The latest big budget Marvel game is a vast improvement on the Avengers tie-in and one of the best action adventures of the year.
You can just imagine the dollars signs that must have shone in the eyes of Square Enix execs, as they signed up the video game licence for The Avengers – especially once Endgame went on to become the biggest movie of all-time. Except, while official licences might buy you success with sports sims it’s not the guarantee you’d imagine with movies and other media. Games like Spider-Man and Batman: Arkham have done very well but only because they were good games, while Marvel’s Avengers has fared unexpectedly poorly because it’s not.
The best parts of the Avengers game were the story elements surrounding Ms. Marvel, which made you wish that Square Enix had just made a normal single-player game, instead of trying to merge it with a confused mess of co-op and live service features. You’d assume, because it also revolves around a team of characters with very different powers, that Guardians Of The Galaxy would take the same tact but it does not. It’s a purely single-player action adventure where you only ever get to control Star-Lord. It’s also much, much better than that sounds.
Apart from both featuring a mixture of ranged and melee combat, with multiple allied characters running around, there really aren’t any similarities with the Avengers game at all. Guardians Of The Galaxy isn’t an action role-player (there’s a small number of extra abilities to unlock but that’s it) but if you think of it as a cross between Mass Effect and Streets Of Rage you wouldn’t be far off.
As with the other Marvel video games this isn’t set in the cinematic universe, even though much of the character and hardware designs are very similar. The Guardians films are one of the least authentic to the comics though and the game picks and chooses between them, so while Drax and Rocket Racoon are clearly based more on their film versions, Star-Lord has a backstory much closer to the comics and Mantis has almost nothing in common with her movie incarnation.
The game probably would’ve been better off basing everything on the comics though as while the storytelling is surprisingly complex, and tackles some serious issues, the characterisation inevitably suffers by comparisons with the films. The game goes overboard in having Drax constantly taking metaphors literally, to the point where he seems to do it in almost every second line of dialogue. And apart from one fun personality quirk, that’s not in the movies, Gamora is a little bland, as she never interacts with Thanos or Nebula and there’s no hint of any romance with Star-Lord.
Far worse though is Rocket, who is one of the most irritating video game characters we’ve ever had to endure. The films always walk a tightrope in terms of not having him seem too obnoxious or argumentative, but the game makes him absolutely insufferable from the first moment, as he manages to complain and whine his way through almost the entire game – while demonstrating himself to be a thoroughly amoral person/raccoon.
That sounds like a real problem but oddly it’s not, even though one of the other irritations is that none of the characters ever shuts up, as they constantly talk over each other like they’re in a Robert Altman film. They’re never really that funny either, with the game’s script being just that touch more straightlaced than the movies (despite being filled with faux swear words like ‘scut’ and ‘flark’) and unable to generate the same style of irrelevant, unpredictable humour.
As damning as that should be though, it’s strangely not an issue, in part because all of the characters, including Rocket, get a proper self-contained story arc, and partly because the rest of the game is so unexpectedly entertaining.
Guardians’ combat system has two main components, as you take direct control of Star-Lord while he engages in some surprisingly meaty melee combat and uses his ‘element gun’ (which is a thing from the more recent comics) that gradually unlocks the ability to shoot ice, electricity, and other powers – that are often also used for environmental puzzles. Star-Lord has his own buffs, that are unlocked with collected resources, while all five main characters have three unique special moves that are gained by spending skill points – and a fourth at predetermined story moments.
You can’t play as any of the other characters, but you can order them around – not in terms of where they go but who they attack and when. This allows you to manage crowd control and activate special moves, many of which can be combo-ed into each other, such as Groot holding an enemy down, Drax staggering it, and Gamora performing an area of attack move. It’s not the deepest tactical system ever devised, and the lock-on is fiddlier than it should be, but the overall experience is a lot of fun, with a decent amount of enemy variety.
The game is entirely linear and there are no side quests on the first playthrough, just small diversions to find resources, alternative costumes, and unique items that reveal a bit of background lore about one of the characters. Apart from Star-Lord’s weird, inhuman eyebrows the graphics are generally very good but what really impresses is the art design, which again excels when it’s showing things not in the films.
This is the only big budget game in a long time that has proper alien landscapes and creatures, with weird colours and strange plant life that for once looks like something other than just a rock quarry or a desert/forest/snow planet. There is a snow world but it’s constantly being bombarded with perfectly oblong meteorites, while the aliens range from cyclopean beach balls to peculiar tentacle monsters that attack in packs, and poisonous bipeds that look like something out of The Thing.
Some of these may be based on existing Marvel comic book designs but it’s a real pleasure to see developer Eidos-Montréal constantly trying to present you with something you haven’t seen before. This is true of both the visuals and unexpected gameplay segues, such as a couple of space combat sequences and what at first seems to be a series of bog-standard arena battles but which are resolved in a surprising way by listening to what the characters are saying and not thinking of the game purely as a mindless action title.
We should emphasise that despite the issue with the script the storytelling is actually very good. The game is filled with binary decisions you have to make, some of which come quickly, one after the other, as you try to talk your way out of a situation or convince a potential ally to help you. In some instances, success has an immediate benefit but in others you get a little ‘character X will remember that’ style onscreen note that may not pay off until right near the end of the game.
There are also a number of lengthy sequences that are purely dialogue based and it becomes clear that the main theme of the game is coping with loss and learning to let go, which despite all the sci-fi silliness (the plot revolves around a religious cult harnessing faith as an energy source) is handled with surprising tact and insight.
This requires Star-Lord to be far less pathetic, and much more responsible, than he is in the films, which may disappoint some, but it works in context and some of the side characters, like Cosmo the space dog and the gloriously over-the-top Lady Hellbender, are great value. The game is also surprisingly (that word again) well anchored to the wider Marvel universe and, in one particular Easter egg, the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The game is filled with unexpected references though, not just from the disturbingly vast Disney empire but including everything from Pac-Man (which Square Enix must’ve gone to the bother of licensing from Bandai Namco) to Deathtrap Dungeon.
The 80s soundtrack is amazing too, featuring everyone from Blondie and Def Leppard to Soft Cell and Rick Astley. Its embarrassment of riches isn’t utilised very well though, as most of the time a song just plays at random when you activate what is essentially rage mode during combat. Only once – with Final Countdown right at the end – is it used for any real dramatic or ironic effect.
Guardians Of The Galaxy is an easy game to pick holes in and as we read back over these faults it seems surprising even to us that we enjoyed it so much. Evidently, it’s more than the sum of its parts but there is something intrinsically entertaining about a big budget video game made to this level of competence, in terms of gameplay, storytelling, and presentation. Despite being such an expensive game, that’s using an equally expensive licence, it’s impressively daring, in a way that means you never quite know what’s coming next.
Perhaps that says more about the predictability and tiredness of other AAA games but short of getting James Gunn to write the script it’s hard to imagine how this could have turned out better. It’s an ambitious, well-made third person action game that, crucially, would work just as well without the licence. And, just as crucially, it’s absolutely nothing like the Avengers game.
Guardians Of The Galaxy game review summary
In Short: A surprisingly ambitious cosmic space adventure that excels the more it diverges from the movies, offering robust action, impressive visuals, and unexpectedly sophisticated storytelling.
Pros: A highly competent mix of interactive storytelling and robust, tactical combat that consistently manages to surprise and entertain. Excellent art design and graphics. Amazing 80s soundtrack.
Cons: Rocket is an insufferable ass for the majority of the game and Drax and Gamora aren’t as funny as they are in the films. Lock-on system lacks precision.
Formats: PlayStation 5 (reviewed), Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch*, Xbox Series X/S, and PC
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: 26th October 2021
Age Rating: 16
*cloud streaming only
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