Avengers, this ain't.
Games in the Marvel Universe have had an up-and-down journey over the past few years.
While 2018’s Spider-Man set a new bar for superhero titles with its gorgeous web-swinging and compelling take on the hero, Marvel’s Avengers missed the mark somewhat with a lumpy games-as-service model that didn’t resonate with or retain its fans; our own Steve Wright called it ‘two games in one’ where only the single-player campaign side was enjoyable to play. Last year’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales took advantage of the PS5’s power to make an even more gorgeous addition to the world set up by the 2018 title, and now Eidos Montreal has brought the newest title in the Marvel Gaming Universe to life with Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy.
While Guardians does draw some general inspiration from the Marvel Cinematic Universe version of the crew – Drax is very literal, Star-Lord loves his cassette player, the Milano looks like a sleek space-bird – the game very much establishes its own iterations. We’re introduced to the team shortly after Gamora joins the crew as they embark on a mission to capture a mysterious beast in the Quarantine Zone, a dumping ground for spaceship debris after the great Galactic War with Thanos and the Chitauri armies. While the Guardians did participate in the resistance efforts — including Gamora’s defection to the good guys — they’re still trying to make a name for themselves.
Capturing a dangerous space-beast to sell to Lady Hellbender, the Monster Queen, seems as good a way to get some street cred as any. Things of course don’t go to plan and the Guardians soon find themselves in trouble with the Nova Corps, space cops who slap the team with a hefty fine and a tiny deadline for breaching the Quarantine Zone. As the team rush to earn enough credits to pay the bill before their ship is disabled, they soon find themselves embroiled in a greater conflict that threatens to destroy the entire galaxy. It’s up to them to try and stop this threat to the universe – it’s right there in the team name, after all.
Through the course of the narrative, players will find themselves travelling across several unique alien landscapes, from derelict ships to bustling space stations, as well as a diverse mix of planets. Unlike Marvel’s Avengers, you’ll only control one member of the team throughout the game – Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord. Both in and out of combat, Quill has the ability to direct his team and utilise their unique abilities.
Moving through the world, Groot is able to create bridges across gaps, Gamora can slice through obstacles and scale sheer walls, Rocket can access raccoon-sized spaces and Drax the Destroyer can, well, destroy when needed. Each member of the team is also introduced with their specific combat skill, ranging from crowd control to area-of-effect damage, to single-target heavy hitters. It can be a lot to take in at first, but as the game progresses and the skill pool expands, it becomes second nature to call in each squad member as needed.
On top of this, you’ll also unlock the four elements for Star-Lord’s Element Guns. Certain enemies will be more susceptible to a particular element, allowing you to quickly break down their shields or stagger bar so the whole team can inflict massive damage. Add to this team-up melee attacks, finishing moves, and special co-op attacks for certain enemies and you have a very meaty combat system.
It’s well-handled, as all of this is drip-fed to the player as the game progresses – the only challenge is fitting all that gameplay on to the buttons of a PlayStation controller. I will say, having Star-Lord’s own skill wheel assigned to L3 of all places does showcase just how packed the control schemed had to be – I went the first few chapters of the game without even realising those skills were there.
One thing that Guardians of the Galaxy greatly benefits from is how focused a gameplay experience it is. With no multiplayer or games-as-service mechanics to cater to, the game feels polished, curated and above all, rich with detail. Moving through the story, you’ll oscillate between your home back on the Milano, the Guardians’ spaceship, and the various locations you visit over the course of the game. Each world you visit is also extremely distinct from the others, with truly alien-feeling environments in kaleidoscopic colour. Between missions it’s fun to explore the ship for new items to interact with, speak with the crew, and – if you’re a worrier like me – close the fridge door that’s always open in the ship’s kitchen.
As you find collectibles hidden away on each world you’ll also open up additional dialogue with the other Guardians that really flesh out their characters and backstory, providing some of the most personal interactions in the game. You’ll also be given a number of binary dialogue choices – often these ask you to side with one Guardian or another, make decisions about how to handle a situation, or where the team’s focus should be.
These choices can affect the flow of your version of the story, as certain choices can impact your alliances with the various factions of space, or even your relationships within the team. Side against Rocket one too many times and he may start to take it personally, limiting how willing he is to help you in the future. These decisions don’t seem to shake up the overall narrative too much however, so feel free to play these out based on ‘which sounds more fun’ in the moment.
The universe that Eidos Montreal has created for Guardians is extremely rich and full of references to the greater Marvel space-lore, an area fairly unexplored in the wider perception for non-comics fans. There were plenty of references I caught as a comics reader myself, but no doubt there were even more that completely flew over my head – one late-game character reveal would have been signposted for folks who’ve been reading Guardians comics for the last couple of decades, but for me I had to do some Googling. That’s not to say that any of this lessens the enjoyment of the narrative, though.
For all its references, the greatest victory of Guardians of the Galaxy is how likable its core cast is. The team truly undergoes a lot of growth throughout proceedings, with meaningful character moments for all five of the Guardians as they confront their respective pasts and open up to the team. The banter during missions slowly shifts from antagonistic, to helpful, friendly and eventually truly warm. It brought a smile to my face more than once, listening to this squad of goofballs start emphatically supporting each other.
Rocket admitting he actually likes Drax’s singing, Gamora starting to crack jokes, and the whole team starting to earnestly listen to Star-Lord as the boss; more often than not I would hang back from moving from area to area, just to ensure I got to listen to everything the team had to say. Even little things, like the previously mentioned fridge door – after closing it constantly throughout the game, there came a moment where the whole team was in the living area of the ship as I did it, and realised they all thought they’d been the only one closing the fridge this whole time. It’s little touches like this that make a game feel well-rounded and loved by its development team.
While I went into Guardians with a good feeling I’d enjoy it, I was surprised by just how much fun I ended up having. Moreso than the combat gameplay or even the stunning world design, what really cemented my enjoyment was its writing. This group of misfits feel fully fleshed-out, slowly expanding from our presumed one-note characterisations to real people, with pain and hurt in their pasts they’re still trying to overcome. I was surprised by just how mature the writing was – not mature as in blood and guts, ultraviolence and nudity, but in the sense that the idea of trauma is being handled with such care and dignity.
Watching a group of ‘broken’ people support each other in their healing process while ALSO saving the universe from a cataclysmic threat, wasn’t quite what I expected from a story that features a big tree man and an angry raccoon. I’m glad it does though, because this is the kind of story depth I’d love to continue seeing from Marvel games – or even games in general. This is the game Avengers could have been if it were a more focused experience. Here’s to hoping we’ll see more of Peter Quill and his team in the future.
Guardians of the Galaxy is now available on Windows PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series S, Xbox Series X, PS4 and PS5.
Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy was reviewed using a promotional code on PS5, as provided by the publisher. Click here to learn more about Stevivor’s scoring scale.
26 October 2021
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