I knew that developer Eidos Montreal perfectly understood the dynamic between Marvel’s most mismatched superheroes when, almost unannounced, I was watching Drax the Destroyer hurl Rocket Raccoon across a cavern against his will. Was this part of the plan? Hell no, but that bridge button wasn’t going to push itself. Cut to the foul-mouthed critter explosively protesting from afar and firing shots at his fellow teammates. It was from this small moment onwards that I knew I was in safe hands with Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy.
A lot has been said about Square Enix’s second trip to the comic book sandbox, especially in the wake of the publisher’s various failures to reignite interest in last year’s Avengers. The truth is, however, we needn’t have worried. Because by stripping the idea of a superhero adventure right back to its core, focussing on tactical combat and prioritising blockbuster spectacle over continuous grinding, the titular team finally get the video game they deserve. It might not rewrite the action-adventure rulebook, but it comes together wonderfully as a greatest hits album for the genre.
Of course, the major difference between Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy and Marvel’s Avengers is how the former emphasises being a single-player experience first and foremost. While this may leave some baffled, considering that this is a team-focussed game, it honestly works much better to naturally develop the different character dynamics and give you a strong set of combat tools that can slowly be built upon – without ever the risk of being overwhelmed. Whereas Earth’s Mightiest Heroes saw you pulled in every which way, here you truly get to step into the role of leader.
In Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, you play as Star-Lord, an admittedly very similar (though not the same) character portrayed by Chris Pratt on the silver screen. Charmingly roguish and somewhat stuck in the past, watching him grow alongside the likes of Groot and Gamora to become a family forms much of the enjoyment, as does learning how to wield his famous quad blasters and swapping between ammo types while simultaneously dishing out tactical commands to the others on the battlefield. This slight spin on the traditional third-person shooter setup ends up being essential to every skirmish you’ll take part in, to the extent that you’ll struggle to overcome the odds otherwise.
Luckily, all team members have their own strengths. Whether it’s Groot’s talents in crowd control or Drax’s knack for strong attacks and dealing that all-important death blow, every single one of the Guardians’ personalities have been expertly integrated into gameplay. The one minor drawback to having five heroes under your instruction, though, is that your controller gets a constant workout, as you’re forced to utilise almost all its buttons to deploy the necessary character skill that would best suit a particular enemy type or combat scenario. Managing each’s cooldown meter eventually becomes a test in tactics in and of itself, as does playing well enough to activate what’s a called a “huddle”, wherein all team members can gain a temporary boost if offered the correct reassurance.
Star-Lord himself can also be improved with various upgrades and new abilities at any of the many workbenches scattered across the galaxy. Simply collect scrap during missions, level up enough and Rocket will be more than happy to help you. Is it a little unbelievable that every planet you visit has the same workbench lurking nearby? Yes, but it’s an easily forgivable narrative oddity that allows for some slight RPG-ness to be included. My only wish is that here was a better way to find the scrap necessary to upgrade. Similar to the Arkham series, you see, you’re frequently dipping in and out of Star-Lord’s visor vision, which can sometimes detract from Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy’s magnificent art design.
Speaking of which, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy may largely be linear, but this does nothing do dampen the staggering sense of scale found in most of the 16 story chapters. One minute you can be gunning through a Nova Corps starship in the effort to escape, the next you’re battling some nightmarish beast down in the bowels of a planet’s core. All these locations are immensely fun to fight through and help instil a sense of the otherworldly. Your eyes never get bored. Every world you visit has its own identity and unique colour palette in this way, with plenty of opportunities to venture off the beaten path to find scrap and new costume unlocks.
Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is entirely standalone from other bouts of Marvel fiction, for the most part, but one popular aspect of Guardians that does carry over is the inclusion of an arse-kicking soundtrack. Featuring classic hits from both the 70s and 80s, songs like Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up and Wham’s Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go serve as a constant reminder for Star-Lord’s Earthly origins. A good thing, too, because beating down bad guys to the tune of any of these is always a thrill. Eidos Montreal even went so far as to commission original music from an in-universe band that inspired Star-Lord’s own namesake. And despite tapping more into the heavy metal side of the era, each track easily holds its own against the well-known hits.
It can’t be understated just how funny Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy ends up being either. Characters constantly jest and poke at one another in a way that demonstrates an expert appreciation for the IP’s original comic book origins. More impressive, though, is that it’s not just an aspect found in cutscenes. In between missions you’re afforded the chance to chat with each individual member while back on board the Milano, and it’s in these moments where much of the humour is found. Sometimes you can even make dialogue decisions that will be called back upon later. Story ramifications may not be huge, but certain situations play out differently enough to warrant a replay in some cases.
Sadly, in addition to an overreliance on Star-Lord’s helmet vision, there are a few technical niggles present that prevent Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy from fully reaching the status of top-tier superhero title. Lip-synching, for example, can be very hit and miss in moments outside of cutscenes, and it happened to me a few times during huddles where I was forced to restart a checkpoint due to no dialogue option appearing – the entire gang was just left staring at me! However, glitches like these aren’t game-breaking, and can hopefully be solved by a patch or post-launch update.
Any prior fears about Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy not being good are instantly quelled the first time a squad member quips a joke, which occurs early on (and extremely frequently thereafter). Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is further proof that when concentrating on providing a solid single-player experience, rather than being a live-service that’s trying to be everything to everyone, it’s possible to make an enjoyable adventure with themes of family and teamwork at its heart. The fact that combat and story are also solid is a nice bonus. Even a few rough technical edges can’t dampen the likelihood of you getting hooked on this feeling that is one of the best Triple-A action games of the year.