We're coming up on one year since the launch of Marvel's Avengers, one of the most high-profile disappointments of 2020. Post launch, it has been plagued by baffling design decisions and longstanding problems — some of which were completely out of the developers' control. As such, the player base has bled to abysmal lows and has effectively been on life support.
But with the passing of the game's free weekend trial, which has led to a major uptick in the player base, jumping from a few hundred players to over 10,000 according to some Steam metrics. With the upcoming release of the War for Wakanda expansion, I ultimately returned to see if Marvel's Avengers has improved at all. In short, I did enjoy myself, but it was in spite of the core design, not because of it.
The very first stumble at my return to the game came from just getting my profile data ready. I tried playing Marvel's Avengers on PS4 through the PlayStation Now service (I know, I'm glad to be the only one too) and tried getting through the single-player campaign. However, the free trial I had redeemed was on PlayStation 5, long after my PS Now subscription had expired, and the free trial immediately redeems only one version of the game. This meant I couldn't just pick up from where I left off due to the really convoluted cross-save system, and I had to start completely from scratch.
Brief sidebar, please note that my time on the PS4 version was after Square Enix publicly nerfed experience gained, which made the live-service elements practically strangle the narrative campaign. How exactly did this version of The Avengers — who have been operating long enough to hold expensive and extravagant fan fiction contests about themselves — completely miss a massive conspiracy that managed to orchestrate an atrocity, turn public opinion against them, seize all of their money and assets, instigate martial law on an American city, completely disband SHIELD, and build thousands of secret facilities with millions of deadly robots? Oh right, because we need something to do with the endgame grind. The quickest way to establish that is major stupidity from Earth's Mightiest Heroes.
But I revisited Marvel's Avengers' base campaign all the same, and things were decidedly different. My major criticisms with the game's campaign were still present: The only character that undergoes any actual development is Kamala Khan, the weird “diet MCU” presentation of the characters and world feel like half-measures than a fully realized stylistic choice, the unintentional hilarity of trying to make a serious and compelling endgame villain out of MODOK — the list goes on. However, the action brawler combat quickly got its hooks in me, and I was actually having fun.
The major reason for this were the bonuses that were active during the free weekend. In addition to giving players a surplus of the six or so different forms of currency in service to the RPG loot, there was a 4x experience multiplier active. Because of this, I was being showered with skill points and all of the character depth that came with it. Within hours, I was digging into the different weapons Iron Man had, learning all of Captain America's combo chains, and raining death from above with Thor. Without the artificial grind slapped on, Marvel's Avengers actually felt and played like a solid modern action game.
This continued into me playing the post-launch story sections with Kate Bishop and Hawkeye. In a lot of ways, these mini-campaigns felt like responses to the initial game's reception. There was a more TV-season-style structure with longform villainous plans, genuine plot twists and cliffhangers, as well as an evolution of the core game mechanics. Yes, this is still the game where you're just fighting 20 different flavors of robot, but in strict design terms, they all bring forth different challenges. The content wasn't exactly transformative like Destiny's The Taken King, but it did show that the developers were making an honest effort at supporting this game for the long haul.
So what exactly stopped me from buying the full game and getting hyped for Black Panther's introduction? Well, the multiplayer didn't help. As our own review of the game mentioned, Marvel's Avengers at launch had really terrible endgame content. You were just grinding repetitive missions with players online to get better loot, fighting the same robots and solving the same mediocre puzzles. These weren't even elaborate challenges like Destiny's Raids, but really boring cases of watching numbers go up. Now in 2021, it's somehow even worse. The unintended effect of Square Enix cranking up how much players would have to grind for progress thoroughly drove a wedge the size of a helicarrier between the new player experience and those who have played since launch and were already playing in the endgame.
The best example of this comes straight from my own experience with the weekend. After finishing the campaign I decided to hop into a Vault mission and turned matchmaking on. Five minutes later, one other player joined my strike team, noticed my Power level was just one tenth of their own, then immediately left. I had to play with bots for the mission. Fifteen minutes later, my AI companions let me die from a barrage of rockets I didn't see, making me quit out. This was at a time where the game was completely free-to-play with the highest player count since launch. But because of a decision made months ago, there is absolutely no way any of these prospective new players are going to stick around because the old guard just won't bother with them.
In fact, this exact same issue affects solo play. Even if I just grinded each of my playable heroes and let the AI take over as a one-man army, I know that the all-too-generous progression I was given was only because of the 4x multiplayer over that singular weekend. My mind flashed back to what I would actually be paying for, punching robots for four hours just to make those exact same punches 15 percent more powerful, or maybe getting one slightly different attack combo unlocked and my enthusiasm immediately plummeted.
With that in mind, the following scenario is very likely. An uninformed player sees the free weekend, tries the game out, loves how rewarding it feels, buys the base game, then is immediately turned off by the hostile online community and gets burned out by the inflated grind. They drop off the game, Square Enix makes some extra money in the moment, but the player base hemorrhages once again, putting the game back where it was before.
As substantive as War for Wakanda is shaping up to be, my return to Marvel's Avengers in 2021 has only highlighted how much the flaws have continued to grow. I wish this wasn't the case considering my love for these characters and the genuinely great gameplay on display by all involved. All of the pieces are there for a genuinely excellent game, and the free weekend gave me a glimpse of it, but I know the actual experience is much colder, tedious, and fundamentally compromised.