Choices are a funny thing in videogames. By nature, videogames ask us to make decisions about a lot of things — develop tactics, formulate strategies, optimize character builds, budget resources. But the kind of choices that really stick with players are the ones that insist they have a say in the fiction of the world they’re playing in, and the characters that inhabit it.
That’s at the essence of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, a single player action adventure game by Eidos Montreal. And while it isn’t a particularly original piece of work, it’s a welcome surprise this year as a wildly entertaining, visually spectacular and very often heartfelt adventure with sneaky helpings of choice baked between the layers of its 20 hour campaign.
Guardians of the Galaxy opens with the ragtag band of “heroes for hire” down on their luck. The versions of Drax, Gamora, Groot, Rocket and Star-Lord you meet here bear some resemblance to their MCU counterparts, but differ in meaningful ways. They share the collective trauma of having lived through a massive interstellar war, and while some ties exist to other corners of the Marvel Universe, Guardians never breaks orbit long enough for you to think too much about these connections.
The expansive narrative of a video game benefits these characters: it gives them room to breathe and reveal the textures of their personalities in ways that are denied them in two hour motion pictures.”
The expansive narrative of a sixty dollar video game benefits these characters: it gives them room to breathe and reveal the textures of their personalities in ways that are denied them in two hour motion pictures. To that end, Eidos Montreal gives us the portrait of a team still bearing the scars of their past while struggling to move on, and sharp character writing repeatedly impresses that fact upon you.
That’s in stark contrast to the other Marvel game from publisher Square Enix, last year’s Marvel’s Avengers. The beleaguered action adventure and live service engagement machine was disappointing for many reasons, but with Guardians of the Galaxy, Eidos Montreal proves that it’s not the knock-off MCU likenesses that did the game in, but weightless and unconvincing writing.
That being said, you only get to play as Peter Quill aka Star-Lord, the de facto leader of the group and standard issue video game white male. For many of my peers in games media, that’s a disappointment, as some presumed that Guardians would be a co-op adventure. And while it’s an understandable expectation, the reasons behind this choice grow more obvious the further you get into Guardians. As Peter, you serve as the team’s Commander Shepard. Like the hero of the Citadel, you provide tactical oversight on the field, make decisions for the group and attend to individual morale.
Guardians puts a lot more weight into your choices than the average action adventure. For while it lacks the freeform mission structure of a Mass Effect, or the open world sandbox of Marvel’s Spider-Man and funnels you into fixed story beats, it will respond to your choices with meaningful outcomes. One of the game’s earlier choices made an entire mission into a violent shootout, and I found out later that it could easily have been a stealth affair, had I chosen differently.
This is an incredibly talky game: your team will bicker, argue and debate literally everything. Peter’s leadership gets questioned, motivations are interrogated and insults are hurled.
Guardians of the Galaxy is also an incredibly talky game not just in the number of cutscenes that frame each chapter and mission, but in the ways that your team will bicker, argue and debate literally everything. Various non-combat sections play out like extensive walk-and-talks, in which your leadership gets questioned, motivations are interrogated and insults are hurled.
It’s all a bit much, and I found myself stopping in my tracks to ensure that every conversation played out its natural course before proceeding to the next encounter. Very often a timer will show up that asks you to weigh in on these conversations, and many of your choices will be remembered even if they don’t fundamentally alter the game’s plot.
Ultimately, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is at its most interesting when it allows the aforementioned choices to interact with its broader themes. The choices that Peter makes and the journey he and his friends undergo is one of collective responsibility, informally cultivated leadership and the emotional maturity needed to crawl out of self-pity and answer the call to action.
Full credit for this goes to Mary DeMarle and her collaborators in the narrative department, whose work on the Deus Ex series, notwithstanding its clumsy stabs at politically themed relevance, found its own blueprint for merging player expression with scenario design. They’ve created a much more interesting Peter Quill here, an emotionally stuck veteran dealing with his boyhood scars rather than a juvenile lothario cowboy.
Like the mixtapes that Quill carries in his portable tape deck, the gameplay in Guardians of the Galaxy constitutes a playlist made up of the greatest hits of the past two decades of AAA games.
The gameplay in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is entertaining, even if it isn’t particularly deep or challenging. Like the mixtapes that Quill carries in his portable tape deck, they constitute a playlist made up of the greatest hits of the past two decades of AAA games. Light cover mechanics, foes with elemental weaknesses, puzzle platforming and crafting-based progression, they’re all in here.
In combat, there’s plenty that’s happening and your ability to give commands — whether it’s asking Drax to stagger a particularly troublesome foe or telling Rocket to deploy a gravity well to bind a crowd together — allows you to bring some order to the chaos. And while there’s enough tactical meat to your team’s skills, the game never finds ways to push you to up the ante in finesse or efficiency, outside of a flat momentum bonus.
The game’s much celebrated ‘huddle up’ mechanic, which sees Peter Quill rallying his team together to inspire them with some football coach-style pep talk never really got old for me. The randomly selected 80s pop or rock hit that follows it is always fun and puts some pep in the game’s step and emphasizes the importance of Peter Quill’s listening skills as a leader, though truthfully it doesn’t do anything to elevate the combat.
The platforming sequences are never as interesting as they are in the recent Tomb Raider series and the moments where you squeeze through passages, unlock routes and slide down one way paths are visually identical to the ones in Uncharted. They’re fine for breaking up the pace between combat and cutscenes, but even the most hazardous seeming destinations lack any sense of danger or urgency.
The greatest challenge you’ll face in these sections is a poorly executed quicktime event or jump that turns fatal and quickly respawns you. You’re not really showing off any skill here, just trying to clear a pass or fail button test. There are also times where you’ll ask specific team members to help you clear a path, and these tasks affirm Quill’s place as a leader of belligerent ruffians, but it’s bog standard adventure game stuff.
Still it’s hard to fault Guardians of the Galaxy for these things when it is as consistently entertaining as it is. It’s a game that so eagerly wants to show you its own version of a comic book space opera. The first mission has you exploring a spaceship graveyard, its various derelicts held together by a strange bubblegum like substance. Another has you navigating the halls of a massive castle that screams ‘Masters of the Universe.’ The game’s skyboxes are particularly impressive and you’ll never be disappointed by tilting the camera up.
The attention to detail, skillful use of color and lighting and overall art direction feel masterful, but environments are little more than set pieces, rather than the narratively saturated neighborhoods of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided.
This pastiche of science fiction and fantasy aesthetics is also lifted from decades of pop culture. But unlike the game’s mechanics, the attention to detail, skillful use of color and lighting and overall art direction feel masterful. These environments are very often little more than set pieces, rather than the narratively saturated neighborhoods of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, and it’s not long before you’re moving to the next far out locale.
Rather than going waist deep into the kind of interconnected subsystems they’re known for, Eidos Montreal plays precisely to the limitations and expectations of a licensed game. They’ve eschewed any possibly damning ambitions in order to front load qualities that are welcome — a briskly told story, polished sound and visuals and meticulous character writing — and let those pave over the uninspired elements of its gameplay.
By doing so, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy deftly avoids the quagmire that would hold back other videogames — things like open worlds with hundreds of quest icons, loot-based endgames that ask you to grind forever. Rather than losing you in dozens of inconsequential mechanics, it homes in on what truly matters — an exciting cosmic ride that never veers off the path from what makes a cinematic adventure fun. Your choices are never deep or complex in Guardians of the Galaxy, but fun is guaranteed.
Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy
About the Score
A wonderful, memorable experience. Any flaws in this game are easily outshined by moments of excellence.