It's been almost a decade since the Guardians of the Galaxy had their radical reinvention via the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Since then, the team have become beloved pop culture fixtures, while new stories have continued to emerge from the movie and comic book spaces. However, the Guardians don't exactly have a rich video game history. They've certainly been featured in a few games, but this is arguably going to be their most high profile title ever.
Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy is conceptually interesting. It's a team-based game, but one in which players only take on the role of leader "Star-Lord" Peter Quill. It's a bold move, but one that works in practice. Square Enix and Eidos Montreal put forward a story worthy of the big screen or the inked pages. Unfortunately, there are some major quirks that keep it from the all-time comic book video game pull list.
Quit smiling, you idiot, you're supposed to be a professional
It's no hyperbole to say that the story for Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy is one that's worthy of its own movie or comic book storyline. This version of the team follows a totally different continuity from the movies and the comics, similar to what Marvel's Avengers and Marvel's Spider-Man have done previously. Here, they've only been together for a few years. A major plot component is that the story takes place after a catastrophic Galactic War, one in which Thanos was killed and the Chitauri aliens were ultimately defeated. Out of the ashes of the Galactic War came the formation of the Guardians of the Galaxy, who basically band together to take on odd bounty hunting jobs to keep their bank accounts afloat.
Part of what's interesting about the story is its pacing, as the main plot doesn't start up until several chapters in. This gives players time to get familiar with the game's supporting cast, including Nova Corps officer Ko-Rel, her daughter Nikki, Grand Unifier Raker of the Universal Church of Truth, beast tamer Lady Hellbender, and others. And, while the plot takes several turns throughout this 25-30 hour adventure, everything circles back around and converges by the end. While certain pieces of the story feel padded, nothing ever feels wasted. In the end, it feels like it's paced similar to a two-and-a-half hour Marvel Cinematic Universe movie.
Speaking of the MCU, the individual Guardians are wonderfully fleshed out characters. They don't look particularly pretty. In fact, some of the character models are so displeasing to the eye that they're almost distracting. However, I won't fault the individual characterization. Star-Lord aims to be the best leader he can be, Gamora is searching for purpose in the galaxy beyond "daughter of Thanos," Drax is struggling to trust Gamora and cope with his family's loss, Rocket is still a lovable jerk, and Groot... he is Groot. Beyond hitting their individual characters, Eidos Montreal does what few other games of this type pull off so well. It captures the team chemistry beautifully, as do the voice actors for each of the Guardians, who do a great job with their characters. Jason Cavalier, in particular, shines as Drax the Destroyer, truly sinking his teeth into the Katathian warrior. (Editor's Note: This review originally identified Drax's voice actor as Brandon Paul Eells, which was in error.)
Throughout the game, whether there's action happening or whether the team is wandering towards their next objective, the banter between the Guardians is constant. Everyone talks to one another, team members butt into conversations, and sometimes Quill even needs to interject to cool down tensions, keep everyone focused, or change the subject whenever it's needed. The latter element is a player-driven mechanic and that leads to one of this game's other cool ideas. There's a lot of player-driven choice in this game.
Whether Star-Lord's having individual conversations with other characters or whether he has to keep the team rallied together, players will constantly be prompted to make dialogue choices. There's a chunk of it that's inconsequential, outside of maybe keeping team morale up. However, there are certain parts in the game where Quill's choices will impact the story. Without spoiling the endgame, some of the choices that were made over the course of the game did end up mattering, in the sense that certain sequences were made easier or major combat encounters were removed entirely.
Of course, choice also comes into play in the game's final moments. There appear to be multiple endings, some of which are impacted by who shows up in the game's final moments, others influenced by certain dialogue choices made over the course of the game, and some even affected by overall team chemistry. For example, there's a running gag at the start of the game over whether Drax should throw Rocket across a chasm in order to have him create a path for the rest of the team. These choices end up more consequential than they might seem, eventually affecting Rocket's relationship with Drax and with Quill.
The problem with this is that there's no real indicator of how players can affect their ending. There's no way to know which choices matter and which ones don't. While some of the big choices may seem obvious when they come up, it's easy to ignore some little ones and wind up with an ending that leaves a sour taste in your mouth. This wouldn't be such a big deal, but this is a long game. Going back and changing one choice or doing one thing differently means potentially replaying 20 or so hours before you get to see how your new ending pans out.
I would be grateful to die surrounded by my friends
In discussing team chemistry, it's worth talking about how the Guardians work together. Star-Lord may be the leader, but it's in how he directs his friends that Eidos Montreal puts together a solid game.
While Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy is mainly a single-player action game, there's a lot of strategy involved and it revolves around the rest of the team. Each area is filled with environmental puzzles and players have to figure out how to best use everyone's individual strengths to proceed. For example, Drax can move giant objects to make platforming possible, Groot can create bridges to clear large gaps, Gamora can cut through objects to clear paths, and Rocket can squeeze into tiny areas and also hack electronics.
These abilities are novel and go a long way towards making this game stand out. I do wish that the puzzles would get a little more sophisticated. In a few instances, some of these abilities need to be done in a certain order, but that's about as tough as things get. Outside of that, the hardest aspect of these puzzles is identifying which objects can be manipulated by using Star-Lord's visor. There aren't any real brain teasers that utilize these abilities, which could have made their use feel a little more memorable.
Of course, the rest of the Guardians also assist in combat and this is where things get a little more fun. Star-Lord shifting his friends around during combat encounters gives this game a bit of an XCOM vibe. Sometimes, there's a sniper that's out in the distance, so you send Gamora out to take him out. Other times, there are heavy numbers of minor enemies, at which point you have Rocket blow them up with explosives. Or, maybe there's a heavy enemy who hits really hard, so you have Groot tie him up to give you a free shot.
Guardian abilities can be upgraded over time through combat experience. The only thing wrong with this is that those abilities get maxed out well before the end of the game, leaving you with ability points that you can't really use anywhere. It would have been nice to see more abilities or even tiers to the existing ones.
Those sure are some nice compliments to this game's combat, but unfortunately, that's where they stop.
The other major element of combat comes from fighting with Star-Lord himself and Peter Quill must be quite a lover, because he's not really much of a fighter. The melee combat in this game is a frustrating mess. Even on lower difficulties, enemies counter Quill's punches frequently and can either knock him down or stun him. That's bad enough with the minor foes, but the major enemies can often knock his health down to almost nothing with a single blow. That's particularly frustrating, given how certain enemy units are balanced. Here's where I want to note that healer enemies somehow manage to have more health than their partners and absorb more damage. Having to deal with bullet sponges who can heal themselves and their allies is brutal and I had to face these foes multiple times in my playthrough.
Alright, so maybe Quill's punches are about as light as one might expect from a half-human. I mean, he's not Captain America. Surely he compensates for that with his Element Blasters. Outside of combat, the Element Blasters add to the puzzle element, with Quill able to use certain blaster settings to find new paths or manipulate the environment in certain ways.
In combat, the Element Blasters are perfectly fine, too... until they overheat. That happens a lot. Every enemy has a certain weakness, one in which an Element Blaster setting (cold blast or lightning, for example) can fill up their stagger bar quickly and open the door for the rest of the team to set them up for a finisher. Unfortunately, the charge on the Element Blasters is woefully small, so just as you're filling up an enemy's stagger bar, you'll be waiting for the blaster to cooldown. Worse, that cooldown is not short and there's no way to speed it up, either through perks or otherwise. That's just with one enemy. Now imagine having that problem with a dozen or so enemies, all at one time.
Combat is topped off with the Huddle mechanic, in which Star-Lord calls his teammates over for a quick parley to recharge their abilities. I have mixed feelings about it, because its use comes across so weird. Everyone gathering around Quill grinning weirdly ("Quit smiling, you idiot," oh, wait, I used that line already) and talking about what an awesome fight they're having is oddly unsettling. I appreciate Eidos Montreal trying to push the teamwork motif further and this is as good a way as any to dig into the game's soundtrack, but the execution comes across as strange to me. Worse, since the button to control the Guardians and control Quill's Element Blaster are so close together, it's really easy to slip and hit both buttons at once and accidentally trigger the Huddle at a bad moment.
The combat is easily one of the weakest elements in this game. The XCOM-style control of teammates is pretty cool, right up until they start calling out for help. That will happen more than once and it'll usually happen at the worst possible time. You could leave them dead, but since Star-Lord hits about as hard as quilted toilet paper, that's probably not the best idea. There is a way around helpless teammates, which I'll get to in just a bit, because that goes a long way towards helping save this aspect of the game.
If we're gonna work together you might wanna try trusting me a little bit
If anything in Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy made me groan more than the combat, it was the overreliance on quick-time events. There are QTEs everywhere in this game and they're the kinds where if you miss them, you're going back to the last checkpoint. It's such an outdated mechanic that it aggravates me to see major titles still use them.
Fortunately, that leads to one of Guardians' better ideas and that's the custom difficulty setting. Players can adjust just about any setting they want, including how strong enemies are and how much damage players inflict. The more relevant ones help alleviate some of this game's bigger design issues. One affects how often a teammate finds themselves in danger and another affects QTEs directly. Unless they're doing it purely for curiosity, I can't imagine anybody playing with QTEs on and, sure enough, their removal makes for a more enjoyable experience. Good on Eidos Montreal for including a multitude of options, which feature several accessibility settings, as well.
There is one more item worth mentioning and that's the subject of the Milano itself. There are a few instances where Quill can fly the Milano, either to escape a hairy situation or fly directly into combat. I only wish there had been more to this, because the Milano's flight controls are solid and I had a pretty good time trying to get through space. Sadly, there's such little time spent piloting the Milano that it winds up feeling like a tacked-on feature.
Something good? Something bad? Bit of both?
There's a lot to love about Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy and it's balanced out by the bad stuff being really bad, whether it's the combat or the incessant QTEs. If I'm judging it on the Marvel scale, it's a game that doesn't feel quite as good as Marvel's Spider-Man, but feels better than Marvel's Avengers.
I will say that like those two other Marvel games, Square Enix and Eidos Montreal seem to know what makes the Guardians of the Galaxy so special. They're a group of space misfits who wound up in each other's lives and became a makeshift family and that's a theme that carries through over the course of the entire adventure. As a Guardians of the Galaxy story, this holds up every bit as well as the best comic books and the two MCU movies. The way in which the story gets the team chemistry across should be lauded and it will be something that every Guardians fan will love. Plus, you probably don't need me to tell you that the game's soundtrack is outstanding.
What Eidos Montreal does with player choice is also commendable, though it still feels like more could have been done. It's 2021 and I feel like I should be able to compare my choices and my ending with my friends and with the online gaming space. However, the way in which the studio weaves in player choice to the overarching narrative works well enough to warrant multiple playthroughs, including a few where you go off the beaten path to find a new outfit. Or, at least it would, if the combat wasn't so dreadful.
Square Enix and Eidos Montreal don't exactly pull this job off flawlessly. In fact, it gets ugly at points. Yet, oddly enough, that feels very appropriate for Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy.
This review is based on a PlayStation digital code provided by the publisher. Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy will be available on Tuesday, October 26 on Steam/The Epic Games Store, the PlayStation Store, and Microsoft Store for $59.99. The game is rated T.
Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy
- Outstanding story that stands with the best Guardians tales ever
- Team chemistry is displayed brilliantly with constant banter
- Voice acting is phenomenal
- Environmental puzzles use team mechanic well
- Directing teammates in combat is a cool idea
- Player choice affects the story in big and small ways
- Custom difficulty settings are a godsend
- Milano flight controls are smooth
- A+ soundtrack
- Character models still look mostly awkward
- Melee combat feels awful with unbalanced enemies
- Element Blasters overheat so much that it draws out combat
- No way to compare player choices with others
- Huddle mechanic comes off weird
- Not enough use of the Milano
- Enough with the QTEs already!
Ozzie Mejia posted a new article, Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy review: Communication breakdown