Lightning crackling from the Uru metal of his hammer, Thor, Odinson, god of thunder, prepares himself for battle. Striding onto the Avengers’ personal Quinjet, he prepares to hurl himself into the fray, striking down all who would forget that he—Wielder of Mjolnir! Strongest Avenger of them all!—is always ready to punish the unworthy. Prepared to mete out justice on the forces of Advanced Idea Mechanics and their evil robotic minions, the Mighty Thor presses the “Quick match” button on the multiplayer interface for Marvel’s Avengers… and waits.
And fucking waits.
So, here’s the thing: It was our sincerest intention to have our second installment of our Games In Progress review of Marvel’s Avengers—focused on the game’s end-game and multiplayer content, as opposed to our first piece aimed at its frequently frustrating-but-thrilling single-player story—up last week. But Avengers doggedly didn’t make it easy for us to explore its multiplayer side. It’s always possible that this was just anecdotal evidence, but the matchmaking system (barely explained by the game itself, because Avengers somehow suffers from both a glut of tool-tips, and a dearth of usable information) seemed to have a whole hell of a lot of difficulty finding fellow superheroes for us to play with. When we did end up grouped together with other members of the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, the action could be thrilling, even robust, as we dove deep into the parts of the game’s RPG setup and hero customization options that the story mode didn’t last long enough to touch. But most of the time—until this past weekend, basically—we were forced to grind out much of this content alone, accompanied only by the game’s serviceable, but uninspiring, bots.
That put all of the focus on the actual missions, i.e., the stuff that’s supposed to keep people playing Avengers while new heroes and meatier events drip out over whatever timeline the game’s developers at Crystal Dynamics are currently operating on. And those missions are… Well, they’re certainly not the sort of thing you can imagine Thor and his buddies pouring a bunch of time and energy into in the comics, is the nicest thing we can say. Most people would probably stop reading a book around the fifth time Black Widow and Iron Man blasted their way into a mostly identical AIM compound, mowing down waves of the same six or so enemies over and over again. The repetition of the enemy forces in Avengers was irritating but not debilitating in the game’s story mode, because you were often fighting them in new environments, or learning a new hero in the process. But plowing through the same handful of interchangeable robots—modified only by the occasional additional adjective to turn a Keeper into a Plague Keeper, etc.—proves absolutely dire when there’s no narrative connective tissue or new characters to keep your interest up. The fact that almost all of these missions take place in the exact same spots—evil underground base operating out of remote, rocky terrain—only amplifies the superpowered ennui. Ideally, the thrill of getting new loot is supposed to supplant some of the boredom, but the game’s inventory system is no less cumbersome when you’re trying to get a hero’s power rating up to a mission’s suggested minimum then it was when you were taking down M.O.D.O.K. back in the day. (Meanwhile, the fact that you only ever get gear for the hero you’re playing as, forcing you to grind each Avenger up from the scrub leagues individually, is a level of padding bordering on madness.)
There are highlights, though. As we said, actually teaming up with a group—with everyone showing off their hard-earned/bought/etc.’d costumes—can actually be awesome, even when all you’re doing is waiting in A.I.M.’s numerous load-screen-covering elevators. And there are occasional moments that actually live up to the spectacle of seeing four fully-kitted-out Avengers take down a foe, most notably in a few missions that reprise some of the big robot fights from the game’s story mode. In single player, these were some of the most snooze-inducing fights in the whole shebang, leaving you to do all the work while bot-Hulk mostly served as a distraction. But with three other players in play, dividing efforts so that Thor is smashing high-up weak points while the people playing Cap and Nat break the cyber-beast’s legs is legitimately cool. (Bordering on epic, to use a dirty but occasionally appropriate word.) It’s the sort of superhero action this game promised to provide in droves, rather than drips.
Even these highs, though, are dragged down by the game’s commitment to needless friction. Want to check in with faction vendors to pick up some new loot or get new optional missions? Have fun sitting through multiple, long load screens as you wander around the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier or the Inhuman alliance’s base. Picking up loot regularly? Expect to spend several minutes every session deleting the dross. And then there’s that whole matchmaking system, which (at least, in our experience) forces you to give up on progressing your own, extremely poorly explained chains of missions or objectives, in exchange for actually getting to see another human being join a game.
In a lot of ways, Marvel’s Avengers is more frustrating for the multiple things it gets really right, rather than less. There’s a genuinely thrilling video game buried under everything else here, a great encapsulation of the feeling of high-energy superhero action just waiting to be busted out. (Customizing characters, which you can start doing around level 15, is especially fun, allowing you to build satisfying combos and add-on effects linked to each hero’s special moves.)
But that’s the promise of live-service games, right? It could always get better. More refined. Less crap obscuring the parts that work. The diehards, the ones for whom even the shadow of a great multiplayer Marvel game is enough, will certainly stick around to see whatever version of itself Avengers ultimately ends up as. (Destiny? Or Anthem? We’re leaning toward the former right now, if only on the strength of the IP.) But is the draw of Earth’s Mightiest mighty enough to keep everybody else playing through the pain once the game’s most compelling aspects have already played out? As for us, we’re ending our coverage of Avengers here. (And if we’re being totally honest, won’t be playing much more of it until some new content eventually comes out.) But maybe we’ll check back in down the line to see if it’s finally living up to its potential—or just adding five more meaningless menus to aimlessly click through to get to anything good.