‘How Can You Be Friends With a Monster?’ – Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Review

If you’re anything like me, the title Guardians of the Galaxy immediately conjures mixed feelings. The initial charm of James Gunn’s 2014 action-comedy superhero flick has worn somewhat thin over the years, a phenomenon doubtless intensified by having to hear the phrase ‘I am Groot’ parroted ad-nauseam at countless comic-cons and on numerous message boards. It was with this Marvel-induced weariness that I initially dismissed the video game adaptation of Guardians of the Galaxy, which received a full fifteen-to-twenty-minute slot at Square Enix’s 2021 E3 conference (yes, I’m still mad about this — I wanted to see Final Fantasy XVI). That initial presentation showed off, to my eyes at least, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. The characters were quipping, there was a fully licensed, highly recognisable pop-rock soundtrack and nothing could have been less interesting. It was only after several respected critics started talking about the game, using terms like ‘sleeper-hit’ and ‘surprising’, that I caved and picked up a copy towards the end of last year. The game is not good; it’s great.

I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to play a big-budget, single-player game with absolutely no frills. Guardians of the Galaxy eschews most modern triple-a practice (DLC in the form of a season pass, in-game currency, tacked-on multiplayer) in favour of a structured, linear experience. It is clear that Eidos-Montréal, from the game’s inception, had one central design focus — create a compelling, dialogue-heavy narrative buoyed by detailed and developed characters. The interaction between the main cast (Star-Lord, Gamora, Rocket Raccoon, Groot and Drax) is the highlight of the experience, with all players brought to life by some truly spectacular voice work and motion capture. Personality-wise, the team are very much based on the foundation of Gunn’s movie versions of the characters but allowed further nuance within the expanded duration of a video game. The chattering is constant throughout the twenty hours or so you’ll spend with the titular ‘Guardians’ and you’ll almost never hear the same line twice. The sheer amount of unique dialogue is stunning, with little asides for almost any situation you can think of putting Star-Lord in, whether that be repeating a puzzle until someone has had enough, taking the wrong turn off a path to look for collectibles, or purposely wading into the nearest fluorescent slime. It seems that Eidos-Montréal were acutely aware of the quality of the character interaction since most of the game’s treasure-hunt trinkets unlock nothing more than expanded dialogue options with the crew — your reward is more time spent getting to know these misfits. Initially cliched personality types have believable, unhurried arcs, eventually blossoming into well-rounded characters. Drax, in particular, receives several rather poignant moments, elevating his character from preconceived notions of being the overly-literal, self-serious comic relief to something resembling an actual nuanced individual.

The man of the hour enjoying some well-deserved downtime.

Star-Lord, or Peter Quill (the central playable character) obviously receives the most development and screentime but is bolstered by an entirely different means. Guardians of the Galaxy will often throw player-choice dialogue moments in during gameplay and cutscenes, asking the player to pick between two responses to any given situation. These prompts function like a simplified version of Mass Effect’s quick time dialogue options, giving the player a truncated version of the sentence Quill will fully espouse. Some of these choices do have consequences in-game, resulting in slight alterations to later story sequences. A lot of the dialogue options, however, are just for fun, but add that key element of player-choice to the equation. Peter Quill is immediately made more likable and relatable when the player is given a degree of control over his response to the given situation. It is such a small thing, but allowing the player to influence Star-Lord, even slightly, lets them imprint a degree of their personality onto his actions. Chris Pratt’s Quill is supposed to be a loveable rogue, the goofball with a heart of gold; to me, he’s annoying. The video game adaptation’s Quill is sort of the same, but there’s just enough of ‘me’ flowing through him that it works — I really can’t help but like him.

At this point, I would be remiss not to bring up the humour of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, which will stand for many as a point of division. I must admit, this game didn’t really make me laugh (although I definitely smiled more than once!). Your mileage with the comedy will vary depending on your tolerance for the current trend of smug, quip-laden back and forth, propagated mostly by, well, Marvel themselves (and, to an extent, Uncharted). It is, however, easy enough to enjoy it for what it is. There are more than enough moments of genuine gravity and excitement to cut through the sixth snarky comment in a row from the talking raccoon — and said talking raccoon has enough genuine character development for those moments of inter-party bickering to feel deserved and appropriate. As it did with Gunn’s adaptation, the general tone of light, comic chaos feels at home with the ‘Guardians’, acting as a clear foil to the straightforward do-goodery of The Avengers.

The Avengers would never be caught dead on a big hand.

The detail Eidos-Montréal put into the characters and their interactions was also liberally applied to the world design. There are hundreds of objects to scan with your visor for little tidbits of lore, some truly stunning planets to explore (all the screenshots for this review were taken with the game’s excellent photo mode) and long, densely packed story sequences with plenty of interactable objects. The opening portion of Guardians serves as one of the best examples of this level of intricacy, putting you in the shoes of a thirteen-year-old, hard rock obsessed Peter Quill, whose bedroom is packed with 80’s keepsakes (including a Tron poster and a knock-off Atari). It really is a joy just to slow down in these moments, take everything in and appreciate the level of minute detail in front of you.

Guardians consistently offers some of the most realised locations in recent gaming memory.

Guardians manages to combine its excellent story, characters and art design with solid, if slightly generic, gameplay. Outside of exploratory, expository story sequences, you’ll spend most of your time third-person shooting, platforming and puzzling. Quill controls well and commanding the rest of the crew around rarely feels clumsy. Each ‘Guardian’ has specific abilities that can be used during, as well as outside, of combat. Rocket, for example, can crawl into small places to open a path forward and Groot can create platforms or bridges to help you progress. These moments, unfortunately, are usually overly telegraphed and not challenging in the slightest, only serving as momentary breathers between enemy encounters. Combat, fortunately, proves much more exciting. In this case, each ‘Guardian’ (Quill included) starts off with one ability that can be accessed by holding down a shoulder button and hitting the corresponding face button. Fights are often frenetic and explosive, purely based on the number of characters on screen at once. Despite this, they never become overwhelming, and entering your ability menu slows time to a crawl to allow for a degree of tactical play. Combining powers is always satisfying and punchy, with each character providing a set of skills that matches their personality. Drax is a brawler who excels at catching the enemy off guard, Gamora is suited to one on one, high damage encounters, Rocket provides the explosive AOE attacks and Groot is more of a tank, designed to slow the enemy down. Star-Lord himself is an all-rounder, providing abilities that cover most tactical bases. The game is at peak gameplay flow when you’re dashing around the battlefield, popping off abilities, dodging bullets (while providing a steady stream of your own) and expertly commanding your crew to take down key targets. This high is elevated even further after activating a ‘Team Huddle’, which boosts the abilities of the entire team, while also playing one of the several licensed 70’s and 80’s pop songs present in the game. It’s pretty great punching an alien in the face while Pat Benatar’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot blares in the background. Making the licensed soundtrack an active part of the gameplay also succeeds in elevating this version of Guardians above Gunn’s — serving to give the music further meaning, rather than feeling like the nostalgia pandering of the films.

Walking towards the glowing triangle.

These wildly entertaining battles also result in accumulated experience, which the play can use to unlock a total of two more skills for each ‘Guardian’ (the game also provides you with a final skill for each character after certain story events). This functions well as a buffer, ensuring that the player is not initially overwhelmed by the number of abilities to choose from. Indeed, Guardians does an excellent job of pacing itself in almost every way. Puzzles are initially limited to single uses of Quill’s element-based weaponry (freezing jets of water so you can jump across them), but as three more are introduced over the course of the game, the player is required to combine elements in order to progress. There is a satisfying, balanced loop of combat, traversal, puzzle-solving, cutscenes and story sequences.

Overall, Guardians of the Galaxy is something of a triumph; it almost feels dirty saying that, like admitting that the bad guy (in this case, Marvel, or more aptly, Disney) has won. But Eidos-Montréal’s single-player superhero blockbuster carries itself with an understated, focused and passionate confidence that is immediately captivating. The game is sure of itself in the quality of its characters, and it certainly shows. Occasional bouts of dodgy humour and generic gameplay can’t put any breaks on this wildly entertaining rollercoaster of a single-player experience. Consider me a fan. So, catch me by the HMV poster rack (proudly adorned in my Deadpool t-shirt) and ask me how I’m doing. I’ll probably admit that I, after all this time, am indeed Groot.

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