The Avengers is a cancelled first person co-op beat ‘em up game that was planned to be released alongside the 2012 superhero movie of the same name. The project was under development at THQ Studio Australia (Studio Oz) until THQ decided to close it. It was being worked on for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC; with further plans for a Wii U release.
Pre-production on the Avengers video game began in August 2010 at the Brisbane-based, THQ Studio Australia with approximately 80 employees working on it. During the first months of preliminary development, it was originally being planned as a third person game.
An Avengers movie – with Skrulls?
When details of the project began to leak online in September 2011, there was a number of claims and rumors from various sites that the game was in some way connected to Marvel Studios’ Avengers movie, which was to be released the following year. Concept art was soon uncovered depicting the heroes facing down the Skrulls, an alien race from the Marvel comics. This lead some to believe that the upcoming film would also feature Skrulls, through the assumption that the game was directly tied into it. Jeremy Love, an artist who worked on the title for THQ was adamant that this was never the case:
“[It was] totally unrelated to the film. We were given early film art to use as reference for certain things but that’s about it.”
He continued, elaborating on possible sources of the confusion:
“Some toys were released before the film which were based on designs we had done for the game. People naturally jumped on that and drew their own conclusions. When the game was cancelled, some footage and art was leaked which also fueled speculation that the Skrull race would feature in the upcoming film.”
Skrull concept art:
An original Marvel story by a comics legend
As well as Love, we spoke to several other former members of THQ Studio Australia, who confirmed that the game’s story was “completely standalone”. According to one source, it had been written by none other than comics veteran, Brian Michael Bendis, whose other notable works include Secret War and Secret Invasion; the latter of which was another significant story about the Skrulls. Bendis himself was unavailable for comment, but another artist from the team was able to recall some details of the plot for us:
“The story was fairly finished. Basically a Skrull invasion. A huge mother ship hovering above the city controlled by ‘priests’ which sat in the highest level. Veranke along with various generals and what not, headed the Skrull forces. One of the Skrull objectives was to enslave all superheroes and mimic their powers by shape shifting.”
‘Skrull priest’ concept art:
According to another former member of the team, this would have been a somewhat different take on the Skrulls. In contrast with Secret Invasion, which depicted the villains masquerading themselves as world leaders to stealthily gain control of the planet’s political infrastructure, this was set to be a more bombastic conquest for the invaders. One planned sequence would have seen them destroying the Baxter Building, HQ of the Fantastic Four, using a Negative Zone portal to remove them from humanity’s line of defence.
However, the game’s narrative would have, as you might expect, made use of their trademark brand of shapeshifting-based espionage too. Jessica Drew, AKA Spider-Woman, would have played a side role in the opening chapters. At a later point in the campaign, it would have then transpired that this was, in actuality, the aforementioned Veranke; queen of the Skrull Empire in disguise. This was the outcome of an intense interrogation by Nick Fury and SHIELD, which caused her to reveal herself. It’s likely this was a direct homage to a plot twist from the comics, in which she similarly infiltrated SHIELD under the guise of Spider-Woman.
Matthew Ota, a senior game designer on the project, had an instrumental role in its development and recounted the full roster of playable Avengers that would have risen to Earth’s calling:
Other non-playable characters in the story that were considered included Vision, Ant-Man and even Ultron; although it is unknown how they would have been implemented.
Ultron + Vision concept art:
The story’s focus was very strongly on members and associates of the Avengers group, but references to other renowned Marvel characters, such as the X-Men, were in abundance. The Super-Skrulls were reworked into a prominent class of enemies in the game, meaning there were far more of them than the norm of the comics. In line with those appearances, each of them carried various powers that they had mimicked from Earth’s robust line-up of super heroes. For instance, some were able to stretch their arms to grapple the Avengers a la Mister Fantastic or summon Wolverine’s iconic claws of adamantium.
Super-Skrulls concept art:
THQ’s New Spin On Marvel Games
After a few months of pre-production, the project underwent a radical change of course. It became the first Marvel game ever to be built around a first person camera view, as opposed to the third person game it had first been envisioned as. As recalled by Ota, the decision was made “to differentiate the title from the long history of third-person action games Marvel had put out.”
Early first person concept art:
This is just one of the substantial shifts in direction made before major prototyping could begin. Another idea that never made it was for a secondary mode outside of the main missions dubbed ‘Avengers Training Academy’. This was briefly considered as a single player game type exclusive to the Xbox 360, which would have used Kinect. As the concept visuals for it show, it would have featured the player using various gestures towards the Kinect to take part in training exercises set by different Avengers.
The production phase of The Avengers’ development commenced in November 2010. By this time, the team had set out to create a game which was, ambitiously, built with co-operative gameplay at its very core. Players would have been able to tackle missions with up to four players either locally via split-screen, online or any combination of the two.
The game’s story mode would have delivered the team on an adventure around the globe, spanning a variety of significant locales from the comics. These included SHIELD’s Triskellion base, Manhattan and the hellicarrier; as well as the interiors of enemy space ships. A chapter set in the Savage lands, too, was planned early on, but was later abandoned.
Whether you were playing alone or with friends, co-operation between heroes was a key component of the gameplay. Each hero was equipped with an ‘assist move’ that would momentarily stun an enemy, leaving him open for a fellow player to attack. Players could create elaborate combos between one another, creating damage multipliers and bonuses based upon their success.
The team had designed a sophisticated AI system to make sure that even if you weren’t playing it with others, you would still have a comparable experience that would channel the essence of teamwork at the heart of the Avengers. Extensive periods of tweaking were applied throughout development to achieve an intelligent computer-controlled counterpart, which included rebuilding it at one point to make the computer allies seem “more human”. This meant lowering their accuracy by a very slight degree, whilst also ensuring they were adequately responsive to combo opportunities.
Each Avenger had its own unique feel and playstyle. While Iron Man heavily made use of projectiles like cluster missiles and could fly around stages, Hulk was slightly slower, but packed a much bigger punch than the others; taking down larger foes with ease in close-quarters. Thor possessed a potent stun ability in the form of summoning large bolts of lightning and could hurl his hammer for a powerful long range attack. Captain America, lastly, was the more grounded of the four. His melee combat was much quicker than the others and he could throw his shield for an easy kill.
“We tried to make each character distinctive but keep it simple enough in case you wanted to keep switching between them. Stuff like the disrupt and combo mechanics was the same for all, but everyone got a sense they all had different roles to play. Balancing each of them was important too.” – Former THQ Studio Australia worker.
Other shared traits of each characters were ‘Hero Boosts’ and ‘Interrupt’ attacks. Whereas Hero Boosts allowed you to buff a fellow Avenger for a limited time (e.g. summon energy shields around them if you were Iron Man), interrupts were manoeuvres to free allies from the grips of a Super Skrull.
Every character was being built with a plethora of finisher moves too; deadly attacks that would pull the camera back to third person for a cinematic view, as your Avenger of choice lay waste to opponents in style. These could be initiated either in the air or on the ground, with ample variety to keep repetition to a minimum.
A detailed experience points system underpinned the game as a means of developing and unlocking new abilities. Players would gain XP constantly based upon their actions: whether it was assisting a team mate in battle, racking up kills or destroying enemy weapon caches.
The Oz team were determined to inject as a decent amount of variety into missions, as Ota explained:
“To mix up the pacing, we had gates where players were locked into an arena for a period of time, having to solve a problem or survive an onslaught. One example was a King-of-the-Hill-style mode where Skrull were placing multiple beacons around an arena that the players had to coordinate to disrupt before they reached critical mass.”
User interface concepts/mock-ups:
Blue Tongue Joins The Project
Throughout the first several months of 2011, development was progressing smoothly at THQ Studio Australia. The team had been able to map out the majority of the game’s mission environments and the four aforementioned characters were in a near finished state. Regardless, the team was still racing to stay on top of a tight schedule set by the publishers, which lead to them outsourcing a chunk of the project to another of THQ’s Australian studios, Blue Tongue Entertainment.
Blue Tongue, best known for the de Blob games, was already deep in work on WWE Brawl, but was still equipped with enough resources for the task. For the final few months of The Avengers’ life cycle, they became responsible for creating the game’s helicarrier stage.
Blue Tongue helicarrier concepts:
The Beginning of the End
It was midway through 2011 when matters took a dramatic turn for the worse. THQ was backed into a corner due to a succession of “massive missteps”, candidly admitted Jason Rubin, who was its president at the time. A perfect storm of mismanagement had begun to slowly cripple them financially, including the unprecedented failure of the U-Draw tablet and enormous budgets blown on troubled titles like Homefront.
The result of this was the higher ups looking to cut off some of their subsidiaries in order to relieve the company enough to ensure its survival. According to one source we spoke to, a former member of the group, it was the rising value of the Aussie dollar that caused them to turn their attention towards their Australian studios. These economic shifts had rendered them more expensive to maintain than any of their US studios.
It was on August 9th, 2011 that THQ released a statement announcing lay offs of around 200 people from their Australian divisions. The investors notice neglected to disclose which companies specifically were affected, but a related source on NeoGAF soon revealed that both Blue Tongue and Studio Australia had been closed. Despite a full year of production on The Avengers, it had been cancelled as a direct result of this with no plans to pass it on to another studio.
The decision to shutter the developers came initially as a shock to employees, said one former artist of Blue Tongue, but was known “about three months in advance” of the closure itself. Studio Australia’s creative team were confident in their ability to deliver a quality game with The Avengers and therefore attempted to save the project with a pitch to Marvel themselves, trying to secure a new source of funding.
Development continued right until the proposal, which was ultimately turned down by the comics giant, sealing the studio’s fate and consequently killing their Avengers game. At the time, work had been underway on constructing movesets for the first of the planned unlockable characters, Hawkeye and Black Widow. The remaining two, Ms. Marvel and War Machine, had yet to implemented.
Black Widow & Hawkeye character models + concept art:
War Machine & Ms. Marvel concept art:
Additional plans for an eventual Wii U version of the game were drawn, according to one former programmer; although development on it had yet to begin. It would have been ported from the Xbox 360 and PS3 builds with extensive gamepad implementation, had it been made.
According to one source Unseen64 has been in contact with in relation to the project, the most complete pre-alpha build of the game is now in the possession of its story scribe, Brian Michael Bendis. The writer reportedly took this fully playable chunk of the game as a personal keepsake.
A Final Word From The Writer
On January 25, 2015, Brian Michael Bendis, the game’s story scribe, shared a few words on the game via his Tumblr. When asked if he thought the project could be one day resurrected on newer consoles, he had this to say:
“I wouldn’t think so. It’s a generation past tech wise. It was cool. It is cool. And I will NEVER understand how they let that one sink and not sell it off when the whole company folded.
It was kind of like secret invasion as a FPS”
He neglected to share whether or not he did, in actuality, have a private copy of a work-in-progress build of the game, as we originally reported.
Character and environment art:
Skrull Ship concept art:
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