Guardians of the Galaxy, Square Enix’s latest attempt at adapting a Marvel franchise into a successful video game, is best described as — and I mean this as a glowing compliment — a Dysfunctional Family Management Sim. As Peter Quill, your job is to motivate, reassure, comfort, and lead your merry band of found-family misfits through dialogue choices designed to profoundly impact gameplay and story. I had the opportunity to play a full chapter of the game ahead of its release, and I gotta say, I’m impressed.
It is, however, fair to say that my enthusiasm for what I’ve seen of Guardians so far is because I kept my expectations in check. There have been excellent Marvel games in the past — one need only look over yonder to what Insomniac has done with Spider-Man and will probably do with Wolverine. But Square Enix’s specific track record with the Marvel franchise has been underwhelming. Marvel’s Avengers had an excellent single-player campaign, but it was largely overshadowed by a repetitive loot grind, lack of significant endgame content (heh), and a performance plagued by nasty bugs.
People have a right to be skeptical, but what I’ve seen of Guardians makes me think things will be different. It’s as though Square Enix and developer Eidos-Montréal took what was best about Avengers and spun that out into its own game. It’s a choice-driven, story-focused game that can at times feel more like the Telltale Guardians game than a Square Enix action RPG.
The demo started on the Milano, the Guardians’ ship, and I was given free rein to walk about having casual conversations with Gamora, Groot, Drax, and Rocket. As you speak to them, you’re presented with dialogue choices and a timer, ala Telltale’s The Walking Dead. These choices grant you different bits of your friends’ history and the chance to develop a connection with the people you’ll be entrusting your life to later in combat.
Player choice in action games can sometimes feel a bit shallow, especially when the consequences end up being, at best, a slightly different bit of dialogue. Guardians does a decent job of making it feel like your choices mean something. Your decisions as Star-Lord can mean the difference between fighting a horde of mind-controlled enemies or escaping unseen and unheard without a scratch.
Both Mary DeMarle, senior narrative director, and Patrick Fortier, senior gameplay director, emphasized the importance of choice in Guardians and the extent to which it impacts the game. “Some of the choices that you make will ultimately determine at the end of the game the secret weapons and people who you might have in your arsenal as you’re going up against the Big Bad,” DeMarle says.
Fighting in Guardians is typical action RPG fare. Playing as Star-Lord, you zip around the battlefield in your rocket boots as you shoot up enemies with elemental bullets. Skill points unlock powerful moves that increase your combo meter and, thereby, the rewards you get at the end of a fight. Your companions are controlled by AI to fight as they please, but you, as the leader, can command them to execute special moves when you need some heavier hitting.
Though the combat in Guardians isn’t particularly revolutionary, I found myself chuckling aloud at times, amused by the combos I was able to pull off. You can direct your Guardians to take advantage of environmental hazards. I got a big kick out of commanding Gamora to cut down a piece of construction to squish a particularly troublesome enemy after I had frozen him in place with my ice bullets. In combat, there are lots of opportunities to create those kinds of unique one-two punches, and they enhance the idea that the Guardians can be a functional, loving, kick-ass family when they stop bickering and get their shit together.
Choice in Guardians not only affects how you experience the game and the success of combat but how your companions react to you as well. A cold word said or deed done to Rocket in an earlier chapter influences whether or not he wants to cooperate with you later in the game. There’s a moment in the demo in which Rocket stubbornly refuses to hack a lock because he was pissed off that I didn’t take his side in a disagreement. It made me choose Rocket-friendly options going forward, to both soothe his hurt feelings and to get him to do his job. It’s a nice change of pace that an AI companion had a story reason to ignore me rather than a mechanical one.
I love when characters adapt and respond to the way you treat them. That kind of cause and effect storytelling is well-suited to the highly temperamental personalities that make up the Guardians. It takes these characters from one-dimensional combat helper-bots to fully actualized companions. I had my doubts about Guardians, and those doubts largely disappeared in the short time I spent with this game. Knowing there’s a full game on the horizon, I’m excited to see more.