Within just the first five minutes of Marvel's Avengers' singleplayer campaign, you start to wonder where the beta went wrong.
In my writeup of the beta, which featured some elements of the story but mostly focused on testing and showing off multiplayer, I noted how the prognosis wasn't looking too good. While it was clear a lot of attention was paid to giving each hero a unique skill set (and with six heroes, that was a huge undertaking), there were elements missing from the story. Most of it focused on Kamala Khan and Bruce Banner coming together and teaming up, but besides a few moments of humanity between them, there wasn't enough there to make you think twice about the story.
However, now that I have an actual copy of the game in my hands (and a review will be incoming), I have to wonder why developer Crystal Dynamics and publisher Square Enix marketed the beta as they did. The first few minutes of the story has more power and establishes what's to come so much efficiently than anything in the beta. It's a sequence that features very few flashy superpowers, but manages to set up Kamala Khan as an empathetic protagonist, what the stakes are for the world in the game, and features more personality than anything presented in the beta.
In the first few minutes, you play as Kamala before she gets her Inhuman polymorph abilities. She's been invited to an Avengers celebration thanks to some award-winning fanfiction (just roll with it) and is walking around, looking at the different exhibits, playing games, and gathering comics. At one point, she engages with two kids who tell her she's not a real fan because none of the Avengers read her story. Then Captain America appears and is able to accurately remember her story about the team defeating sewer lizards. Black Widow shows up quickly after and is also able to recall Kamala's story. This is a wonderful moment because it not only sets up Kamala's love for this team, but also that a lot of what makes these heroes great is due to their innate kindness, not just because they have powers.
So when things go horribly wrong, and a Terrigen explosion affects a number of people who were at the event, which includes a lot of kids that were just Avengers fans, it feels especially bitter. Later, when Kamala meets Inhumans that were rescued from experiments led by George Tarleton (a.k.a. MODOK), they're all exhausted. Their Avengers failed them not just because of the explosion that rocked what became known as A-Day but because there was no support for them after a gas changed their lives. Kamala's motivations for getting the Avengers back together are good ones — who doesn't want to bring their favorite heroes together after they were set up— but they're not so black and white. People have legitimate reasons for hating the Avengers by this point, and Kamala doesn't know how to reconcile that.
Kamala is a great lead for an Avengers game. We all already know the stories of the main members of the team after a decade of very successful movies, so why not introduce somebody new? Kamala is well known among comic book fans, but outside of that world, most people might not know about this Pakistani-American Muslim superhero. How great would it have been to look at Marvel's Avengers not as an Avengers game, but as a superhero story starring a young woman of color? The game's narrative relies on Kamala being a multi-faceted character that grows as the story goes on, and for the most part, succeeds.
It's bewildering that in the marketing and beta for Marvel's Avengers, she is either completely absent or her role isn't made clear. She's one of the playable characters in the beta, but you get more time with the Hulk. While we also got a glimpse of Kamala and Bruce's budding father-daughter relationship, there wasn't a lot of emotional weight involved with much else. The developers did highlight the part Kamala plays in the plot in promotional material, but it's overall tough to see that Kamala is the main character and that this is, for the most part, her story.
Granted, a lot of the marketing and the beta was to promote the live service elements of the game. There's a multi-hour singleplayer campaign here, but what the developers want you to focus on is playing on Strike teams with friends and playing the stories of post-launch heroes as they come out (there are three announced, including Spider-Man as a PlayStation exclusive, but dataminers have found up to 15 other possible options). The strategy for selling this game doesn't revolve around this surprisingly strong story, but in getting players to pay for Challenge Cards — this game's version of a battle pass — and to spend money on cosmetics. This is a game Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix want you to keep playing long after its release on Sept. 4. It's similar to Anthem, which promoted itself on the strength of it being a live service with a strong narrative core but failed to deliver on either front.
But maybe it should have. What kept me going through my time with the singleplayer campaign is the strength of the writing and the layered, character-driven story. There's the combat, which is complicated but ultimately repetitive, especially as you encounter more of the same types of unnamed enemies. Where Marvel's Avengers shines is in how it differentiates the characters from each other and what they accomplish throughout the story. Beyond Kamala, you have Bruce, who is struggling both with his decision to help with the government's case against the Avengers and connected with other people, and Tony, who has to rebuild his Iron Man suit from scratch. Even Black Widow, who got no time in the beta to shine at all, has some great moments. Thor isn't in the story much, but he has a few comedic lines that got a chuckle out of me. This is a character-driven story above even being a co-op title, and I'm not sure if that's what the developers wanted.
Many critics playing the game this week have commented on how surprisingly strong the solo campaign is, so the pre-launch and beta endeavors feel like a missed opportunity. What would the anticipation have been like if Marvel's Avengers was up front about Kamala's role? Is it a testament to the strength of the writing team or a failure on the part of marketing? This might not be the best type of live service game, but it is a well-written adventure about a budding superhero and the veterans that have to understand where things went wrong. Maybe you should've just led with that?
Marvel's Avengers Standard Edition
Kamala Khan's first mainstream outing
This might not be the live service, co-op game you were hoping for, but if you're looking for a strong superhero narrative starring comics favorite Kamala Khan (and I guess the other Avengers too), then you should give Marvel's Avengers a shot.
"but as a superhero story starring a young woman of color? " cringe
This review was spot on until ethnicity/woman of color had to be pointed out then I just quit reading.. Leave it as it is a great lead character. The game tastefully incorporated who she was and her background without jamming it down peoples throat every 10 seconds like other games tend to do when it comes to appeasing the SJW culture.
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