‘Marvel Avengers Academy’ Has Great Design And Story, But A Plodding Pace [Review]
The idea behind Marvel Avengers Academy is fairly simple. Your favorite Marvel characters have been transported back to their high school days, and you've got to build up the school grounds so the heroes will be better prepared to tackle the HYDRA threat looming just beyond the walls. Though Marvel's had numerous young heroes try to fill the archetypes of the actual Avengers over the years, it's rare that the classic core members are portrayed as angsty, hormonal time-bombs obsessed with social media, DJing, flipping off authority figures and hooking up.
Developed by TinyCo, the team behindFamily Guy: The Quest for Stuff, Marvel Avengers Academy is another basic city-builder game in that vein. You won't have to worry about managing loads of resources and the population's happiness like you would in a game like SimCity or Civilization, and you don't have to worry about attacking or defending like you would in other mobile games like Clash of Clans or Star Wars Commander. You're building your school on your terms, and the only thing in your way is how long it takes to get anything done. Well, that and HYDRA. And the game's constant needling for you to spend money.
Things in Avengers Academy start out innocently enough. Tony Stark and Janet Van Dyne show up to help headmasters Nick Fury and Pepper Potts get things set up for more recruits to join the school and SHIELD's ranks. Before anyone else will show up though, you'll have to set Tony and Wasp off on some quests. To earn in-game currency and experience, characters will have to perform any number of these quests. Each character has a set of unique abilities (such as taking selfies or practicing magic) you'll use to complete these quests, which in turn can be used to unlock more characters, buildings and, you guessed it, even more quests.
To keep you coming back at regular intervals and preventing your from burning through the game at in incredible pace, all of these abilities have time limits. While simple tasks like taking selfies might only take a minute of the Wasp's and your time, more complicated abilities like sending Black Widow to test her Widow's Bite can take an hour. However, you can speed things up by spending Infinity Shards, the second (and more valuable) in-game currency Avengers Academy uses. This gameplay system is par for the course in city-builders, and this is how games like Avengers Academy get you to invest actual currency. Both regular coins and Infinity Shards can be earned slowly by simply playing the game, but they can also be purchased in bulk through the game's store.
It's not long into Avengers Academy's missions that you're offered a quest to actually buy more in-game currency. That quest is still sitting in my queue, where it will collect virtual dust for the rest of eternity. Soon each of the characters at your disposal is given quests that take hours at a time, prompting you to seriously consider speeding things up just so you can enjoy more of the game faster.
To say it's disheartening to be cut off from progress less than an hour into playing Avengers Academy is an understatement. Avengers Academy also restricts the number of characters that can use a building to do a given task, like studying at the archives, meaning any time you have multiple quests that require reading, you'll have to wait it out. It's a cheap way to lengthen the game, especially when tasks already take hours to finish.
There's also the matter just how boring it gets continually sending the same characters on the same quests with a different purpose. Seriously, how many times must we make Loki dance to advance a quest line? Or have the Hulk practice yoga in the quad?
There's also the small problem of having characters with nothing to do. Quests will always require certain characters, and sometimes you'll have heroes like Spider-Woman or Vision who won't have any quests to complete. That means they just wander around campus waiting for you to give them something to do. Though you can have them use any of their abilities at a given moment, unless it's tied to a quest you don't earn any experience or currency. Even if the payout was just a few coins and XP, TinyCo should have had running characters through the motions be worth something.
From a gameplay standpoint, there's not much else going on. You show up, tap a few times, collect your goodies for the quests at hand, and then tap some more. You have no true control over characters, and the only thing you can actually affect is the layout of your school. That's all fine though as that's all you should expect from a game in this genre. Would it have been nice for TinyCo to implement more interactivity for players? Sure. As it stands though, this kind of city-building game continues to find tremendous success, so there's no real reason for TinyCo to diverge too far off the beaten path. What saves Avengers Academy from being merely just another building game is the story and the characters.
Avengers Academy is not all it seems to be, and the Black Widow is doing her best to convince her classmates that Nick Fury is hiding many secrets. It's not hard for her to convince Iron Man, Wasp and the rest of her friends that there's more going on, especially when the time fog (Avengers Academy's way to wall off the game world) reveals things like a smashed Iron Man helmet from the future. Students begin to question just how they all wound up at Avengers Academy and why they're all so young. For his part, Nick Fury isn't saying much, but hints are dropped here and there that there's a larger threat and mystery at play beyond HYDRA being jerks.
Adding such an in-depth narrative to a mobile game in this genre is almost unheard of. While other games in this genre have featured simplistic overarching plots and smaller, episodic storylines, Avengers Academy's strongest suit is its tight and constantly-expanding narrative. What's more, it's actually good. The slowly-developing story is what kept us coming back and furthering quests for all these characters. Without that big storyline tying everyone together, the appeal of Avengers Academy would be solely tied to the license itself. That's usually not enough to keep players invested in returning over and over again. Learning more about what Nick Fury is hiding and what HYDRA is really up to at its rival academy was more addictive than opening the game for just a few more taps.
Both the character design and characterization are incredibly strong as well. The hipper, younger versions of these characters all stay relatively close to their comic book counterpart's looks, but offer a fresh take on each character's iconic designs. If you play long enough, you may even unlock the traditional outfits Iron Man, War Machine and Wasp wear in the comics themselves.
That's strictly for those folks playing the long game however, as those costumes require very high level play. For those of you who do want to change things up, but want a more immediate reward, Van Dyne's offers new alternate costumes for purchase with in-game money. These aren't just skins either; the variant outfits offer different perks, like faster questing and new animations for abilities. It's all optional, but if you have the shards, they are worth investing in for the long run.
As for the individual characters, the writing is enjoyable. Widow's inability to trust anyone, but constantly put down everyone at the same time makes her one of the best in the game. Tony Stark doesn't change much, as his teen persona is basically the same billionaire playboy lothario as the more "mature" Iron Man. The interactions between all of the heroes are terrific, and really help sell this alternate take on the Marvel universe. Though every character gets his or her moment to shine, there's a nice quest with War Machine and Falcon that shows a side of these characters not often focused on. It's these little moments that make Avengers Academy worth plodding through.
Oddly, for how much hoopla was made around the celebrity voice cast, you hardly ever get to hear anything of substance. Most dialogue is done through text blocks, with character voice overs limited to catchphrases that repeat ad nauseam. As funny as it is to hear John Cena grunt "Stop tapping Hulk!" the first few times, it grows old fairly fast. The same holds true for everyone, but especially Dave Franco's Tony Stark. Trust us, we get it; you're a genius.
It's not like there aren't opportunities for these actors to shine either. There are numerous cutscenes throughout Avengers Academy that spring up during key story moments, but like most of the interaction between heroes, these are text driven moments.
There are a few frustrations with Marvel Avengers Academy, but the strong design and story work almost make up for the game's somewhat punishing pace. As Avengers Academy is free-to-play, it requires a bit of patience (or a willingness to invest actual money) to get the most out of it.
That said, if you're fine setting characters off on tasks while you work, and then checking in on the game's progress during small breaks in your day, there's plenty to enjoy. It might take you a week to gain any real progress in the story, but that's just how it goes with many free-to-play builders like this. There's no real way to experience all that Avengers Academy has to offer in a short term situation without opening your wallet.
It's almost a shame that this particular incarnation of the Avengers is trapped away in this mobile game, as there's certainly enough mileage here to get a comic story or animated feature out of this world. TinyCo and Marvel have done a nice job developing Avengers Academy for this platform though, and the continually expanding Marvel mobile games library shows that Marvel doesn't necessarily need to focus on consoles to provide interesting and worthwhile gaming experiences.
Marvel Avengers Academy is available for download on iOS and Android for free. The developer provided us with in-game currency to use for the purposes of this review.