I’m on a spaceship with a talking tree, a creature that most definitely isn’t a raccoon and a space Llama. In any other game this could be considered weird, but in Guardians of the Galaxy, it’s just a Monday. Assuming they have Mondays in space. It was never brought up. The point is, the Guardians of the Galaxy are one of the strangest groups in comic books, and until Marvel turned them into a household name in 2014 they were a relatively unknown bunch of misfits that dealt in some of the weirdest aspects of the Marvel universe. So a videogame based on their antics sounds like a perfect fit. We deal in weird shit all the time. How does their first foray into games hold up?
Given how much of a let-down Marvel’s Avengers was and considering that Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy came out in the same year, it’s little wonder that people had doubts. And so it’s with a bursting heart that I can say Guardians of the Galaxy is a fundamentally different game and a far, far better one. This 15-20 hour linear adventure isn’t concerned with loot, microtransactions, season passes or live-service stupidity and instead is content to deliver a genuinely funny, moving and engaging story about a rag-tag crew of idiots, misfits and morons who will somehow save the galaxy. But first, they have to figure out how to get along.
Just for the sake of variety, I’m going to start of with the bad news; if you strip away the writing and the amazing characters and examine the gameplay mechanics, Guardians of the Galaxy is…well, pretty uninspiring. I know that’s not the most interesting way to start a review nor the best way to hype one of my favourite games of the year, so I’m going to need you to trust me here – Guardians is an amazing game, full of heart and passion and fantastic writing. Like the Guardians of the Galaxy themselves, it’s rough around the edges and could probably do with a good clean, but just like the titular team it’s far more than the sum of its individual parts. But if you’re here purely for the gameplay and couldn’t give a toss about story, setting or some of the funniest writing in video games, then we need to talk about why this 3rd person action-adventure game isn’t for you.
Despite having the full Guardians of the Galaxy crew you only ever play as Peter “Starlord” Quill, the human taken from Earth during his teenage years and thrown into a crazy galaxy where he became a bit of a rogue. He’s a former pirate, fought in the war and is now trying to do a little good in the world while still also taking sketchy jobs for credits. I’m sure he and Malcolm Reynolds would get along like a house on fire. It’s a decision made by Eidos Montreal that flies in the face of what most people would assume. Looking at the Guardians the obvious approach would be to have players swapping between them, either at will or on a per-mission basis, a bit like what Marvel’s The Avengers did. And yet we’re firmly glued into the jetboots of Quill. Why is that?
Well, the reasoning of Eidos is firmly entrenched in the thematic concept of combat. As Peter Quill, you’re easily the weakest of the team, which can be frustrating because your twin-blasters have all the impact of a cotton candy cannon. Enemies tend to be spongey anyway, so when you have to contend with weak basic attacks as well it can become tiring. But, there is a reason for this; Peter is the gloopy and mildly disgusting glue that holds the team together. If you want a pillar thrown call in Drax, if you want someone dead, call in Gamora, if you want something blown up call in Rocket and if you want something protected and cherished you better get Groot. But if you want all of those people to work together, Star Lord is the biggest hero of them all. He has the magical talent of being able to bullshit his way through anything.
His strength is being the kind of leader that makes Drax, Gamora, Rocket and Groot better than their individual abilities. This plays out in how you can command your team-mates to unleash their special moves by holding down L1, tapping a face button to select a team member and then hitting a face button again to unleash one of their four special moves. Rocket, for instance, can throw out a bomb that’s great for dishing out damage to a group, while Drax can inflict big stagger damage on a single foe. Gamora can bring major pain to an unfortunate victim, and Groot can tangle up enemies in his roots. It’s almost like playing an RTS at times, emphasized by the fact that one of the earliest abilities you can unlock for Peter is to hover over the battlefield, getting a birds-eye view of proceedings.
So thematically, I love it. It’s elegantly connected to most of the game’s major story themes about a team that needs to learn to trust, accept and love instead of bicker, yell and get angry. It’s a smart concept. In practice, though, there are a few issues; first, when the action starts getting busier any strategic usage of abilities kind of goes out the window. I found myself just spamming abilities, and only occasionally being more specific, like tying up a space wizard buffing his allies before unleashing Gamora on him. Secondly, there’s just too many damn buttons to press. Maybe I’m just dumb, but by time I had unlocked all my crew’s different skills I was having trouble remembering which ability was tied to which button. There’s sixteen of them in total, and Peter himself gets another four, bringing the total up to 20. Keeping track of that and remembering which one is good for which situation can be a pain in the ass.
Oh, and did I mention you also get four different elemental types on the d-pad? These are vital to use so that you can bring down enemy shields or stagger them, and if you fail to use utilize them fights take much longer. But that’s another four abilities to keep in mind, stacked on top of the rest.
Basically, fights tend to drag due to spongey enemies, a problem that gets worse in the final hour or two as the game beings to rely more heavily on combat. And the action itself simply isn’t compelling, being fairly basic third-person shooting with a fun team element mixed in that loses its luster quicker than I had hoped. The combat isn’t bad by any stretch, but if the writing wasn’t so exceptional I doubt I would have finished the game, especially in the closing hour or two when you have to battle through a lot of enemies that you’ve already fought countless times before.
And then there’s the Huddle mechanic, where tapping the shoulder buttons summons the other Guardians over for a mid-fight pep-talk. They’ll gather around Peter and spout a few sentences reflecting their feelings about the current fight, and you need to pick between two options; get it right and the team gets a damage boost and vastly quicker cool downs on abilities. More importantly, Peter will blast out a tune from the game’s epic soundtrack of hits from the 70s and 80s, so you could be kicking ass to Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go or White Wedding or even the infamous Rick Astley banger. Thematically it fits almost perfectly with the tone of the game and the style of the Guardians, yet mechanically it’s an awkward idea that completely breaks up the flow of a fight. You can ignore it for a decent chunk of the game, but if you don’t use it on some of the bigger fights you’re in for a long slog.
It’s absolutely worth mentioning that the difficulty options do help somewhat because there are quite a few things to tweak, including the damage you and your team does, and the damage you take. Even with the damage output ramped up to max, though, I still found some fights dragging on.
Exploration is equally basic. The environments themselves are flarking beautiful and varied, to be sure. From the grime, dirt and debauchery of Knowhere to the natural beauty of a snow planet where huge tablets of ice come hurtling from the sky in a blaze of fire, the art design is excellent, constantly giving you amazing scenery to soak in and enjoy. Having just finished the Halo Infinite campaign, a game with a far bigger budget and similar runtime, it was a pleasure to be guided through such a varied and imaginative bounty of locations. The Guardians of the Galaxy are space-faring heroes in a crazy universe, and Eidos Montreal take full advantage of that, And on a technical level this is a great looking title with some lovely, bold colours, especially if you have an HDR capable TV. I’d recommend sticking to performance mode for that juicy 60-FPS, but whacking on ray-tracing and the other graphical enhancements is well worth doing every now and then.
But this is mostly a linear experience and the opportunities to venture off the beaten path for some crafting materials or bonus costumes are nice but basic. I want to be clear, though; I’m not condemning this for lacking an open-world. Quite the opposite – the linear, tight campaign design suits the game perfectly. What I am saying is that there could have been a little room for some fun exploration. Most of the time when you aren’t fighting you’re just jogging through the levels or solving very basic environmental puzzles or maybe jumping over a couple of gaps using a wonky jump animation that looks like it’s missing a few frames at the beginning. Again, not bad, but not exciting or interesting, either. I would have loved a few more levels like Knowhere, a location that offers more winding paths and detours. Knowhere offers a chance to explore a bit more and soak up the environmental details.
So yeah, jogging across planets could become a tad dull, but this is where we venture into the best part of the whole game: the characters. Silence isn’t something that exists within Guardians of the Galaxy because almost every moment is filled with dialogue and banter performed by an extremely talented cast. As you amble across a planet’s surface you’ll be treated to a script so extensive that the game frequently has to cut off its own dialogue because you’ve reached a new trigger point, contributing to the slightly janky feel of the whole experience. The team will share stories, tell jokes, poke fun at each other, argue and think out loud. And you get to join in, opting whether to side with a team member, add to the stories, refocus the team, tell a joke or extend conversations.
This could have become annoying. A cast of characters that won’t stop talking either on missions or when you’re on the Milano (your spaceship) in the hands of less talented writers could have so easily resulted in players wanting to hurl their companions out the nearest airlock. Yet somehow, Eidos Montreal makes every single line fantastic, packing them with either humour, intrigue or emotional punches. Like Mass Effect, I want to listen to whatever my team has to say, and usually ended up laughing, grinning or feeling like someone just yanked my heart out. It goes so far toward making the Guardians feel like actual people.
I want to give special mention to a small detail; in most games when a character cuts across someone else in dialogue, there’s an awkward pause where one recording finishes and the next starts. It’s horribly artificial and really takes you out of the moment. But in Guardians, it properly feels like characters are interrupting each other. It’s a small thing that I appreciate so much.
Owing to how much more time we get to spend with the Guardians and the sharp writing skills of the developers, it’s little surprise that I’ve come to care for these digital versions of Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket and Groot vastly more than their movie counterparts. Obviously, the MCU movies are a blast with an amazing cast, but across their two specific films and brief time in Endgame, we only spend a couple of hours with the Guardians, whereas here we get nearly ten times that. All that time is used to flesh the characters out, making them feel like real people, even if they are actually a space raccoon packing a bigger arsenal than America. These are people who have done questionable things in their past, who all have a degree of self-loathing and suddenly they find themselves in the position of trying to save the galaxy while they haven’t even figured out how to look into a mirror without feeling hatred.
Rocket is a great example. Just like in the movies he can be a frustrating character, often at odds with Quill and the other Guardians. In the game, though, he’s a far more fleshed out character, his mannerisms and action explained by the trauma he’s dealt with. Throughout the game you’ll be given chances to delve deeper into what makes Rocket tick, doubly so if you find the special collectibles strewn about that let you initiate optional but amazing conversations aboard the Milano, the ship you hang out in between missions. My initial irritation at Rocket gave way to sympathy and love for him, despite his many, many flaws.
Drax in the movies exists mostly a source of comedy, his deeply tragic backstory mentioned but never given enough time. His whole personality is viewed and used as a joke. In this game he’s still a great source of comedy, his inability to deal in metaphors providing a lot of awesome jokes, but he’s also got a far more well-rounded and interesting personality. It ensures that a plot twist involving Drax feels completely earned and in keeping with the character.
Gamora, the daughter of the mad titan Thanos and deadliest woman in the galaxy, is sullen and sarcastic, but is also just more likable than her movie counterpart. In her words and her actions and thanks to the terrific voice acting you can sense that she has so much heart and just doesn’t know how to deal with that. She might be my favourite character
Groot. He’s still Groot. He still says, “I am Groot.” He’s exactly the same character as in the movies and that’s fine because Groot is lovable.
And Star-Lord? I love him. Partially that’s because he retains the goofy, man-child vibe that is vital to his character, but he feels a bit more mature than his movie counterpart. You can believe that this version of Star Lord has fought in a war, run with the Ravagers and is actually a pretty capable individual. More importantly, you can connect with him easily because we all have regrets and we all want to do better, just like he does. The game opens with us as a 13-year-old Peter in his bedroom on Earth, listening to his new Star Lord album. Sci-fi and band posters cover the wall, trading cards litter the floor and there’s a box of tissues next to the bed which we won’t question. The mullet and sleeveless denim jacket make it abundantly clear that Peter is a child of the 80s, and before long we meet his mum. She’s glossed over a bit in the movies but here we get to spend a reasonable amount of time with her and understand just how amazing she is and why she is a driving factor in all of Peter’s life.
That’s all in the past, though. Back in the present Star Lord is aboard the Milano, his personal spaceship which is the home to him and his companions. They’re away to pull off a job in a quarantined part of space where they hope to acquire a rare creature to sell to Lady Hellbender, who loves to collect animals. In the process of capturing the critter (which turns out to be an awesome reveal) Peter accidentally unleashes something that was lurking within a stone, setting in motion the major narrative.
Amidst the backdrop of a strange new religion converting the galaxy is a story about a group of damaged individuals learning to become a team, learning about family and love and acceptance. I know that sounds weirdly mushy in a game that also involves Cosmo the (goodest boy) space dog, murderous jelly cubes and a purple Llama, but it’s true. The writing in this regard is excellent – at first the team snipe at each other, throw barbed jabs, argue and struggle to trust each other fully. Over time, though, they begin to understand each other, learn about each other and work together, which actually gets recognized in a couple of excellent gameplay ways. The coming together of your team feels subtle and expertly paced across the campaign, whereas in other titles you might expect one or two specific moments where the whole dynamic just changes and now everybody are best friends.
I can’t praise the writing enough for imbuing the game with emotional highs, excellent comedy and fun banter. However, equal praise must be given to the stellar voice acting across the board, combined with strong facial animations/mocap. Jon McLaren manages to give Star Lord a roguish charm while also giving him the charisma to believe that Peter could talk his way out of anything and bring a group of disparate individuals together; Kimberly-Sue Mary gives Gamora a moody teenager vibe with the snark to match, backed with a clear feeling that she wants to be so much more; Jason Cavalier manages to make Drax hilarious and tragic in equal measure while somehow keeping a straight face; Alex Weiner as Rocket is utterly obnoxious, using that to hide a character that has only ever had a single person he trusts and loves and that has otherwise suffered nothing but horror; finally, Robert Montcalm makes chuckles and the phrase, “I am Groot” seem more complex and nuanced than many many humans manage with thousands of words.
Very few games manage to make me feel proper feelings outside of fun. They don’t tend to connect on the same emotional level as books or movies or even some TV shows. But against all odds Guardians of the Galaxy is one of the few games to make me grin, to make me feel a tear starting to form, to make me sympathize and empathize. I wanted the Guardians to win, because like Peter I could see they had the potential to be better, to do better.
There’s even a layer of decision-making thrown into the story, giving you moments where you can alter how events will play out. These moments won’t radically alter the whole game – everybody is going to reach the same ending and the major story beats remain largely the same. But your choices will come back in interesting and fun ways, sometimes immediately and sometimes far down the line. A small example might be letting Drax throw Rocket across a chasm, resulting in Rocket becoming pissed off. A bigger example is deciding whether or not to “Sell” Rocket or Groot to Lady Hellbender, weighing up who looks like the more believable monster vs Rocket’s insistence that it should be him. Depending on which way you go, you’ll either be fighting your way out of a fortress or performing a jailbreak.
I’ve actually begun another play through to not only snag all the trophies but also to check out some of the other decisions I can make.
I left Guardians of the Galaxy on my backlog pile despite buying it on release. I overlooked it, But I’m so glad I finally got around to playing it because it’s a truly excellent game brimming with personality, awesome characters, wickedly funny moments and memorable scenes. I cannot commend the writing enough nor the voice acting. This has become one of my favourite games of the year, and I can only wish the gameplay had been strong. Based purely on how it plays, Guardians of the Galaxy would have been nothing more than a forgettable game with a couple of fun ideas. But the Guardians themselves are so strong and so fun that they carry the entire experience on their back, and I loved every moment I spent with them. Yes, a game’s first focus should always be it is gameplay and therefore I can easily see why some people will take issue with the relatively high score, but the combat is far from actually being bad.
Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is the best rendition of Star Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket and Groot that we’ve ever seen outside of the comics, giving us deeper and more compelling characters than the movies managed. On top of that, it delivers excellent world-building, a wide cast of fascinating characters, whip-smart writing and emotional moments that kick you in the nards when you aren’t looking. Without a shadow of a doubt, this game needs a sequel because if Eidos Montreal can keep the same level of writing and combine it with stronger gameplay then we’ll have a superhero game right up there with the likes of Marvel’s Spider-Man and the Batman: Arkham titles. For now, this is a hugely entertaining single-player adventure that I completely recommend checking out.