When Square Enix revealed Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy at E3 earlier this year, I was not excited. The idea of playing only as Peter “Star-Lord” Quill, arguably the least interesting member of the galaxy-guarding super group, did nothing for me. The poor technical performance displayed in the game’s early footage didn’t help. So I wrote it off, ignoring subsequent trailers and previews for a game that was clearly not for me. Now, after 15 hours of nonstop laughter, joy, and excitement, I’m writing it back on, which is totally something I can do.
In Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy you play as Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord, a half-human, half-Spartoi space cowboy who stumbles into leading the titular rag-tag group of intergalactic heroes for hire. His crew includes beefy green powerhouse Drax the Destroyer, deadly assassin (and daughter of Thanos) Gamora, sentient tree creature Groot, and certainly-not-a-raccoon Rocket, the team’s munitions and technology expert.
These are not the same Guardians of the Galaxy from the Marvel cinematic universe, nor is it the team from current comic book continuity. These Guardians are a unique creation of developer Eidos-Montréal. Though the game maintains the dysfunctional space family vibe of the Marvel films, Star-Lord and his companions are a little closer to their comic counterparts. For example, instead of being the son of Ego the Living Planet, here Peter Quill is the son of J’son, leader of the planet Spartax. Instead of dying from cancer, as in the movies, Peter’s mother is shot by assassins attempting to kill Peter and end J’son’s bloodline. Throughout the game we’re treated to little glimpses of Peter’s life on Earth, back when it was just him, his mother, and their majestic mullets.
As Peter Quill knows, however, the real action is out in deep space. The game opens with the Guardians, barely a year after their formation, doing what they do best: space crimes. Strapped for cash, the team breaks into the Quarantine Zone, a site closed off after a vast interstellar war, in hopes of capturing a valuable monster they can sell to Lady Hellbender, the Monster Queen, for a quick buck. Things go wrong, and the Guardians find themselves arrested by the Nova Corps. Given the choice between paying a massive fine or going to prison, the team hatches a plot to sell one of their more monstrous members to Lady Hellbender to generate cash to pay the fine and get back to their regularly scheduled shenanigans.
This leads to one of the game’s first big choices. Who will the team sell to Lady Hellbender, Groot or Rocket? Sure, Groot is a brilliant conversationalist and incredibly powerful, but Rocket packs a whole lot of angry asshole into an adorable little package. Ultimately, after much hemming and hawing, I decided to sell Rocket. Things go wrong, again, and now not only are the Guardians of the Galaxy in debt, they’re also being hunted across the galaxy by one very angry Monster Queen. While I doubt choosing Groot would have led to a vastly different outcome, having a choice is nice.
If you’re thinking, “Well, that escalated quickly,” you ain’t seen nothing yet. The plot continues to escalate through the game’s 16 chapters, quickly evolving from “we need cash” to “oh god, the entire universe is going to end.” It wouldn’t be a Guardians of the Galaxy game without some galaxy guarding going on.
Free from the shackles of comic movie continuity, Eidos-Montréal is able to tap in some of Marvel’s most powerful players, creating some truly spectacular story arcs that had me excitedly pointing at the screen in a desperate attempt to get my spouse interested in my nerdy comic book bullshit. “Look! It’s (redacted)!” I would shout, as they nodded patiently and listened to their true crime podcast.
The story in Guardians of the Galaxy is strong. The humor is even stronger. The back-and-forth between members of the team as they explore alien planets and massive starships never fails to elicit at least a smile, if not a full-on guffaw. “Groot says the plants here are all either mean or stupid,” quips Rocket on a planet filled with exploding flora. We’ve got Drax taking everything literally, Rocket making fun of Quill’s dead mom, Gamora wondering how a newly-formed cadre of bad guys made their uniforms so quickly. Late in the game there’s an extended sequence featuring a character I am not allowed to mention that’s some of the most hilarious stuff I’ve ever heard in a video game.
When Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t splitting my sides, it’s impressing the hell out of me as a fan of pulp science fiction. The aliens and planets depicted in the game remind me of the dusty old magazines I used to find at sci-fi conventions, their covers splashed with bizarre landscapes and creatures beyond my wildest imagination. Aside from the flashbacks to‘80s-era Earth, every setting in the game is fantastic.
What an outstanding use of the video game medium to create something truly unique. There are no planets that look like “Earth, only a different color.” Nothing looks like it was filmed in a quarry or a desert with Instagram filters. Even spaceships, where designers could get away with generic metal plating and grates, are made up of unfamiliar, otherworldly elements.
Playing as half-human smartass Peter Quill helps keep the experience grounded. In a team with superhuman warriors, a sentient tree, and a furry little science experiment, he’s a guy with a gun and jet boots. Sure, it’s a magical gun left by his alien father that’s capable of harnessing the power of different elements, but it’s a gun nonetheless.
So, what’s it like being the half-human leader of a band of space misfits? It’s a lot like being Noctis, the leader of a group of hot boy adventurers in Square Enix’s Final Fantasy XV. As Peter explores alien worlds, Gamora, Groot, Drax, and Rocket are his Gladiolus, Ignis, and Prompto. They are his constant companions, providing a steady stream of commentary during their planet-spanning adventures. While wandering the surface of an alien world they might draw attention to points of interest. When encountering an obstacle they might give Peter a hint about how to, say, use the ice setting of his Element Gun to freeze water into a traversable platform.
And in battle, Gamora, Groot, Drax, and Rocket become important weapons in Star-Lord’s arsenal. As Peter runs about, shooting his guns or throwing punches, you can pause the action and issue commands to your teammates. Each character has a series of four special abilities that unlock as you play the game, and these abilities often complement each other nicely, making the team really feel like a team. For instance, Groot starts with an ability that roots enemies in place. Once he’s done that, those unfortunate enemies are helpless to evade Rocket’s ability to blanket the area with explosions for massive damage. When the team encounters an enemy that’s too fast to strike, Groot can grab them, giving Gamora and Drax a chance to use one of their slower but more powerful attacks.
Though you’re only directly controlling Peter Quill, it feels like the Guardians are working together to win every battle. What seemed like a massive downside when the game was first announced is actually a rather neat way to make you the most important part of a powerful team of intergalactic heroes. You’re the glue that keeps the other four from murdering each other and being done with it.
Fighting is fun, especially as Peter unlocks new powers for his Elemental Gun. Ice can freeze a foe, allowing them to be shattered into pieces. Electricity stuns enemies and can take down shields. Magma inflicts a damage-over-time effect. And then there’s the best power of all, wind. With wind, Peter can draw distant enemies to him, leaving them in a weakened, easily-beat-down state. And should Peter be standing near a high ledge when he shoots, the enemies are teleported into empty air, immediately falling to their death.
It’s a combat system built for experimentation, but it doesn’t always hold up. There are battles where it’s obvious the game wants you to use powers in a specific way that’s not immediately clear, leading to me fumbling about the battlefield like an idiot until I figured it out. Other times battles will take place in confined spaces, and when you try to move out of those spaces, the game fades briefly before moving you back into the area where it wants you. And though battles are generally entertaining, there’s a point in a latter chapter where battles become more frequent, and start feeling like padding before the grand finale.
Then there’s the huddle system. As your team fights, a huddle meter fills. When full, you can hit the shoulder buttons to call the team into a huddle. After a brief discussion about how the battle is going from your teammates, you’re given a pair of dialogue choices. The correct choice inspires and buffs the entire team, while the wrong choice only enhances Star-Lord. When the fight is rejoined, a random tune from the game’s hit-studded ‘80s soundtrack plays.
There is nothing quite like heading back into battle with a massive, screen-filling boss to the sounds of Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” During one of the game’s dramatic final battles, I wound up Rick-rolling a powerful alien entity. Does the music make the battles better or worse? Yes. Also no. As much as I love the sheer absurdity of it all, I feel like some of the fights were cheapened considerably thanks to Peter Quill’s Walkman. As impressive as the game’s soundtrack is, there are times I would rather just stick to the regular combat music for dramatic effect. Just know that if you get similarly bothered, there is an option (mainly for streamers) to replace copyrighted music with unlicensed alternatives.
I also wasn’t a big fan of the frequent bugs and glitches I encountered. While exploring alien vistas I kept losing members of the team, usually right before encountering an obstacle that required their special abilities to overcome. A hidden costume on a particularly icy planet remained out of reach because I needed Groot to raise a platform for me, and Groot kept going AWOL. Elsewhere I got stuck because I needed Gamora’s sword to cut down an obstacle and Gamora had fucked right off. These sorts of issues would sometimes resolve after reloading my last checkpoint. Sometimes they would not. There’s supposedly a day-one patch in the works that will fix most of the problems I had, but don’t be surprised if it’s still got the odd glitch.
Despite the frustrating technical issues, I enjoyed nearly every moment of the 15 or so hours I spent playing Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. I like the battles and banter. I enjoyed dropping unsuspecting enemies off of cliffs. I didn’t mind Rocket attempting to get me to answer “Quill’s Mom” to a question posed by a security AI. I loved Drax’s awkward attempts at flirting with Lady Hellbender. I adored every moment spent with Soviet space-dog Cosmo, who is truly the bestest of boys. I especially enjoyed the secret sixth member of the Guardians, Kammy the purple space llama.
Just like the titular scrappy band of underdogs, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy defied all of my expectations. What I expected to be an awkward mishandling of one of Marvel’s most unlikely superhero teams turned out to be one of the most faithful and entertaining depictions of the Guardians since their 2014 movie debut, and one of my favorite games of 2021.