Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy begins with a flashback where a young version of the game’s protagonist, Peter Quill, has a conversation with his mother in his childhood home. It’s a somber encounter for anyone familiar with the original comics or the films: it’s Quill’s last day on Earth, just before his mom is killed and he is abducted from everything he had previously known.
Immediately following the flashback, an adult Quill wakes up in the present on his spaceship, the Milano. We’re treated to an over-the-shoulder POV of Quill standing in front of a mirror in his cramped personal quarters. Left idle, he uses his fingers to buff his teeth, checks his breath and cracks a forced, uncanny smile. His awkward posturing for his (and our) own benefit makes for an instructive introduction to Eidos Montreal’s videogame adaptation of the popular Marvel franchise. Its story (in lockstep with the comics and the movies before it) is about making a show of looking alright even when you aren’t. And as a game, it is about looking great, exuding all kinds of polish, even when you may not always feel so great playing it.
Guardians is a gorgeous game. Across its dozen or so hours of story, the player will be shown an impressive variety of environments wrapped in lavish colors and tucked within dazzling skyboxes. You’ll be storming the halls of a Heavy Metal-esque space castle one moment, joining a space battle right out of Star Wars the next, only to wind up navigating the storm-ravaged surface of an abandoned planetary outpost, all within a handful of missions. The game’s vibrant aesthetic pastiche, dredged from fifty years of science fiction and pop culture, allows it to sample across a broad range of backdrops and environments without your crew looking out of place in any of them.
As for the eponymous Guardians themselves, despite their first impression as a bunch of knock-off action figures dug from the bottom of a dollar store bargain bin, they do inevitably grow on you, and end up being both endearing and funny. Even New Quill’s stiff blond pompadour and creeping peach fuzz is an easier pill to swallow than the star of the movies, Chris Pratt, and his cloying Christian paternalism. The one casting decision which gave me pause was seeing Gamora’s role not being cast to a black woman, despite being a character largely established in the popular imagination by Zoe Saldana's performance. Wiping her impact and her blackness from the story feels disrespectful to that performance, irregardless of actor Kimberly Sue Murray’s contribution to the role. Where the other characters feel like sketchy facsimiles of the film’s stars, Murray’s Saldana feels more like someone else’s portrait painted over a finished work.
With this less-than-stacked deck, Eidos Montreal’s narrative team, led by Executive Narrative Director Mary DeMarle, nevertheless manages to deliver an engaging and rewarding story. Though it leans, like the films do, heavily into using the senseless deaths of characters’ loved ones to generate the necessary pathos for basically every member of the team, it still does a respectable job of exploring that pathos in earnest and compelling ways. During the progression of the story, your team both individually and collectively learns to mature and develop, to take on new responsibilities and to better deal with grief.
Beneath these layers of storytelling and visual presentation is the moment to moment experience of playing the game itself. And this is, unfortunately, where the smile cracks and the awkwardness and discomfort slip in. Guardians’ gameplay is a grab bag of the last decade of big-budget “cinematic” game design. If it’s been in a Naughty Dog, or a Sucker Punch Game (usually in a more considered and polished state) you’ll probably be acting out a xeroxed version of it in Guardians.
But for the most part, Guardians’ narrative provides its audience reason enough to forgive its lackluster gameplay. As a story, it’s mostly concerned with what it means to grow up and to take responsibility for yourself as well as others. Where the films explored themes of being abandoned or failed by parental figures and the perpetual adolescence that crops up as a defense, the game takes us to the next natural milestone in the maturation towards adulthood: becoming (your) parents. The story may not follow a straight line from the events of the filmic universe, but it does feel like we’re playing as an older, slightly wiser version of Quill, who is learning, finally, to stop feeling sorry for himself, and to take some responsibility for others.
At some point in the game a question gets raised about Quill’s potential parental obligation, but, more broadly, there’s also the parentified nature of leading an organization. In explaining why Quill is the game’s only playable character, Eidos’ DeMarle describes Quill as “ … the heart of that team, he’s the human part of that team, which we can identify with … ” He’s also the dad of the team, which, considering the long running phenomenon of “dad games” many gamers clearly have an easy time identifying with. He’s the one yelling and cajoling a group of unruly kids into focusing on the same thing and working together in order to win the day.
It’s where this dynamic intersects with the game’s interactivity that Guardians feels inventive and fresh; this is where the player can feel swept up and involved in the game’s story. First, there are the many branching conversations in which the player is asked to make decisions or choose a side within a brief time limit. It’s a system not unlike Telltale’s The Walking Dead series or even Eidos Montreal’s own earlier Deus Ex games. These conversations have a naturalistic and flustered tone and rarely feel like perfectly executed strings of commands, instead evoking the flailing protestations of an unprepared and overextended parent trying to satisfy bickering siblings or calm a giant muscular baby having a destructive tantrum (yes I’m talking about Drax).
This constant, low-level feeling of friction, this background noise of chatter and endless groan-inducing puns, far from being merely annoying (though it is that, too), does a great job at capturing the Guardians’ dysfunctional family dynamic. It underpins the conversational layers of the game but also adds convincing texture elsewhere. For example, Quill often has to ask specific team members to unblock otherwise impassable areas of the level. It’s a tool which feels more old school adventure game-y than the other, more contemporary modes of exploration. Sure, you’re really just finding the right piece for a puzzle composed of four potential pieces: see a bundle of slashable wires blocking a doorway and call Gamora; spot a tiny crawl space in a wall and summon Rocket, and so on. But the light creative problem solving of figuring out which Guardian can help with a given task is a great way to position Quill in a leadership position that is nevertheless shakily maintained and constantly undermined by his wildly uncooperative charges.
Go in the wrong direction and a team member will usually call you out for it. Get stuck at a dead end and Rocket will remind you that he told you the right way to go five seconds back. Gamora will scoff at being asked to lift a large boulder much better suited for Drax. It’s a rare instance where the meat of playing the game also delivers its narrative themes, rather than just being something to keep you distracted between cutscenes. There’s a glint here of what a more cohesive take on a Guardians game might look like, but ultimately these navigation puzzles represent a sliver of how you spend your time in the game.
Much larger swaths are spent participating in Guardians’ many arena battles. Picture the jet boot shenanigans Quill gets up to beneath the opening credits in the first Guardians movie or the big team brawl that happens beneath the opening credits in Vol. 2, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of the vibe the game is going for with its combat.
But there is a good reason why these big flashy battles happen under the credits rather than out on their own. They’re perfectly fine as colorful setpieces, as tableaus of laser fire and cursing rodents, but they’re not really deep enough to stand on their own, especially not as core gameplay loops. The occasions when it feels like you’re combining different Guardians’ abilities in interesting ways feel rarer than simply winning by using everyone’s ability as soon as they it comes off of cooldown. Worse, shooting and punching as Quill feels light and weightless, it’s often difficult to tell whether you’re actually damaging an enemy, especially when so much else is going on visually.
Exploring the game’s levels, with the rare exception of the team puzzle solving moments, can feel equally shallow, especially when making comparisons to the clear influences for Guardians’ mechanical approach. The game features a seemingly endless amount of sliding sequences, for example, which are visually identical to the ones found in games like Uncharted, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, and the recent Tomb Raider reboots. In spite of how heavily Guardians leans on these sequences to break up exploration, they feel woefully underbaked, neither Quill nor the hazards he evades having any sense of mass or danger.
The overall lack of polish in many of these modes is likely owed to the sheer variety of mechanics and setpieces which have been thrown into its mix. Though there is a core loop of activities and approaches, it rarely feels like you’re grinding through the same content, which is rare and admirable for a contemporary big-budget video game. After all, when the story takes us from monster dens to space prisons to tech churches to stormy desert planets, it makes a certain sense to keep the mechanics as widely varied and chaotically arranged as possible.
In ways reminiscent of the series’ comic book roots, playing Guardians feels like you’re playing through a word of mouth epic detailed by a suburban twelve year old with a hyper-active imagination. Of course he’s going to brush over certain details, cobble together settings and scenarios from half-remembered references in sloppy if ambitious ways. You might forgive quite a lot, and ignore the spittle-laden laser bolt sounds and name-swapped Star Wars characters, when hearing the earnestness in his voice and tone. It’s easy, in these cases, to get infected by the same excited energy about how cool this world he’s describing could be, if only he had the means to show you.
In Guardians we get to see a version of this idea-laden fantasy universe. Eidos Montreal clearly wants to show us stuff, a lot of stuff. Refreshingly little time is wasted between the game’s big dramatic set-pieces. The crafting systems are there but they are exceptionally minimal and quite easy to ignore. You don’t have to grind for armor or upgrades. Outfit changes are cosmetic and entirely optional. And while you can engage your crewmates in expository conversations reminiscent of Mass Effect’s conversation-heavy approach, you’ll tend to wrap up most discussions within a fraction of the time spent trawling through the Normandy’s corridors chatting with random ensigns and cooks.
For the most part it’s a game which understands its weaknesses (depth, polish, uniqueness) while being pretty good at foregrounding its strengths (variety, storytelling, visual splendor). It’s here to sell us that awkward smile, it’s Quill posing in front of a mirror in his corny leather jacket. Easy spectacle without too much crunchy, frustrating friction in the way.
Guardians is a legitimately well-told comic book story delivered on fairly strict rails. You’ll have the chance to move and reposition your pieces every now and then, but the moves are never as important as the story, can never outshine the straining weight of a million rapid-fire references, delivered with earnest glee over a meticulously curated Eighties soundtrack, the storytellers never once looking back to check if you are still along for the ride.