Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy surprised the hell outta me. I expected standard, blockbuster action-RPG fare painted with an ’80s nostalgic gloss that would never elicit an emotion more meaningful than, “cool, they got the rights to Blondie!” And while the developers at Eidos Montreal did indeed get the rights to Blondie and an impressive host of other ’80s mainstays, I was shocked to discover a game that had so much heart and emotional depth that on several occasions, I caught myself whispering a reverent “damn” at the screen. Though combat can be a bit of a slog, every Guardian and just about every non-Guardian are so well written and voiced, you don’t mind toughing it out to get at the juicy character development bits.
Guardians of the Galaxy has absolutely nothing to do with the Marvel cinematic universe and just barely kisses comic continuity, though some of the characters’ backstory introduced in the movies still applies. Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord, is still a man plucked from Earth in the ’80s to live a ne’er do well life in space before cleaning up his act. Gamora is the face-turned adopted daughter of Thanos. Drax is a widowed warrior from the planet Katath who is incapable of understanding sarcasm. Rocket is a space experiment gone wrong or right depending on perspective, and Groot is still the tri-syllabic tree creature whom only Rocket understands.
We catch up with the Guardians 12 years after the end of an intergalactic war that saw Thanos and the ruthless Chitauri empire defeated. You play as Peter Quill, pilot of the spaceship Milano and leader of the newfound Guardians of the Galaxy — a mercenary group that will do literally anything for money. Peter’s friends and colleagues are prickly, egotistical people who are still getting to know each other, and it’s your job to keep them in line as best you can as you bumble your way through ruining and then saving the galaxy.
The characters in this game are amazing, and I love every one of them, even the ones I didn’t really care for in the movies. To avoid infringing on actors’ likenesses, all the characters look like Wal-Mart brand versions of their movie counterparts. It was off-putting at first, but I came to prefer the uncanny valley Guardian look-alikes. Drax the Destroyer never moved my needle, if you know what I mean. Dave Bautista is a good-looking guy, but I just wasn’t attracted to his Drax. And though game-Drax has the same incredibly dry personality and (mostly) the same look as movie-Drax, there’s a tenderness to him that we just didn’t see in the movies. His extreme aggression and violence are just a smokescreen hiding a man still quietly mourning the murder of his wife and child by Thanos.
Early in the game, you frequently have to defend Gamora (his family’s murderer’s daughter) against him, correcting him when he calls her “assassin” instead of her name. By the end of the game, when all the Guardians have broken down their toughest, prickliest bits, Drax starts calling Gamora by her name all on his own, and he says one of the sweetest lines I’ve ever heard in a video game — saying that if they die on their quest, he’ll ask his god if there’s room for his friends in his heaven. Naturally, I fell instantly in love. It also doesn’t hurt that Drax is a physically competent himbo who is always moving or chucking heavy objects while shirtless. Let’s just say Drax could destroy me at any time.
Rocket Raccoon was another surprise for me. Early in the game, you have the option to throw Rocket like a football across a chasm so he can hack a panel that will create a bridge the party can use to get across. Rocket, naturally, objects to this treatment. If you choose the throw option (like I did), Rocket is furious — not because of the bodily harm, but because you violated his autonomy. Rocket Raccoon is a Looney Toon; he’s a foul-mouthed raccoon that makes things explode. Ha, ha, very funny. It’s easy to dismiss him as a joke — which is exactly how he’s treated in the movie — and it would have been very easy, expected even, for the game to continue to lean into that characterization without examining how Rocket feels about it. Though he has the appearance of a tiny, garbage-eating woodland creature, game-Rocket refuses to let people treat him as less than human. The moment is a really good example of the game’s choice / consequence system because when you throw him, Rocket won’t let you forget it, and he makes you feel like a piece of shit, which, if you do throw him, you kinda are.
Choice in this game is really well done. The game treats your decisions with enough weight to make them feel like they matter while also throwing in cool change-ups in choice presentation. Like most games with a choice mechanic, options are presented as a dialogue box on a timer. The game pauses, and you have so many seconds to make your choice before action resumes with a little “Character will remember that” box ala the Telltale games of yore. Late in the game, in the middle of combat, Gamora says she’s going to chase after the escaping bad guy. In this situation, there was no stoppage and no dialogue box; therefore, I didn’t know there was a choice to be made at the time. The battle arena was set up such that you can follow after Gamora, or you can continue the fight with Rocket, Groot, and Drax. Wanting to back up my friend, I chased after her. The platform I was running on exploded, throwing me into what would have been a fall to my death, but Gamora rushed in to save me, thus denying her the chase. Then a box popped, “Gamora is furious you didn’t let her chase the bad guy.” I was stunned, unaware I was making a decision there, impressed with the way Eidos Montreal switched up how choice was presented, changing it from the expected piece of text you select like picking off a list to something you make your character do.
The characters are alive in Guardians, and it makes them the game’s biggest appeal. They react to what you do and the choices you make. Gamora frequently brought up me not trusting her to go after the bad guy alone, and if you wander off to explore some hidden nook or cranny looking for one of the game’s many collectibles, they call you out on it, chiding you for wasting time.
Combat is the least enjoyable part of the game, but it isn’t too big of a deal-breaker. As Peter, you’re equipped with pistols that shoot elemental bullets, and you can also command your Guardians, having them execute one of three standard abilities or a special super-move. Once you’ve mastered the stagger system, elemental properties, and issuing commands, combat becomes a rote experience to largely endure rather than enjoy. There’s just enough variety in enemy weaknesses, environmental hazards, and abilities that stringing together successful combos isn’t terribly repetitive, but combat just isn’t where this game shines. Enemies aren’t difficult, they’re time-consuming, and when the game chains battle sections back to back that are filled with the biggest, beefiest monster types, it gets to be a slog. There’s a particularly unforgivable sequence toward the end that was a never-ending corridor of battle arenas with no platforming sections interspersed to break up the action. It was the most tedious part of the game.
I also did not love the controls. It was too easy to get my wires crossed, triggering a huddle when I meant to direct Rocket to throw a grenade. Huddles are an ultimate ability that buffs either you or all of your party, depending on the dialogue choice you make. They started out as a cute, little treat but quickly became very stale. In a game that is extremely good with how characters respond to events in their context, huddles are a strange aberration. The Guardian’s comments are never appropriate to the battle, and if you trigger one during a boss fight, they don’t even mention who you’re fighting. Huddles are also an unexpected source of hilarity. In addition to providing a buff and a heal for party members, a huddle will also play a song from the aforementioned ’80s hit list totally at random. I don’t know about you, but when I think of an ’80s, hotblooded, pick-me-up song, I’m not thinking of “Bad Reputation;” I’m thinking of “Wake Me Up Before you Go-Go.” The game agreed... frequently. In my entire playthrough, I never once got Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out For A Hero” after a huddle, even though that song was played during every one of the game’s promotional videos. I held out for a hero, and nobody came.
Like many, I enjoyed the Guardians of the Galaxy movie duology more than I thought I would. It’s the same for Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. It would have been easy to stretch the skin of a typical superhero movie plot over the bones of a standard action game and call it a day — kinda like most of Marvel’s Avengers. But Guardians defied being a lifeless, flesh hulk to instead be a living, breathing creature with a heart that beats and bleeds all over the screen.
Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is available now on PlayStation, Xbox, Switch, and PC.