The upgraded Marvel's Avengers offers plenty of improvements, but is still lacking in purpose
Just when you think you've seen it all, Marvel's Avengers gives us zombie robots.
Beyond the puzzling paradox - surely something that has never been alive in the first place cannot, by definition, be brought back to life? - it's a fitting metaphor, I suppose. A free next-gen upgrade and the arrival of a new superhero has breathed new life into Square Enix's hitherto flatlining GaaS superhero adventure. But is it enough to bring it back from the dead?
The TL;DR answer? No, not really.
Despite its endearing lead character, impressive voice work, and solid single-player campaign, I thought Marvel's Avengers was an unoriginal and uninspired affair when I reviewed it on release back in September last year. Six months and several patches and tweaks later, sadly it seems little has changed.
And look, I know Marvel's Avengers has been sitting at the butt of many AAA-flavoured jokes. I know it released to a lukewarm reception that was either justified or not, depending upon how outrageous you personally judge its in-game marketplace and level-grind. For me, it was a striking example of a game that tried to be all things to all people but magpie'd so many of its features and functions from other titles, it failed to build, never mind retain, an identity of its own.
For what it's worth, the game I played this week is better than the one I experienced in September. Sure, the issues around end-game content and levelling persist, but mechanically, the game runs, plays, and feels better than it did six months ago.
But like many things in Marvel's Avengers, even upgrading your save from PlayStation 4 to PlayStation 5 is over-complicated and under-explained. After losing an evening to downloading and installing Marvel's Avengers on PS5, then installing the PS4 version, fully updating both games (which required deleting other games to free up HDD space), "migrating" my save, and then suffering through endless crashes, Microsoft's painless "smart delivery" upgrade system has never looked so dreamy.
The story itself is also unnecessarily complex. You don't need to have completed the campaign nor Kate Bishop's preceding Taking AIM mission to unlock it, but you might find yourself a tad confused if you jump in cold. There's a lot of time-travelling shenanigans and the defection of one-time allies, and man, it's hard to follow. Maybe I'm just not well-versed enough in MCU lore to keep up. Maybe I just suck at tracking stories that only tell me what's going on via tedious exposition dumps. That said, it was all perfectly enjoyable in a I'll-just-keep-smacking-this-guy-for-some-reason till-he's-dead kind of way.
Digital Foundry has already detailed Marvel's Avengers' technological improvements, so I'm not going to rehash that here. But having played through the new chapter, "Future Imperfect", in Performance Mode, I'm relieved - hell, even delighted - to report that it's certainly more stable, loads way faster, and looks considerably better, too. No, these things aren't necessarily dealbreakers - I can tolerate long loading sequences if the story's worth waiting for, for instance - but at the time of release, every small annoyance felt that much more egregious when bundled together. Today, however, it feels like a much more polished, stable experience.
The trouble is, there's still not enough to offset the unfortunate reality that once you've finished the story missions, there's still not much else to do.
Those more charitable than I am may say that the new Hawkeye chapter, Operation: Hawkeye - Future Imperfect, is a welcomed addition, not least because it's free and ushers Clint "Hawkeye" Barton onto the team. Those less charitable may suggest it's too little too late given the otherwise dearth of end-game content. Regardless of which side of the debate you fall, though, I doubt anyone can dispute that it's criminally short; even if you take your time and intentionally seek out bonus chests and collectables along the way, you'll likely finish Hawkeye's adventure in a single sitting or two.
That said, it sure feels good to beat stuff up as Hawkeye. As one of the better-balanced heroes of the roster, the archer's well-rounded skillset makes combat smooth and satisfying, and - thanks to an ability to grapple onto the craggy rocks with his arrow - even dashing from waypoint to waypoint feels less arduous than before. His special abilities feel exactly that - special - with modest cooldown times that ensure you can usually get stuck into the action without being overwhelmed. And while yes, it's a bit of a shame that his relationship with Kate Bishop means the only two characters we've received post-release boast similar weapons, it's to the developer's credit that Hawkeye's abilities feel distinct, if not quite fully disparate.
To be fair to Crystal Dynamics, combat right across the board is considerably improved, actually. The stingy respawn restriction and overwhelming crowds of tanky adversaries had previously inhibited my combat style to the extent that it was often best just to hang back and slowly chip away at the crowd. Now, however, it's much more satisfying to get stuck in. I suspect there's still a better balance to be struck - I wonder if the difficulty issues may have been over-corrected too far in the opposite direction now, as I didn't die once in Clint's brief mission - but I can't deny it's not fun. Nothing makes you feel more like a bonafide superhero than smashing through wave after wave of murderous mercenaries.
The key issue still sitting at the heart of Marvel's Avengers, however, is that it remains woefully forgettable. Too many missions recycle the same old objectives and very often the same old environments. Beyond a couple of city sequences that send the team bounding across the rooftops, Future Imperfect's post-apocalyptic wastelands may be new, but it's a bland, brown, and terminally dull place to explore in spite of the occasional secret sitting in the soil.
Yes, Marvel's Avengers offers an improved, smoother experience. Yes, it's wonderful to get free content to while away an evening or two. But with so little reward for organic exploration and a persistent lack of post-campaign content, I fear it's still not enough.