Guardians Of The Galaxy (2021)
Marvel’s video games have always been hit and miss, even back in the 8-bit days. Some games were great, some completely unplayable. Super Heroes have entered into this super ultra mega pop-culture realm a bit over a decade ago, and since then, we have had what feels like hundreds of thousands of Super Hero movies and TV shows. Every D and F list character that’s ever been featured in a comic book now has their own origin story movie and full several season arch in a TV show. Guardians of the Galaxy is one of those very random deep cuts that made no sense when it was announced, yet somehow defied the odds and made it the best and most interesting stories being told in all medias… and that has translated into their own video game as well.
Last year’s The Avenger’s game was so riddled with extremely exploitative microtransaction elements and completely botched gameplay while also barely leaving any actual content for players, that it left a really bad taste in the mouths of many. This year’s E3 digital event showcased a Guardians of the Galaxy game that no one knew was happening and was also coming out just several months later and it was even given a really large demonstration that lasted longer than any other game shown off.
My personal feelings were that while the game looked interesting enough, I was so burnt out on Super Heroes in general, I just didn’t want to have anything to do with it. There is so much Marvel and DC oversaturation in the marketplace, and the majority of those products are so unbelievably bad that it's a waste of time to even pay attention to them. So I cast off the idea of playing the Guardians game and just decided to forget it existed. But when the release date for the game came, I couldn’t help but want to play it. So I fought my better judgment and took a chance on this ragtag band of heroes for hire and was overwhelmingly pleased with the results.
You know the story, or at least the characters at this point. Peter Quill, who also goes by the name of Star-Lord; pilots his spaceship and pals around with his crew. Gamora the daughter of Thanos, Rocket the Racoon, Groot the Tree and Drax the Destroyer… nothing new here, but what is interesting is that this game takes part of it’s canon from the movies, or at least banks on the fact you know them from the movies, but uses its own storyline and some of the crew is less familiar with each other than in the movies as well. It’s really unique and interesting to see what the developers wanted to keep as part of the established story and what to chuck out.
The game starts off with the team trying to find a secret creature in a forbidden zone, and when they leave are captured by the Space Police known as the Nova Corps. They then have to pay a fine which ends up at the castle of Lady Hellbender who they con and sell her Groot only for them to steal him back several hours later. Trying to pay off the hefty fine they incurred from the Nova Corps they realize something went horribly wrong and now there is a cult trying to convert the Galaxy, and it all started with the Nova Corps.
Gameplay is a cross of the Mass Effect series married to the Uncharted series. Prioritizing story over everything else, and that is very rarely the case in most games lately. So I found it a breath of fresh air to see a development studio taking a games story seriously and crafting a darn fine one at that. The Guardians are known for their humor and style, and so is Marvel… but I find Marvel’s style of writing to be unbearable most of the time. Leaning way too far into basic jokes and one liner territory. Where instead of real conversations with brevity, every character is falling over themself to let out their most sarcastic quip or pithy retort instead of being invested in the conversation that’s taking place.
Luckily that’s not the case with Guardians. Sure there are plenty of semi-sarcastic retorts, but it’s spread out much more in the game, and usually relies on several characters acknowledging what is going on before a bit of comedic relief shows up. In fact that’s one of the aspects I enjoyed more than anything else in the game. It’s dialogue. These characters and their motivations are already fairly well established and the game goes out of its way to expand even deeper into each member’s psyche and why they do what they do and who they truly are deep down inside. We learn why Rocket is such a stubborn jerk when it comes to getting his fur a bit damp, we see why Gamorra keeps herself at arms length when it comes to the subject of family, and all the rest too. The length of the game allows for all these moments to come naturally throughout a well paced story instead of thrown down the line like a fastball. It takes its time to unfold all these character’s nuances in an interesting and reasonable way.
Dialogue is fast and frantic most of the time, but also does slow its pace in the proper areas allowing for the plot to unfold… but there weren't very many points of silence in the game. In fact, the game’s script has to be one of the largest scripts of dialogue in any game. These characters don’t shut up and have so many different conversations, fights and apologies throughout the entire game that it's crazy to just even think about how long those voice sessions must have taken. Again, it’s a good thing though. I found the conversations to be really enjoyable and even actually hilarious in certain cases. These characters are written so well that they do come across as an odd but loving family. Ones that will do anything to make sure they are all together and safe in the end; while cracking wise a lot of the time too.
Levels are extremely straight forward, always pushing the player to the next story beat without much in the way. There are often points in the path that divert to a secondary location, but it’s very slight and usually just ends up letting you pick up some spare parts to use for upgrading abilities. However there are also more unforged sections that are harder to notice that contain Costume pickups too. These are the real rewards for exploring off the beaten path and combing the landscape for anything different. Being able to choose from various comic and movie versioned costumes for each team member, along with a little written snippet from the character’s point of view and even credits of where the costume showed up and who was a part of the creative team to make the designs was a nice touch too.
While the game does little in the way of gameplay early on, combat sections do show up quite often near the end of the game. I thoroughly enjoyed each combat encounter and all the enemies had a fair amount of health that didn’t make the fights a cakewalk in certain cases. Primarily controlling Star-Lord and using a Power Wheel-esque type of secondary system, you are able to command each team member to execute a special move. With a cooldown timer in place, it becomes an exercise in time management and battleground awareness to make sure that each enemy is always having their health meters being chipped away at. Once the area where the encounter is taking place clears up and the last foe has been defeated, a score is given with some skill points that are accumulated that can be spent in the menu system on each team member that allows for their special moves to be upgraded and more movesets become available.
One of the biggest gimmicks that was shown off early at E3 was the “Huddle” where Quill pulls out his walkman and gets the Guardians to huddle up in the middle of the battle. Each crew member takes turns giving their opinion on how the battle is going, and if they feel like they have the fight almost won or if they are feeling overwhelmed. Then Star-Lord is given an option of what type of speech to give. Almost like a halftime locker room speech to inspire the team to go out and give it their all. Choosing the right one comes down to listening to your teammates and also seeing what random phrases or words that have been said and are floating in the background. Listening to the team and using similar phrasing will captivate them and psych them up and they shout and run back into the fight to finish it, with much more energy.
This huddle seemed really gimmicky when first showed off because once they all run out to kill all the rest of the bad guys, a random fully licensed 80’s song starts playing in the game. It can be something like “We’re Not Gonna Take It” by Twisted Sister, or even “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley… which is more of a meme at this point than anything else. And originally when I saw it in action it seemed really corny and lame. But when the chips are down and you deliver a really emotional speech that pumps up the rest of the crew, and those songs start playing… It really does psych me up and gives me an extra boost of energy to pull out a win. It works really well most of the time, and isn’t the lame gimmick I thought it was going to be.
Since story is the primary focal point in this game, it does a great job of keeping it interesting and having a ton of extra side plots that are going along its main mission. Seeing each character come to grips with some pretty heavy emotional baggage is relatable to some extent and each of them come across as a much more rounded real person than a stereotypical invincible comic book superhero.
Taking notes and definitely inspired by Uncharted, the game even opens up with a teenage Peter Quill in his lovingly crafted quintessential 1980’s basement bedroom. Being able to walk around his home and look at a few items that spark nostalgia and give insight to the way he grew up. Longer than what was expected, conversations with his mom also give a bit of backstory and history but never feel overbearing or like I was being beaten over the head with “HEY CONNECT WITH THIS CHARACTER!!!”. It all flows very well into the main story and the game comes back to it several times as a respite from when the narrative does get a bit overwhelming at certain points.
I just can’t get over how well this game was put together, and doesn’t have any glaring issues past the technical ones that are sure to be patched over in the coming weeks and months. One or two crashes, some weird physics on the hair and some audio getting cut off when getting to a new area every once in a while is nothing to brush off, but it’s minor in the grand scheme of things. And especially with a smaller studio that hasn’t put out a ton of games; mainly consisting of the new Deus Ex games and the extremely poorly received Thief 4 and Shadow of the Tomb Raider…. Having a very solid massive game is pretty impressive.
It’s nice to see single player narrative based games show up that aren't a numbered sequel to an existing franchise. Taking a known, well established and loved franchise and making it faithful is no easy task and I think Eidos Montreal did a spectacular job of showing that you can break the mold when it comes to Marvel characters. Not everything has to follow the movies and diverting from it at times with love and care really make for a near perfect experience.