Despite past promises, Marvel’s Avengers is severely lacking in accessibility options

The strength of Marvel’s Avengers is its incredible single-player story about a team ripped apart and brought back together, told mostly through the perspective of a teenage girl whose greatest power may be her hope. But I was underwhelmed by the game’s beta, which lacked severely in its accessibility arsenal and offered very little assistance with basic gameplay obstacles. As a legally blind gamer, this was a particularly rough battlefield in many spots. The issues caused by my albinism don’t just mean that I have trouble seeing objects and text, but that issues like depth perception and light sensitivity come into play when the colored lasers start flying.

I held on to some spare hope — not just that the full game would pull me in more, but that it would offer expanded accessibility options and assistive features beyond the lackluster display in the beta. Now that I’ve seen it, I realize I can’t save the day as an Avenger, because the team that made the game isn’t there to support me.

Image: Crystal Dynamics/Square Enix

The Marvel’s Avengers beta didn’t provide much in the menus; many of them looked scarce, with an abundance of negative space. A few thoughtful features caught my eye, but I kept looking around for something more. I couldn’t believe that was it. I even became convinced there was a hidden drop-down list that I was missing, a big selection of adjustable widgets that just had to be there.

The available options included helpful settings to tweak with the camera, aim assist — which sort of works — and several options for target locks. And I am a huge fan of having one button that automatically puts the best pieces of gear in each item slot for the character, saving me the trouble of reading through all the different text on the items (except when I want to do a little housekeeping of my inventory). But what good are these features if I have so much trouble with everything else?

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After my time with the beta, I was still anticipating the game itself, still wanting to let the single-player elements mesmerize my inner comic geek. I also hoped we’d see more options than the beta offered.

That didn’t pan out, though. The menus in Marvel’s Avengers are still bare; some of the simplest features that would make the game more playable for me and others are absent. There are a few small additions inspired by feedback from the beta, like adjustment of the camera’s shake sensitivity, and complete controller remapping is enabled, as promised, but where is everything else? There are some incredibly basic applications missing here. We have subtitles and a few options for what color they show up in, but they’re still tiny, with no way to make them larger. A wonderfully expressive set of closed captions is present, but not in multiplayer missions, for some reason. Why?

Image: Crystal Dynamics/Square Enix via Polygon

I spent a few minutes studying the HUD, trying to memorize some of the layout and icons so that it’d be easier to assess my status in battle. My teammates’ life bars were a big issue, as was telling some of my attacks apart. I hadn’t expected any of that to change from the beta, but I did hope there would be an option to adjust the HUD size, or anything to help with visibility in that regard. Something like this seems almost embarrassing after playing Gears 5 and The Last of Us Part 2, and with the knowledge that Square Enix can do just as well as those games with some thought and effort put in.

Square Enix and developer Crystal Dynamics also impressed me a while back with how they handled subtitles in the Tomb Raider reboot series, offering many options with colors, sizes, and closed caption selections, proving that they had the skills to provide decent accessibility functions. It’s a shame that they couldn’t provide the same level of support in Marvel’s Avengers, let alone improve on it.

This situation is especially hard to believe when discussing an intellectual property like Avengers, Marvel’s flagship hero team, backed by Disney, in a time when the spectacle that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe could potentially bring in so many new fans. One of the game’s marketing taglines is “embrace your power,” and if anyone could help me with that, it should be a cooperative effort between companies like Square Enix and Marvel. However, the surprising lack of support here shackles the game’s heroes.

The issues in Marvel’s Avengers are doubly disappointing when considered in the context of the game makers’ proclamations about their accessibility efforts. In the reviewer’s guide that was sent out to the press, and in a pre-launch blog post, Crystal Dynamics touted the progress it has made over the last decade with accessibility in its games. The studio mentioned bringing in outside consultants like Cherry Thompson, and boasted about being APXP-certified after working with AbleGamers. To read that the developers called that event “a defining moment,” and then see how little Marvel’s Avengers offers at launch, feels like they got a certification just for it to look nice on the wall.

One comment in the blog post stuck out as an attempt to acknowledge that the team knew that not everything was where it needed to be, but it comes across as simply asking players to temper their expectations. “Accessibility is an ongoing pursuit, not a finite goal,” the post from Crystal Dynamics said. “Marvel’s Avengers is an incredibly ambitious game for Crystal Dynamics, and we plan to continue addressing our accessibility ambitions and rolling out improvements well beyond launch.”

Will we get more wacky outfits before we get more accessibility options?
Image: Crystal Dynamics/Square Enix

For many in the accessibility community, there is a goal. Even if it isn’t finite, there is a line that can be reached where we can easily play. Instead, we get a blog post and a loose promise. The article represents the most up-to-date news from Crystal Dynamics about the accessibility options in the game and the “work in progress,” which consists of improvements we can expect in the (hopefully?) near future. For everything that seems to be missing, we will be getting four changes — one of which, the company points out, hasn’t entered development yet. It isn’t very encouraging.

I do understand that including accessibility features isn’t always easy, and that some of these implementations were held up by reduced productivity due to the ongoing pandemic. But I’m now more skeptical about future updates, considering how little changed between the beta and launch, and considering that the studio’s attention is now focused on maintaining a “live” game.

Marvel’s Avengers guide

Also, what if the game doesn’t do well as the developers roll out more content? Will they then spend less time and money on adding accessibility features? After Naughty Dog released another recent patch for The Last of Us Part 2, adding even more specific and varied options to the game’s already impressive accessibility suite, it’s hard to think about Crystal Dynamics not following through and adding a lot more to Marvel’s Avengers.

That would be devastating, because what’s there now just doesn’t cover enough. And I imagine I’m not the only one who has no desire to do any sort of gear grind if I can’t comfortably see the game, or if I have any other major difficulties playing it.

I’ve focused a lot on visual issues with Marvel’s Avengers because that is my major disability, but it also seems to be where a lot of the developers’ focus lies at the moment. However, there are many other people to consider. A few options, like being able to hold a button down, or hit it once instead of tapping it repeatedly, are available for those with more physical ailments that might keep them from playing. And the game’s various difficulty levels may cover some players with cognitive disabilities (even if The Last of Us Part 2 has spoiled us on adjustable difficulty settings). But these features all seem like shallow waters in the grand scheme of things, when there is so much more that can be offered.

Hawkeye is coming to Marvel’s Avengers, but will he bring accessibility features for players who are deaf or hard of hearing?
Image: Crystal Dynamics/Square Enix

Barely anything in Marvel’s Avengers is geared toward those who are deaf or hard of hearing. Knowing that these players rely so much on visual cues makes issues like the small text and tiny HUD elements even more annoying. The speech-to-text and extremely detailed closed captioning options listed above may not be much (especially since they apply only to the single-player mode), but the options that are available have received some positive remarks.

But nothing appears to be on the docket to improve accessibility for hearing-impaired players, a fact that perhaps stings a bit more now that Hawkeye has been confirmed for the game — and that there is evidence that this could be one of the versions of the archer that is hard of hearing, and wears aids to help account for that. It would be a boldly disappointing move to add a deaf hero without also adding at least a few more options to help players in the same community, who might look up to the character more.

Asked about future plans for accessibility updates, representatives for Marvel’s Avengers told me they had nothing to share beyond the existing blog post.

Marvel’s Avengers has always been pitched as a “live” game that Crystal Dynamics will expand over time, and the studio’s openness about that fact seems to have convinced the developers that they could let that philosophy extend to all corners of the project, including accessibility. I want to believe that this is less about cutting corners and more about the team running out of time, but seeing how quickly the main game came out after the beta, and how little changed in between, I’m doubtful.

Why, then, should gamers with disabilities take a risk and purchase a game with such bare-bones accessibility features? Why not just wait until Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics can spare the time to make their comic book masterpiece fun and optimized for everyone? At least then, the game might be cheaper, and perhaps skins won’t cost almost $10. It’s a shame, a sad day for those who want to be heroes, and a ghastly view of an A-Day tragedy that could happen again in the next AAA title whose makers decide that comprehensive accessibility options can wait until the money is rolling in.

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