Assembling Marvel’s Avengers: Captain America

Leader, icon and the ultimate soldier: how did Crystal Dynamics do justice to Captain Steve Rogers?
By Duncan Heaney

Every team needs a leader, and few are as noble and capable as Captain America.

Crystal Dynamics knew that the character was to play an essential role in both the story and gameplay of Marvel’s Avengers, and worked incredibly hard to ensure that he felt authentically ‘Cap’.

But before work could start on what he could do, the team had to define who their version of the character would be.

The Human Hero

A good Super Hero story is about more than just flashy powers and colorful costumes - it says something about the Heroes themselves. That’s a fact that wasn’t lost on Creative Director Shaun Escayg and his team. They wanted to craft a tale that explored the human side of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes - and Steve Rogers might just be the most human of all.

“I was really inspired by the early Captain America stories,” says Escayg. “One thing they did really well was to emphasize his struggle as a Hero, his constant need to do good.

“I remember one particular story - No Longer Alone by Stan Lee and Jim Steranko. It portrays a very vulnerable Cap. He’s not just this ultra-confident paragon of justice, he worries about his decisions and the affect they have on others. Because he’s passionate about doing right by himself, his friends and the world.”

“That, to me, is the key to the character. While his abilities are impressive, the heart of his super heroism comes from his personality. He has such a big role in the Avengers because he believes so strongly it’s the right thing to do - that’s his true strength, and it’s something the rest of the team leans on.”

The Avengers’ Guiding Light

As the leader of the Avengers, Captain America is more than just a Hero in his own right, he’s a symbol, and this is a facet of the character that Crystal Dynamics was eager to explore in the game.

The game opens with A-Day, an event in San Francisco that was meant to celebrate the Avengers expanding, but tragedy strikes and in the ensuing chaos, Captain America is lost. This essentially breaks the team.

Escayg says: “Cap’s passion and belief was like a beacon that would always see the team through, no matter how tough things got. He brought them together and united them - so what happens when he’s not there anymore?

“As Taskmaster says: if you separate the shepherd from the sheep, what do they do? Well, they scatter. And that really is the best way to break the Avengers - you destroy the glue that’s essentially holding them all together.”

The Power of Symbols

That idea of Steve Rogers as a symbol extended into both the character’s design and gameplay too. For example, the team put a lot of thought into the character’s iconography, particularly his shield.

If you look at the symbols on the shield, you’ll notice they’re very specific to this game,” says Escayg. “Bren Adams, our Art Director, really worked hard on that design. The star is bigger than it would be typically. It crosses over the red and blue lines - that indicates the expansion of the Avengers and moving to the West Coast headquarters at the start of the game.

“That’s actually one of the most satisfying things about this whole project - Marvel trusted us enough to allow the creative freedom to really make our own unique version of the character.”

Captain America’s symbols permeate throughout the gameplay too. For example, the character has an ability called Rally Cry, which gives Cap extra armor and increases the charge speed of the rest of the team’s heroic moves.

Vince Napoli, Lead Combat Designer for Marvel’s Avengers explains: “We tried various things to represent this ability visually, from character outlines to flashy user interface effects. I think we went through five or six different concepts.

“Ultimately though, in the end we went back to just using the star as the visual effect. That just felt more representative of the character and his role on the team.”

Creating a Super-Soldier

When it came to building a playable Captain America, the team had no Super-Soldier serum to rely on - just hard work and a clear vision.

One of the first challenges to overcome was how to make the character feel distinctive? Unlike many of his teammates, Steve Rogers doesn’t come equipped with invincible armors or mighty powers. But as it turned out, this was to his advantage.

“Captain America’s move set really stands out because he’s more grounded than most of the other Avengers,” says Escayg. “Within the context of the game, that actually makes him feel quite unique.

“For example, Thor can bring down electricity, and that’s unique to him. Hulk’s a giant-sized wrecking ball, and that’s unique to him. Even Black Widow has her gadgets to rely on. But while Cap’s heightened abilities and skills make him every bit as effective as those Heroes, he is still essentially just a man.

“He relies on punches, kicks, and his only weapon, his trusty shield. It actually makes for a super-satisfying play style because it’s so relatable.”

He Can Do This All Day

The true key to making Captain America work as a character was to make sure every single move he did, no matter how basic, felt specific to his character.

Napoli says: “We had to work out the gameplay vocabulary of the character - and by that, I mean the way he moves and fights. Because if he doesn’t throw a punch like Cap, it won’t feel like Cap.

“We quickly settled on a style that felt true to the character. Cap’s movements are very tightly controlled. When he hits, it’s fast and hard. There’s nothing flashy or wild about the way he engages the enemy. He’s in total control.”

With the basics nailed, the team could start really fleshing out the character’s combat style and there was no shortage of ideas for how they could do this. Everyone on the team had their own ideas and expectations for what Captain America should be able to do.

“We had a philosophy that if a character should do a particular move, they would do it,” says Napoli. “In the case of Cap, we gravitated to quite a wide range of ideas, from shield throws to buffs for the team.

“For example, we wanted to emphasize Cap’s role as a leader - so he’s actually quite effective as a support character. An ability like Rally Cry can really help the team turn the tide of a tough fight.”

Pushing it a Step Further

While a lot of Captain America’s moves were directly inspired by the comics and movies, the team wanted to add abilities that would surprise players and make the character seem even more powerful.

Escayg recalls sitting with Napoli and being blown away by a particular move. “The combat team built this awesome move where Cap essentially drops into a circle of enemies from above and pushes all of them back. I loved this and was really excited by it.

“You expect Cap to do things like throw his shield and punch enemies, but this move took Cap’s toolset and expanded it. It takes the fantasy further and makes it feel even more powerful. This is not just anyone’s shield, this is Captain America’s shield!”

As they built these additional moves, the team saw an opportunity to amp up Captain America’s abilities to make him even more impressive and enjoyable to play.

“A good example is what happens after you throw the shield,” says Napoli. “The standard animations and moves we’d created were fine, but we wanted to take this to a ‘hyper’ level. So, we asked ourselves: what else could Cap do other than catch it?

“We bounced ideas around and ended up adding all kinds of crazy combo moves into the mix. For example, Cap can spin kick the shield back at another enemy, he can leap up or dive to catch it. We even called back the motion capture performers to do a separate shoot of crazy throws and shield moves. Lots of flips and spins - stuff like that.

“So, while what was originally there was okay, going this extra step went a long way to making Cap feel more powerful and satisfying to control.”

There’s a lot more the team could say about Captain America - but they’d prefer you discover it yourself when you play the game. Let’s put it this way - if you’re a fan of the character, you’ll be very happy.

Marvel’s Avengers releases for PS4, Xbox One, Google Stadia, and Steam September 4, 2020.

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