Eidos Montreal's Guardians of the Galaxy makes an incredibly strong first impression. This came as a relief, given that the last time I saw a preview of a Marvel game from Square Enix I left confused and underwhelmed. Even as an apologist for Avengers (yes, I still play it), I can admit that game stumbled out of the gate--the Avengers didn't assemble as much as they tripped over each other and landed on their asses.
Guardians of the Galaxy, however, is the complete opposite and carries itself with a self-assuredness that is infectious. In a hands-off preview of the game, I found myself quickly buying into Eidos Montreal's vision for the misfit crew of space pirates. Much like Peter Quill, it exudes the kind of swagger you only get from complete faith in yourself--warranted or not.
Part of that comes from the fact that it's easy to understand what kind of game Guardians of the Galaxy is, which was something that Avengers really struggled to communicate. Guardians is a single-player, narrative-driven action game. You play as Peter "Star-Lord" Quill, but the other members of the Guardians are always by your side and can be utilized in combat. There's constant banter between them and, occasionally, decision-making moments may impact or redefine interpersonal dynamics.
"[We were] having the design meetings where we're brainstorming what should this be," explained Mary DeMarle, senior narrative director. "Should this be a single-player game? Should this be a multiplayer game? Should it be that? We kind of started to realize the best part of this license is the Guardians and to be able to hang out with the Guardians. Once we knew that, we knew you're going to play Peter Quill. It's going to be single-player and you're going to make every choice, every decision, and have these unpredictable characters reacting to your choices, making you then need to react to the unpredictability. When we had that, we knew we had what we wanted."
Again, like Peter Quill, the game's flashy rockstar energy and roguish charms are what won me over to begin with, but it was the signs of heartfelt and human relationships between the various members of the team that made me want to look beneath the surface. The demo begins with the Guardians lamenting the lack of credits to their collective name, which results in a harebrained scheme to sell one of their members to Lady Hellbender for cash, only to bust out their pawned-off friend once the deed is done. That whole discussion involves a bickering back-and-forth about the value of Gamora's collection of figurines, Rocket mouthing off in that angry raccoon way he does, and Groot saying, well, "I am Groot."
Eventually, the player is given the opportunity to interject and take control of the situation by hearing out one of the team. In our demo, Quill calls upon Groot, who says... well, "I am Groot." Turns out he's volunteering to be sold to Lady Hellbender because she loves to collect monsters. In a disarming moment, however, Rocket objects to this plan on the basis that Groot is not a monster. It's a passing line that speaks volumes about characterization ambitions. Despite his aggressive tone and violent temperament, Rocket's love for Groot pierces through; he cares for Groot in the same way an older brother would for his sibling, and it's genuinely heartwarming. Drax, with all the tact of a sledgehammer, undercuts the moment by suggesting that Rocket should be sold instead because he's scarier, unstable, vicious, and oblivious to the needs of others, which is all true, so fair enough.
So off the crew go to a distant planet and an impregnable castle to carry out their little money-making scheme. The weather of the planet, one of the team remarks, is tied to the emotions of Lady Hellbender and since it's basically a torrential downpour and crackling thunder most of the time, that should serve as a good indication as to her temperament.
Out in the wild, wet world, I got to see a bit more of how the team interacts on the fly, and it's the kind of sharp, personality-rich banter you would want and have come to expect from the Guardians. Complaints about how cold it is, for example, are met with Drax stoically proclaiming that hardships strengthen a person. Quill, meanwhile, ushers the team forward, zipping around the environment and using his rocket boots to gain height and survey the surroundings. At one point, the team encounters a chasm that they can't get across to activate a bridge. Drax suggests throwing Rocket across to activate the bridge, which, naturally, Rocket is not keen about. The player is given the choice and, in my demo, the gun-crazy critter is unceremoniously lobbed across a perilous gap against his will.
On the other side, Rocket is absolutely furious at you for allowing Drax to do that and the game notes that this is a decision that Rocket will remember. The lasting implications of making this decision didn't become clear in the demo, but the immediate one was Rocket demanding a 10% raise in his cut of the job.
"Infusing choice and consequence into the game [has] always been something that we as developers feel is super important," said DeMarle. "And because of course, as gamers, we also feel very much that we want to see our decisions reflected back to us, whether that's through the reactions of the characters, of the other teammates, or the enemies and the villains. Whether it's opening and closing pathways to gameplay challenges, or even all the way to the end of the game, who are the secret weapons that you have in your arsenal when you're going up against them.
"So in the game as Peter, you are having to make all those choices in gameplay, you're at the center of every decision. If you throw Rocket, you're going to have to deal with those consequences a little later down the line. If you don't throw him, you'll see a completely different set of things happen. And having said that, we're still building a very solid linear story that has the same beginning and the same ending for every player, because we want to build this really emotional climactic superhero ending at the end. But you will see your choices reflected back to you in very surprising ways as you go through the game."
That sense of being at the center of all the key decisions also extends to the combat, where you only ever control Star-Lord. Unexpectedly, combat looked closer to something that you'd expect to see from Platinum Games, Capcom, or Sony Santa Monica. While it's unclear whether Guardians will have the same timing-based combat, driven by combos and skillful evasion, it moves with a speed and dynamism that is in stark contrast to anything Eidos Montreal has made previously. And character-action genre conventions like on-the-fly combat ratings and a stagger meter are present, so it certainly seems that's what the studio is trying to evoke.
"We want this to be a dynamic, fast-paced, really a superhero experience on the sticks," said senior producer Olivier Proulx. "You're playing with Peter, but you have all these other Guardians that are around you, so there's a tactical element to it. For us, the challenge was to blend both. We didn't want to have an RPG or where it's super tactical like a Mass Effect, or we didn't want you to sort of swap from one character to the next because that broke the feel of playing the whole team at the same time. So the feel that you have, it's like solo team play, but very dynamic and very fast-paced.
"On the sticks, [Peter] is super cool to play. He has his jet boots and he has different elements on his blasters and you can upgrade him as well. But all the other Guardians, they have different abilities that you can build up. And then the magic happens when you start combining their abilities. Drax is really good to kind of stagger the enemies and put them a little bit off. Gamora is really great at finishing and being deadly. Groot is the healer and doing crowd control and Rocket has the area of effect. They all have their specialties and then you can just trigger them with the left bumper, and they have their own abilities on the face button. It becomes kind of second nature to be controlling Peter really quick and then just launch those Guardian abilities and do combos with them."
In our demo, the Guardians took on all manner of deadly flora and fauna, ranging from strange jelly-like creatures that had hard, vulnerable cores, to animal-like monsters, but they were all quickly taken out by a barrage of attacks from the team. While Star-Lord's agility and his iconic elemental guns pack a big punch, the magic of combat, according to Eidos Montreal, is bringing in the other Guardians to assist. Rocket, Gamora, Drax, and Groot all operate independently in combat, but at any moment, Star-Lord can call upon them to utilize their abilities mid-flow. This gave the combat a chaotic feel but, at the same time, showed that the Guardians were a well-oiled machine, watching each other's backs and synergizing in exhilarating ways.
Watching Star-Lord launch into a backslide while firing his guns, as Groot uses his extended reach to lash out at enemies, Drax muscles his way around the battlefield, Gamora elegantly moves from one enemy to another with an assassin's precision, and Rocket maniacally cuts loose was more than enough to put a smile on my face. A lot of that is just in the bombast of it all--when I said Guardians of the Galaxy has a rockstar energy, I really meant it.
At times it felt like being at the front row of a concert and having the pyrotechnics go off at point-blank range. It's visually vibrant, with colorful and eye-catching character designs constantly demanding your attention at the same time as combat effects go off left, right, and center, and as battles went on, the shredding soundtrack became more and more pronounced. It was all the build-up to an inevitable solo, which came in the form of a super move that involved Star-Lord cranking up the music on his Walkman, launching into the air, and raining a hail of bullets down on the enemies below. All the while, his heroic flourish seemed to buff the teammates in the area. It all culminated in a cinematic strike that evoked that final power chord played at the climax of a song that reverberates around a stadium, making the crowd erupt in musical euphoria.
That's all to say that Eidos Montreal's Guardians of the Galaxy looks like it could be something special if it delivers on the promise of what I was shown in the hands-off demo. Admittedly, this could be a very polished and focused slice of the game that isn't representative of the full experience but, as is, Guardians of the Galaxy could end up in the same category as Marvel adaptation successes like Insomniac's Spider-Man, instead of stumbles like Avengers.
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