(Pocket-lint) - Marvel's superhero universe has never been higher profile, thanks to a recent string of blockbusting films. So, the prospect of a game that lets you play as a selection of its most beloved characters, developed by the well regarded Crystal Dynamics (of Tomb Raider fame), is a mouth-watering one.
However, the hype that naturally accompanied Marvel's Avengers was cruelly punctured by a beta programme that showcased the multiplayer side of the game - which felt flat and even tedious.
The good news is that anyone who was disappointed by the beta will be pleasantly surprised by the final game. That's because its single-player campaign proves to be excellent – very much bucking the modern trend for games-as-a-service (a category into which Marvel's Avengers squarely falls), whose single-player elements tend to be cursory at best.
Short but sweet solo
It's true that Marvel's Avengers' single-player component isn't particularly long – you could complete it in about 10 hours – although there are plenty of hero and faction-specific side-missions that pad it out and also marginally reduce the grinding you'll have to undergo in the endgame. But that storyline is classy, imbued with an impressive ebb and flow and eminently playable.
It centres on a new Avenger, Kamala Khan, initially seen as a teenage Avengers fan-girl from Jersey City, attending a razzmatazz-infused celebration of all things Avengers, entitled A-Day, based in San Francisco. But A-Day ends up going horribly wrong, to such an extent that San Francisco is destroyed with vast numbers of casualties. The Avengers, plus anyone else with superpowers, end up being vilified as "Inhumans".
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The story then advances five years, during which time Kamala has acquired superpowers of her own and the sinister megacorp AIM – run by ex-Avengers colleagues George Tarleton and Monica Rappaccini – has achieved totalitarian control of the US, on the back of a promise to “cure” superheroes of their “inhumanity”. Unexpectedly, throughout Marvel's Avengers' storyline, the game makes some supremely valid and apposite points about the dangers of a media controlled by vested interests.
Kamala uncovers evidence of what really happened on A-Day, manages to escape AIM's clutches, then sets out to find what happened to the Avengers – a process that sees her blossom into a proper superhero called Ms Marvel and act as the catalyst for reassembling the team. Her journey is brilliantly depicted, and gradually you get to play as six of the Avengers (even specifying which ones would act as a spoiler).
Akin to Arkham
As far as those Avengers are concerned, their general gameplay mechanics are pretty much spot-on. At least when they are on the ground – Marvel's Avengers has clearly taken the Batman Arkham games as its blueprint for the core brawling gameplay, so all the Avengers have light and heavy attacks, blocks and evades, and a roster of more exotic moves that grows as they level up.
They also have ranged attacks, which leads to our main quibble with the gameplay mechanics: even though all the superheroes have different ranged attacks, they could all do with more snap towards their targets. Things can get unduly fiddly when you're in the thick of a battle and need to take out a flying enemy with precision, although some superheroes do have auto-targeted range attacks in the latter stages of their skill-trees.
As you master the game's combat system, you get a great sense of feeling like a superhero, especially when you begin to charge the special abilities, of which each Avenger has three (one defensive, one offensive, one spectacular and devastating). Crystal Dynamics has pretty much nailed that side of the game, thankfully.
A wallet-reaching 'destiny'
But even as you work through the single-player campaign, you begin to notice aspects of Marvel's Avengers that are more problematic. There's a gear system which is a direct crib from Destiny, so you constantly acquire a stream of new gear which must be swapped in and can be boosted via a bewildering array of resources. Equipment and cosmetics vendors pop up, yet when you first encounter them you won't have enough in-game cash to buy anything from them, which is annoying. But of course, you can resort to real-money microtransactions, which adds an air of rapaciousness.
It swiftly becomes obvious that Marvel's Avengers desperately wants to be Destiny, except with even more keenness to part you with extra money beyond its already steep retail price. That may be the modern way, but it doesn't exactly endear you to the game, especially when it becomes clear just how much – at least at launch – Marvel's Avengers' endgame lags behind that of, say, Destiny 2.
The contrast between the single-player campaign and the endgame is bleak. The former is beautifully constructed, leavening proceedings with platforming sequences, boss-battles (the final boss is truly epic) and multiplayer-style area-domination sequences to generate a nice flow. The writing and voice-acting are spot-on – the latter includes top talent such as Nolan North and Troy Baker – and Kamala herself proves to be a great superhero to play as, thanks to her stretchy limbs and giant super-strong hands.
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But once you enter the endgame, a period of grinding ensues which becomes tedious after a while. The pace at which you can level up your gear is too slow, and the most interesting multiplayer activities, such as Mega Hives (essentially dungeons) are initially inaccessible.
It helps if you pick a favourite superhero and level them up in as focused a manner as possible, but the easily available Training missions lack replayability, while the Drop Zone missions become samey. The hero-specific Iconic mission chains are decent, even though you soon find yourself fighting over-familiar enemies, but once you finish them, you find yourself casting around for new points of interest.
Even the likes of Destiny 2 had underpopulated endgames when they started out, and Square Enix is adamant that it will assiduously throw new content at Marvel's Avengers – a new Avenger, Hawkeye, is due in 2020 – with an accompanying story chain, and hopefully, some rebalancing will reduce the current need for grinding.
But it all leaves you feeling that Marvel's Avengers might be one of those games that is best approached once it has been on sale for a while (by which time, it also should be available at a lower price). Its desire to entice you into microtransactions also feels even more cynical in the context of its endgame still leaving plenty to be desired.
Sure, it gets the basics right, which gives it a likelier chance of success than, say, EA's Anthem. But right now, its most inviting aspect is a fairly short single-player campaign.