Early in my Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy adventure, I ran across a crumbling bridge and leaped at the last second, hoping to catch the ledge.
I swore aloud as Star-Lord face-planted into the wall, went limp, and fell through a huge sheet of metal, his body ragdolling into oblivion. “No!” somebody shouted. (Was it me?) After a slightly too-long cutscene, this time I caught the ledge and mashed a button to make Peter Quill pull himself up.
Then the metal ledge collapsed.
Gamora stabbed her sword into the platform to anchor herself and shimmied down to grab my hand. Except I was confused by the quicktime event prompt, missed her hand, and once again ragdolled into oblivion. I managed it the third time around, but at what cost to my sanity? The traversal mechanics in Guardians of the Galaxy often play out in this obtuse and disorienting fashion, and it’s doubly frustrating when you remember that Star-Lord literally wears jet boots.
So much of the game is amazing — graphics, environmental design, art direction, motion capture, voice acting, writing, the totally rad licensed ‘80s tunes. Yet several of the most important mechanics — like combat and traversal — miss the mark. To me, these shortcomings are totally forgivable when everything else is so much fun. Will everyone else love Guardians of the Galaxy as much as I do? Or will they hate it as much as Rocket hates getting thrown across chasms by Drax?
Better than the MCU
I cannot express this enough: Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is a truly stunning, hilarious, and fun experience. I like it more than the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies directed by James Gunn. A big part of that is Jon McLaren’s Star-Lord, an earnest dork with a heart of gold who tries very hard to be cool and succeeds at it far better than Chris Pratt’s version.
Twelve years after a Galactic Civil War in Andromeda, Peter Quill assembles a crack team of ex-cons to become heroes for hire. The core squad of Peter, Rocket Racoon, Gamora, Drax the Destroyer, and Groot should be immediately recognizable to just about anybody, thanks to the MCU.
At the start of the game, these five criminals bumble their way through their first big mission. That opening act sets off a chain reaction of events that just may destroy the galaxy. And they’re the only ones that can stop it.
To say any more about the story would spoil the genuinely excellent writing and superb acting. MCU and diehard Marvel Comics fans alike will be surprised — even shocked — by some of the game’s biggest twists.
The jokes are laugh-out-loud funny, and not in the lazy way you’ll reply “lol” via text to something that actually made you frown in disgust. In the very first chapter, you start out with Groot and Rocket while Gamora and Drax handle another similar task. Rocket starts calling them Team Green (because they both have green skin, duh), and then Gamora starts calling your squad Team Rocket. Nobody even needs to mention Pokémon or raise an eyebrow at the slightly off-color joke that is “Team Green.” Amidst all this is a never-ending barrage of clever banter.
Guardians of the Galaxy — and every character in it — is charming and confident in a way that even the geniuses over at Marvel Studios can’t manage. There’s tension among teammates at first, but given room to gradually develop, these relationships resonate that much more. It almost makes you wish this were a TV series instead, because it’s only in the gameplay that Guardians of the Galaxy suffers.
Sometimes when Star-Lord is moseying about environments, he’s got lead in those jet boots. He can briefly fly during a battle, yet when it comes to actually walking around, his shuffling evokes that recurring nightmare I have where I’m trying to run but not going anywhere. Early patches might be able to smooth out some of the sluggishness.
Overall, Guardians feels like a less-polished God of War (2018) or The Last of Us in terms of environment and traversal. You can usually see your objective in the distance, so it’s hard to get lost, and wandering in the wrong direction typically leads to some supplies or collectibles. (Except Rocket will roast you for losing focus.) The little scavenging and crafting you do are for generic components and perhaps a dozen perks. Character progression winds up being rather shallow, for better or for worse.
It ultimately falls prey to the Ubisoft effect: too much breadth and not enough depth.
Environmental puzzles do get rather interesting thanks to the useful abilities of each Guardian. Rocket can crawl through small openings or hack terminals. Drax can lift, push, or even throw massive objects. Gamora can climb structures, slice obstacles, and sever connections. And Groot can create vine bridges to cross chasms. Even if you accidentally tell the wrong person to interact with an obstacle, somebody will usually call you an idiot, and the right Guardian will handle it.
You’ll spend a lot of time in between missions moseying about aboard the Milano, chatting with your pals, building relationships, and making nuanced dialogue choices that put Mass Effect’s Vanguard and Renegade system to shame. Everybody has a unique comment to say about every little thing that happens, which creates a sense of narrative depth that will inevitably reward repeat playthroughs.
The combat in Guardians of the Galaxy is weird. The game leans so heavily on coordinating team attacks like a real-time strategy game that it almost forgets to emphasize the action. Enemies have a Stagger meter like in Final Fantasy VII Remake, and with a few quick button presses, you command a Guardian to execute a move. Drax deals a lot of Stagger with his knives, and Gamora is great at delivering a high-damage killing blow. Groot might use his vines to subdue a crowd of smaller enemies, and then Rocket follows that up with a grenade to wipe them out. It’s often almost too much to juggle. Meanwhile, you just hold down the primary fire button and hope for the best.
I want to like the combat more, but when Peter’s blasters shoot at enemies, it doesn’t feel all that exciting. It reminds me of what made Anthem so lackluster and, on the flip side, what keeps me coming back to Destiny every few months: The quality of gunplay can make or break a game. Those barely perceptible details like kickback, sound cues, muzzle flares, etc. combine to either make for a fun, immersive experience or a buzzkill.
If Guardians of the Galaxy had Returnal’s combat and traversal, it would be a real Game of the Year contender, but it’s the few mechanical flaws that hold it back.
There’s also the Huddle Up feature where, at random, Peter can call a huddle, and based on what everyone whines about, he has to select a speech cribbed from a classic ‘80s song. If you do it right, everyone gets a boost to cooldowns. If you get it wrong, they make fun of you. While it sounds interesting on paper, it breaks up the flow of mediocre combat for little more than a kitschy diversion.
If I have any advice for people playing Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, it’s to take advantage of the robust array of accessibility options to make it easier. Treat it like a casual interactive visual experience, and you’ll discover the most fun cinematic experience of the year. But if you go into it hoping for the next big thing, you may walk away disappointed.
Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy will be released on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PC, Nintendo Switch (via the cloud), and streaming via GeForce NOW on October 26, 2021. Inverse played the PS5 version for this review.
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