A band of intergalactic outlaws with a noble cause, the Guardians of the Galaxy seem like the sort of group that doesn't take any crap. Perhaps that's why their mobile game doesn't come with any. This is a game that takes your money and runs.
After a string of Gameloft-developed Marvel movie tie-ins heavy on the in-app purchases left a bad taste in players' mouths, Disney Interactive does what the comics giant did to make its movies better in the first place — they made Guardians of the Galaxy: The Universal Weapon themselves.
The result is a line-drawing action role-playing game shades of the excellent Battleheart. Players assemble a team from prominent figures in Guardians lore, from the movie team, prominent Marvel characters (Hulk) and b-listers from the comic's past (Mantis, Charlie-27). That team takes the field in a series of story-based missions, the player dragging a path from hero to villain to initiate attacks. Each character has his or her own special abilities, some of which react with other characters' abilities to create powerful combos. When the battle is over, experience points are earned, loot is doled out, and the characters learn a little something about friendship (and the importance of crafting equipment and upgrading signature weapons).
The story mode begins with a prison breakout (which takes far too long to release Rocket Raccoon, by the way), which of course leads to a mission in which the very fate of the universe is at stake. Evil forces are attempting to assemble the titular Universal Weapon, and the Guardians have to make them knock it off.
There's a steep difficulty curve in Guardians of the Galaxy, and there's no buying your way out. Despite having two different types of in-game currency — coins to craft items and buy upgrades and shards to unlock new characters, these commodities can only be gathered through gameplay. It's shockingly refreshing, really, to poke around a menu for five minutes looking for a real-money shop that doesn't actually exist.
There is another way to amass wealth and power, and that's in the arena. Here players have access to the powerful villains the team faces off against in the story mode, harnessing their villainy against wave after wave of increasingly powerful opponents. This is players go when they've already earned all three grades in each of the story missions and is having trouble bulking up for the next. With the right team, they'll be raking in the credits.
Still, to truly get the most out of the game, you've got to embrace the grind. Thanks to the charming big-headed art style, the funky music and the game's playful atmosphere, it's not all that hard. Over the past week I've found myself playing until my iPad ran out of juice on several occasions. And with game producer Aaron Norstad telling me the development team is aiming at delivering fresh content on a monthly basis, I expect the $4.99 price of admission to go a long way.
When Disney Interactive reached out to me about Guardians of the Galaxy: The Universal Weapon, my excitement was tinged with dread. I expected another Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a premium-priced game with in-app purchases layered on top, promising accessible gameplay at no additional charge while strongly suggesting at every turn that it would go much easier on me if I spent a little more. Who knew intergalactic outlaws could be so upfront and fair?