Sean Newgent: "Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy" has always been a bit of an enigma. The little-known comic book B-team became the breakout stars of the Marvel Cinematic Universe through James Gunn's films. Now, the crew of the Milano is getting even more love with Square Enix and Eidos Montreal's video game. Unattached from the films or the comics, the game is a stand-alone galaxy-spanning adventure taking you from the halls of a castle seemingly designed by Zdzislaw Beksinski, to the shady streets of Knowhere and everything in-between. In typical Guardians style, Peter Quill and the crew have peeved several factions. But the petty vengeance and seeming disconnect between the various plots come together in the usual heroic "save the entire galaxy" story. In that way, it feels like a 25-issue limited comic book series, throwing a bunch of B-plots at the wall early on before finally revealing all those seeming non-sequitur issues play into the main story.
Phil Villareal: Gunn's movies have lifted the Guardians to Avengers-style heights, and it was a daunting task for Eidos Montreal to live up to not only the humor and action of the films, but the excellence of the "Spider-Man" PS4 game and its Miles Morales-centered spinoff. While the game doesn't quite meet those impossible expectations, it comes charmingly close. It's a tough task to nail the serialized, comic book feel as well as the epic ramifications of a Marvel Cinematic Universe film, but the game truly does nail both. The visual style -- which takes cues from both the comic book and movies but goes boldly on its own way -- sold me from the get-go. Also, the hilarious and insightful writing and voice acting had me longing for the next cut scene rather than wanting to skip them to get back to the action. What was your favorite design choice?
SN: Design-wise, the best part of the game is the massive set pieces. As you said, it nails everything in that regard. From the claustrophobic corridors of an abandoned spaceship to the massive lairs of the game's handful of villains, "Guardians" has a child-like sense of discovery and excitement few games manage to nail. It offers the sense of awe a game like "Uncharted" did; massive setpieces rife for shootouts and puzzle solving. And while the action sequences are spaced out much more than "Uncharted", there's a lot more fun dialogue between the characters that responds to nearly every decision you make as Peter. Going a wrong way or loafing around an area trying to understand how to solve a puzzle always comes with a dig from Rocket. It makes the game feel organic in a way I don't think I've felt recently. It truly feels like you're playing a movie. But does the gameplay live up to the setpieces, story, and characters?
PV: Not quite. It's pretty standard, linear pop-and-drop stuff, with the occasional dialogue choice to make it feel like you have some agency in the way the story unfolds. It is strange, at first, to be part of a team yet always be committed only to controlling Star-Lord, rather than getting to rotate among them. Oftentimes the other Guardians seem like they're just along for the ride. With the amount of easy-button firepower they supply, there is minimal babysitting needed. Nothing would have been more irritating than needing to constantly resuscitate Groot or Drax after they tanked themselves into harm's way. The way the team follows your orders, as well as your lead, grants you a sense of power and leadership you often only find in squad-based shooters of the "Rainbow Six" ilk. The devs made a bold narrative choice that paid off.
SN: Combat can be a lot of fun -- there's nothing more gratifying than freezing an enemy then drop kicking them into pieces. But as the game goes on it becomes more and more stale. Even with the introduction of various enemy types that require strategic use of certain special ammo or character abilities, there's nothing unique to be found in combat. And on higher difficulties it can become especially frustrating as enemies get artificially harder by becoming bullet sponges taking forever to take down. And to your point about characters, I was under the impression we would get to switch between the Guardians, allowing more varied playstyles. After every battle you receive experience points that can upgrade some special abilities for each character but it essentially just unlocks another simple button press you can make to have your crew deal damage. Because of that, the experience system feels tacked on and upgrading the characters offers no strategy or playstyle variety.
PV: I definitely could have done without the tacked-on upgrade system. A lot of what I appreciate about the game is what ISN'T there. I'm just grateful there is no gratuitous multiplayer, microtransactions or looming DLC meant to squeeze extra cash out of you in order to experience the "full" package. In many ways, the game is as much of a throwback as Star-Lord's bomber jacket or mixtapes. You mentioned earlier how the game is reminiscent of "Uncharted," but "Guardians" surpasses it in some ways, by eschewing the modern trappings of corporate greed in order to stick to the essence of the experience and story. Even at its most repetitive, this is an incredibly fun and satisfying game that makes you feel like you're a 12-year-old playing superhero in the backyard. Maybe because Star-Lord has the maturity level of a 12-year-old. It's rare to find a game that captures that joyous enthusiasm.
SN: That sense of discovery, the immature and acerbic humor; you're completely right, this game isn't going to make you think too hard but it's the kind of popcorn entertainment that leaves you checking the clock to see if you have just a little longer to see where the story takes you. And being such a self-contained game that feels tailor-made to the single player experience is such a rarity. "Guardians" is carrying the stigma of being a Marvel game following the much-panned Avengers from last year but easily shrugs that off to stand on its own. It holds up regardless of whether you are a fan of the source material or comic books in general. A licensed game like this could have easily been six hours of half-hearted fluff and moved thousands of units based on the name alone. But it's obvious Eidos Montreal (who developed the recent "Deus Ex" games) really cared and depending on playstyle you can get anywhere from 15-20 hours out of your first playthrough. There is a choice system within the story that allows the player to chime in with how they'd like to see the story play out to a degree -- though I can't attest to whether any choices make a drastic enough difference to warrant a second playthrough.
PV: Even if little changes on repeat playthroughs, I think the game may well be worth breezing through again and again. There is definitely a summer blockbuster style charm to the game, and even though it's longer than it needs to be, you won't find me complaining. The devs are obviously fans of the source material, and their storytelling and presentation choices make it clear that they wanted to make sure they did the Guardians proud rather than mildly underwhelm fans in the manner of "Guardians of the Galaxy: The Telltale Series" did in 2017. I was part of the minority who appreciated what last year's "Avengers" game set out to accomplish, but there's no doubt this new "Guardians" is decisively better. I'd trust any comic book property in the hands of this team. They could probably even make a good "Fantastic Four" or "Ghost Rider" game.
SN: "Guardians of the Galaxy" is just as surprising as its movie counterpart. I went in with few expectations and within the first hour was hooked. It's a gorgeous game, the characters are all charming and the script really nails the playful banter. The story has a lot of great surprises along the way and honestly could be argued to be better than any of Marvel Studios film or TV output this year. The combat and puzzle solving need some refinement and there were quite a few glitches I encountered throughout my playthrough (though nothing game breaking) but despite those hiccups, I wouldn't be afraid to call it right now and say "Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy" will be in my top games of the year.
PV: I'm with you there. Hiccups aside, this "Guardians" game -- which was only just announced at this year's E3 -- was an out-of-nowhere surprise that will no doubt pop up on a ton of Games of the Year lists, including mine. With a killer soundtrack crammed with cheesy 80s hits that can hang with the likes of "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City," the game is vibrant and infectious. That's certainly more than you can say for "Black Widow." Much like Star-Lord, "Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy" has such a good time rocking out to its own offbeat rhythm that it's impossible not to follow suit.
Review codes were provided by the studio.
Sean reviewed the game on PS4; Phil on Xbox Series X.