In this past summer’s Avengers movie blockbuster, the Black Widow looked kind of silly standing next to Thor and the Hulk. While you might have thought the Asgardian god of thunder and the invulnerable green rage monster had an honest shot at repelling an alien invasion, it was a tough ask to believe that a spy with tiny pea-shooter guns in place of super powers could do the same.
If that was difficult to swallow, you might find the Avengers game for Kinect – where the Widow can handily dispatch not just alien invaders, but Thor, the Hulk and any other hero or villain in Marvel’s pantheon of characters – positively choke-inducing.
Marvel Avengers: Battle for Earth is a unique effort by Ubisoft Quebec that brings the fighting game concept of Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat to motion gaming. Surprisingly, it succeeds on a mechanical level as the fighting motions are accurate and match player gestures well, but the overall enjoyment factor isn’t there because of that imbalance. Or, to be more exact, because of a lack of it.
Hey, I know it’s a video game – and one that’s based on comic books at that – so reality does have a loose application here, but the balance problem is actually rooted in the core of the game. Despite giving players 20 characters to choose from, Battle for Earth evenly matches all the heroes and villains to the point where it doesn’t matter who you use. Every character has the same chance of beating every other character, and vice-versa.
It’s a dilemma found in every superhero fighting game, but the issue is compounded here by the fact that each character has only a few unique moves. Everyone can perform some sort of basic attack by having the player punch the air in front of them – Iron Man fires repulsor blasts while Hawkeye shoots arrows, for example. Ditto for raising your knee, which generally results in some sort of kick attack.
But from there, each character has only a trio of attacks reserved just for them. Raising your arms to your side and then straight up will cause Iron Man to rain a fusillade of rockets down on his opponent, while performing a baseball-like bat swing will lead to a double axe-handle punch from the Hulk. While those moves are nifty, having only three of them doesn’t do much to differentiate the characters.
As in many fighting games, stringing these attacks together improves the combo multiplier, which both depletes the opponent’s health bar and builds your “Ultra meter.” Once full, you activate the meter by jumping, whereupon the character unleashes a devastating fourth attack.
To make it even more impressive, you can get a damage boost if you shout out the on-screen instruction in time. Thor’s, by the way, is the most fun – it’s a real hoot to yell “For Asgard!” as he unleashes his lightning fury.
The game has a high degree of polish: animations and graphics are crisp, cartoonish and feel nicely comic-book-ish, while the menus are easily navigable through voice and gesture commands. There are also several modes where you can play competitively or co-operatively with other players, both in your living room and online.
Battle for Earth is most fun when this sort of action feels natural. Peppering opponents with repulsor blasts gives you a bit of insight into what it might feel like to be Iron Man, while casting spells as the Scarlet Witch or Doctor Strange – and the requisite weaving of hand gestures – is also very cool. On the other hand, the game doesn’t do a good job at some of the more subtle aspects of super-humanity, like approximating just how strong the Hulk is, or how fast and agile Spider-Man might be.
Ultimately, it’s the dearth of moves that makes Battle for Earth boring over time. With only five moves plus the Ultra to choose from, things get dull quickly. The core imbalance, where the Black Widow can easily defeat Thor, wouldn’t be nearly as noticeable if players had more attacks to choose from, as they generally do in button-based fighting games.
Battle for Earth’s main campaign mode, which features the Secret Invasion storyline from the comics, quickly becomes a grinding test of will: How long you can put up with the same thing over and over again?
The shape-shifting alien Skrulls are bent on dominating the planet by infiltrating its super-human ranks, so players must fight them in several key locations, such as the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier and the prehistoric Savage Land. There, they duke it out in teams of two against Skrull doppelgangers of heroes and villains.
New characters and goodies are unlocked along the way, but the sameness and lack of variety get more prevalent as you progress through the story’s 40 battles. The difficulty ramps up – opponents start to unleash Ultra attacks at you about halfway through, for example – but it’s not enough for the the fights to feel different.
Avengers: Battle for Earth will tire you out, but it just can’t quite trick us into believing the Black Widow could really kick Thor’s butt, which is too bad because that smarmy Goldilocks usually has it coming.