Marvel’s Avengers has had a pretty rough first year in existence. A dwindling-to-nearly-nothing player base, a massive expense without the sales to wipe out the red in the ledger, and a title that’s become less of a meme and more of a forgotten game entirely is not the way you want your flagship superhero service to go. The fact that it remains not only accessible but occasionally receives new content is, well, not exactly a miracle but more of a testament to Square Enix and Marvel’s plans to keep Crystal Dynamics’ game in the mix. However, a pair of Hawkeye DLCs and a smattering of high-level multiplayer co-op mechanics didn’t exactly inspire confidence let alone trigger a resurgent player base. Could the globally popular Black Panther IP change all that?
Released this week, Marvel’s Avengers: Black Panther – War for Wakanda Expansion arrived for free to new and returning players alike. It introduced Christopher Judge as King T’Challa / Black Panther, a casting choice cast in the shadow of the late, great Chadwick Boseman‘s iconic performances in the role in the MCU. It’s a DLC that focuses entirely on the Wakandan royal, his family, and his people, all of whom are threatened by the comic book character’s longtime nemesis, the mercenary Ulysses Klaue. War for Wakanda is a beautiful departure from the somewhat same-y nature of Marvel’s Avengers and its existing DLC, but it’s unfortunately far too shallow an exploration of Black Panther lore and is plagued by the underlying issues of the base game.
In the runup to the release of War for Wakanda, I had a chance to check out a hands-off gameplay demo to get a sense of what was to come. What impressed me then and there carried over to the hands-on experience itself, I’m happy to say: Black Panther’s abilities and skill sets are stacked and combo-heavy, which takes some getting used to but are a blast to execute; Wakanda’s setting is jaw-droppingly gorgeous; and the world of Marvel’s Avengers gets a much-needed expansion and change of scenery from the same old, same old. However, Judge’s performance of T’Challa / Black Panther never quite sat right with me. His performance itself is quite good, but Judge’s voice and delivery suggest a character much older than the one portrayed in the story, and my inner fan simply can’t separate the late Boseman from his iconic role and voice. Happy to say that the rest of the voice cast remains rock solid, including Debra Wilson‘s super-serious Okoye, Dave Fennoy‘s mystical and playful Zawavari, Erica Luttrell‘s youthful up-and-comer Shuri, and veteran Steve Blum‘s occasionally unhinged Ulysses Klaue. Add in the Avengers’ accomplished cast members when they show up to join the party and the narrative lightens up quite a bit in between moments of deadly seriousness. But all the combat quips and lore drops in the world can’t save the otherwise shallow story and buggy mess that remains Marvel’s Avengers.
Finishing the DLC after roughly five or six hours, I was left feeling satisfied by the game’s version of Black Panther, Shuri, Okoye and the Dora Milaje, and other elements that Wakanda had to offer. But then I thought about it a little more. There’s the story of T’Challa’s uneasy seat upon the throne, the bad blood between his family and Klaue’s, and tensions among the various tribes of Wakanda; the main emotional core here, however, concerns T’Challa as king, protector, and older brother to Shuri, who predictably gets in over her head but also manages to save the day in her own way. That’s all well and good, it’s just too short, too shallow, and leaves too much to be desired in what should have been a meatier addition to the game.
Imagine an extended version of this story that borrows elements of the MCU’s Black Panther movie—more time with the various tribes, an exploration of the heart-shaped herb, internal struggles between T’Challa and other high-ranking royals who might question his leadership—rather than a one-off adventure that assumes you know pretty much everything there is to know about the character already. Yes, there’s lore scattered about the world of Wakanda through various collectibles and character interactions, and they’re absolutely worth seeking out. And yes, there are surface-level name drops of other notable folks within that world. But while that’s all appreciated, I would have gladly paid for a DLC that took a deep dive into this lore rather than merely brushing up against it for free.
More than just missing a golden opportunity to explore the Golden City of Birnin Zana and other areas—gameplay is mostly restricted to jungle paths, subterranean mines, and palace walkthroughs—War for Wakanda misses out on opportunities to change up gameplay in interesting ways. Imagine, again, a mission where T’Challa partook of the heart-shaped herb to enter a hallucinatory state and either battle against past Black Panthers, or talk to them, whatever; that would have been a much-needed change-up to the stale gameplay of Marvel’s Avengers. Newly introduced puzzles—”match the symbol” and “hit these targets in order” being the best this expansion and the game have to offer—were a refreshing sip of water in the desert of content and challenge variety, but they were also incredibly basic, and too few and far between. There’s so much more left out of the Black Panther lore than I can even note here, but just thinking about it makes me wish the War for Wakanda expansion was its own standalone title, similar to Spider-Man: Miles Morales.
That’s not to say that what we have in War for Wakanda isn’t good. It is, for the most part. Black Panther’s skills are a blast to use, though you likely won’t get to unlock all of them in a single playthrough of the campaign. Same with the cosmetic skins, which are gorgeous but expensive and/or time-consuming to earn. His interactions with Okoye, Shuri, Zawavari, Klaue, and the Avengers adds a much-needed bit of spice to the stale overall story, but the inept AI companions you’re forced to bring with you end up getting in the way more than anything else. (If I had a dollar for every time Cap stood idle with a trio of sonic shockwave bros, or Tony triggered the Hulkbuster Ultimate just to deal with a turret, I could retire, happily.) The combat itself was fun, especially with challenging new enemies who bring their own (often irritating) skill sets, but when adversaries T-pose in the middle of battle, levitate through thin air (without a jetpack), or disappear entirely, otherwise fun fights quickly become tedious and frustrating. Don’t get me started on the sonic effects scrambling your vision to the point of near-total blindness…
Same with this expansion’s level design, which, while good and refreshingly inventive at times, requires a fine-tuning at least in order to make the whole experience more fun than frustrating without losing that challenge factor. But hey, all of that requires an attention to detail that’s clearly lacking for whatever reason. One has only to look at Tony Stark rocking a full Iron Man faceplate in place of his actual face to know that War for Wakanda is still as wrinkly and buggy as the base game. Maybe the Devs thought we would miss visual bugs like that thanks to an uncontrollably shakey cam that has a wild mind of its own in battle.
When it’s all said and done, I’m glad that War for Wakanda gave us the chance to play as Black Panther and that Crystal Dynamics’ team did a bang-up job of delivering a powerhouse superhero for that experience. I could have done with a deeper story, but what’s there is serviceable and enjoyable for a few hours’ time. And the issues with the live-service game that plague the general player experience continue here, eventually chipping away at the fun I was otherwise having with War for Wakanda. It’s a fun enough addition for existing fans and may lure a few new ones back to the game simply to step into T’Challa’s stylish shoes, but there’s also a reason it’s been included as a free DLC.
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