It could have been so easy for Marvel’s low-hanging Groot
You’re not supposed to like Star-Lord. Not at first. This extroverted, cocksure brigand is the intergalactic Chad; you can picture him necking a Monster on the bridge of his ship whilst talking about how dope it was to meet an alien with tentacles for the first time. He’s supposed to make your neck skin crawl, make you roll your eyes, sigh whenever he opens his mouth unprompted.
And yet, inexplicably, aliens from countless races – from cultures spanning the breadth and depth of Marvel canon – seem to all go dewy-eyed at this slipshod cavalier. Something about his self-deprecation, his confidence, and his vulnerability mix into this milquetoast cocktail no one can seem to stop drinking. By the end of the game (or most arcs in the comics, or even the dual MCU Guardians of the Galaxy efforts to date), you’re in the same boat – even if that means you’re cooing over Chris Pratt. Ew.
It’s funny how a game can so readily take after its own protagonist, isn’t it? But that’s exactly what Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy does. From the opening beats, Peter ‘Star-Lord’ Quill rubs you up the wrong way; overconfident and mouthy, you don’t relish 20 hours of playing as him, at all. Even his teammates seem aggravated by him. Yet, a few hours in, you’re hooked on a feeling that’s almost like brotherly love – unable to tear yourself away from his terrible jokes and endless optimism.
And that’s because of the writing. Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is one of the best game stories we’ve played in years. Yes, there are some pacing issues, and, yes, there are a couple beats towards the end with gaping plot holes and some predictable twists… but for the most part, this is as authentic as a Marvel game gets. The characters, the setpieces, the facial animations, the voice performances, the production on the cutscenes, and the fidelity of the character models – they’re all top-notch. This is a game that’s been polished to perfection in its narrative side, and to great effect.
But there lies one of Guardians of the Galaxy’s major problems: it’s so much better when you’re not playing it. Combat is loose and glitchy, practically every encounter after halfway through the game uses the same enemies that you’ve already encountered, platforming sections are appallingly implemented, there are weird dog-fighting sections that feel like a complete afterthought, and there are frustrating sliding-on-your-ass-down-on-some-rocks sections that feel like they’ve been taken right out of 2006.
The game itself is poor. Frequent bugs and glitches mar the experience, especially when it’s possible to encounter a glitch before the final boss that blocks all progress. Elsewhere, you’ve got some deeply emotional scene asking you to lend your sympathy to your ragtag crew of misfits – which is followed by one of the worst on-rails shooting sections we’ve played in years – it’s hard to forgive developer Eidos Montreal for making you suspend your disbelief in such a fashion. Interspersing Hollywood-level narrative beats with some of the most egregiously bad, poorly-optimised combat you’ll find in on the Xbox Series X/S or PlayStation 5 really makes it hard to love Star-Lord and his cronies… and yet your passion perseveres, against all odds. Fitting, for Guardians of the Galaxy, isn’t it?
Even playing on Hard mode doesn’t make things better; enemies still fall in front of you like wet cardboard, and asking your teammates to do one of their special attacks sees them fecklessly flit around the battlefield before someone’s health bar depletes by a third. Hooray. Half-baked animations and poorly-implemented tracking make Gamora look more like a manikin caught in a maelstrom than the deadliest woman in the galaxy. Watching Drax charge an enemy line – before disappearing into the air, then clipping into a foe’s armour – isn’t exactly the awe-inspiring rallying call you’d expect from The Destroyer.
The paper-thin levelling system becomes moot by halfway through the game if you’re playing it properly, too, and you’ll find you only need to use about three of the Guardians’ overall skills if you read the UI properly, anyway. Every single aspect of the game – outside its wonderful conversations and compelling cutscenes – is awkward and slapdash, and makes you think the whole experience was kitbashed together in weeks. How a triple-A game can be released in this state is a genuine mystery. We held our frustration in check until Star-Lord started floating away in cutscenes, and the game kept us in stasis glitches during climactic boss fights. You can forgive performance only so much… when it starts undermining the only decent parts of the game, the game’s poor performance becomes intolerable.
But it’s not all bad. When you’re gawping at the mocap on Rocket Raccoon’s face as he makes some off-handed quip at Star-Lord on a frozen-over ice planet – or chuckling at one of Drax’s trademark po-faced responses to a well-known idiom – you can almost forgive how incredibly shonky every aspect of the game’s action portion is. Some of the set-pieces inspire you to look on, open-mouthed, and the way the game taps into obscure Marvel lore from the past 60-plus years is admirable, too (especially if you’re a very specific flavour of helpless Marvel nerd).
And then there’s the music! Hearing Rocket recall some deeply traumatic backstory as ‘Everybody Wants to Rule’ the World by Tears for Fears kicks in is genuinely moving, and early on you’ll encounter one of the best uses of ‘Tainted Love’ we’ve ever heard; it’s very glib and knowing. An all-or-nothing dogfight set to Iron Maiden’s ‘Where Eagles Dare’ made us grin like idiots (until the dodgy controls of the Milano-piloting section quickly took that sheen off). The implementation and inspiration behind the use of licensed music are as good as anything you’d see from Rockstar – and that should be lauded.
The game gets away with lore dumps and callbacks James Gunn’s cinematic take on the IP wouldn’t – and that’s great! That’s the kind of depth you want from a game like this. And some of the interpersonal chats and relationships feel like they could have been plucked right out of Mass Effect 2 (and that’s some lofty praise).
But what the game does to keep your attention with fast-paced, pew-pew narrative beats, it loses in loose, unsatisfying combat and laborious go-here-do-this filler. When Eidos Montreal pushes a pistol in your hand and asks you to go shoot something, a sense of dread rises in your throat – and that’s going to kill the momentum of any story. No matter how good it is.
Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is coming October 26 to PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PC and streaming via GeForce. Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy: Cloud Version for Nintendo Switch also coming October 26.
This review was based on a PS5 version of the game, which was provided by the publisher.
Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is actually better when you’re not playing it: everything it does to get you onside with its quippy humour, its sharp story-telling, and its endearing characters, it loses in clunky, laborious combat, some appalling pacing, and baffling design decisions. It’s a damn shame that one of the best stories of the year – with some seriously impressive voice work and mo-cap – is tainted by a game that feels like it just doesn’t want to be played.
- Amazing use of licensed music
- Seriously impressive facial expressions and interpersonal drama
- Fast-paced, often funny story with a big, soft heart
- Combat is simply awful
- Bad performance and optimisation ruins key moments
- Action segments outlive their welcome, become increasingly repetitive