Things are dire: Star-Lord’s low on health, the enemies are swarming, and the other Guardians can't help. Drax just got knocked out. Gamora is up on a ledge and cannot be revived. Star-Lord's weapons aren't powerful enough to match the onslaught. Game over.
This grim scenario often happens during Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy. The upcoming video game only allows players to have control over one character at a time. It’s a little odd because the story is about a group of heroes.
As Star-Lord, players can give commands to the other Guardians, but a recent media demo left us feeling like all that delegating bogs down the pace of what should be a fun, fast, action-adventure game. There always seems to be an interruption of some sort to break up the flow of combat.
Guardians of the Galaxy is a narrative-based adventure about Marvel's band of misfit heroes. Developed by Eidos-Montréal and published by Square Enix, the same team that made the disappointing Marvel's Avengers in 2020, Guardians faces a skeptical audience before it's even launched.
Because of the mediocre reception of Avengers, a lot is riding on the success of Guardians of the Galaxy. Ahead of its full release in October, Square Enix revealed the fifth chapter of the game and its puzzles, dialogue, and combat, which has the most room for improvement.
The stars of Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy — Gamora, Rocket Raccoon, Groot, Drax the Destroyer, and Star-Lord — are the glue that holds the game together. As part of the demo, we interact with the whole cast, conversing with each other. It’s great for players who want to learn more about the backstory; you can also skip it.
Early in chapter five, players get the chance to speak with the rest of the Guardians before embarking on a mission. As players explore the Milano — the ship the team uses to travel the galaxy — they can stop to speak with Rocket Raccoon, who tells a sad story about his past. It’s a heartfelt moment that’s totally optional, and easy to skip if you aren’t here for all the talking. However, these vignettes set the tone for how this eclectic group gets to know one other.
It's easy to like this bunch.
During combat, the heroes deliver their quips in a way fans of the movies will find familiar, with this version of Star-Lord being a bit brasher. Drax also has some unintentionally humorous lines of dialogue. It's easy to like this bunch, and we imagine the bond between the group will only grow as the game progresses.
Between combat segments, it's possible to choose to side with certain squad members by selecting from a group of dialogue options. For instance, Gamora might say that she thinks the team should handle a situation one way, while Rocket might suggest the opposite. Acting as Star-Lord, players can choose which one they agree with to experience specific banter between the group members.
This dynamic is terrific and makes the team dynamic feel genuine. It also provides satisfying insight into the way a certain Guardian thinks. The blend of humor, poignancy, and personality brought to the table by the Guardians is one of the shining aspects of the game, with choices sprinkled through the story. Choices Star-Lord makes won't ultimately change the ending but do impact how players reach that outcome.
Despite the endearing characters, the actual gameplay is less appealing. It’s most evident during the combat segments. It sags under the pressure of trying to allow players to control five heroes at once, and ultimately feels disgoingted.
While controlling Star-Lord, who uses handguns and melee attacks, it's possible to direct the rest of the Guardians, who all have different abilities. For instance, Groot uses his slow brute strength to slam enemies, while Gamora is much quicker on her feet, unleashing a flurry of attacks in quick succession. These commands all have “cooldown” functions to keep players from overusing them.
The problem is the execution, which is at odds with itself. It’s a game that focuses on a squad of unique heroes while only giving direct control of one. Because of the command system, there always seems to be an interruption in the middle of a fight. Even if players get into a groove of dishing out commands, one after the other, the act of picking attacks slows the gameplay down. It’s almost like the developer didn’t know whether it wanted to make a real-time strategy, or an action-adventure game.
It’s almost like the developer didn’t know whether it wanted to make a real-time strategy or an action-adventure game.
Aside from the disappointing pacing problems, there’s also an issue with the design of the enemies. Many of the opponents have shields and other weaknesses that are best suited to the attacks of the other Guardians. But therein lies the problem because the game often forces players to wait around to wait on commands, meaning they have to survive and deal damage in the meantime — which is easier said than done.
By default, Star-Lord’s attacks aren’t the most effective, so players have to wait until each of the teammates is available to use, which is frustrating. Star-Lord may become more powerful as he levels up, but based on this demo, combat felt more like a chore than anything.
It’s almost as if the game makers designed enemies to be incredibly challenging to justify an unintuitive command system — making the rest of the Guardians only seem helpful. There’s a more elegant solution, perhaps a simpler one, to be had here.
Fortunately, the puzzles and exploration outside of combat are fun, giving the rest of the Guardians more use. For instance, there’s a section in which the Guardians must open up a small door that only Rocket can get through. While these puzzles aren’t mind-expanding, they make the rest of the team appear useful, with no frustrating cooldowns or other obstacles. It’s easy to imagine how puzzles will make use of the entire squad throughout the game.
The excellent original music sets the mood for combat.
One of the highlights of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is the music, which is comprised of original songs and licensed tracks, along with a fitting score. What’s impressive is how the narrative is interwoven with the music, as both go hand-in-hand. Within the game’s lore, Star-Lord is a band from which Peter Quill derives his superhero name.
To take things a step further, the team at Eidos-Montréal created an album of Star-Lord tracks, with songs making an appearance in-game. Senior Audio Director Steve Szczepkowski says the tracks on the Star-Lord record cover a wide variety of topics.
The album’s music makes the lore richer and gives players a chance to hear the tunes that influence the star of the Guardians. The excellent original music sets the mood for combat and pairs well with the licensed songs.
Speaking of which, the licensed setlist is fantastic, featuring ‘80s hits from Hot Chocolate, Kiss, Iron Maiden, Rick Astley, Gary Numan, Joan Jett, and others.
Even excellent character development, a superb soundtrack, and a captivating narrative don’t make up for the convoluted combat system in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. There’s certainly a way to make that premise work, but its botched execution is a concerning clue about the full release. Despite this, the game has real merit and potential because of that kickin’ soundtrack, clever writing, and lovable characters.
Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy launches for PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, Nintendo Switch, and PC on October 26, 2021.