It’s rare to say this about an action game but the actual combat of Square Enix’s “Guardians of the Galaxy,” available this week on PC and consoles, isn’t its strength. Caught somewhere between a strategic, turn-based game and a classic shooter, wiping out bad guys in “GotG” can get downright chaotic. At least it’s better than the truly dated puzzle-solving sequences that usually involve following yellow lines from point A to point B. No, what pulled me into this game, believe it or not, was increasingly wanting to see where the story would go next. Getting deep into the history of these characters from the James Gunn movies and Marvel comics (and changing some of it in ways that will anger purists), the heavily story-driven “Guardians of the Galaxy” plays more like a Telltale or Insomniac game than last year’s action-heavy but story-light “The Avengers.” Maybe it makes sense that a game about a ragtag crew of superheroes would be a little rough around the edges, but it’s hard not to enjoy their company more and more as the game gets richer and deeper in every subsequent chapter.
The first major difference between “GotG” and “Avengers” comes down to how the player only really controls Peter Quill aka Star-Lord, the fella played by Chris Pratt in the movies. He’s less of a wisecracking bumbler in the game, portrayed here as a true leader, the one who keeps the Guardians together. In fact, mid-combat, you can even perform a “Huddle Up” for Star-Lord to encourage the rest of the fighters and give them a bit of a boost (as music from the incredible ‘80s soundtrack jumps into the background—there’s nothing else quite like decimating waves of bad guys to “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” or “Take on Me”).
While you don’t ever get to actually control the movement of Gamora, Drax, Rocket Raccoon, and Groot, you are constantly issuing them orders. It’s almost as if the developers of this game once planned it as a turn-based game in that each of the Guardians has different powers that can be unlocked over the course of the story that Star-Lord can utilize in combat. What generally happens is you start shooting at enemies and then hit a series of buttons that gets the rest of the team more heavily involved, from Rocket dropping a grenade to Groot trapping enemies in place with roots. As the game goes on, each Guardian develops four different powers that can be utilized and then a timer has to expire before they can do another trick. If this sounds complicated in the middle of a firefight, you’re not wrong. My advice is to find your favorite of each Guardian’s powers and just stick to that. Having to figure out which of what is eventually 16 choices (4 Guardians x 4 powers) fits the specific situation can get exhausting.
As if that wasn’t enough to make combat cluttered, Star-Lord develops different kind of “Elemental” shots over the course of the game, and enemies health bars reveal their weakness like ice shots or wind shots. AND Star-Lord has a four-slot power wheel as well. When all of this is working, it can offer carefully calibrated combat as the Guardians are really clicking as a team, but it more often feels like button-mashing insanity. The idea behind the development was to amplify the story-driven theme of teamwork with one controllable character guiding all five Guardians, but players will wonder why they didn’t make a co-op experience instead with different actual gamers controlling each of the legendary heroes.
While the combat can be chaotic, it’s better than the half-assed puzzle sections, which often break down to a cheaply rendered graphic in which Star-Lord uses his visor to find electrical switches or other things in the environment that need to go boom. The truth is that much of “GotG” is very dialogue heavy—you even get to choose response options for Quill like in a Telltale Game that can impact the story—and someone must have decided that something more interactive was needed to break that up, but it feels like that was an afterthought late in the process.
So what works about “Guardians”? First, it looks great, smoothly transitioning between cut scenes and action in a way that gives the whole experience the feel of a feature animated film. And the voice work is stellar with each of the performers really breaking free from the household names that played these characters in the MCU. Without spoiling anything, “Guardians of the Galaxy” is about a potentially universe-ending threat, but the plotting allows for character detail and background on each of the Guardians to emerge in a way that's organic to the story.
Quill is the lead—and his background with his mother, along with his actual powers have been radically altered from what fans will remember from the films—but the writing here allows for each character to be far more three-dimensional than is typical for a superhero action game. (Heck, there’s more meat on the bones of the storytelling here than is typical for a lot of recent superhero action movies.) It’s a story about teamwork, of course, but that element isn't cheaply earned or tacked on. Most action games boil teamwork down to "destroying together," but the story here (and the gameplay) requires the Guardians to lean on each other to do nothing less than save the entire universe. It also helps a great deal that the dialogue is often sharp and funny.
A superhero action game with better writing than action? 2021 certainly hasn’t been short on surprises. While I wish some of the combat and puzzle sections could have been refined in “Guardians of the Galaxy” those elements could be fixed in a follow-up as long as they don’t lose this title’s sharp focus on character. After all, every good superhero story demands a sequel.
Square Enix provided a PS5 review copy of this title. It will be released tomorrow, October 26th.