Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is a curious thing - simultaneously one of my favourite games of the year and also undeniably flawed. Super-slick presentation makes it a must-play for those who put story first, however.
Indulge me to open this review with a question and an answer. Can you talk about a video game without talking about other video games? Most of the time, I think the answer is yes - but every now and then a game comes along that simply cannot be divorced from its influences and context. Guardians of the Galaxy is one such game.
In the case of GotG, that ‘other game’ is primarily Marvel’s Avengers, last year’s prestige action and game-as-service cross-over, that was clearly lavish in expense and vision but lacking in heart and execution. Avengers hasn’t really failed, but it hasn’t exactly been the roaring success one would hope for from the world’s hottest cinema property - and that perceived failure casts a long shadow, looming large over Guardians, which - though a stand-alone game - is also functionally a follow-up - the second Marvel game from Square Enix.
With that context considered, here’s the good news: Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t fall into the same trap as Avengers. Conversely, it also falls into other traps all of its own. On the whole it feels like a significantly better experience than its Earth-bound sibling, however - and I recommend it much more heartily.
The primary offender in Avengers, of course, was its characters. These weren’t the film versions, but original creations. They were valid in their own right, but for whatever reason they were met with derision, compared to those knock-off toys you find in dollar stores. The adventures of The Astonishing Bulk and the Metal Fella; that sort of thing. My hypothesis has always been that the problem was never in the costume design or in not securing the rights to Downey Jr.’s face - it was an issue of execution. By being successful in building a new version of its crew, Guardians proves it. Through a deftly-paced story that’s unafraid to take a breather from the action, Eidos Montreal has delivered a new version of the Guardians crew that complements and even rivals the cinematic versions, stepping out of the shadow cast by James Gunn’s Guardians to stand alongside his interpretation.
These quieter moments are where Eidos Montreal’s Guardians of the Galaxy earns its keep, with powerful worldbuilding and strong characters - the Deus Ex DNA is most strongly expressed. The Milano, the Guardians’ ship, changes between chapters like Mass Effect’s Normandy - you can always learn more about your crew by exploring between missions, while collectibles gathered in the field trigger optional conversations with your buddies. Perhaps the best example of quick-fire fleshing out of a character happens early on, where a flashback depicts some of Peter Quill’s life on Earth as a long-haired, metal-loving teenager. This area is full of gleeful character building minutiae - some interactive, some not. Posters on the wall depict a mix of real and fictional 80s movies. Peter owns a copy of Deathtrap Dungeon, which is a sort of meta nod, having of course been written by former Eidos boss Ian Livingstone...
In fact, the game is practically brimming with this licensed stuff. In a way, it’s one of the areas in which it feels most filmic. In those same recurring childhood flashbacks, it’s Peter’s birthday - and he has an appropriate 80s gaming-themed cake. It would’ve been easy for Eidos Montreal to use Space Invaders - Square Enix owns it - but they went out and got Pac-Man from Namco, because that’s the legitimate, ‘real’ game of the era. There’s weight in this, as in many of these additions; they’re not just winks to the fans, but effective worldbuilding. All of this has been done in games before, of course - it’s Nathan Drake having dinner and playing Crash Bandicoot, writ large - but it’s particularly effective in Guardians, a franchise sort of rooted in Peter’s pop culture obsessions.
One of the most significant elements of selling these characters is depicting emotion - and Guardians has some of the most impressive facial animations I’ve seen in a game of this kind. There’s a caveat here, which is that scenes are split into two distinct camps - the hand-animated, cinematically directed stuff and the shot-reverse-shot ‘in-game’ conversations that have stiff canned lip-sync - but the major story beats are fabulously presented. Regardless of which type of scene you’re watching, these characters are charismatic as hell. For every weird or slightly unnatural expression, there’s about ten where the characters look really good. It’s so good that Guardians can get away with something games rarely bother with - cutting to silent reaction shots, where Quill wincing at something Drax said or Rocket seething with anger are absolutely sold through the animation.
Other elements similarly shine. The banter between the teammates is fantastic. I love the dialogue choice system, where it’s usually timer-based, meaning you have a choice of things to say or the option to say nothing at all. Answering quickly, early, can interrupt the person you’re talking to mid-sentence. It feels organic and natural, though the way choices impact the story is more superficial. A choice early on might cancel and skip a challenging combat encounter later, but little else. It doesn’t matter, though, because the immediate reward of alternate dialogue and character beats is powerful enough as it is.
It’s difficult to talk about this story in depth without hitting spoilers, so I won’t. I’ll keep it simple and just say - I love it. It’s one of the most emotionally effective video games in some time, and stands distinct from the movie Guardians. It has a few particularly powerful ‘playable’ story moments that really do give you pause - and I think it’s one of the most exciting and memorable story-driven games in a long while.
Combat and moment-to-moment play is another, less flattering story. It’s decent switch-your-brain-off fun, but ultimately doesn’t live up to the rest of the game. The core issue is that movement feels relatively sloppy and loose. This leads to a chaotic feel which does sort of match up with how you’d expect a scrappy upstart like Peter Quill to fight, uneasy on his rocket boots, but too often it just doesn’t feel good - perhaps best demonstrated in the stilted way his jet boots work for vital world-traversing double jumps. They just feel jerky and off, even though they accomplish the task well enough.
That slapdash sort of feel feeds into all of the battles, which are frequently explosively over-the-top and disorderly. Like I said - chaos. It fits the dysfunctional Guardians crew - but it also lacks weight. As Star-Lord you fire blasters that have a Gears-style active reload and elemental powers that you unlock over time. There’s also basic melee. Meanwhile, you can call upon the AI-controlled Guardians to perform special moves to help you out. The issue is it can often be difficult to focus on the timing of your advanced reload or which ability you’re causing a teammate to trigger, because there’s always so much going on. Battles are busy, and it feels as though Eidos Montreal dialed back the difficulty - so it’s full-on, but not really very challenging, even on hard mode.
Out of battle, you’re constantly using your team’s abilities to progress through the environment. Gamora has to cut through things. Rocket can squeeze through small gaps and hack panels and the like. Groot can extend his roots and branches to create bridges across chasms. Drax can pick up heavy items and move them around, in turn allowing you to create pathways up high, and so on. For most of the game you have to order the crew to perform these actions, and it’s up to you to read environmental clues that tell you where abilities can be used. This is used for core progression but also to hide optional secrets, like costume unlocks. In a cute story twist, however, as the team coalesces some characters start using their traversal abilities on their own, at least for obvious story-progressing moves. I really like this aspect of the game.
All of this taken together offers up a result that feels fine, but also a little bland. An acquaintance who was also playing the game early described it as a knock-off PlatinumGames sort of thing, which is harsh and not something I’d agree with - but I also see where they’re coming from. Be that as it may, it ultimately doesn’t matter. The combat really serves as a vehicle to deliver narrative, either through ongoing in-battle dialogue or by seeing you from one scene to the next. The story is where the money is - and one gets the impression that the game knows it.
By dodging the eager game-as-service guff, Guardians of the Galaxy can focus on being something more compelling - even if you won’t play it for as long. For its ten-plus hour runtime, you’ll enjoy a thrilling, gripping, funny, and surprisingly heartfelt adventure. The game built around that narrative framework isn’t earth shattering - but it is enough scaffolding to allow the story to shine. You have to understand what Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is going into - but if you do, one of the finest narrative games of the year awaits. Switch your brain off, give yourself over to its story, and you’ll find much to enjoy.
Disclaimer: played on Xbox Series X, code provided by publisher.