Tomb Raider developer Crystal Dynamics finally unveiled its long-awaited Avengers project at E3 this week, but left us with more questions than answers.
In a gameplay presentation today, I saw an extended version of that Avengers reveal played out in front of me - the level themed around "A-Day" where a hapless Avengers squad battles masked foes and become distracted from a larger threat. It's a heavily-scripted level which sees each of the game's five starting heroes become playable for a short section where they each battle waves of largely-identical enemies across San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, before Black Widow faces off against Taskmaster in a boss fight.
Again, I was left with more questions than answers. Crystal is showing this particular level but talked earlier this week of a much larger plan for the game, one which turns it into a co-op games-as-a-service vehicle. And, while a generous-sounding plan for post-launch DLC was promised, it remains to be seen how any of the game's multiplayer sections actually work.
And then there's the faces. Seeing an Avengers cast not look like the actors we've all watched on the big screen this year remains jarring.
I caught up with Crystal Dynamics' lead designer Philippe Therien and senior producer Rose Hunt after the presentation to put some of those questions to them.
You've picked the Avengers heroes people know best from their MCU appearances but of course these aren't those iterations - and Iron Man does not look like Robert Downey Jr. Were you expecting the reaction from some fans where they've been taken aback?
Therian: There's the opportunity to work with Marvel on our own versions - and that's a huge opportunity for us. Obviously, we know people are attached to some of the stuff which has come out more recently but when you consider Marvel as a whole, these heroes have been around, in some cases, 80 years. We're just one of those new iterations and because we're working with Marvel so closely, we think they'll be excited.
You've seen a small snippet of the game and we're listening to feedback. And obviously we'll see, we'll take everything into consideration. It's a challenge, but it's a cool opportunity.
They have 80 years of history, but you picked those five to start with because they're most famous from the MCU, right?
Therian: It's to start with a core roster people recognise, but we'll also be expanding that as time goes on.
Did you ever consider using the MCU versions? Was that ever on the drawing board?
Hunt: I think we always wanted our own original stories so we could delve into the Avengers universe and write a love letter for the fans.
Therian: It's our own take on a really interesting Avengers story and it gives us our own route, our own freedom and creativity. We think it stands on it own legs, honestly.
It's not just because Robert Downey Jr. costs a lot to put in a video game? [laughs]
Therian: [laughs] I'm sure he does.
The A-Day intro level glimpsed last night and then played out for us this morning, it's a single-player campaign level. How do levels designed for the game's four-player co-op compare?
Therian: They're different in you have a bit more space to roam. It varies, we have some levels where if you play a specific hero, it might be tailored to that hero. But we have places where you can play any character you want, and a little bit more free what you can do and where you can go. We'll be showing it in the future. The A-Day level is just one type in the game.
Is this the first thing people will see when they turn on the game, which sets the scene for the meat of the game after it, where you delve into its online?
Hunt: Yeah, we'll start people with a single-player campaign story, then soon after the intro to the game you'll be able to go off and play multiplayer if you want, or just play straight through the campaign.
Therian: Then there's also a way for people to play multiplayer straight off the bat if they want, we'll support both ways.
Will these co-op levels play the same as the A-Day intro level?
Therian: We've got a cool mix of melee and ranged combat going on, some characters that only work one type or the other. Because we have both multiplayer and campaign you'll see cases where sometimes the experience is more directed, or some places you'll just be left to your own devices and left to work out what to do. The Avengers go to many different places in this game, it varies where you're at.
Say I'm playing as Iron Man, and I play with a friend who also wants to play Iron Man. Is that possible?
Therian: You have to play as different characters while online. The Avengers all have different skills and talents and we want people to have a fully-fleshed out team. It wouldn't be the Avengers otherwise.
How do you balance the Avengers' talents? To be fair, some are stronger than others and Thor could wipe the floor with most people.
Therian: It's a cool design challenge. You have everything from the grounded humans with amazing abilities to gods, effectively. So, coming up with ways for them to feel strong but have - because it's a game - some form of balancing. I think we've struck a good balance - the heroes definitely represent their most recognisable traits when you play. I think people will get that.
So if I'm playing as Black Widow and my friend is playing as Thor, we're going to be of equal power?
Therian: Black Widow can kick as much ass as Thor. All the heroes can wreck house.
How do you keep the strongest heroes in check? Iron Man and Thor could technically just fly off.
Therian: Some of that comes from balancing the characters against each other, the enemies and the environments being more catered to one hero or another. You'll have situations where one hero can shine against another but that doesn't mean someone will feel underpowered at any point. You'll see those moments where they might be a window to exploit it and when you do you feel really good - you feel like, that's what my character would have done. That's how we go about it.
You mentioned some of the co-op levels would feel more open - are they open worlds?
Therian: The game isn't open world, there's way too many different places to explore for that to have made sense. We're looking at having different kinds of regions where you can go from place to place. The Avengers are effective worldwide and we wanted to show that.
Hunt: And we wanted the game to have world stakes, so instead of just one city we want to take you to different places around the world.
So are these co-op levels replayable? What are the advantages or incentives of doing so?
Therian: We haven't talked about the replayability - that's something we'll get into later.
The business model is generous - new worlds and new characters for no extra cost, are you selling Iron Man skins to make up the difference?
Therian: We haven't talked about what's getting monetised, but what's important to say is that when heroes and regions come out then you won't have to pay for that. That's the really big thing we wanted to tell people today because it's important to us and we want to make sure you can always play with your friends and jump in any time. We'll talk about other things later.
Hunt: We can say that yes, you will be able to customise your hero with different skins and outfits, but these will never have any gameplay effect. You'll never have a situation where you pay to play.
Therian: Yeah we're not doing loot boxes either.
That's great. Obviously you're dealing with Marvel's characters and you have to be authentic - but how much wiggle room do you have with customising characters?
Therian: It's a little bit of a mixed bag. [The outfits] need to have a strong Marvel DNA so we're not just doing, whatever. But there are a lot of options and people will find some of the outfits might speak more to someone who likes the comic book version of a hero, while some might speak more to the more recent versions of the heroes. There will be something for everybody and a lot of options to customise your heroes.
Is there a Robert Downey Jr. skin for Iron Man?
Therian: [laughs] We're not talking about anything like that.
The levels you spoke about which are catered to specific heroes, can you only play as those heroes there? Or can you play as any hero in any level?
Hunt: In the campaign, you'll be playing certain levels as certain different heroes. We want you to experience all the different ones, and you'll be able to upgrade and customise every hero as you go along. Yeah, there's moments in the campaign which might be personal to a hero. But it's a mixed thing.
I feel like I'm having to ask pretty basic questions about the game because you're keeping so much under wraps - but it does feel this level you've brought to E3 to show off doesn't really show the full picture. Why show this and not the co-op, which over time feels like it will be the thing you're building upon?
Therian: It's important for us to focus on all the different aspects of the game, and we want each aspect to get its own time to be looked and presented in the best light. We're excited to show more things - it's just a question of when and not if. So if people are interested in certain aspects, it's more than likely we'll be showing them soon. It won't be a long wait.
We saw a few flashes of later levels and locations at the end of the trailer last night - is that all in the base game at launch?
Therian: Everything you saw is stuff in the game at launch.
Did you get a chance to look online at the reaction to the reveal last night? What was your reaction to the reaction?
Therian: We're super excited - people are stoked about seeing the game and have a lot of questions. But we've been focused on the demo.
Hunt: People want more and that's fantastic - we'll be giving you more for years and years. We'll be delivering a lot.
What's the ideal plan? You mentioned years - how much support can fans expect when they pick up the game?
Hunt: We're not saying a specific timeframe yet, but we're allowed to say it's the next few years.
How regular will the new levels and characters be?
Therian: We haven't set out a timetable but our aim is to release new heroes and regions regularly to keep the game fresh. Once you've played through the campaign and the other content we have, the idea is the story keeps going. Earth is constantly under threat and the Avengers will have to keep growing their roster to keep dealing with bigger and bigger threats. The story will keep evolving and, post-launch, we'll have more exciting stories to tell.
How about end-game content, some kind of tougher challenge coming out?
Therian: We can't talk about those details today but certainly there will be content of various difficulties when the game launches.
What about incentives to play daily or weekly?
Therian: We'll be talking more about that really soon. Soon TM.
If you could say one thing to fans left waiting for answers to some of these questions today, what would it be?
Therian: I'd say we're all Marvel fans, huge video game fans. We're listening to what people say and certainly taking it into consideration. At Crystal we have a team of highly-skilled craftsmen who want to make the best game they can and we're certainly not above listening to what people say about the work we do. It doesn't mean we're going to turn on a dime and change things because somebody has an opinion, but there's a respect we have for the community and people should expect us to take what they say seriously.
This is always true, and not just relevant to this game. The same was true in the past, too. People should feel they'll be heard.