It's no secret that Marvel's Avengers has become one of my most anticipated games this fall after the first War Table and an interview with the developers. That's not to say I haven't had concerns, however, as nailing the combat system in an online-focused game is very challenging. Fortunately, I've been lucky enough to play the upcoming beta a bit early. A smart move by Square Enix, as it removed any doubt I had about the game ahead of its release on September 4... despite the fact that the beta also confirmed some of my fears.
The aspect that impresses me most in the beta is the combat. A weird thing to say when the combat system is helmed by the same guy who made the one in God of War, Vincent Napoli. Still, making combat feel great when there are multiple playable characters involved online has proven to be difficult. Not for this team apparently. It doesn't matter if you're playing as Black Widow, Captain America, Hulk, Iron Man, Kamala Khan or Thor. Every punch, kick and throw feels effective and impactful. Developers telling you that each hero is unique and has its own form of fighting might sound like PR-speak, but it didn't take long for the beta to obliterate my scepticism. Running into a crowd of enemies as Hulk, grabbing a poor soul and using him to smash his friends senseless shows the power of the green beast. Flexible dodging and moving between enemies as you punch, kick, grapple and shoot them as Black Widow becomes like second nature. Flying around as Thor while using Mjölnir to deliver thunderous pain up close or doing crowd-control is as fulfilling many an MCU-fan's dreams. Every single one of them plays differently, so it's a real joy to replay missions with different characters and take a different approach.
This is especially true because the same missions have different pools of enemies to choose from. After completing a three minute Drop Zone mission as Kamala Khan I replayed it as Iron Man to get some experience for him as well, but I got even more than I bargained for. I met completely new enemies, which made the experience completely different. Even the hidden loot chests and puzzles can be different. Where the button that opened the door to a vault was hidden on the side of a building in one playthrough, it was on a tree in the next. A rather small change that actually makes it all the more rewarding when you finally find it and open the chests inside to grab the resources and gear within.
While we're only getting a very small taste in the beta, the story and characters have also piqued my curiosity. I've been a Marvel fan since Sam Raimi's Spider-Man in 2002 (holy fudge I'm getting old!), but not to the degree that I've read more than a handful of comics. That hasn't stopped this beta from making me want to dive deeper or smile from ear to ear when I get references to the universe in general. Sandra Saad geeking out as Ms Marvel when she finds Tony Stark's guitar when exploring in one of the story mission perfectly reflected my own reaction, while Troy Baker, Laura Bailey, Nolan North, Travis Willingham and the other actors really make me think that this might be a really fun story filled with interesting characters, relationships and twists, even if it's obviously way too early to say for sure.
Unfortunately, the beta has, as previously stated, also confirmed some of my fears. A loot system must nail three things in my opinion; the gear's attributes must impact the gameplay in a significant way, it should make people want to ask how and where you got something, and the menus must be responsive and easy to navigate. Marvel's Avengers only hits one of those points and that's making the attributes matter. Everything I've found even in what's apparently a very restricted loot pool in the beta has been different and really makes a difference to how you play. That makes it all the more disappointing that the loot, no matter how awesome it is, doesn't make your characters look any different. Something you find for Ms Marvel's upper body might sound fancy, but she'll still wear the same shirt no matter what you use. The only change you might see requires you to perform certain moves. Other players might get an indication of your gear's core abilities by seeing a different colour when you use Iron Man's laser or enemies taking gamma damage when you hit someone as Black Widow, but nothing else tells the world that you're using something special. Even the icons that show up on the screen when you find something are extremely generic besides the colour that indicates rarity, a simple solution that forces you to enter the menu to see if it's any good. Something like that isn't easily and quickly fixed, so even if plans change it'll take a long time before we get to see it in action.
That being the case, it's a good thing that some of the issues should be a lot easier to fix, including the menus. Right now, going into the menu to see that stats of something you find will usually continue to show the information of the thing you're already using when hovering over the new thing. Quite irritating when none of us wants to use more time on stuff like this than we have to. Having to move the cursor back and forth to see the right description every time gets tedious, so I really hope it's an easy fix. You should also be prepared to stay a few extra minutes in the menus the first time you enter them, as knowing what Might, Resolve and such actually means in terms of health, strength, cooldowns and so forth isn't exactly obvious.
These are small flaws in an otherwise marvellous ensemble experience. The Marvel's Avengers beta has ensured that this is a day-one purchase for me personally on September 4. We're getting an intriguing story where five (six if you want to include the seemingly short sequence with Captain America, seven if you include PlayStation-exclusive Spider-Man) unique heroes with their own engaging combat systems explore and fight their way through well-designed environments and encounters. I'll have to learn to live with a loot system that isn't quite up to snuff when compared with the best in the business, and there are a few technical quirks that are either so small that they don't lessen the fun in a noteworthy way or should be easily fixed. Either way, I'm very much looking forward to playing the finished game when it lands on PC, PS4, and Xbox One on September 4.