Marvel’s Avengers

If you know me, you know I love to gripe about video game stories. More often than not, the emotions they try to convey fall flat, as if they feel forced and faked for some reason. Video game characters just don’t feel like real people, and most of the games I’ve played this year suffer from this. Control. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. Even The Last of Us II seems to miss the mark, be it by design: This game constantly veers away from humanity on purpose.

Then why is it that a loot-based, mindless games as a service superhero brawler is the one to pull it off?

For those not in the know: Avengers is a newly released videogame banking on the success of the Marvel universe. It’s basically got six superheroes that can punch, kick and shoot their way through wastelands filled with robots. As they do this, they level up and get stronger. Over time, more superheroes will join the cast, which can also be leveled up endlessly.

These games are usually quite complex, so they need a sort of tutorial, usually in the form of a single player campaign. And funnily enough, this campaign is one of the most humane video game experiences I’ve played the last months. You are Kamala, a teenager given superpowers by a freak accident which caused the Avengers to split up. As she gets the crew back together, she grows into a superhero of her own. She’s also an insecure teen, an overexcited fangirl and a Pakistani-American Muslim.

Kamala is one of the better realized characters in video game fiction. She is human through and through, and never gets lost in the wildly escalating videogame plot. Whenever something crazy happens (and crazy things happen, this is the Avengers after all), there’s an important emotional question to back it up. It comes as no surprise that this story stems from Crystal Dynamics, who succeeded in humanizing Lara Croft in their Tomb Raider reboot. But it’s a breath of fresh air nonetheless.

Now if anyone wants to do some mindless superhero brawlin’, let me know!

Assassin’s Creed – Odyssey

Remember how I wrote about Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, and how somehow I keep playing those games? Yeah me neither so here’s a link.

Suffice it to say after Syndicate, I did quit playing these repetitive map games. I did not play Origins, nor did I ever want to – even if it was advertised as “new and improved”. I had had my fill of the franchise, didn’t care about Egypt – and especially with Breath of the Wild revolutionising the 3rd person adventure genre, it just didn’t interest me.

Then came Odyssey. An Assassin’s Creed game set in ancient Greece? Count me in?

And boy, is it a doozie. This game has just about everything. A gargantuan map spanning all of Greece. A boat. A leveling system. A skill tree. Mercenaries. A (very cool) cult for you to hunt and destroy. Dialogue trees. Player choice. A female protagonist – Kassandra! And: No minimap!!

At first, I dove right in there. I wondered why I ever fell out of love with the franchise in the first place. It was like a second honeymoon, and I had a lot of fun destroying barbarian camps and the like.

About thirty hours in, I had probably killed about a million barbarians, and had uncovered about a third of the map. Boy, this is a marathon, I thought, and made Kassandra visit Marathon. I was still feeling it, thinking this journey would lead somewhere.

Then, about fifty hours in, I started growing weary. A couple of really promising plotlines started heading in a direction that was an immense disappointment for a fifty hour investment. And lo an behold, an hour later, the plot had completely derailed (without spoiling anything, let me just say “Pythagoras” – those who played the game will know what I mean).

Boy, do I feel kind of burned. Yes, riding across Greece is a thrilling experience, and the vistas are as beautiful as ever. But somehow, I can’t enjoy them anymore, knowing the story has completely derailed. It just killed my genuine investment in Kassandra – and thus, in the entire game.

The Legend of Zelda – Breath of the Wild

Sometimes, things come together nicely. Case in point: Pre-ordering a Switch – Nintendo’s console-handheld-hybrid – and having it come out three days after my brain surgery (more on that soon). I was hospitalised for three weeks with nothing to do but to practice closing my eyelid, smiling and walking in a straight line, and the Switch and Zelda gave me something to look forward to.

And boy, was this something. Breath of the Wild does away with ninety percent of the core Zelda tropes, strips it of the baggage the series has dragged along over the course of thirty years, and just delivers a breathtaking open-world experience that’s all about exploration – and all that without even needing a minimap.

It’s amazing. After two hours of a very open-ended tutorial, you have all the skills you need and one quest in your log: Kill Ganon. You can just storm Hyrule castle and have a go at him. But that’s not where the fun is at – it’s in discovering the world, looking for shrines (this game’s version of miniature dungeons) and using whatever means the game’s environment gives you to defeat the baddies and grow stronger.

And while there is a lot of that, it never gets old. There is a seemingly endless stream of content to explore, from lava-filled lands to scorching deserts and jungles and plains. I couldn’t stop myself from discovering every nook and cranny and even after 40+ hours of playtime, I still felt surprised at all the creative situations the game threw me in.

And then, when I finally stormed the castle, armed to the teeth with the finest armor and the best weapons, it felt like catharsis.

I don’t know if the Switch will be worth it in the end – the console feels very bare-boned as it is – but Breath of the Wild is a true classic. This might just be the best Zelda ever made. And it’s certainly going to be the one I come back to most often.

I seriously couldn’t wish for any other game at a time like this.

(Do people still do blogs nowadays?)