Hands-on: Marvel’s Avengers is a jack-of-all-powers, master of none

Based on its beta, Marvel’s Avengers is a tale of two different experiences, depending on whether or not you are playing it alone or with other players. It attempts to straddle the line between a AAA cinematic single player action ensemble and the Destiny-style games-as-a-service lootfest, mostly succeeding in both aspects but not without some major concessions in the process.

Not All Heroes Are Created Equal

I had the chance to check out the closed beta for Marvel’s Avengers, playing the same content that will be used in the private, pre-orders only beta as well as the open one later in August. The preview kicked off with the first level of the game, a bombastic film-like setpiece that included tons of explosives, high stakes, and bad guys to take down.

This is how the launch game will begin, with players taking on the role of five beloved superheroes one at a time as they try to stop some villains from disrupting A-Day, a holiday meant to celebrate the Avengers. The celebrations (and eventual destruction) happen in San Francisco, offering players the chance to test out Thor, Hulk, Captain America, Iron Man, and Black Widow in a glorified tutorial mission.

This is the same level that was used to reveal the first gameplay, so it was a familiar setting when I jumped in. The problem with this initial level was that it wasn’t indicative in the slightest of what the overall experience would be, both a positive and negative thing.

The level began with Thor, introducing me to his thunder and hammer powers as I swung Mjolnir around at powerless enemies. This was my only time with him during the beta, as he wasn’t playable past this point, but he remains my favorite hero from the preview.

The basic gameplay in Avengers is mashing the light and heavy attacks to deal the standard combos you see in other games, and this was the same with Thor and the other heroes. In addition to that, you can hold down the left trigger to aim and then use the right one to throw his hammer at enemies in true God of War fashion.

While it wasn’t quite as responsive or impactful as Kratos’ Leviathan Axe since you have to hold down the left trigger for some reason, it is still my favorite mechanic even with the little time I spent with it. That said, Thor, like the rest of the heroes, doesn’t come without his fair share of issues. I wasn’t able to fly as the God of Thunder during this level, severely limiting his possibilities.

The other Avenger that I played in the opening level that wasn’t available later on was Captain America who was also one of my favorites from the brief time with him. Steve Rogers has a heavy emphasis on melee attacks using his shield and fists but takes a cue from Thor in his ability to throw his shield from far away.

Unlike Thor, though, this mechanic is more reliable using Captain America’s shield, as it comes back automatically without having to pull the trigger again for it to return. These two were standout characters, so it was unfortunate that I couldn’t play them more outside of this level.

In fact, the tutorial only highlighted the issues with Hulk, Iron Man, and Black Widow, which required me to spend a lot more time with them to get a feel for their actual styles. Thankfully, the beta skipped after the opening level to a story mission with the Hulk and Ms. Marvel that did so for Hulk.

The cinematic action level at the start couldn’t be more different from this mission, as the Hulk and Ms. Marvel investigated a facility hidden in the Pacific Northwest. This mission allowed for the actual story of the game to appear, as Bruce Banner and Kamala Khan had quieter moments sprinkled throughout where they could have witty banter and reflect on everything that’s going on in the world.

While the writing wasn’t spectacular and the stiff facial animations in cutscenes weren't impressive, it did have the cheesy comic book feel to it that, at the very least, drew out a smile or two from me. The bulk of the mission featured me playing as the Hulk, smashing my way through the facility and all of the enemies there in a rather linear fashion.

It was here that Hulk’s strengths came out: causing absolute chaos and destroying everything in his path. Each of the Avengers has three core abilities that you can use in addition to the normal melee and ranged attack, and the Hulk’s skills all lend themselves to his destructive nature with charging at enemies, activating his rage, and soon.

In many ways, Hulk can act as a tank of sorts for the group, keeping everyone’s eyes on him. The problem, though, is that the core abilities felt underutilized in the beta. Even though missions could last anywhere between 10-30 minutes, I only used all three abilities once or twice each since it takes so long to charge them.

About halfway through the mission with Hulk and Ms. Marvel, I had the chance to play as Kamala Khan. She ended up being one of the most surprising characters due to her stretchy limbs. In an interesting twist, she almost feels like Spider-Man as you can swing her limbs to grab ledges and zip around the map. The mobility of her more than made up for her otherwise lackluster abilities.

The Avengers Aren’t Meant to Be Alone

When I finally got to the end of the Hulk and Ms. Marvel mission, there was a boss fight. Playing as Hulk, this is the only spot where I truly enjoyed playing by myself. While I won’t go into spoilers, a familiar face showed up here, leading to a classic hero and villain clash.

The boss fight was challenging, unlike the mostly cut-and-paste normal baddies, having several phases to it. Counters, parries, and dodges were almost required here, as I had to use the environment around me to assist in combat while also watching out for area-of-effect attacks.

But the boss fight highlighted a major issue with Marvel’s Avengers: it isn’t that fun to play alone. For a game that is touted as having a story campaign, it isn’t one that I enjoyed by myself from the handful of missions I did. Instead, this game is at its best online and cooperatively.

Sure, the game will fill your party with AI companions when on your own, but they weren’t too helpful in combat and certainly not so in objectives. After finishing the main story missions in the beta, the map opened up and I could do Drop Zones and War Zones alone or with other players.

I encountered some major connection issues from here, as every party that I tried to join would kick me out of the game entirely. This was eventually resolved through a workaround of inviting someone to play with me, which fixed matchmaking in general, but it’s worth keeping this in mind if you check out the beta.

I was glad I went through the trouble of getting online to work, as playing with other Avengers was the best time I had. No matter what I was doing, I was having fun with random strangers online as I would fly around as Iron Man while they destroyed everything as Hulk or swung around as Ms. Marvel. We could coordinate, emphasizing what makes each character different like me scouting ahead and taking out aerial enemies while the rest of the team focused on the ground.

Flying around as Iron Man takes some getting used to since the camera works against you, for the most part. Even with the lock-on feature, I found myself looking at walls while shooting blasts at someone unseen behind me. But even still, there was some enjoyment in making our team’s abilities work together.

Many of the missions include points that you must capture where you battle against enemies also trying to capture it. This was problematic on my own with an AI party, but with other players, it was exciting as we could each pick a point and defend it.

Without a doubt, Marvel’s Avengers is meant to be played as a team with friends online. It would be one thing if you could switch between your party members when playing solo, but that isn’t the case. It remains to be seen just how much content Avengers will have when it launches, but as long as varied missions and a strong loot cycle is there, it looks to be a solid, fun, and flawed experience.