Marvel's Avengers, much like the most recent cinematic interpretations of the MCU, is at once a spectacular, bloated, messy and undeniably fun experience. It nails the characterisations of its central superheroes, provides a surprisingly entertaining and lengthy campaign full of bombastic action and addictive combat, but also finds itself struggling the more it attempts to introduce its Destiny-style live service elements into the mix. It's a far cry from the Anthem-style disaster some had predicted in terms of its attempts to provide a platform for ongoing content, but it's also unsure of itself, a game that excels in its campaign but loses some of its superhero swagger once that main story wraps up and its online elements take the reins.

Let's start out with what Crystal Dynamics have absolutely got right here. The decision to make Kamala Khan the core of the game's sprawling story is a masterstroke. She's an immediately likeable, hugely relatable character who quickly becomes the glue that binds the narrative together. From her beginnings as a shy and awkward Avengers nerd who can't believe her luck when she attends the A-Day festivities that kick off the campaign, to her final, ass-kicking, wise-cracking Ms Marvel form, she's the perfect conduit for players to experience the story and her character arc provides a strong and satisfying backbone to proceedings.

As the campaign gets up and running, Kamala sets out to reassemble her heroes who have been driven underground in the wake of the emergence of the sinister AIM, headed (no pun intended) by MODOK, who are responsible for the devastating terrorist attack which opens the story and sees San Francisco left in ruins and a huge swathe of the population infected by an Inhuman infection. The Avengers are framed and blamed for the catastrophe but Kamala believes she's got evidence that can redeem them and see them reunite to defeat this latest world-threatening evil.

The early ebb and flow of the campaign, where you mostly control Kamala before slowly getting your hands on the Hulk, Iron Man and the rest of the crew is where Marvel's Avengers is at its very best. It's a story that starts off tight and engaging, mixing combat and narrative well and keeping things interesting from mission to mission. It also, quite bravely, puts Kamala front and centre for a good few hours before opening up with more Avengers. However, as more of its heroes are added to the mix and Kamala becomes less of the focus, things begin to get a touch messy. This is a situation that's exacerbated by the game slowly beginning to shoehorn in its online elements which break up the narrative and introduce filler missions designed to get you into the groove of its looter shooter mechanics.

Where Marvel's Avengers undeniably starts to come apart in terms of its narrative drive, it does still manage to consistently entertain with strong writing, excellent acting across the board and a surprisingly deep and complex combat system that absolutely nails the feel of fighting with each of its magnificent heroes. The action here really is gloriously bombastic stuff that's very easy to have fun with but also, over the course of the campaign and into the online Avengers Initiative which follows, reveals itself to have plenty of depth and opportunity for experimentation. Each Avenger has an almost staggering number of unlockable moves and upgrades pertaining to their individual combat style and we reckon there's easily over a hundred hours worth of gameplay here for fans who just want to unlock all combat options and max out each and every hero's fighting potential.

Whether you're smashing enemies and scenery to pieces and hurling chunks of earth around as the Hulk, zooming around above the action as Iron Man, rubber-arming around platforms as Ms Marvel or ducking, dodging and bamboozling robot foes as the Black Widow, combat here has enough about it to keep players, and especially fans of the MCU, entertained for a long time. It's spectacular stuff graphically - although we did encounter a few glitches and anomalies here and there - and there's always an impressive number of enemies onscreen to deal with at any one time. On the surface it seems like a button-mashing brawler, and approaching it in that way will definitely work for a time and at lower difficulty levels, but there's also plenty of skill here, plenty of systems to engage with for players who want more. Once the game - belatedly -introduces its HARM combat tutorial system you'll find that counters, blocks, parries and dodges are the key to doing well, looking cool and devastating your opponents whilst doing so. Knowing when to deploy one of your three superhero special abilities to help thin the crowd or get your squad out of trouble is crucial, and all of this is never less than hugely fun to engage with.

And it's a lucky thing that this core combat is so engaging and deep, as the looting and persistent gear systems introduced here, which ape Destiny so closely in almost every way, feel badly designed and poorly implemented. Gear in Avengers feels truly unnecessary beyond giving you something to open loot crates for. It's a monotonous pain with elements needing swapped out and boosted every time you find a better piece. It makes no difference aesthetically to how your hero looks, its incremental percentage gains and losses don't make themselves apparent during fights and it just feels like it's there to scratch that Destiny itch. It's almost as if Crystal Dynamics wasn't sure enough of its own game's unique strengths. Honestly, we're not sure if this experience would lose anything by just pulling this aspect entirely. Levelling up solely via XP gained through combat and completing missions is so much more appealing. Let players busy themselves with unlocking all of their combat skills and the wealth of different outfits available for each hero. There's so much potential in future additions to the game in terms of more Avengers, more bad guys, locations and story DLC - such a rich universe to pull from - that it feels like the whole endeavour has long legs without this laborious, forced gear loop.

In terms of post-campaign gameplay, things also settle into repetition quite quickly, as one would expect. There are a bunch of new mission types; iconic questlines for each hero, faction assignments, Fury Vaults, warzones and various other missions chains to get to grips with but you'll see the same areas, fight through the same enemies and solve the same co-op puzzles over and over again whilst engaging with them. There are also several hubs full of gear and cosmetic vendors and all of the usual stuff that we've all come to expect from these live service type experiences. The combat keeps this all fun and engaging, for sure - there are ongoing narrative elements and the unlockable cosmetics and costumes give you something fun to work towards in the longer term, but again, the game trips over itself with convoluted menu systems, a war table and map system that's awkward to use and interlinked mission objectives and questlines that can be a genuine pain in the behind just to follow along with.

Joining other players to take on the game's challenges, whether during the campaign or in the Avenger's Initiative, is fun when it's working, but at this early stage, we have noticed that there's a slight lag a lot of the time that can unfortunately interfere with the slickness of the combat, and finding a full strike team has also proven difficult so far. Thankfully, in this regard you can play any mission with a strike team of competent AI and we honestly prefer to play the whole thing in this way, letting us take things at our own speed as random players do have an annoying tendency to charge straight through missions instead of enjoying the combat, hunting down loot or taking their time. Of course, technical problems are pretty much to be expected in the early days of this type of online game and we're sure patches and corrections will solve the biggest issues with lag and matchmaking, but it's undeniable that things become a little less appealing once you emerge from the safety of the campaign into the online aspects of proceedings.

Overall though, Marvel's Avengers is an unexpected success in terms of its excellent campaign - one of the best superhero stories we've played in a long while - and in its flexible and flashy combat. It's an experience that will delight fans of the MCU and there's plenty here for people who just want to jump in and smash the place to pieces as their favourite Avenger - for that it's almost worth the price of admission alone. However, it also stumbles in its attempts to provide an ongoing live service at this point. There's plenty to look forward to with a ton of new heroes and DLC undoubtedly in the works, plenty of hope here for fans of the universe, but as things stand there's work to be done with the loot and gear system, with the convoluted menus and a handful of technical issues. Marvel's Avengers is a properly solid experience as it stands but one that needs work going forward if it wants to maintain its audience.

Conclusion

Marvel's Avengers is sprawling and spectacular, messy and bloated all at the same time. There's a surprisingly fun and lengthy campaign here, excellent writing and acting and some of the best superhero brawling in the business. It excels at allowing you to really feel like you're fighting alongside your favourite superheroes as you decimate enemies and destroy scenery, but it loses some of that swagger as it enters its online endgame. There's a half-baked gear system, convoluted menus and questlines and some technical issues that make fighting online feel a little rough around the edges at this point in time. However, with a couple of patches, with the right support down the line in terms of new heroes, costumes, bad guys and story beats, Crystal Dynamics could be on to a winner here. This is a properly solid start and a pleasant surprise.