Crystal Dynamics and Eidos Montreal’s Avengers game debuted at Square Enix’s E3 press conference last night, and although we watched Hulk smash a tank and Iron Man rocket through the skies, we were left with more questions than answers. We heard more about the actors’ feelings for each character than details about what these famed heroes can actually do on the battlefield. It turns out Crystal Dynamics was saving that information for behind-closed-doors sessions at E3. I was lucky enough to sit in on the first session this morning. Here’s a breakdown of what I saw.
The 25-minute demo isn’t the first level in the game, but it is one of the first, beginning with the Avengers celebrating the opening of their West Coast headquarters in San Francisco. Does this imply an East Coast headquarters exists? Possibly the one from Spider-Man? I asked Crystal Dynamics’ head of studio Scot Amos if this game is a part of the same world as Insomniac’s Spider-Man, and he gave me an answer that didn’t say much.
“I’ll say that we’re all Marvel,” Amos says with a smile. “When we talk about universes or Earths or anything like that, that actually is something that Marvel is very much – they keep us honest, I’ll put it that way. Bill Rosemann at Marvel, his job is to help make sure that all of these worlds play nice with each other. What we’re explicitly saying is that this is Marvel’s Avengers, this is our world. This is what we’re going to focus on. That’s what we’re going to talk about today.”
As the new headquarters is being celebrated at a ceremony attended by the Avengers, tragedy strikes, and the city is suddenly under attack by an army of soldiers, all of them wearing masks with skulls on them. The Golden Gate Bridge is rocked by a series of explosions, and Iron Man and Thor are dispatched to investigate. When the duo reaches the bridge, control is handed to Thor. I didn’t get to play the demo, but we were told it was a live gameplay presentation manned by someone from Crystal Dynamics. The first move in the game is Thor smashing to the ground, an action handled by a quick-time event in which the player must hit the triangle button. A few enemies with guns emerge from the debris and around upended cars. Thor engages them with his hammer, swinging it wildly, sometimes alternating who he is attacking. The combat here looks similar to the circular dances from Rocksteady’s Arkham games, but we didn’t see the player lock on to any particular target or a counter meter come up once.
Thor controlled the flow of the battle. After smashing an enemy in the skull with his hammer, he grabbed him by the leg and slammed him to the ground. Periodically, Thor would electrify his weapon with lightning to perform more powerful attacks, including spinning it around his wrist quickly to rev it up for more damage. Some of his hammer hits would send enemies flying a good 100 feet into the distance. I asked Amos if the Avengers were killing enemies, and he said they handled each threat with the appropriate degree of force. These enemies probably didn’t live.
As Thor knocked cars out of the way and smashed through concrete blocks in his path, Iron Man would occasionally show up overhead to rain down rockets and take out targets in the background. Thor can throw his hammer and use it to pin an enemy against a wall. He can leave that foe pinned there and engage other enemies with his fists, then retrieve the hammer when he wants. Much like Kratos’ axe in God of War, the hammer will damage enemies in its path when it returns to the God of Thunder. Thor’s special abilities, like the throw, are mapped to R1 and L1 and are on cooldown menus. He can also perform a powerful crowd-control move that can take out anyone standing in his way (at least all of the grunts). This move calls down lightning blasts, shockwaves, and has a much longer cooldown than the other moves.
After the first battle, which felt arena-like given the somewhat small space (this is the case for all of the battles in the demo too), Thor helped a civilian by lifting up a steel container. This is a quick-time event that asks the player to hit the square button.
The combat certainly delivers the power fantasy of being Thor, but looks a bit rough at this point in development. Many of the hammer hits didn’t deliver much in terms of impact. Some of Thor’s animations were also a bit clunky. The variety in moves was nice to see, but it just didn’t look quite right.
After failing to stop Thor from advancing across the bridge, the enemy forces try something new: They call in troops with jet packs. Without breaking a beat, control transitions to Iron Man, who rockets along the bridge after them. Tony uses his hand beams to deal with these pesky threats. This sequence is a bit like Star Fox, in which the player is dodging environmental hazards while engaging the aerial foes. This short battle gives way to another arena where Iron Man battles roughly 10 enemies at a time. He can hover in the air and use his arc reactor to send down powerful, concentrated blast onto enemies, or drop down to engage in fisticuffs (he can still use his tech too). Again, the combat for Iron Man appears to be a bit clunky.
The flow of storytelling and gameplay is reminiscent of the first mission in Marvel’s Spider-Man, in that we see detailed cutscenes that show enemies arriving, the Avengers discussing their next plan of attack, and transitions between playable characters. There’s a lot of story being told in short sequences.
The next Avenger up to bat is Hulk, who we first see as Bruce Banner on a Quinjet with Black Widow. Bruce takes off his glasses, visually shows us he’s getting angry, and then leaps off of the back as the big, green monster.
The Hulk is visibly the most polished character in the game so far, and legitimately looks fun to play, as he seems to have an affinity for picking up enemies. Hulk can grab an enemy and use the hapless soldier as a weapon to swat at other foes. He can also pick up two enemies at once, then slam them together to take both out. As the bridge begins to collapse, Hulk bounces from one small combat zone to the next through. The player has a hand in this mobility, and must complete surprising (and short) platforming sequences. In one area Hulk may just need to leap a good 50 feet into the air to reach a distant platform (which he can slam down on to smash every foe on it). In another section, he may be required to wall run, but not like you would expect. While the surface looks like something someone would run along with their feet, Hulk just grabs it, bends the steel a little, then pushes off of it to reach an adjacent wall or surface.
He can of course clap his hands to send enemies flying, and even yells “Hulk, smash!” Again, the Hulk looks like he’s going to be a lot of fun to play as. His animations are the best in the game, and I love that he rarely leaves any bodies on the battlefield. Most are thrown or kicked to who knows where.
Captain America is the next character thrown into the spotlight. He’s not on the bridge and is instead on the Avengers’ helicarrier, which is hovering over the water. He realizes something in the bay is pulling the ship down and could result in the city being destroyed. Cap’s fight begins on the helicarrier’s command deck. While using his fists and feet in combos to deal with threats within reach, he mostly uses the shield to keep enemies at bay. He can raise it up and run forward like a ram, or throw it. Before tossing his iconic shield (which has a larger star on it than we’ve seen before), he can charge it up with what appears to be electricity to really make it sing. He catches the shield automatically, but in one moment, he kicked it back at a second foe for a combo that took out two enemies at once. I’m guessing this is a timed button press. R1 is for his shield throw.
Cap’s special attack is charging the shield up (which emits a glow of red energy), then slamming it to the ground for a shockwave blast. After the bridge battle, he learns that this mysterious enemy group plans to detonate a Sonic Bomb on the bridge.
We then see that Taskmaster is one of the people responsible for the attack. Taskmaster’s design looks a bit different than what we just saw in Insomniac’s Spider-Man, but he is equipped with stolen gear, including an energy shield, so that could explain why it’s different.
Black Widow is quick to track him down; again handled through a fast-paced platforming sequence along a crumbling part of the bridge. As she races up to confront Taskmaster, we see Iron Man catch a falling truck off to the left. The amount of chaos unfolding at any given time is impressive; explosions are everywhere.
When Widow reaches Taskmaster, we get a small taste of how boss battles may be handled. She dodge-rolls out of the way from his jetpack-powered dives, and eventually latches onto him for a wild flight through the bridge’s steel beams filled with rapid quick-time button presses. When they reach the top of the bridge, Widow pulls out her guns and fires at her foe, dealing small bits of damage. The gunplay is all handled in third-person. Since Taskmaster has photographic reflexes, she doesn’t want to engage at close range, and the guns do the trick. Widow eventually lowers his guard and activates a cloak that turns her invisible. She goes in for the kill, charging up her right wrist with electricity before smacking him in the face.
The demo concludes with the helicarrier plunging into the bay and the screen fading to black. This level is one of many single-player-only levels that gives each hero screen time. It’s linear and doesn’t offer much room for maneuvering. Amos says other missions will open up, but didn’t say if that meant open world or just larger environments to explore. The structure of the game is quite different in that it will tell multiple stories at once, one designed specifically for single-player and others that can be experienced through four-player co-op.
“We have a bespoke single-player campaign that is designed to be one of those single-player experiences where you bounce between the different heroes,” Amos clarifies. “You get just a piece of them. That acts like the beginning of the game. This is just to get the world up and running. As you go through that bespoke campaign, there will be missions that are tailored for certain heroes. They all string together in a full arc, but you’re effectively unlocking those heroes. And then we have a much broader world where we’re going to play with this other story arc or this other mission path, that opens up to whatever heroes [the player] has. All that content, that’s out there for co-op is also playable single-player. We have made this massive world where we’re going to keep adding more missions and more regions and more superheroes. I can play 99 percent of that single-player, but there are also pieces that we encourage you to go play in multiplayer, and that actually do further the story. Then you can go back to that single-player campaign when you want to. We’re trying to thread that very, very delicate tightrope of a bespoke campaign, and lots of branching missions and stories that are all still tied to the narrative and the individual hero narratives, and then you have co-op stuff that will be added past that.”
From the sounds of it, players will likely select these missions from a map. If you just to play single player, it sounds like other Avengers will be A.I. controlled in the missions designed for co-op. If your friends aren’t around, you can find other players through matchmaking. As you play as specific heroes, they will level up and you can select which skills they earn. New gear can be obtained as drops from enemies and as story rewards. We perhaps already got a taste of an alternate costumes in the trailer, which showed Iron Man decked out in white armor.
“Every hero has their own skill tree,” Amos says. “They have a mix-and-match of skills that you level up through the game, when you invest in those heroes, we give you the chance to say how you customize your character skill tree. So we’ll talk more details about that later, but that idea of your Widow can be different than my Widow; customizing looks, customizing skill trees, and customizing gear as well. We have gear that’s per hero, and you’ll be able to go out and find all it. You can say, ‘Hey, you have a completely different set of stuff than i do.”
Amos didn’t answer many of our questions (including if four people could all be the Hulk), and instead wanted the demo to speak for itself. While the game looks a little rough at this point, the scale of this experience cannot be denied. The amount of action unfolding at once is impressive, and I really want to see just how much damage Hulk can deal. We unfortunately have to wait until next year to see how the game turns out. Avengers is currently slated to launch on May 15 for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC, and Stadia.