Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy Review
An entertaining but occasionally uneven adventure
The quality of adaptations in video games has varied over the years, but at least one company is now taking charge of their properties. After rising to dominate popular culture through comic books, and in the most recent decade through films, Marvel has set their sights on the interactive medium. Prepending their new titles with their brand name, and joining forces with top developers for the job, the company is certainly on a prominent path. Following the success of Marvel's Spider-Man, the newest entry in their super hero foray is Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy. Although confusingly named – sharing the title with a film and another game from Telltale - this new adventure is an entertaining one, with better writing and characters than Spider-Man, but with a step down in gameplay.
In a single-player journey such as this, the story plays a crucial role, not to mention the added weight of expectations from being an existing universe with a huge reach. Thankfully, Guardians manages to mostly pull it off. All of the characters are well realized, and take on a life of their own, without being tied into the movies of the same name. It probably helps that it's been a while since the last Guardians film (which wasn't very good anyway), so players won't need any time adjusting to how these characters look and sound in this version. The five heroes have the same familiar personalities, of course. Peter Quill/Star-Lord is the reluctant leader, Gamora is the deadly alien assassin woman, Rocket is an engineer that's totally not a raccoon, Groot is the mysterious tree man, and Drax is the strong willed but clever warrior. The game doesn’t spend much time introducing these heroes, and while we do learn more about their backgrounds as the campaign progresses, it's helpful to be familiar with the Marvel universe ahead of time. Even the supporting cast is very strong, from Nova Corps Centurion Ko-Rel, Peter's ex-girlfriend, to her daughter Nikki. Nikki is fairly central to the story, and is a rare example of an actually well written and well acted teenage character, who you want to know more about.
The plot of this particular adventure takes place a few years after a large armed conflict scarred much of the galaxy. Some planets were left devastated, entire armies fell, and a variety of new opportunists emerged in the aftermath. One such crew are the Guardians of the Galaxy themselves, a group of self-proclaimed good guys who want to get paid for their deeds. The first promising mission has them venture into a Quarantine Zone (uninhabitable post-war planet space), to capture a monster for a client named Lady Hellbender. However, they inadvertently release an unknown alien power, which follows them as they are captured by Nova Corps for breaking the rules of Quarantine Zone, and fined by Ko-Rel. The alien power eventually comes into contact with Grand Unifier Raker of the Universal Church of the Truth, who was also being held by Nova Corps on the same ship. By the time Guardians return from their failed attempt to trick Lady Hellbender, the Church has begun to take over the universe by brainwashing people into believing they can bring their loved ones back to life.
Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy has a fairly lengthy story, clocking in at over 15 hours, but the pace remains steady and you're always moving towards some sort of objective. Quite a lot happens, though not all of it is particularly exciting or important to overarching plot. It follows the usual formula of Marvel films or the recent Marvel Spider-Man games, in that you will get some quiet moments, some explosive moments, and a bunch of things happen in between. When the Guardians are working together, or giving each other a hard time (in a friendly way), the story clicks and it’s an enjoyable ride. However, on a couple of occasions, there is trouble among the heroes. There's nothing wrong with having conflict, but when the fallout of the team occurs a couple of times, it's always for completely arbitrary and nonsensical reasons. It's as if someone is trying to check a box on the storyboard, before we can get back to the good stuff of the team working together. These illogical moments in the story draw you out of the experience. As one character points out (referring to Rocket), "Fuzzy is in a mood again", which pretty well sums up the silliness of the conflicts.
It also doesn't help that Star-Lord's voice actor is perhaps the weakest of the lot, keeping the same tone throughout, and often sounding like an annoying, nagging parent with his "Hey Guyyyyyys" line. To be fair, the rest of the crew do act like spoiled children a bit too often, but the way he handles it doesn't make things any better. His best moments are elevated through sharp writing and detailed facial animations, rather than voice line delivery.
Still, this is one fun galactic adventure on the whole. One of the most difficult things to get right is the humor, but the developers have clearly used their Marvel resources well, because the game is genuinely hilarious at times. The dialogue is sharp for the entire running time, with some good voice acting and some great examples of well timed line delivery that will elicit laughs. You actually want to hear what these characters have to say, as you spend most of the game in their presence. From idly chatting amongst themselves when the story brings you back to their spaceship called the Milano, to harassing each other in jest, it's fun to listen to and really helps you connect with the heroes. There are also moments when the game switches to a first-person perspective, which is an interesting choice and it works most of the time.
There is an absolute ton of dialogue – to the point where the heroes rarely stop talking, whether you’re fighting or just running around a level. While impressive, it does eventually become too much of a good thing. The heroes talk nonstop, and there's rarely enough gameplay to match, so you either stand around doing nothing to hear the chit chat, or you move along, and encounter a ton of cut-off sentences and changes of subject. Neither approach is ideal for the game trying to be cinematic.
Though a strictly linear experience, the game toys around with the idea of choices. You will have to select dialog responses quite often, and some of them are choices that affect how certain situations play out. The gameplay doesn't stop when you make choices, so it helps the conversations feel more organic as you explore. There are no multiple endings or anything, but some of the choices slightly change what happens later in the story, and primarily affect how many battles you will have to fight, and if you get help. There are also moments where your choices lead to a game-over state; this works okay once or twice as a gimmick, but it also ruins an emotional moment later in the adventure. Having to replay an emotional scene because you make one wrong choice drains the moment of its gravitas.
When not watching the sometimes lengthy cutscenes or making choices, Guardians is a fairly typical third person action game. You'll traverse through a variety of linear levels, occasionally stopping in bigger rooms to fight a few waves of enemies. The gameplay design is fairly uninspired, but it works. During exploration, you will navigate tight corridors of space ships and tight pathways of alien planets. The levels are quite small, and on occasion have an optional side path that contains a collectible. The collectibles include written journals, new upgrade materials, and costumes for the heroes.
The linear exploration is basic; you can jump and double-jump, as well as dash. There's no climbing involved, and the rare puzzles are incredibly easy. The puzzles often involve asking the other Guardians for their assistance, such as having Drax push over a column to create a path over an opening, getting Groot to create a bridge, asking Rocket go through a tight space, or having Gamora anchor on a marked wall, so you can use her to swing higher. These are usually the only interactive elements of a level, so no thinking is really required. By the end of the game, the characters just do it on their own. At a few points, you solve a power-grid puzzle in the walls, ala Watch Dogs. There are also moments where Star-Lord has to use his guns to melt an ice wall to open a new path, or freeze a water geyser to create a platform. These moments are rare and underutilized, so the environmental traversal remains dull and linear throughout.
There are also infrequent action set pieces, where the controls again don't feel very responsive or enjoyable. You could be sliding down some tunnel dodging obstacles, which seems to be a go-to for all third person action games these days. Or you could be running away from explosions, and trying to awkwardly time your jumps. Some sections where you pilot the Milano directly are also not very good.
Venturing off the beaten path will usually net you Components, needed to get a few Perks for Star-Lord. You will encounter work benches at certain points of the story, where you can get permanent improvements such as slowing time after a perfect dodge, improving the efficiency of your elemental weapon attacks, and boosts to your health and shield. Depending on how you do in combat situations, you also earn experience which goes towards unlocking Ability points. These are active attacks, and you can unlock three abilities for each of the five Guardians. As such, this isn't exactly a game with a deep skill tree or upgrade system, but it works okay for an action title.
This brings us to combat, which is a bit simplistic, much like exploration. Whenever you arrive in a larger, open room, you know the team is about to throw down. You'll be facing off against the Cult members, and others it has brainwashed, as well as alien animals on planet surfaces. Enemies vary between ranged and melee, and there are some bosses along the way, but for the most part the game offers few surprises or unique mechanics. As Star-Lord, you'll kite around enemies and shoot at them, and if they get close, punch them with a basic melee combo. Neither feels particularly impactful or satisfying. To try and spice things up, you can use limited elemental ammo (ice, fire, electricity, and magnetic) against certain enemies that have corresponding shields, or are too far so you yank them within range.
Star-Lord on his own doesn't do a ton of damage, so you will often utilize your other heroes to dish out the pain. You can quickly bring up the hero selection wheel and then choose one of their four attacks to execute – everything is tied to the controller face buttons, so you'll memorize which hero and attack you prefer to use. The Guardian special attacks are all cooldown based, so for the rest of the time you'll just run around taking potshots, and watch as your AI friends also mostly stand around, taking the occasional punch. Sometimes, a prompt will appear to perform an execution move on a low-health enemy, or a special attack if your companion is nearby/in good position. On normal difficulty setting, this isn't an overly tough game, and your AI companions can be revived. The combat is functional, but is one-note.
If you get in trouble, there is a special meter that builds overtime during combat, and when it's full you can execute a call to action. This rally creates a cutscene where the Guardians look to Star-Lord for inspiration, and you have to select one of two dialog options to inspire them based on what they are currently feeling. Choosing the right option motivates the team and boosts everyone, while the wrong option only boosts Star-Lord. It's a bit of a strange mechanic, but it kind of fits the universe.
The franchise is known for its use of classic hit songs, and the game does a good job of not cramming them into every situation, so when those songs do play during a scripted sequence, they have more of an impact. From "Moonage Daydream" to "Tainted Love" and "We’re Not Gonna Take It", the songs instead mostly play in the background, such as on your ship. The songs also kick off after the Rally mechanic, so you can use it as frequently or rarely as you want.
Something that you'll wish was less frequent are the glitches, as the game could have used a few more months of polish. There is a variety of visual glitches, from characters always holding their weapons, to UI elements getting stuck on screen. The animations are clearly of last-gen quality, and because the game is so linear, when things do not flow smoothly it is more noticeable. In audio design, despite there being a wealth of options for sound output and tuning, the game has some bad mixing problems, with random effects sounding far too loud, while quiet dialog moments are totally inaudible. Gameplay glitches exist too, like enemies getting stuck (including one of the final bosses), your companions simply disappearing from battle, and the game breaking in the middle of a conversation choice. These are easily solved by a checkpoint restart, but still, they definitely reduce the immersion of this cinematic adventure.
The dated animations give away the fact that this is indeed a cross-gen title. While it does look clean and sharp on the PS5, with some nice high resolution textures and a good art style, it's not exactly a next-gen experience. The facial animations and lip sync are quite generic and not of very high quality a lot of the time, and sometimes the characters speak without animating. Some of the combat effects and explosions are decidedly basic and not very detailed, and the same with the limited, scripted environment destruction. The DualSense controller implementation is fairly basic – there is some nonspecific haptic feedback, and right trigger changes its resistance during the active reload so you can feel the difference.
Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy is a largely fun, faithful adventure that is full of memorable characters and excellent dialogue. It isn't tied down by any recent films, and the characters are able to come into their own, even if Star-Lord's voice acting sometimes lets him down. The overarching story also runs into trouble whenever it arbitrarily throws conflict into the team, but these chapters thankfully pass (just as abruptly as they kicked off). In gameplay, Guardians is functional but fairly bland, and the experience could have used a bit more polish to help maintain its cinematic aesthetic. Fans of this universe will undoubtedly enjoy the adventure, and newcomers should also check out what these heroes for hire are all about.