What I really don’t like is a far more superficial concern, and yet it’s one that really bothers me; I can’t stop myself from thinking about it. Just like other games of its kind, Marvel’s Avengers offers up new equippable loot after every mission, and often multiple times during a mission. Just like other games of its kind, that loot comes with stats, perks, and modifiers, making the process of picking what you want to install into and onto your suite of superheroes a thoughtful, and sometimes difficult proposition. Unlike other games of its kind, however, the loot you equip makes no difference to how your character looks. And it doesn’t stop bothering me.I’m totally aware of how slight a problem this seems. The game makes very clear, very quickly, the number of ways in which your equipment could alter your playstyle, from accentuating certain move types (which I imagine will play nicely with the multiple skill trees of augmentable abilities), to adding bespoke status effects. Even in the beta I was looking into what equipment will best benefit my favourite moves.
So it shouldn’t matter that Kamala’s new gamma-irradiated bangles – which are clearly marked in the item icon as looking different from the bangles that make her do more stun damage – make no visible change to her character model. It shouldn’t – but in 2020, it does.
In recent years, loot-focused games have gotten very good at making your equipment choices feel aesthetically pleasurable as well as mechanically meaningful. There’s an element of dress-up to loot, a feeling that your equipment is as much a part of your expression of a character as it is the mathematically correct set of decisions made along the way. I once spent several full sessions of Monster Hunter Generations farming for incredibly mundane items, almost none of which came through hunting monsters. Why? Because it let me build armour that made me look like a huge bipedal lobster. The stats were fine, but the effect of walking into a lobby and showing everyone that I was a cool lobster? That made up for the hours of drudgery.It tells a story, too. I still remember the feeling of watching a Destiny guardian crest a hill with the (at the time) fabulously rare Gjallarhorn rocket launcher, a cocktail of jealousy and respect in my heart, and obvious smugness in their digital stride. Seeing it, I instantly knew where they’d been, what they’d done, and the luck they’d had to get the reward.
The idea that Marvel’s Avengers’ equipment will tell no stories, and serve no aesthetic function at all is a genuine turn-off.
Worse, it could betray a slight cynicism at the heart of the game. We know that Marvel’s Avengers’ only real-money payments will revolve around cosmetic items – primarily character skins, based on 80-odd years’ worth of Marvel history. It doesn’t take much of a leap in logic to realise that visually represented equipment might remove players’ impetus to pay for skins that actually do make a difference to how you look.
The thing is, I’m not even pining after alterable armour, or major cosmetic changes to characters. The items you’re already earning are, in many cases, already visible on the character models – Kamala’s Ms. Marvel insignia, Iron Man’s arc reactor, Black Widow’s belt. It doesn’t seem unfeasible that we could have continued to be able to buy wildly different skins, but seen earned equipment affect elements of them. Yes, the Hulk does provide a slightly bigger challenge on that front, but his invisible equipment barely makes sense as it is – who’s performing all this surgery on Bruce Banner when I swap out his spinal cord for a new one with Pym Particles in it?
Marvel’s Avengers Outfits
Crystal Dynamics has addressed this before, with senior producer Rose Hunt saying that the team thought players, “would rather have the visuals that we’re pulling from the comic books or the original suits that we’re making up, rather than have a bunch of attachments on the outside of it making them look not as cool.” Aside from offering the slightly churlish response that you could just, you know, make the attachments look cool, I’d offer up the idea that they could be turned off if that’s what you wanted, not unlike other loot-based games allowing you to toggle helmets on and off for cutscenes. Surely the option to customise is more appealing to more people than simply not offering one at all.
It’s not that I think non-visual loot fundamentally destroys what Marvel’s Avengers is at launch, but I very much think it could have an effect on the game’s long-term appeal. These shared world games are – from a player’s perspective, and on a business level – built around the lure to return in order to seek out new things, the pleasure of showing off your progress, and the in-built boastfulness of displaying your gaudy, high-level gear. To strip an element of that away is to remove part of the player’s reason to play for the years that Crystal Dynamics clearly wants us to. It seems unlikely this close to launch, but I’d love to see my in-game ‘work’ rewarded in more than mathematical terms.
Or just give me a big Iron Man lobster costume. That could work too, I guess.