final enemy.
— Kevin Wong (@KevinJamesWong) September 29, 2020
None of this would have been possible without hours of grinding, which meant these characters only felt the most fun to play at the end. The characters in their initial, non-upgraded forms didn’t just feel weak; they felt incomplete, as if the developers had stripped away some of their inherent abilities to give the grind some incentive and purpose.
Playing as this late-game Captain America build has been one of the most fun video game experiences I’ve had all year. I’ve been slowly upgrading the other Avengers as well. As you acquire more Skills, the characters’ mechanics and strategies become more pronounced from one another. My Hulk finally plays how I would expect him to play — like an invulnerable, melee-intensive beast. I upgraded and lengthened his Rage Metre, which allows him to regain health for any damage he causes. I also beefed up his Heroic Support move, which makes his attacks uninterruptible and his defence near impenetrable. Now, I can rip apart massive Dreadbots and Adaptoids with my bare hands. I can charge right through an enemy’s previously fatal ice beam and slam him into the ground. Now, I can enjoy hand-to-hand-combat without constantly eyeing my dwindling Rage Metre, wondering when my superpowers will run out on me.
I’m currently upgrading Iron Man. Out of all the Avengers, I found Iron Man the least fun to play as initially. He has three different types of projectiles, but they all feed off the exact same Intrinsic Power metre. Thus, I couldn’t seamlessly switch from Repulsors to Lasers to Missiles; a prolonged usage of one option drained the metre and prevented me from using the others. And forget about using defence or creating energy shields; I was pressed enough for Power as it was.
— Kevin Wong (@KevinJamesWong) October 14, 2020
After hours of play, I’ve upgraded the Intrinsic Power metre to be larger, and I’ve upgraded my projectiles to cost less energy. Now I can finally switch in and out of my different abilities without leaving myself defenseless, and Iron Man has become the Swiss army knife he was meant to be. In a single battle, I can shoot down the flying enemies with my Repulsors, then use my Lasers to take out the melee fighters, and lastly, use my Missiles to take out the big robot. I can use my Unibeam or my Hulk Buster armour if I need additional time for the metre to recharge. I’m always on the attack. And once I’m finished upgrading Iron Man, I still have Thor and Black Widow left to go.
Of course, it’s fun to play as a fully-powered up character in any game. New Game+ modes were invented to blow through whatever troubled us the first time around. But rather than making Avengers’ combat simpler or more straightforward, the upgraded Skills and Gear open up strategies and gameplay mechanics that were previously inaccessible. It’s like playing an entirely different, better game than you started with, one that feels more like being an actual superhero. It’ll take you hours, many of them repetitive, to get to that point. But take heart: Once you’re there, it will have been worth the effort.