Like a lot of people around this time of year, I spend a lot of October thinking about being frightened. This is pretty new for me. I was a nervous, fearful kid who grew up as a teen in a religious home, so I spent my entire youth avoiding horror either by choice or by compulsion. As an adult, I’ve started to delve into horror, to wrestle with its ideas and the fears of my younger self—watching movies and playing games both new and old, reflecting on what scared me then and what scares me now.
One of the first games to scare me wasn’t even a horror game at all. It was Spider-Man vs. The Kingpin, a 1991 Sega Genesis game that had Spider-Man, framed for planting a bomb in New York City, on a mission to hunt down some of his most famous villains in order to get the keys necessary to disarm the bomb.
Unlike a lot of superhero games of the ‘90s, Spider-Man vs. The Kingpin wasn’t a loud beat-em-up or a colorful platformer—it was moody, and dedicated to being as faithful an adaptation as a 16-bit video game could be. Character models were remarkably detailed, and illustrated stills that were shown between levels strove for comic book fidelity. It’s soundtrack was spare and brooding, and its animations had real weight.
I loved the game, because I loved Spider-Man. But I could never get past the second level, down in the sewers, because I was terrified of the Lizard, and always shut the console off when he appeared.
Looking back, the Lizard isn’t that fearsome-looking—the character model for Doctor Octopus is far more imposing—but it worked. I quit every time. I would quit even faster when I tried to play the game on Nightmare difficulty. That added Venom to the first stage, which scared me even more.
It’s funny that I kept trying to play this game when there were only about 15 minutes tops I could spend actually enjoying it. I suppose I wanted to try, if only for a little bit, to be as brave as I thought I had to be in order to be a hero, hoping maybe one day that I would wake up and somehow discover that courage grew in me overnight.
I don’t frighten like I used to, but that chill I felt when I pushed myself to take on something I knew would scare me, the chill that I always succumbed to because I wasn’t as brave as I wanted to be? I’m always afraid it’ll come back.
Aside from a quickly-squashed leak, it hasn’t been possible to see the E3 2019 gameplay demo for Crystal Dynamics’ upcoming Marvels’ Avengers game. That would be the intro level that E3 attendees said was somewhat more encouraging than the game’s maligned E3 trailer.
Today, because the marketing plan demanded it, we can finally all watch the level in action. The 18-minute segment shows off what it’s like to control Thor, the Incredible Hulk, Captain America, Iron Man and Black Widow. It doesn’t show how the game will actually play out once it gets going, because this opening level is all tutorial.
People who are expecting the Avengers to sound like their Marvel Cinematic Universe versions are going to be disappointed or weirded out. And anyone looking for glimpses of the game’s online gameplay or even just a glimpse of how the game is structured and flows won’t find that in the demo. But at least we’re catching up to what select E3 attendees saw at a theater demo in June.
Crystal Dynamics is a highly regarded studio that has made numerous critically acclaimed and commercially successful Tomb Raider games. Odds are they have some smart ideas and an interesting project on their hands, but such is the manner in which big-budget games are rolled out that we’ll only find out about it officially one drip at a time: an E3 trailer and behind-closed-doors demo, a Comic-Con panel, a Gamescom demo unveiling and so on.
A post like this inevitably serves that cause as well, for better or worse, but at least now people can see more of the game and judge it a little better for themselves. There will be more dripfeed for this game up through its May 2020 launch. Hopefully one of those finally clarifies what this game actually is and helps its audience better understand what its developers are no doubt working very hard to make.
This month, nearly a decade to the month after the release of its predecessor, Nintendo released Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3, a return to the beloved ARPG Marvel gaming series that takes comic book crossover mania to a team-based beat ‘em up conclusion. But it also serves as a reminder that…god, things were so different back when Ultimate Alliance 2 was coming out, weren’t they?
In September 2009, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was still just a glimmer in Kevin Feige’s eye. We had accepted that upstart newcomers Marvel Studios might be on to something with the release of Iron Man the year prior (who would’ve thought that gamble casting Robert Downey Jr. as some B-tier comics character would pay off?), and at that point, only what is still the green-skinned stepchild of the MCU, Incredible Hulk, had joined it. The First Avenger, Thor, Iron Man 2, they had all yet to come—and above all, no one going to a movie theater outside of comic book diehards knew what an Infinity Stone was. There were murmurs of the Avengers, sure, after Samuel L. Jackson made us sit in a movie theater a little longer than we were used to (the audacity!). But Thanos? A gauntlet? Nada.
We also had the release of Vicarious Visions’ Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2, which unlike all those lame-looking superhero movies we were being inundated with in the ‘00s, looked kind great. The follow up to a surprise 2006 hit and an adaptation of the then-recent comics event superseriesCivil War, Ultimate Alliance 2 presented an intriguingly gamified take on a blockbuster storyline: Superhero vs. Superhero! Privacy vs. Protection! That Guy you kind of know from a movie but he’s weirdly even more of a giant asshole vs. that guy with a shield they’re thinking of casting Jim from The Office as!
MUA2 was an unfiltered window into the world of Marvel’s comic book output as it was directly in 2009 which, in the context of everything has happened since, becomes a fascinating time capsule to reminisce over. It was a time when X-Men and Fantastic Four icons could stand alongside the Avengers and no one would bat an eye, because that’s just what happens in comics. A time when no one knew what an Infinity Stone was. And they were Infinity Gems, if you did.
In June 2019, by contrast, we were coming off the back of the release of something as bonkers asAvengers: Endgame. Over a decade and nearly two-dozen movies, the Infinity Stones haven’t just become part of pop culture lexicon at large, they have been gathered, used, re-gathered, and re-used. Thanos lived, rose up, and now died (twice, technically!), long live Thanos. So has Tony Stark, although the large shadow he cast over the MCU that Iron Man helped create all those years ago will continue to linger without him, thanks to the indomitable legacy of Robert Downey Jr.
At last, the cinematic version of the Infinity Saga is at an end—and here stands Nintendo and Team Ninja with Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3. Which is…a quest. To gather the Infinity Stones. And stop Thanos before he does so!
And look, here are your familiar cinematic faces in a roster of Marvel heroes now considerably less esoteric than the one in Ultimate Alliance 2—filled with characters slightly ajar enough to be comics-inspired, but close enough to basically be the characterization of their movie counterparts. Here is the Black Order, aka Those Guys With About 10 Minutes Max of Infinity War and Endgame Screen Time, to find them! Here’s Ultron, please remember that movie that most people thought was just kind of okay! Here is Daredevil making a joke about hallway fights with other Netflix-Approved Heroes!
To be fair to Ultimate Alliance 3,it wears its inspirations on its sleeve—it does not mask its pretty direct connections to that giant movie you (and what feels like the rest of the planet) have just seen to the tune of a gabillion dollars, as if they were something worth masking in the first place. Marvel Cosmic Bullshit is just as good an excuse as any to smash all these heroes together, and smash Ultimate Alliance 3 does with an earnest abandon. It, thanks to the comics, can even go one better than the films, adding beloved comics heroes like Ms. Marvel—well, Kamala Khan, specifically, now that Carol’s had her well-earned promotion to Captain Marvel—and Spider-Gwen, alongside familiar names from the movies.
There are even X-Men characters and a whole level set at the X-Mansion! As if this game didn’t already serve as a reminder of what a long, strange decade it’s been, this marks the mutants’ first major foray back into Marvel tie-in media since that whole awkwardness with Marvel attempting to blacklist mutants and the Fantastic Four in its gaming spinoffs over a spat with Fox, who owned the movie rights for them. Well, up until the point Disney grew tired of the charade and absorbed the film studio into its giant, Mickey-ear-adorned mass earlier this year. At least we can play as Wolverine again?
But as fun as it is from a “I can play as Scarlet Witch and Elsa Bloodstone smashing up faceless bad guys for several hours” perspective, Ultimate Alliance 3 is still about smashing up those faceless bad guys in a saga we are now intimately, tiredly familiar with. Not just thanks to the movies, either, but because it seems like the Infinity Stones have been the catch-all reason for any Marvel crossover outside the comics lately—including other recent games like Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite.
A decade in the waiting, I wish it had been bolder—to take more direct inspiration (not even necessarily like its predecessors) from a particular arc of comics, and to embrace the idea behind why we love these superheroic crossovers at all in the first place. To do something silly, and wild, and zany to match the candy-coated Spandex it otherwise revels in thanks to its thankfully-comics-inspired-aesthetic.
We have had a decade of Infinity Stones. There’s so much more Marvel can be, whether it’s on the big screen (where we’re finally getting an intriguing glimpse of such a thing), in its comics, or in games like Spider-Man, Marvel Ultimate Alliance, the upcoming Avengers game, and beyond. Perhaps, after one last indulgence in this familiar well, its time to put the Infinity Gauntlet away for a good long while.
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Most of Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3’s story chapters are lengthy affairs filled with enemies to fight, puzzles to solve, characters to recruit, and multiple boss battles. Chapter seven, set in the moon-based Inhuman city of Attilan, is a ten-minute trip to the most boring place in the Marvel universe.
Of all of Marvel’s properties, the Inhumans have had the hardest time breaking out of comic books into more mainstream media. The Inhumans movie was announced in 2014, then canned. It became a 2017 television series, which was laughably bad. The only time the Inhumans have been entertaining outside of comics is in ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. series, and that’s because the show never went Attilan to hang out with the Inhuman royal family.
Chapter seven of Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 sees our assembled heroes doing just that: stopping by Attilan to hang out with the Inhuman royal family. At the urging of Crystal, an Inhuman who joins the team earlier in the game, the alliance seeks Attilan’s aid in protecting the Infinity Stones from Thanos’ Black Order. Speaking for King Black Bolt, whose voice can shatter mountains, Queen Medusa tells Crystal that the Inhumans live on the moon in order to stay out of human affairs and they’ve no plans to change that now.
Fortunately for our heroes, villains attack. Which villains? Why, the only real villain the Inhumans have, Black Bolt’s brother, Maximus. Ever jealous of his brother’s power and ever hungry for the throne, Maximus chooses the exact moment a cadre of the universe’s greatest superheroes show up in order to stage a coup.
To back up and provide some context, the Inhumans are an ancient race of super-powered humans created by Kree scientists to use as soldiers in the ongoing conflict between the Kree and the Skrull. After the Kree discovered a prophecy that stated the Inhumans would be the downfall of their empire, they left to the Inhumans to fend for themselves on Earth. Young Inhumans gain their powers through exposure to something called terrigen mist, though in rare cases the terrigenesis process does not result in powers. Maximus is one of those rare cases, and it’s made him a real dick.
The entire chapter involves three battles against Maximus’ Alpha Primitives troops, who are as generic as lackies can be, followed by a battle against the man himself. It’s not a boring boss battle, as one might expect when pitting powerful heroes against a guy with a gun. Maximus has robot drones that fire powerful beam attacks. A guest character, whom I will not name for spoiler reasons, joins the battle, creating shields that players can hide under to avoid damage.
But that’s it, really. The entire chapter spans all of three rooms, so there’s no exploring to do. No new characters join the alliance. The Inhumans don’t change their minds and decide to help. Instead, the group receives a distress call from the Winter Soldier and rush off to Wakanda, kicking off a much lengthier and more interesting chapter.
Marvel’s been trying to make the Inhumans a thing for the past decade, mainly to fill the role of mutated humans with powers, since Fox had the film and movie rights to the X-Men. Now that Disney owns Fox, Marvel could just focus on the entertaining mutants and stop shoehorning the boring Inhumans into otherwise exciting video games. I guess someone felt the need to give it one last shot, though. Too bad it still didn’t work.
Heroes from all corners of the Marvel universe unite to stop mad titan Thanos from collecting six Infinity Stones and unleashing their vast destructive power. What took the Marvel cinematic universe a decade and 23 movies to achieve, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order gets done in one game, and I didn’t sleep through any of it (looking at you, Marvel movies).
When last we visited the four-player, team-based action role-playing game series Marvel Ultimate Alliance, it was 2009, and the MCU had barely even started. The first Iron Man film and The Incredible Hulk hit theaters in 2008, with Iron Man 2 due out in 2010. Marvel fans who were eager to see Marvel heroes of all shapes, sizes and origins come together to kick villain ass outside the pages of comic books got their fix from 2009’s Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2. Lacking a series of interconnected films to take inspiration from at that time, the Activision-published game was instead based on Marvel’s popular Civil War comic book crossover, in which superheroes clashed over the idea of losing their secret identities and registering with the government. The setting and themes made for a gripping, dramatic game.
Marvel fandom has changed over the past ten years. Millions of moviegoers have watched the saga of Thanos and the Infinity Stones play out on movie screens around the world. Marvel’s Civil War is the Captain America movie where everybody fights at the airport and Spider-Man shows up. The Guardians of the Galaxy, a B-list superteam in the comics at best prior to 2014, are now one of Marvel’s hottest properties. So now we have Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order, an action role-playing game for the Nintendo Switch that brings together Marvel’s greatest heroes to battle Thanos over the Infinity Stones, again. It’s what the people want.
The game opens with the Guardians of the Galaxy stumbling across all six Infinity Stones on an abandoned Kree starship, because this is a video game and no one wants to have to sit through Iron Man 2 or Thor again to get to the good bits. During a battle with Proxima Midnight, a member of Thanos’ evil Black Order, Star-Lord manages to grab one of the stones, teleporting his team to Earth and scattering the remaining five to random locations convenient to the game’s plot. The problem of getting Marvel’s cosmic team onto the planet with the rest of its heroes is therefore solved. After that point, an alliance is formed between heroes and the race to collect the Infinity Stones begins.
I am so tired of the Infinity Stones. We all know the deal with them by now, right? They’re colorful artifacts, each granting mastery over one of six cosmic forces—space, time, reality, power, soul, and mind. Should one user gather all six Infinity Stones, they gain ultimate power over the entire universe, though they never seem able to hold onto it long enough to affect any lasting change. They’ll always leave some of the heroes alive to change things back, or decide the power is too much for them and send them off to the corners of the universe to be found again later. Thus, the Infinity Stones are green, orange, blue, purple, yellow, and red herrings, existing only to facilitate epic crossovers.
Like so many Infinity Stone stories before it, then, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order isn’t really about the Infinity Stones. It’s about bringing together a diverse cast of heroes and villains and letting them play. It’s forming a party with Venom and Spider-Man and Miles Morales and Spider-Gwen and seeing what sort of webs they spin together. It’s taking common Marvel Comics events, like a breakout at super-powered prison The Raft, or Ultron attempting to take over Avengers Tower, and then seeing how those events get handled by your personal dream team. It’s the ultimate Marvel Team-Up. Oh, and Ms. Marvel and Captain Marvel are there, too.
The story isn’t great, but the dialogue is very good, giving each new character a moment in the spotlight. Occasionally we get little asides between certain groupings of characters, like Miles, Gwen and Ms. Marvel celebrating their first ninja temple after taking down the Kingpin in his Shadowland base. The game is filled with cute little interactions.
While set in its own pocket Marvel universe, Ultimate Alliance 3 draws heavily on the MCU. Characters are well-voiced, with many actors doing a fair impression of their live-action MCU counterparts. The entire Kingpin level is filled with references to the Netflix’s various Marvel TV shows, from Jessica Jones’ ripped jeans, leather jacket, and bad attitude, to Daredevil’s “I do my best fighting in hallways” line. When Iron Fist showed up, I wanted to take a nap until his section was over—just like the TV show. Developer Team Ninja really captured the spirit of live-action Marvel.
As they partake in what my co-worker Paul Tamayo aptly calls “fan service tapas,” players are forming a team of four Marvel heroes and running them through ten chapters of old-school action role-playing goodness. Utilizing a combination of light, heavy and special attacks, characters dispatch hordes of whichever faceless troops are native to each of the game’s locations—Kree soldiers, Ultron robots, escaped prisoners, ninjas and the like. Tougher versions of each enemy type feature stun meters that must be depleted before significant damage can be done.
Each character has up to four special abilities they can use in battle. These abilities can be combined with those of other characters, creating powerful combo attacks. Combining Storm’s whirlwind attack with Dr. Strange’s fire attack creates a controllable fire tornado that tears into enemy ranks. A meter that fills as characters use normal attacks allows them to unleash Extreme attacks that all four members of a team can join in on. These massive, screen-filling spectacles do massive damage to enemies and the game’s framerate alike.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 is not a mindless hack-and-slash game. Spamming attacks might get players through the first couple of chapters, but enemies get strong pretty quick. Dodging and blocking is a must. Enemies appear in massive numbers, often making it hard to pick out the character you’re controlling in the chaos. Switching from the game’s default difficulty of Mighty to the lower setting, Friendly, mainly seems to make enemies drop more health and power orbs, giving players a slightly better chance of surviving.
Staying on your toes is especially important during boss fights. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3’s boss battles are like dungeon boss fights in a massively multiplayer online role-playing game. Attacks are telegraphed via glowing circles on the floor. Players need to learn and pay attention to boss movement and vocal cues. Positioning is important in order to avoid sweeping area-of-effect attacks.
I’ve died a lot playing Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3, mostly in boss battles, but I’ve not gotten frustrated. Each time I’ve come right back, armed with a little more knowledge of what makes big guys like Ultron or Dormammu tick. While I’ve played a little online with my co-worker Paul, I’m really looking forward to going online with the public and seeing what a coordinated team can do against these challenging encounters.
No amount of outside help will help me conquer Ultimate Alliance 3’s greatest foe its camera. Sometimes it shakes when players turn corners. It gets locked behind a character from time to time, shifting perspective in disorienting fashion. A few times, the camera’s gotten stuck on geometry, forcing me to fight blind. It’s worse in handheld mode, especially when it pulls way back on a scene, making characters incredibly difficult to make out in a crowd. A day one patch will address some of the game’s camera issues, but not all. Here’s hoping for more patches.
One of the few disappointing aspects of Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 is it severely stripped down the role-playing elements from the 2006 original. There was barely any character and stat management, leaving players who enjoy fiddling with upgrades and enhancements in the cold. I’ve got good news for those players.
Ultimate Alliance 3 has a whole lot of management to perform between battles. There’s Alliance Enhancement, a multi-section grid where players can spend enhancement points and credits to boost the entire team’s statistics. Players unlock Infinity missions as the story progresses, bite-sized tasks that reward upgrade materials, alternate costumes, and a couple extra characters.
This is also the first Ultimate Alliance game to feature Isotope-8 (ISO-8), the mysterious power-enhancing material that’s been shoehorned into almost every Marvel video game since 2012. Characters can equip different colors and potency of ISO-8 collected in the story or through Infinity missions to provide a wide variety of enhancements. Some of these enhancements are straight-up stat upgrades. Others grant benefits in special circumstances, like increasing the damage a character does when their health is under 25 percent. Eventually players gain the ability to upgrade their ISO-8.
As with earlier games in the series, teams gain special benefits when formed with related characters. My party of Venom, Spider-Man, Miles Morales and Spider-Gwen gains an eight percent boost to their resilience stat for having four members of the “Web Warriors” sub-group. Three members are in the “Agile Fighters” sub-group, granting a two percent boost to the mastery stat. And since Miles and Gwen are in the “Ultimate Alliance 3” group of characters new to the series, they get a one percent boost to vitality.
Basically, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 is menu management heaven, and every stat tweak makes a difference. Many of my deaths during the game’s story were immediately followed by a trip into the menu system to switch up ISO-8 assignments, unlock a few more spots on the Alliance Enhancement grid or swap around characters. Each time I felt a difference in how my team took and dealt damage.
I’ve got a lot more menu fiddling ahead of me. It took me ten hours to finish Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3’s story on Mighty difficulty. The credits have rolled, but since I spent the back half of the game relying on a team of Storm, Black Panther, Doctor Strange, and Ms. Marvel, they’re the only four characters I have beyond level 40. That’s four out of the 33 characters I’ve unlocked so far. I have Infinity missions to complete, several of which require solo characters I’ve neglected thus far. On top of all of that, finishing the story unlocks Superior difficulty, which starts at level 40 and ramps up from there. I’m not putting down this game any time soon.
Marvel is in a very different place in 2019 than it was in 2009. Marvel Ultimate Alliance and Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 were made for fans of comic books, cartoons and the early Spider-Man and X-Men movies. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order is very much a product of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The characterizations are straight from the films. The game prominently features characters no one cared about back in 2009. In the game’s gallery, there’s a report section with biographies on heroes and villains with commentary by members of the Guardians of the Galaxy, to be enjoyed by people who had no idea what a Groot was prior to 2014. I love that characters I’ve grown up with have so many new fans. I’m just mildly disappointed it led to another Infinity Stone hunt instead of a game with an original story to tell.
But that’s fine. If an animated rehash of 10 years’ worth of movies and television is the framing needed to get me an action role-playing game as rich, challenging and satisfying as Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order, then so be it.
E3 2019It’s time for the biggest gaming show of the year. We’ve got articles, videos, podcasts and maybe even a GIF or two.
Crystal Dynamics’ take on Avengers looks like a slightly skewed version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe—just similar enough to pique your interest, but just different enough to make you feel itchy. Five of the most film-famous Avengers star in a 25-minute gameplay demo that Kotaku saw behind closed doors at E3: Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, and Black Widow. In action, their moves look great, but visually, it all feels ever so slightly off.
In a meeting room at Square Enix’s E3 booth alongside other reporters, I watched a Crystal Dynamics rep play through the demo. It showed off each of the five characters and their different powers, like Thor’s hammer throwing and lightning strikes and Black Widow’s dual pistol firing and backflipping.
The campaign will feature a totally new and original story. In the bit we saw, the five heroes fought against a team of non-superpowered baddies wearing skull masks who had high-tech military equipment and who, apparently, had stolen some of their tech from Tony Stark himself, to Tony’s chagrin. Their leader turned out to be Taskmaster, a former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent turned mercenary who wants to blow up San Francisco for unclear reasons. The Avengers team up to stop him and his cohorts, but ultimately, they fail, and San Francisco gets melted by a bunch of sparkly sci-fi energy beams, which seems bad. Also, Captain America dies—or, at least, a memorial statue of Cap gets shown at the end of the demo, so he’s dead as far as we know.
Before the gameplay presentation, a Crystal Dynamics rep told the room that Avengers would have a single-player campaign with the option for cooperative play as well for some of the missions. The demo footage kept the characters on rails in a fairly linear progression of fights, most of which took place on and around the Golden Gate bridge. Aside from a brief moment when Iron Man joined Thor, not much cooperative or multiplayer team-based gameplay was shown—only individual superheroes from the team, each in separate areas, fighting their own fights.
The good news is that each character does appear to have a distinctive fighting style and lineup of moves that jibe with what you’d expect from them, which in this game does appear to be very inspired by their live-action movie counterparts. Even though their faces and voice actors are different, they’re wearing the same costumes and doing the same kinds of moves. Thor’s collection of moves looked robust and complicated; he can use his hammer for a variety of close-up melee attacks that appear to chain in a way that looks similar to Batman’s moves in the Arkham games or Kratos in the latest God of War. Thor can throw his hammer to pin down enemies, continue fighting with his fists, call back his hammer for more strikes, and even use a big, flashy lightning strike in the vein of the climactic final fight scene in Thor: Ragnarok.
At the end of Thor’s section, Iron Man flew in briefly to fire some blasts at enemies from his position in the sky. I thought we were getting a glimpse of what cooperative gameplay could look like in this moment, but it didn’t last long. Soon, the player’s perspective changed to Iron Man, who flew off to fight his own solo fight on the bridge. It wasn’t clear why the game chose to switch the player’s perspective from Thor to Iron Man, and that type of sudden switching continued throughout the demo without any narrative justification provided. While it did result in a tight E3 demo that showed off each of the characters, I’m not sure how this will translate to the final game. While playing a campaign like this, it’s not clear how much control the player will actually have over which character they get to choose in a given situation, or if they’ll just be forced to switch around according to the whims of the game.
Iron Man appears to have one set of moves on the ground and another set when he’s in the air, the latter of which looks a lot cooler. As he hovers above ground, the game becomes more of an over-the-shoulder shooter, allowing the player to aim Tony’s blasts at targets. He can also call in guided missiles to blow up enemy turrets. After Tony finished clearing out his section of the bridge, the Marvel’s Avengers demo did another quick-cut between characters, unceremoniously tossing our vantage point up into a jet with Black Widow and Bruce Banner, the latter of whom rose from his chair and hopped out of the jet to transform into the Hulk and commence the bad-assery.
The Hulk’s move set looks simple but undeniably fun, not least because of his massive, careening jump and apparent ability to toss cars off a bridge with a mere flick of a huge green hand. He has a move where he can pick up a bad guy and fling him down on the ground, the way the Hulk famously did to Loki in the first Avengers movie. The Hulk can also grab two guys and slam them into each other, which looks satisfying as well. He also has the power to clap his hands to generate a shockwave, a move that the Hulk actually did at the climax of that Edward Norton Hulk movie that no one besides me saw but which is technically also a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
At the end of the Hulk’s section, as the green guy picked up a tank to throw at the remaining bad guys, the Marvel’s Avengers demo revealed its first of what would be several quick-time events. These are moments when a player gets thrust into watching a cool cinematic that can only be completed by pressing one button at the right time. Hulk throwing the tank looked cool, but it was also basically just a cutscene, and not really something the player appeared to have much control over.
Then, the demo shunted us off into Captain America’s perspective. His lineup of punches looked similar to Thor’s when Thor didn’t have his hammer on him, although Cap also has some cool kicks in the mix as well. Plus, he’s got that shield, which he can throw at enemies. It’s not clear whether Cap can target the boomerang arc of his shield, or if the player just lets go of it and the shield does the work. It looked more like the latter.
Cap’s section didn’t last long before transitioning into a segment featuring the fifth and final character, Black Widow. Since she’s a human, Black Widow has been tricked out with all kinds of tech in Marvel’s Avengers, even more than she got in the movies. Some of her moves are straight out of Scarlett Johansson’s fight choreography repertoire: She has dual pistols and thighs that can kill anyone whose neck is unfortunate enough to end up between them. Instead of a back-dash, she can do a backflip, and she can also roll out of the way of incoming attacks.
As a result, Widow seems much more acrobatic and fluid than the heavy, slow punching of Thor and Captain America, which fits her character and abilities given that she doesn’t have super-strength on her side. She does also have some new tech built into her suit, most notably the ability to turn invisible, which she whips out in her final showdown with Taskmaster.
Black Widow is the only Avenger who ends up fighting Taskmaster, which is weird because you’d think they would all team up to fight the big bad guy at the end of this ordeal. Where were the other four dudes while Nat was kicking this skull guy’s butt? Captain America was, apparently, flying back into San Francisco because he had figured out that the Golden Gate Bridge fight was a distraction from the real threat, the source of which was honestly unclear, but whatever it was, it ended up destroying San Francisco and Captain America with it. Thor, Iron Man, and the Hulk busied themselves with saving civilians in vehicles from falling off the bridge, which was in the process of getting destroyed, but that mostly felt like an excuse not to show how powerful this lineup would be if they could only work together.
The dialogue didn’t ring true, either. Marvel’s Avengers felt like it wanted to be funny, but it couldn’t quite pull off the dense, back-to-back quips that unfold in a typical Marvel movie. At one point, Tony made a joke about not reading any mission briefs ahead of time, and another character responded, “Tony, those are important.” In response, Tony said, “Yeah, whatever.” It was delivered like a joke, but there’s no joke there, except that apparently this version of Tony Stark is wildly irresponsible—an odd choice for a character who is self-centered and self-destructive but who, ultimately, has always cared about taking responsibility for his work. Sure, Tony Stark has also dealt with alcoholism in the comic books, but he’s always been a high-functioning egomaniac whose work matters more to him than his personal relationships. And you’re going to tell me that he suddenly doesn’t care about reading mission briefs? It feels particularly careless given that this is a scene that ends with the destruction of a major city, due to the fact that the Avengers appear to have done an abysmal job of planning any of this.
That’s the really weird part about this demo: the total lack of communication between the Avengers. They each fight individually, perhaps because that’s all that the developers could show at this stage. In a game like Spider-Man or Arkham Asylum, the lead character is one who can work alone. The Avengers don’t work alone, though. The Marvel movies got better and better at choreographing and showing off fight scenes featuring each of the characters’ powers working in tandem with one another. That would be very difficult to show in a video game, but it’s also what most people would expect of a game like this, having been primed with the movies.
The real difficulty for Crystal Dynamics is that by choosing this particular lineup of Avengers characters and putting them in the exact same outfits and giving them such similar moves, this game will invariably live in the shadow of the live-action movies that clearly inspired it. The Crystal Dynamics rep told us that the team had been working with Marvel “for years” on this concept, and maybe this is what Marvel wanted.
Having seen the trailer and the footage so far, I think that choice was a big mistake. I’m not just saying that because I’d much rather play a game inspired by my favorite ‘80s era Avengers comic books, in which The Wasp assumes leadership of the team and taps She-Hulk and Captain Marvel (the Monica Rambeau version) to join the ranks. The mistake, in my view, is creating a game that so closely mimics the movies. There are some cool ideas in this gameplay demo: Thor’s hammer-throwing looks fantastic, and Black Widow’s blend of acrobatics and pistols looks bad-ass. But it’s hard to let any of those ideas stand on their own when they’re inevitably going to be compared to the movies.
The Arkham Batman games and the recent Spider-Man game had the benefit of being adaptations of characters who have been adapted many, many times. No one saw Insomniac Games’ Spider-Man game and thought, “Why isn’t that Tom Holland?” Okay, maybe someone did, but then there’s also Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, and any number of animated TV versions of Spider-Man in the mix as well. By contrast, it’s weird that Black Widow doesn’t look or sound like Scarlett Johansson, yet is wearing her exact same outfit and doing the moves that we’ve seen her do in so many movies.
Perhaps Crystal Dynamics intends to introduce more characters from Avengers canon who are not intrinsically associated with the famous actors from the Marvel movies. The introduction of Taskmaster as a villain seems promising in this regard, given that he’s never been in any of the movies, which means that the game’s team can come up with their own way to bring him to life in this particular Avengers story (except for the part where Taskmaster was also in that Spider-Man game). Again, each of the characters’ move sets look cool, although it’s just not clear how they could all work together in a way that actually works and doesn’t reduce the game into being a series of boring, codified missions that only allow the player to inhabit certain specific heroes with the powers needed to get a specific job done.
Marvel’s Avengers comes out on May 15, 2020, meaning the Crystal Dynamics team has only a year left to make this work. I hope the final product gels together just as well as the Avengers always do in the movies. But, above all, I hope that the final product is able to escape the shadow of those movies and create something that can stand on its own.