The opening moments of Square Enix’s and Crystal Dynamics’ Marvel’s Avengers honestly caught me a bit off guard. I was expecting to be shoved straight into the cataclysmic ‘A-Day’ attack on San Francisco which encompassed much of Square’s pre-release marketing, but the game took a different tact. Before I got to start blasting robots as Iron Man or kicking butt as Black Widow, I spent my first 20 minutes or so wandering the halls of a fictional Avengers-themed fan event as an overly-enthused kid named Kamala Khan.

Ms. Khan, as fans of both Marvel Comics and the new Marvel’s Avengers game, know, eventually grows up to become the polymorphing (and playable) hero Ms. Marvel, but this was before all that. During the game’s opening sequence, Kamala Khan is just a really big comic fan who’s clearly enjoying the opportunity to meet some of her heroes in the flesh. This initial time spent with Kamala was kept out of Marvel’s Avengers’ pre-launch marketing, which is both a shame considering how charming it is, but also a devilishly clever tactic on Crystal Dynamics’ part.

Even before she becomes a superhero in her own right, Kamala’s peppy enthusiasm is infectious, and it’s her personal journey from wayward teenager to full-on Avenger that gives the game’s story campaign the heroic heart it needed.

Battling the forces of evil as Captain America, Thor, Hulk, and the rest of the Avengers crew can be fun, especially if you’ve got some friends to recruit. But without Kamala’s grounding presence to center it, I doubt Marvel’s Avengers’ narrative and gameplay components would make as big an impact as I’m guessing they will when the general public gets their hands on it.

Some Assembly Required

Marvel’s Avengers’ story campaign, which takes roughly 7-10 hours to wrap up depending on how much time you devote to chasing side content, plays it safe for the most part. The player gets to control each member of the core Avengers roster at one point or another, and most of the campaign’s big story twists and reveals can be seen coming from a mile away. Still, there’s enough excitement, witty banter, and epic heroism to make up for whatever shortcomings the game’s narrative has, and again, you can’t help but get swept up into the pageantry whenever Kamala takes center stage.

To ensure Marvel’s Avengers’ longevity, Crystal Dynamics has worked in a series of “games as service”-style progression and unlock systems (including microtransaction-fueled cosmetic unlocks), but such systems don’t affect the story campaign too much.

While working through the campaign, all the player needs to worry about is equipping gear with the highest numbers and unlocking new active and passive skills as they level each hero up. It isn’t until after the main campaign has ended that the true breadth of the game opens up…and grinding for better gear becomes the player’s top priority.

Mighty Armaments

To be clear, Marvel’s Avengers doesn’t suddenly transform into a grindy gear mill the moment the campaign is over, but players who want to reach the upper echelons of the game’s content portfolio will be expected to work for it. When I finished the story campaign, my heroes were all in the 6-11 level range (Thor was only level 2 since I didn’t use him very often and in single-player heroes only level up when you’re the one controlling them). In regards to power level, my most advanced hero was also hovering somewhere around power level 20, a far cry from the 150 power level cap.

With the story campaign finished, players transition over to the ‘Avengers Initiative,’ a blanket term referring to the various “War Zones” that make up the game’s post-launch content offerings. Through solo or co-op play, players utilize these various War Zone mission types to keep leveling up their heroes and obtaining better gear either via in-mission drops or through faction vendors. The level cap for each hero is technically level 50, but you only have to get a hero up to around level 15-20 before all of their core attacks and skills are unlocked.

To Crystal Dynamics’ credit, there are a lot of different War Zone mission types to experience. Iconic Missions offer more narrative-driven adventures focusing on specific heroes whereas Faction Missions, Hives, and Vaults encompass standardized challenges and puzzles where the full Avengers team can flex their might. There are even more bite-sized mission types such as HARM Room challenges and quick Drop Zone missions for when your super-heroic second life has a strict real-life time limit.

Players who put in the time to properly upgrade their heroes can even take on advanced endgame challenges such as Villain Sectors, Mega Hives, and unique AIM Secret Lab boss battles. These advanced mission types give dedicated players clear goals to chase, but they’re not the only avenue endgame players can go down. If you’d rather focus on making your heroic team look as cool as possible, that’s a worthy endgame pursuit as well.

Heroic Aspirations

If you want to look the part of a superhero, purchasing cosmetics through microtransactions is thankfully not your only option. Mission drops and rewards also sometimes include fabrication blueprints that can be decrypted into random cosmetic items, and certain faction vendors also focus specifically on cosmetic items that can be purchased with in-game resources.

While all of Marvel’s Avengers’ heroes are fun to play as in their own right, sticking with a specific hero also isn’t a bad call since it allows you to focus on their unique Challenge Card. Hero Challenge Cards function as a sort of hero-specific mini-battle pass where the player can earn points by completing daily and weekly objectives with that hero. Leveling up a Challenge Card grants cosmetic items like costumes, emotes, takedowns, and nameplates, and at certain ranks, you’ll even earn credits for use in the microtransactions marketplace.

Some gamers will likely turn their noses up at all of these games-as-service components being woven into what’s supposed to be a story-driven experience, but it’s clear that Crystal Dynamics worked hard to make such elements as unobtrusive as possible.

The game never pesters you with special marketplace deals or unique one-time offers (at least for now), and there’s plenty that can be unlocked simply by playing (unlike most other battle passes, there’s no expiration date for Hero Challenge Cards). The power level range of available missions is also super flexible, meaning players will always have multiple options and won’t ever feel pressured to grind so they can experience “the full game.”

Dynamic Potential

Marvel’s Avengers admittedly isn’t without its issues. I encountered some minor graphical and UI-based hiccups during my playthrough such as stuttering animations, clipping, and menu buttons that occasionally wouldn’t activate when I clicked on them. I imagine such issues will be largely (if not entirely) patched out with a day-one patch, but I doubt the campaign’s occasionally odd pacing will fare as well.

There were certain moments during the campaign where I could tell the Marvel’s Avengers writing team felt a little rushed. Moments that one would consider to be major narrative milestones, like Kamala getting her powers or Dr. George Tarleton embracing his villainous alter-ego M.O.D.O.K., are given such little fanfare you’d be forgiven for thinking you accidentally skipped a cutscene. Such jarring oversights don’t derail the game’s story completely, but they make it painfully obvious that Crystal Dynamics had to cut a few corners to meet development deadlines.

Thankfully, the slightly uneven presentation of Marvel’s Avengers’ base campaign is bolstered by the strong post-launch potential the game already has. Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics have already started teasing what the future has in store for their heroic new game, a future which includes new narrative arcs, mission, and enemy types, and, of course, playable heroes. This new content will start rolling out as early as next month, and the base story campaign does tease a few clues as to what players can expect.

Despite all the FOMO scare-mongering that’s normally attached to the games-as-service model, the best way to experience Marvel’s Avengers is by taking a slow and steady gait, and if you’re able, bringing a few friends along for the ride. The game shines brightest when played as a full co-op experience where the focus is on having fun and not on incessantly grinding.

Crystal Dynamics clearly plans to support Marvel’s Avengers over the long haul, so there’s really no rush in building up your own mighty roster of customized Avengers, either alone or with other players. Marvel’s Avengers may technically be a games-as-service title wrapped in narrative-driven packaging, but it’s also an excellent example of games-as-service which puts player interests first. The only thing more exciting than the base game’s strong showing is the prospect of how it will keep expanding over the coming months and maybe even years.