For every one thing to love about Marvel's Avengers, there's something to cancel it out, as though it's a shiny machine that's been meticulously crafted by clever people in white coats and clipboards to neutralise every last drop of enjoyment.
It doesn't matter what great ingredients you feed into the mouth of the machine - a loveable lead, perhaps, or a stellar voice cast - because by the end of it, the device works to counter every one of those positives with something irritating or frustrating. The result is a curiously bland, neutral experience that's neither terrific nor terrible but masterfully straddles both in a way that's quite frankly astonishing.
To make matters worse, there are many times - usually within the mostly satisfying single-player campaign - when Marvel's Avengers isn't bland at all. Kamala Khan - aka Ms Marvel - is adorable, and her story, if a little predictable, hits all the beats you'd expect from a tale set in such an iconic universe. The combat is fine, if unrefined. The visuals are fine, if unremarkable. The looting is fine, if a bit useless. The environments are fine, if a bit repetitive. The gentle loot puzzles are fine, if shockingly simple. But fine isn't going to keep you here, is it? Fine isn't enough to make more demands of your time and money. And that's the problem.
The single-player campaign is easily the game's strongest draw, offering an enjoyable, if rote set of missions that follow Ms Marvel's transformation from nerdy fangirl to bonafide superhero as she works to unite the posse after they disband, having been unfairly blamed for a catastrophic event. She joins the fight to clear their name and rescue the unsuspecting Inhumans snatched from the city streets, working to take down the villainous AIM organisation and its hordes of murderous robots along the way.
Mechanically and visually the adventure is perfunctory. It's a tad rough around the edges, as though a lack of time or money - maybe both - prevented that final glossy spit-shine of polish. That's not to say I didn't enjoy myself because I very much did at times, but the Marvel's Avengers machine is too bloody good at counteracting the good bits by serving up something that will annoy or frustrate, too.
Take, for example, the mission "Starktech Outfits". You're rocketing towards the exhilarating climax of the single-player campaign. It's been tense and exciting, and while the places you visit typically vary in name only - the AIM architects seemingly hail from the IKEA school of identikit design - there's no denying that you're getting close to a final showdown with the Ultimate Super-Villain antagonist... and then you're thrown into a tedious resource-gathering mission.
It's not even that you've had these missions before - you haven't. But it's now, when you're around 90 per cent done and itching to take on the big bad - this is when Marvel's Avengers throws in a fetch-quest to gather electronic components from robotic corpses. While the enemies concerned aren't hard to find or destroy, there's currently no way to replay story missions, either, so there's no way to revisit an area where you've encountered them previously. Instead, you have to hop onto the War Table, pick a stray side quest you've yet to complete, and hope you'll find them. All momentum is shattered, leaving you frustrated and uncertain on what the hell you're meant to do next.
Worse still, it's about as stable as a one-legged stool. I've had times where the dialogue is wrong, overlapping, or not playing at all. I once played half a mission seeing only the outline of Black Widow's skull and the backs of her camo-cloaked eyes. I was forced to buy gear from a new vendor - using up all my resources in the process - only for the item to never make it to my inventory. I didn't notice much stuttering and slowdown at the beginning, but the further into the story you go - and the more enemies that swarm on-screen - the more problematic it becomes.
I've also had two hard crashes that forced me to reboot my PS4 Pro, and several occasions where loading hung indefinitely - an issue made all the more unbearable given how long Marvel's Avengers loading screens are anyway. Once, my co-op partner was stuck in the loading screen's helicarrier for a protracted period, yet could hear Hulk grunt and stomp around if he hit "X".
That said, when I do get the right dialogue in the right places, good grief, does the diamond-tier voice cast show. It can't have been easy for them to come into a franchise as well-known and beloved as Marvel's cinematic universe and perform as such established characters, but even with the cheesy script, the voice work is impeccable. Troy Baker's contemplative, softly-spoken Bruce Banner is a particularly memorable performance, and one that's possibly my favourite of his to date.
But while the game quite rightly ensures you spend time with every hero on the roster - and successfully unifies a single control scheme for multiple characters, which can't be easy to pull off - I came to loathe missions that forced me to play as Iron Man or Thor. Aerial combat is clunky to the point of frustration, while vaulting and parrying, too, are a little hit and miss. Combat is melee-based with a handful of ranged and special skills thrown in, and it's okay - even enjoyable at times - but the extensive skill trees don't add as much to the mix as you might hope despite each hero's bespoke abilities.
Levelling up gear is useless to the point of disbelief - there is so much of it, there's little point boosting the power of anything until well after you've completed the campaign. Unlike Destiny - from which Marvel's Avengers' seems to draw much of its looter-shooter inspirations - there's no cosmetic benefit, and barely a tactical advantage, either, which makes you wonder why there are vendors or factions in the first place. Mission objectives are recycled to the point of tedium, and while upping the difficulty boosts the challenge and rewards, this leaves some encounters feeling peculiarly imbalanced.
My favourite moments have been with a co-op partner at my side, times when we've synchronised attacks to wail on the same bad guy simultaneously, but the game fights at every turn to prevent me from doing that, too. You'll need to get through a couple of hours of the solo campaign before you even open up the War Table mission-select screen, and despite the fact your single-player missions are often populated with AI companions, you can't replace one with a friend. It's such an antiquated approach, and an odd design choice for a game seemingly so well-suited for co-op.
Similarly, I don't understand why you're forced into a simulated HARM combat tutorial when you start the multiplayer mode, Avengers' Initiative, given the game all but insists you complete the solo campaign first. Why would anyone need another basic combat tutorial after finishing the 12-ish hour single-player content? It doesn't make sense.
As for the microtransactions? I know there's a disingenuous trend of publishers deactivating the most egregious offerings until several weeks post-launch when people like me have already scribbled up our thoughts, but right now the offerings on Marvel's Avengers' marketplace truly are "just" cosmetic, and... well, dull, quite frankly.
I don't particularly like the Hero Pass system - the individual battle passes locked to each hero - and like many of the game's live-service aspects, they feel inelegant and obtrusive, stapled onto a frame that didn't need it and can't properly support it. But the passes do offer some additional hero-specific missions, which are pretty enjoyable, so... I don't know. They're inoffensive right now - all six starting heroes boast "free" hero passes - but it'll be much harder to recommend future ones that want your real-life money (I know that completing a pass essentially "refunds" you the cost of it, but I'm not sure how feasible that is for most. We'll see, I guess.)
As a live-service game, you can expect lots of tweaks and changes as the weeks morph into months, but having magpied so much from those kinds of games it's left with little identity of its own. Despite the promise of its campaign, its endearing cast and impressive voice work, Marvel's Avengers is an unoriginal and uninspired affair that falls sadly short of what it could have been - what it should have been.