Assembling Marvel's Avengers: Black Widow

How did Crystal Dynamics make Natasha Romanoff feel like the ultimate super-spy?
By Duncan Heaney

From the very beginning of creating Marvel’s Avengers, Crystal Dynamics has taken a consistent, fan-first, philosophical approach to shaping the Avengers and their abilities. Every single one of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes is a powerful and compelling character in their own right, and all of them had to feel both distinct and true to their comic-book origins.

As Crystal Dynamics Co-Head Scot Amos says: “When it came to Black Widow, we knew we had to make her feel awesome. If this was a Black Widow game, and only a Black Widow game, what traits, skills and abilities would be needed to make it feel like a true representation of that hero?”

It might surprise you to know, Black Widow was the first Avenger to be worked on - and the first to be completed. Creating the iconic super-spy was a labor of love combining her gadgets and unstoppable combat together.

Early Planning

Marvel’s Avengers is a true and authentic, passion project for Crystal Dynamics - because everyone on the team is already intimately familiar with this universe. That baked-in enthusiasm and knowledge has had a massive impact when designing each Avengers persona and unique combat style, notably Black Widow.

Vince Napoli, Lead Combat Designer, says: “Many of us - me included - have been Marvel comic fans for years, while others are more familiar with the movies or TV shows. You don't often get to work on a game where everyone is a diehard fan in different ways - but that’s how it was for Marvel’s Avengers.”

“So when we were initially planning Black Widow - and the rest of these characters actually - we took the opinions of the entire team. People have all sorts of crazy ideas and we put them all up on the board and thought - let's see what happens if we try to tackle some of these crazy ideas?

“Well, what you get is something that people undoubtedly want to see.”

The combat mechanics fit the character, not vice versa

For Black Widow, a clear picture of what fans wanted - and expected - to see very quickly emerged.

“There’s a very particular style for Black Widow, right?,” says Napoli. “You want to see her using her grappling hook, getting behind a bunch of enemies, flip kicking them into the air in an awesome way, moving back and forth between them - a very flowing and athletic style.

“So when we were planning Black Widow, we had this clear picture of her in our heads. We went into design from there - rather than building Natasha’s move set from a systems standpoint, we worked backwards from that iconic image and everything ballooned from that.”

Making Natasha Romanoff the Ultimate Spy

One particularly strong influence came from a comic specifically: Devin Grayson and Greg Rucka’s Marvel Knights Black Widow series. This seminal book focused on Natasha Romanoff’s past as a spy, and put her head to head with a deadly foe every bit as skilled and subtle as she is.

“That series was all about Natasha the spy,” Napoli recalls. “She’s running around like Jason Bourne, with all the tools of the trade. She has something for every scenario - be it an awesome gadget, her abilities or her wits.”

The development team wanted those spy elements of Natasha to shine through - and let players really go to town with her gadgets, no matter how varied they may be.

Napoli says: “That was really our key pitch for Back Widow. Rather than trying to restrain her to a certain type of mechanic, we wanted the character to be able to reach in and pull out any tool she needs for that situation - stuff like trip mines and smoke grenades.”

But awesome gadgets do not a spy make - they also need skills. As any Marvel fans know, Natasha Romanoff is about as capable an operative as you’ll ever find. One of her core traits is her agility, and this is something the team worked hard to capture in gameplay.

The version of Black Widow in Marvel’s Avengers is a cool and collected operative. She moves fast, strikes hard and gets out of the way before the enemy can hit back. At least, she should… but this wasn’t necessarily the case in some of her early builds.

“Earlier incarnations of the character played a bit more theatrically,” says Napoli. “Her moves were flashier, and more elaborate, but they didn’t give us the sense of being a superspy.

The problem was that those mechanics were at odds with the character. Romanoff shouldn’t showboat like Tony Stark or cause chaos like Hulk - she’s a professional spy and as such should be professionally efficient. As a result, those moves were pared down. Instead, the team focused on making her feel swift and snappy, ensuring she fights with a clear sense of purpose.

Napoli explains: “The key elements of Natasha’s fighting style are evasion and movement. She attacks, dodges, gets back in close, and so on. We iterated on those elements repeatedly. As it stands now, you can draw a weapon, fire it, put it away, grapple in close, lay in some hits - all very quickly and smoothly. It all makes her feel very… sharp and clean to control.”

Getting the feel right

Getting Black Widow to feel that clean and elegant took some effort. This breakthrough actually came from one of her simplest moves: the Trip Kick.

“I remember a moment in development where we implemented that move,” recalls Napoli. “It’s such a simple concept, but everyone was really excited about it.

“You’ve seen a bunch of trip kicks before in games. Heck, you can buy trip kicks off the shelf for your game, but turning it into something that specifically fits Black Widow was weirdly satisfying.

“A lot of that was because of how clean and quick it was, as well as the posing. It’s efficient - and there’s a sort of elegant, ballerina type feel to the way it moves. It’s not just a standard trip, it’s the Black Widow version of that move.”

Achieving that feeling on that one simple move allowed the team to look through the rest of the character’s repertoire.

Napoli says: “Once you start nailing those moves, once they feel true to the character, it becomes easier to see things that don’t quite match up. We could then refine those things over and over until they felt just right.”

“So when we had that trip kick, it was really a case of ‘let’s make everything feel like that’. Once we had, we had our Black Widow.”

Veil of Awesome

One ability in particular that took a while to get right was Black Widow’s Veil of Shadows. This move turns the hero, and those around her invisible, allowing them to get the drop on enemies undetected.

Getting it to work mechanically was one thing, but making sure it also looked good was another challenge entirely. Lauryn Ash, Game Systems Designer for Crystal Dynamics, recalls the elation she felt when it all came together.

“We wanted to make sure every member of the Avengers has something unique to bring to the multiplayer experience,” says Ash. “When we were prototyping Veil of Shadows, there were no visual effects. It was essentially a solid wall. But even then, it was cool - and opened up all kinds of gameplay opportunities.

Everyone came together - combat designers, VFX artists, animators, and technical artists to make invisibility come to life.

“And invisibility is not easy by the way,” Ash points out. “Crystal Dynamics has never had to turn one hero invisible, much less four simultaneously!”

It took time and iteration, but eventually the visual effects of Veil of Shadows lived up to the gameplay - and the effect was remarkable.

“The moment it really hit home that we’d got this right was when we got a strike team of four together on a mission. You’re running around and suddenly there’s just chaos - an explosion of destruction. And there in the background is an invisible Hulk smashing down on a group of enemies with an aerial move. It just looks and feels awesome!”

As those of you who played the beta will know, the finished Black Widow is an impressively fluid character in action, capable of delivering some amazing combos if you learn how to chain her abilities effectively.

If you’ve yet to try the character out for yourself, you can do so from September 4, 2020, when Marvel’s Avengers releases for PS4, Xbox One, Google Stadia, and Steam.