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It took video games a long time to catch up with superheroes. Despite being, on paper, a pretty obvious fit—what with their shared interest in serving up power fantasies for the easily amused—games struggled for ages to capture the raw freedom and power that the average mid-tier X-Man busts out in a 20-page comic book on a monthly basis. Arguably, the catch-up didn’t really begin in earnest until 2004’s Spider-Man 2, which, for the first time, accurately captured the feeling of being Peter Parker, *thwip*-ing his way across the New York skyline. (Hell, it’s 2020, and Superman’s still never had a really good game.)
Sixteen years later, though, the list of “Actually Good Superhero Games” is finally reaching a point we might comfortably label “robust.” Between Batman’s Arkham games, the continued success of Spider-Man, the Lego riffs on Marvel and DC heroes alike, and even home-grown riffs on the concept like the Infamous series, gaming finally seems to have gotten its grip on letting players go larger than life in their superheroic adventures.
It’s into this context that Square Enix dropped the open beta for its long-in-the-works, somewhat-long-anticipated Marvel’s Avengers game last weekend. Developed by Crystal Dynamics, and first teased way back in 2017 (circa the second Guardians Of The Galaxy film, in the context of the MCU), the game promises to put you in control of Earth’s mightiest heroes as they attempt to get their shit together in the wake of a major disaster. In practice, it mostly seems to be about Square experimenting to see how much Destiny DNA you can shove into a video game before a funny little robot pops out and starts making quips.
Admittedly, some of the problems with the beta aren’t really anybody’s fault; it is a beta, after all, so glitches and bugs are part of the (free) price of admission. Meanwhile, you can’t necessarily blame the studio for featuring versions of these characters that look just enough like their MCU counterparts to be distracting, without actually looking or sounding much like them at all. (Even if Nolan North’s obvious efforts to channel Robert Downey Jr. for his take on Iron Man do very little to dispel the notion that we’re getting the Disney On Ice versions of these iconic characters.) No, the real sin is in having playable versions of the Avengers who feel neither mighty, nor heroic—especially since we know, at this point, that it definitively can be done.
Take the Hulk. As the first former Avenger recruited by newcomer Kamala Khan as she tries to get the band back together in the wake of the A-Day tragedy, Hulk gets most of the focus in the beta’s big, show-offy story mission, battling his way through a lab being run by the game’s big baddie, Advanced Idea Mechanics. The trouble here is that Hulk doesn’t so much smash as shrug; the game’s design—which pits you, God Of War-style, against arenas full of semi-robust enemies—makes it difficult to ever really feel like you’re tearing stuff apart the way being the Hulk probably should. That’s especially apparent when you take into account the game’s RPG mechanics, which mean that an under-leveled Banner can sometimes whale on a regular A.I.M. goon for several seconds with barely any impact. Rather than feeling like a monster ripping the battlefield apart, you end up feeling like little more than a slightly larger dude, with slightly slower punches.
What’s most irritating about this, though, is that we have proof that you can make a good Hulk game, in the form of 2005’s The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction. Developed by the team at Radical Entertainment—who’d go on to apply the same basic principles to their even-more-destructive Prototype games—Ultimate Destruction worked because it let Hulk be Hulk. Sure, you couldn’t actually level the city in which its open world took place. But the game never let you forget that you were a raging incarnation of the human id, smashing your way through cars, tanks, and pretty much anything else that was stupid and puny enough to get in your way. It didn’t worry about making sure the threats being thrown at the Hulk were balanced or fair, because Hulk’s not balanced, by default. Hulk not “strongest one within a tightly controlled set of criteria designed to make sure characters are competitive in the meta”; Hulk strongest one there is!
But the Hulk of Marvel’s Avengers can’t do that. He’s got to fit in—against all odds and character precedent—because this is a multiplayer game where pretty much every Avenger has to be functionally interchangeable as players swap them in and out. But that same need for similarity defeats the whole point of playing as an extraordinary individual. We read and watch Hulk stories because we want to see him do those things only Hulk can do, i.e., wreck shop, smash puny humans, and generally be an engine of absolute, destructive, semi-heroic chaos. Making him play nice with others drains most of the fun out of the character—and that’s something no post-beta patch is likely to be able to fix.