When Square Enix announced Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy earlier this year, the biggest surprise to many of us at EGM was the player count. Surely a game about a team of five heroes, each with a different but complementary set of skills, would be a natural fit for a co-op game. Instead, Guardians would focus solely on single-player, putting you in the role of Peter “Star-Lord” Quill, with the other four characters controlled by AI. Did developer Eidos-Montréal have to cut planned co-op support due to budget woes? Was this going to end up another big-budget fiasco, a hollowed-out shell of its original vision?
Now that I’ve beaten the game, those questions seem silly. Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t just a single-player game. It’s the sort of ambitious, story-centric single-player game you don’t really see much of outside of Sony’s first-party studios. Like the recent work from Santa Monica Studio, Naughty Dog, and, to a certain extent, Insomniac, Guardians prioritizes its narrative and characters just as highly as it does gameplay. It’s not afraid to shelve combat for decent stretches, letting exploration and conversation carry the weight.
In that respect, Guardians of the Galaxy almost feels like the opposite of Square Enix’s other recent foray into superheroics, Marvel’s Avengers. There’s nothing unnecessarily gamified or monetized here, no treadmill to keep you playing forever against your better judgment. Eidos-Montréal hasn’t built a “game as a service” because it was wholly focused on building a game as a story—and a pretty good one, at that.
That story takes place in a slightly remixed version of the Cosmic Marvel universe, 12 years after a galaxy-wide war that pitted the Kree against an army of Chitauri led by Thanos. (If you’re not up to date on your Marvel, that means blue aliens fighting bug aliens led by a big-chinned purple alien.) This version of the Guardians is relatively new at being spacefaring heroes for hire, having been on a dozen or so missions together but still not working as a cohesive team.
Gamora, adopted daughter of Thanos and the so-called “deadliest woman in the galaxy,” is the newest member. As such, she’s yet to earn the trust of Drax the Destroyer, the musclebound alien who killed Thanos in retribution for the death of his wife and daughter. And Rocket, a gun- and tech-obsessed raccoon given sentience through Kree experiments during the war, is too much of a puckish rogue to be a great team player. Rocket’s longtime companion, Groot, the last of a race of sentient trees who speak only by saying “I am Groot,” seems more on board with everything, but who can say.
At the heart of the Guardians is Peter, the goofy, womanizing leader. Kidnapped from Earth as a young teenager during the 1980s, Peter looks human but is actually the byproduct of an affair between his mother and an alien. Unlike in the movies (but true to the comics), his absent father is J’Son, king of the planet Spartax—though that doesn’t factor into the game much beyond some optional dialogue and the backstory for Peter’s transforming Spartoi blaster pistols.
Soon enough, the Guardians find themselves wrapped up in a cosmic mystery that unravels into a galaxy-wide threat only they can stop, with a creepy space cult called the Universal Church of Truth at its heart. I won’t say more in the interest of avoiding spoilers, but suffice it to say that the ensuing adventure spans multiple planets and brings in a host of side characters from the comics, including many of who have yet to appear in the MCU.
Eidos-Montréal has obviously tried to recapture the humor of James Gunn’s Guardians movies throughout, but the writing team clearly struggled to be nearly as funny. Most of the time, the game chugs along in the neighborhood of “mildly amusing.” Only one gag got a decent belly laugh out of me, though I chuckled a few times. (I do have to give special credit to the game’s version of Mantis, who is genuinely funny more often than not.) But humor isn’t everything. Gunn himself has been fairly vocal about how writing the Guardians movies allowed him to better embrace sincerity, and there’s a level of heart in the films that’s just as important to their identity. On that front, Eidos-Montréal comes much closer to parity.
By the time the credits roll, you’ll have a solid sense of who Peter and the other Guardians are as people, and they’ll have completed honest-to-goodness character arcs, growing not just as a team but as individuals (with the possible exception of Groot, because, again, who knows). All of this, mind you, in a game with a psychic Communist dog in a spacesuit and a bad guy with golden cube arms who shoots out beams of “faith energy.” If nothing else, this game should serve as a corrective to the idea that games need a more serious tone or more grounded stakes to tell a compelling story about characters with an underlying sense of humanity.
If I’ve spent a lot of time on story and character without diving into gameplay, that’s partially a reflection of what’s stuck with me the most. But it’s also reflective of the fact that, in Guardians, the characters really do inform the gameplay. When you’re exploring between fights, the main diversions are light platforming and very light puzzle solving that require you to call on the Guardians to help—like having Groot grow a bridge for you or having Rocket crawl into a narrow hole to open a door. The rest of the space is filled with conversation, sometimes with dialogue choices that can impact the events (but not the outcome) of the story.
And in combat, while you only directly control Peter—blasting enemies with your Spartoi blasters and melee attacks—you’re not going to find very much success if you ignore your teammates. To deal maximum damage, you need to issue commands to the other Guardians. Sometimes that means asking them to take advantage of environmental hazards, like having Drax chuck a boulder or explosive barrel. More often, it’s issuing commands for their special abilities. At the start, each Guardian has just one, but you can unlock more as you gain experience points.
The various Guardians have different specialities—Gamora deals targeted damage, Rocket does area of effect, Drax is good at stunning enemies, and Groot excels at limiting their mobility—but later abilities cross over enough that each character has an option that can contribute to whatever kind of enemy you’re fighting. Cooldowns are character-specific, rather than ability-specific, so using a given Guardian’s power means you need to wait a bit to call on them again. The one exception to this is their most powerful attacks, unlocked at specific points in the story, which have their own separate cooldowns.
Though it might sound a bit daunting to manage all this at once, you can and will get fairly comfortable with it after a bit of practice. The biggest adjustment, by far, is the interface. By holding down the left shoulder button, you’ll bring up a four-pronged menu, with a face button for each of the other four Guardians. Pick one, and you’ll get a new menu with their four abilities, again mapped to face buttons.
The one real wrench in this is that Peter also has four abilities, and these are mapped to an entirely different menu you bring up by clicking the control stick. Beyond the inelegance of having a separate way to access a separate menu that’s doing pretty much the same thing, it’s far too easy to accidentally click the stick while moving around during combat and launch off an ability you didn’t intend to.
For the other Guardians, though? It works just fine. The fact that the action slows down when you’re in the ability menu is a big help, and there’s even an option to change how much it slows down, including a complete stop. Equally smart is the fact that a given Guardian will shout out a voice line asking you what to do if you go too long without using their abilities.
I don’t know that I’d call the combat stellar, but it’s entertaining, with enough variety among the enemies you fight that it never gets old. I certainly admire the thought put into finding a different spin on AI companions, and there are enough moments of fun synergy between the various abilities that you do actually feel like a team working together. Finishing moves can even dynamically bring in all five of the Guardians to lay a collective smackdown on some poor goon, so you do get occasional moments that feel like a muted version of a team-up fight scene from a Marvel movie.
If there’s one persistent issue with the game, however, it’s that Eidos-Montréal doesn’t seem to have mastered pacing—in either the gameplay or the story. At the largest scale, the back half of the game’s narrative feels a bit bloated, with levels that pack in lengthy sections of the same standard combat and exploration, even as you’re ostensibly building towards a big finale. There are points where any sense of urgency seems to fall by the wayside, putting the gameplay at odds with what the characters are trying to accomplish (and even saying).
In the moment-to-moment, you’ll often find a mismatch between the amount of dialogue and the amount of gameplay. Quite frequently, I found myself having to stop walking to let a conversation play out because I knew if I kept going forward it’d be cut off. It’s great that the developers wanted to keep the characters active and talking throughout, but much less great that they didn’t properly tailor the script to the actual rhythm of gameplay.
And pacing is actually at the heart of the biggest gameplay misstep too: the Huddle. One of the game’s most heavily advertised mechanics, this feature lets you charge up a meter during combat and cash it in to give a pep talk to the other Guardians, rewarding you with sharply reduced ability cooldowns and an opportunity to kick butt to one of the licensed ’80s songs on the (honestly fantastic) soundtrack.
The reward for success is great—you get a massive power boost and sick tunes to turn the tide of a fight or finish strong—but the actual act of huddling drags everything to an abrupt halt. First you have to listen to voice lines from a couple Guardians to gauge their mood, then pick between two options that best channel or correct what they’re feeling. It’s a solid 20 seconds of conversation when you were just in, and will soon return to, the thick of combat. Beyond that, the correct choice is so painfully obvious that it feels like having you make one at all is a waste of time. Sure, it’s reinforcing the idea of teamwork and Peter as a leader, but it’s not worth it. The combat flow would be infinitely better off if the Huddle just activated automatically and kicked in the music after a flashy animation.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the numerous bugs I encountered during my playthrough. I saw glitches of pretty much every stripe, some of which required me to reload a checkpoint or restart the game entirely to progress. That being said, I did polish off my playthrough before the day one patch arrived. After installing the update, I loaded up a few chapters to spot check some of the worst offenders, and those seem to have been fixed. I’d assume the game is in much better shape now than it was when I played it, but I wouldn’t be shocked if a few rough edges remain.
Still, I find myself unable to fault Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy too much for the places it comes up short. For a game that puts so much emphasis on its titular characters, it’s almost fitting that the experience feels just as imperfectly charming as they are. Not every joke lands, not every gameplay feature shines, but the commitment to exploring and reimagining the source material—and the ambition to try things you wouldn’t expect—go a long way toward making up for that. In the end, the thing that surprises me most isn’t that Guardians of the Galaxy is a single-player game, but that there aren’t more single-player games trying to compete on this level.
All images courtesy of Square Enix.
Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy may not be able to quite match the humor of James Gunn’s MCU films, but it’s packed with plenty of personality and decently fun (if not groundbreaking) combat. To its great credit, Eidos-Montréal’s story-driven approach always keeps the focus on its ragtag team of heroes, making for a worthwhile and memorable trip to the Cosmic Marvel universe.
T - Teen
|Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is available on PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC. Primary version played was for PlayStation 5. Product was provided by Square Enix for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|