I'm a big fan of the "found family" trope. There's something so heartwarming about watching complete strangers finding a place to belong by sticking with each other. It's the basic underlying principle of practically every superhero or vigilante team, including the Guardians of the Galaxy. Developer Eidos-Montréal's Guardians of the Galaxy builds off this premise to deliver an incredible story about what comes after the found family trope. In the game, the family has been found, its forging hinted at in conversations throughout the game's campaign. But as anyone who is a part of a family (found or otherwise) can tell you, forming connections with people isn't the hard part; it's the regular struggle to maintain those bonds that really takes effort. And that's at the heart of Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy, a game that says that a family, once found, is worth fighting for.
Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy picks up following the creation of the titular team, all of whom have some sort of history with one another. It plays out a lot like developer Insomniac Games' Marvel's Spider-Man in that way--the origin story has already occurred, and the player is now catching up on what the characters already know. Though I can see how this setup could confuse players who aren't familiar with Peter Quill, Gamora, Rocket, Groot, and Drax (if you don't know their backstories, you might be confused as to why Drax distrusts Gamora when he is the one who killed her father, for example), this setup ultimately works to the game's benefit. Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy regularly moves beyond familiarity, digging into the wonderfully bizarre cosmic side of Marvel's universe, all of which is so absurdly alien.
And yet, it's all very human too, and that's why it works so well. These might not be the Guardians you're familiar with--heck, you might not be familiar with the team at all--but the issues that they're attempting to deal with and overcome are all deeply relatable. The same can be said for the increasingly strange assortment of allies and enemies the Guardians meet. You latch onto their issues and pay attention to them because they're the parts of the story that make the most sense from a human perspective. That, more than anything, captures the sensation of being Peter Quill, aka Star Lord, a human who finds himself regularly exploring a galaxy far removed from the goings-on of Earth, and yet, as an Earthling, is ideally suited for navigating these galactic issues because he can bring out the innate humanity of these aliens.
You apply Peter's human perspective via your own with choice-driven dialogue. You'll regularly be presented with opportunities where Peter can respond to conversations in multiple ways. Similarly to games like Oxenfree or Afterparty, your available choices pop up for a limited time and those around you usually don't stop talking while Peter is thinking, presenting the opportunity to say nothing at all. Sometimes, though, missing a chance to speak is a risk worth taking, as holding out to respond can occasionally allow you to gather more information about how everyone is feeling by listening to the conversation.
The act of listening to someone as opposed to just hearing the words is a big part of the game's narrative core. The overarching campaign of Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy isn't affected by the choices you make, but individual relationships and certain story developments are influenced, and the best outcomes only occur if you listen to what people are saying and reply in a way that responds to their concerns. Oftentimes, that results in immediate consequences, but there are a handful of opportunities where your choices early on can have long-standing effects, and it's deeply gratifying to see the game reward you in later conflicts for being a good listener throughout the course of the campaign.
That campaign sees the Guardians struggling to pay off a massive debt in order to avoid being arrested, a task that ultimately gets the five self-described heroes for hire tangled up in a galaxy-wide threat. This game isn't reinventing the traditional superhero story, and you'll likely foresee several of its twists and turns. But it's well-written and well-sold by the fairly impressive motion capture and superb voice talent that bring life to an otherwise by-the-books story. Notably, Romane Denis, who voices 12-year-old Nikki Gold, brings an earnest warmth and child-like mischief to her performance. It's easy to see why Peter immediately takes a liking to Nikki when Denis does such a good job of ensuring that you, the player, also like her. The Guardians may be the focus of the campaign, but Nikki is at the heart of the game's story, providing a strong emotional throughline for the narrative theme of open communication leading to acceptance and a stronger family.
Between the bouts of story, there are a lot of baddies to shoot. From murderous jello to familiar (and more often, unfamiliar if you haven't dug deep into the comics) super villains, the Guardians face a variety of threats throughout the game. Each foe seemingly encourages you to approach the threat in different ways--a target carrying a shield suggests you need to find a means of flanking them, while a more nimble beast-like enemy may seemingly prove difficult to attack if you can't pin them down. I say "seemingly" because it's an illusionary variety, and one that is easily seen through after a few hours with the game.
Early on, the game advertises each Guardian as uniquely qualified for responding to these specific threats. For example, Groot is a tank with abilities geared towards crowd control while Drax is an aggressive fighter who can utilize his strength to stagger opponents, opening them to normal attacks. Peter even unlocks an ability early on that allows him to take to the skies and more easily get a lay of the land, seemingly incentivizing you to take on a more strategic leader-based role. None of that is necessary, though. Despite their variety of strengths, every enemy can be damaged by all five Guardians, so you can just as easily spam the same attacks over and over to win a fight. Fights may take a bit longer if you play that way, but not by much, so there's nothing spurring you on to approach combat strategically.
And so fights ultimately devolve into ever-longer grind-fests as the number of enemies grow more plentiful and their health bars extend ever longer. By the end of the story, my go-to plan for most fights was to use Rocket's implosion grenades to forcibly pull all enemies together, send out Drax to bulldoze the group in order to stagger them, then follow up with Gamora's sword or Groot's branches to finish them off. Despite each Guardian unlocking four abilities, I never found myself having to use more than their first two to overcome a fight (save for Groot, who unlocks a clutch fourth skill near the end of the campaign).
The game includes multiple difficulties, including a "Custom" level where you can adjust practically every aspect of combat, quick-time events, and dialogue choices to incredible detail (it's really quite something--this game has over a dozen approachability and accessibility settings). You could crank up the game's difficulty in order to create more of an incentive to use each Guardian to the best of your ability, at risk of a squad wipe for nearly every encounter, if you want an extra challenge. That said, doing so isn't intrinsically increasing the level of strategy needed to beat the game; it's simply making enemies into harder-hitting bullet sponges so fights become longer, not tougher.
In the event a fight wasn't going my way, I could easily turn the tides with a team huddle, a mechanic I love but which feels underutilized. The huddle mechanic is like the Guardians' "ultimate ability," charging throughout combat and best saved for when all seems dire or you want to lay on the damage and finish off a tough opponent. It sees Peter call his allies to him, allowing them to group up and express how they're feeling about the fight. You then get a choice of what to say to inspire the group, with the team being fully revived and their ability cooldowns reset if you respond to your allies' concerns. It's an interesting mechanic, insofar as it ties combat back to the narrative core of the game, providing a metaphor for how being a good listener is important for cultivating a strong family that supports each other. It's not so interesting a wrinkle that it washes away my problems with the rest of the unremarkable combat, though.
When you're not telling your allies what to do or propping them up, you guide Peter, who controls like your traditional third-person, over-the-shoulder shooter protagonist. Peter can free aim or lock onto targets with his dual blasters, using his jet boots to dodge enemy attacks. There's not much to it--you're mostly just holding down the trigger and taking the time to dodge away from an attack or cool down your guns to keep them from overheating. But even when you do miss a dodge, you don't take much damage and even when your guns do overheat, you don't have to wait too long to start firing again--you don't have to think very hard, is the point I'm trying to get at. The game is designed with a focus on Peter giving his allies orders or support, which ultimately ensures that Peter himself isn't all that engaging to control in the heat of combat.
Over the course of the campaign, you also unlock four different kinds of elemental ammo for Peter's blasters, allowing you to unleash special attacks that can take advantage of an enemy's weakness. Those aforementioned jello monsters, for instance? Normal attacks don't affect them that much, but if you use ice ammo to freeze them first, they'll become brittle and easy to destroy. Much like Gamora, Rocket, Drax, and Groot's abilities, however, the game doesn't adequately push you to engage with these special shots. I'd occasionally switch to wind ammo to pull in a far-away sniper or fire ammo to deal burning damage to a boss, but I mostly just left it on lightning ammo for the entire campaign and the game never dissuaded or penalized me for doing so. It's a mechanic that, once again, is asking the player to be strategic but then not providing any incentive to meaningfully engage with combat.
This elemental ammo--alongside your allies' unique abilities--also play a role outside of combat. Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy features an assortment of environmental puzzles, a few of which hide optional collectibles and cosmetics, while most simply impede progress through a level. Save for one or two puzzles, however, none really encourage you to think about how to use the Guardians' skills in fulfilling ways. If you're stuck and the way forward is blocked by some pipes, you can command Gamora to cut through them. That puzzle never becomes more complex, though, so you'll just keep encountering pipes for her to cut through (okay, sometimes they're icicles or plant vines instead of pipes, but still). The same can be said for all of the different types of environmental roadblocks you have to overcome. You'll encounter pretty much every type of puzzle the game has within the first few hours and then just keep stumbling upon them again and again in slightly different flavors for the rest of the 16-hour campaign. At that point they're not roadblocks to overcome, they're just mildly annoying speedbumps where you know what to do before any of the characters can mention that the path forward is blocked.
All paths eventually lead to the Milano, Peter's ship and the in-game hub you regularly return to between the planets that the Guardians visit. It's not much of a hub. Though it provides opportunities to have optional check-ins with individual members of your crew, these conversations are largely inconsequential and lack the emotional or narrative impact that occur throughout the rest of the game.
Occasionally, your time in the ship also has you manning the helm. These sections aren't all that fun--they're either frustrating flying gauntlets where the Milano's finicky handling regularly leads to death-inducing crashes, or boring combat encounters where the simplistic mechanics and scenarios don't create engaging dogfights. Between the irrelevant optional crew conversations and unlikable space battles, the Milano ends up being the weakest part of the game.
On the other end of the spectrum, the soundtrack is one of the strongest aspects of Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy. There are plenty of excellent licensed '80s tracks sprinkled throughout the Guardians' adventure to highlight badass story or combat moments, but the original score sells the game. The thematic undertones to each world help differentiate the various settings, while evolutions to the score accentuate shifts in narrative tone. The music used for an especially poignant emotional scene near the end of the campaign was just so excellent--it's soft, almost to the point that you can barely hear it, allowing the nearly indistinguishable tremor in the actors' voices to ring through, but it's noticeable enough to really sell the scene. It got my eyes to water at least, which is not a reaction I expected to have to a Guardians of the Galaxy game.
Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy doesn't feature an engaging combat system, save for the moments where the team huddles provide a loose connection to the much more engaging narrative theme of the strength of communication. The game instead shines via its storytelling, which is enhanced by a talented collection of voice actors and a wonderful soundtrack. If this game is your introduction to the titular heroes, it's not the best first impression, but sometimes when the galaxy needs to be saved, you can settle for good enough.