Marvel’s Guardians Of The Galaxy, developed by Eidos-Montréal, really should not exist. It’s good that it does exist, as superhero fans and video game players will have a lot to celebrate here, but it’s almost unbelievable that something like Guardians Of The Galaxy can get made with the modern video game industry being what it is.
Which is to say that Guardians—unlike last year’s Marvel’s Avengers, published by Square-Enix—is not a “live service game,” one of those endless treadmills of content designed to keep players glued to a single title for months of grinding and incremental pleasure. Rather, Eidos-Montréal (the studio behind the recent Deus Ex games, and the disappointing Shadow Of The Tomb Raider) just made a regular damn video game about the Guardians Of The Galaxy. And it rules.
This is a fully single-player experience with no unnecessary multiplayer hooks. There’s no endless supply of color-coded collectable loot. It has a self-contained story that doesn’t awkwardly lean on the movies or awkwardly avoid the movies.
You can pay a little extra for a version of the game that comes with bonus costumes, but you can’t pay for costumes in-game (you can’t pay for anything in-game, because all of the unlockable bonuses are found just by playing). That’s all extremely rare for this kind of mega-budget game in 2021.
Perhaps most unbelievable, though, is that the game is funny. The writing is funny in the dialogue, there are funny Easter eggs, and there are funny gags that could only work in video games. Characters will react to weird things you make your character do, and there are humorous UI elements that only appear as a punchline—like the onscreen tracker for how much money the Guardians have, which only ever appears to stress you out.
Fittingly, the personalities of the Guardians themselves are the real shining star here, and they’re probably the one thing that would’ve sunk the whole title if they hadn’t worked. The team is the one you’ll recognize from the movies—Peter/Star-Lord, Rocket, Groot, Drax, and Gamora—and while Star-Lord’s personality in particular is trying a little too hard to be Chris Pratt’s version of the character, Gamora and Drax are really strong because they have fresh new angles that emphasize the traumatic stuff they’ve been through and why their new chosen family is so important.
As the game opens, the Guardians are adrift, taking whatever jobs they can and doing their best to avoid dealing with their various issues. But Guardians Of The Galaxy wisely front-loads the emotional drama over the more played-out space war stuff (even when the two things inevitably overlap).
To say anything else would be a spoiler, but the game goes to some places, both literal and metaphorical, many of which will be delightfully familiar to fans of a particular era of Marvel’s “cosmic stuff.” And if you get that particular comic-book reference, you’ll really enjoy some of the stuff that happens here.
In terms of gameplay, Guardians Of The Galaxy is largely split between two basic activities: combat and exploration. In both cases, the game plays a lot like Naughty Dog’s Uncharted, with the player being funneled into specific combat arenas that become more and more complex as the game goes on. When you’ve killed all of the alien jelly monsters or Nova Corps Centurions, you move on to the next.
Exploring, meanwhile, sees you walk around various exciting locales while doing walk-and-talks with the other Guardians or fan-favorite supporting characters like Mantis and Cosmo (who retains his absolutely horrendous Russian accent from the comics).
One of the coolest gimmicks in these sequences is that each Guardian has special abilities that you use for environmental puzzle solving, like Groot making a bridge of branches or Drax punching through walls.
The game generally trusts you to remember which ability is best for each situation, but if you get it wrong a few times in a row—like, say, you ask Rocket to somehow make a bridge or get criticized by Gamora for thinking she should risk breaking her sword by cutting open a door—then the characters will start to laugh at you for getting it wrong.
It’s a nice and easy boon to the game’s personality, since it establishes that you’re not just doing video game-y things, you’re actually exploring an environment. It also plays into the storytelling, which occasionally offers some short branching narratives: If you decide to take the easy way out of a puzzle and just have Drax hurl Rocket across a chasm, trust that you’ll be hearing about it for the rest of the game.
That interpersonal chaos also steers into the game’s combat, which tries to walk a line between real-time strategy and a regular shooter. You only play as Star-Lord, who shoots enemies with his relatively straightforward Element Guns, but you can also issue commands to the Guardians to use their abilities. The other characters will take care of themselves beyond that, which doesn’t translate to them doing much, but you rarely have to micromanage them.
One clever wrinkle, though, is a “huddle up” mechanic that you can use if you’re kicking ass/getting your ass kicked for a prolonged stretch, during which the Guardians will tell Star-Lord how they’re feeling, and you have to choose between two little speeches to either inspire them or remind them to focus. Everyone gets a big damage buff if you do it right, and everyone will laugh at you during the rest of the fight if you do it wrong.
This is all cool and clever in theory, but in practice, managing the Guardians’ powers while also moving Star-Lord around the battlefield and shooting at enemies and keeping an eye on your guns’ overheating meter and keeping track of which enemies are weak against which of your guns’ elemental powers, all while your teammates drop constant quips and comments, is a lot.
Things slow down when you’re giving commands to the other characters, but when everything’s happening at once and you’re in late-game battles with a lot of stuff to manage, it gets overwhelming.
All of which works thematically—it’s very Guardians to be forced to improvise wildly while your teammates won’t shut up—but it does make for a messy (not bad, just messy) player experience.
Really, Guardians Of The Galaxy is just like the ragtag space heroes it revolves around. It has a lot of messy bits that overcomplicate things, it lets interpersonal conflicts get in the way of its action and its story, and you may get a good laugh from its characters one second and then wish they would leave you alone the next. But, again, like the Guardians, it works because of those messy bits, not despite them.