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An interview with creative director Noah Hughes

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There are actually two Avengers games at E3 2019.

There’s the one you know about, revealed in a blockbuster trailer during Square Enix’s Monday night press conference. A longer version of the Golden Gate Bridge disaster on A-Day is viewable at Square’s booth on the show floor and it’s compelling stuff. We’ll get to that shortly.

But what of the other one? Technically, it’s the same thing; there’s only one Avengers game in development. But the footage you can see right this moment at E3 versus the underlying ideas the developer laid out in an E3 interview couldn’t be further apart.

Let’s start with the flash. As you’ve no doubt seen in the trailer, Avengers carves out a new Marvel timeline in which a San Francisco celebration of Earth’s mightiest heroes is cut short when something terrible happens, resulting in the destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge and a downed S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier.

Those lucky enough to see the longer demo are treated to actual gameplay, with each hero featured in the trailer getting a few minutes in the spotlight. It’s one of E3 2019’s more impressive presentations. The level of detail and destruction evident in every frame is exactly the eye candy E3 exists to showcase.

There’s Thor swinging his hammer around, taking out armored soldiers equipped with sci-fi weaponry from Stark Industries. Iron Man soaring across the crumbling bridge, shooting jetpack-equipped baddies out of the sky with bright yellow repulsor bursts. Hulk, Cap, Black Widow… the gang’s all here, and they move and fight just like you’d expect if you know their comic book counterparts.

Descriptions hardly do the demo justice. It’s really something you have to see.

Descriptions hardly do the demo justice. It’s really something you have to see, unfortunately. Cross your fingers that Square Enix releases the longer version online for everyone to check out at some point.

Really though, it’s the other Avengers you should be excited about. Crystal Dynamics has some very big ideas for this game. It’s not meant to be a licensed, one-and-done adventure with your favorite Marvel superheroes. 

This is an online game. A progression-driven game. It has a story to tell, but the idea is for it to also have the kinds of hooks that convince players to commit hundreds of hours to its fictional world. The studio behind the modern Tomb Raider games knows how to spin a good virtual yarn. But the aspiration fueling Avengers is to deliver unto players a world of superheroing.

“At Crystal Dynamics we love doing character-based storytelling, we love a well-crafted campaign where you have pacing,” creative director Noah Hughes said during an E3 2019 sitdown. “If you want to go through that campaign even as a single player experience, we actually support that. You’ll team up with AI companions in certain scenarios so you get those [Avengers] Assemble beats and all of that.”

But Hughes also explained how his team sees Avengers as more of an ongoing experience. Heroes have skill trees. Gear slots. You can specialize any of them toward ranged combat or up-close brawling. Personalizing your roster of heroes is a big piece of this puzzle. There’s also online play for up to four players and it’s not restricted to the things you do to move the main story forward.

“We wanted to make sure that that story could continue and that you had things you could continue to do,” Hughes said. “So there will be an ongoing story but [Avengers] is also a world of superheroing where players can assemble up to four players at a time and have that Avengers experience of defending the Earth from these escalating threats. That is a little bit more of that online, multiplayer-centric experience.”

'Avengers' looks wild in its E3 debut, but the ideas behind it are even bigger

Image: square enix / screenshot by mashable

Each hero in your Avengers roster grows and improves over time — and Crystal Dynamics intends to add more to the game, along with new regions to explore and challenges to face. It’s all going to be free, too. That’s because Square would rather keep the community together and entice fans with cosmetic items for their favorite superheroes.

The details are a bit vague at this point. Skins that modify a hero’s overall appearance are definitely part of it, but Hughes described them as merely “an example of something we will monetize.” He was very clear about what won’t have a real-world cost attached, though.

“It’s important to us that we don’t do randomization within … loot boxes [and] that we don’t have pay-to-win scenarios,” he said. “Those are two commitments that are very important to us. Additionally, there’s a number of outfits that can be unlocked through play itself, so that’s something that even players who aren’t participating in any purchase will still be earning.”

The loose structure of the Avengers long game will center on your base of operations, a facility that remains a mystery for the time being. From that location, you’ll be able to set off for various regions where superheroes are needed. You can stick with the story, but you don’t have to — there are other things to do and other people to save.

“We wanted to make sure that that story could continue and that you had things to do.”

Online play opens up early on in Avengers and from then on, there’s no restriction on how you engage with it. All the story missions — which are replayable — are there, and they’re joined by other activities as well. All of it broadens your options for customizing your own Avengers roster.

“Everything you earn, wherever you do it, is feeding into that character progression,” Hughes said. “In an online context you can replay missions but you can also just take on new objectives. It’s kind of the sense that there is play-once content and content that is fun to replay together as a group as well.”

As with any game that features this sort of power climb, Avengers saves its most challenging bits for after the story. There’s some manner of endgame, or high-level challenges that keep you invested after the campaign is finished.

“It is important that what you’re earning through these stories and these objectives all are feeding into taking on bigger threats, and co-op challenges as well,” Hughes said. “One of our assumptions is that you can play the entire campaign single player but that some of the higher end content, once you’re all leveled up, might be specific to challenging four players to work best together.”

Like I said at the start, a lot of this is extremely vague right now. Avengers is set for a May 2020 release, so it’s very likely — certain, really — that Crystal Dynamics is itself still figuring out many of the specifics that Hughes glossed over. 

I still think it’s worth taking a minute to understand how the studio is looking at this project. Nothing about what he’s describing suggests a typical licensed story game. There are big ideas at play, and a clear hope that Avengers can generate a committed, invested community on par with service-oriented games like Destiny or The Division.

I wish them the best. We’ve waited too long for a truly epic Marvel game. And now that all the movies have whipped the world up into a superhero-loving frenzy, there’s enough mainstream interest to support a project of this magnitude (and, let’s be real: cost). Stay tuned for more on Avengers, perhaps as soon as July’s San Diego Comic-Con, before the game launches in 2020.

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