I’m not one of those “keep your movies out of my games” types, whose eyes glaze over whenever a videogame enters a cut-scene or asks you to actually care about its dialogue. I’ve maybe started to lean that way, though, if only because there’ve been so many middling-to-bad examples of the cinematic game over the last several years. It’s long been the go-to for big-budget blockbuster games, but the cost, in terms of both overworked employees and bloated budgets, rarely translates to artistic success, resulting in a number of boring, overbearing, easily skippable games.
The latest big name cinematic game, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, shouldn’t win any awards, but at least it seems to realize that. As such, it works better than I expected it to. Eidos Montreal’s new game obviously owes a lot to the tone and characterization of James Gunn’s MCU movies, but it’s closer in spirit to how comic books operate, where there’s often a reset whenever a new creative team takes over a series. This Guardians doesn’t try to be a one-for-one translation of the movies; its characters aren’t modeled on the actors, their outfits and personalities and backstories can differ in ways both slight and significant, and for story inspiration it looks more to Marvel’s decades of cosmic comics than to Gunn’s two movies. It captures enough of the movies’ voice (including those omnipresent ‘80s pop hits) to keep the MCU fans interested, but has the broader sweep and scope of something set in the massive world of the comic books. If I were to keep the cinematic comparisons going, I’d say that this is squarely a B movie—the game equivalent of something you’d maybe wait to see at a dollar theater, or even just catch at random moments on basic cable when you’ve got nothing better to do, and feel sufficiently entertained.
Taking a page from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, the story focuses on Peter Quill’s family, from the biological family he was taken from in the ‘80s, to the ersatz family dynamics of the Guardians. It expands on both, using flashbacks to show more of his childhood and his relationship with his mother, while, in the present, juggling Quill’s responsibilities to his teammates alongside newer, more personal obligations. As the player, you’ll sometimes have to make Mass Effect-like decisions that will endear you to one Guardian while potentially alienating another. Do you take Rocket’s side when deciding what to do during a mission, or Gamora’s? It’s usually pretty clear who you’ll be pissing off at moments like this; I didn’t replay the game to the extent where I could track how these decisions impacted the larger direction of the story, but I did reload checkpoints at a few crucial junctures to see what sort of immediate changes were evident. In one instance one path resulted in more shoot-outs with enemy squads than the other, while another decision seemed to make a specific battle a little bit faster and easier. I don’t expect that I’ll ever have the time to play it again to see if major plot points can be altered by my decisions, but there still seems to be enough possibility baked into these choices to make your playthrough feel somewhat unique.
When you’re not choosing your own adventure or chatting with your space pals, you’ll spend a lot of time exploring planets and spaceships, and shooting the creatures that hang out on them. Guardians of the Galaxy is essentially a multiplayer game restricted to a single player. You’ll take direct control of Peter Quill, who packs a couple of space pistols with environmental power-ups and a handy pair of jet boots. His four fellow Guardians will brawl alongside you, delivering meager damage to enemies while waiting on you to give them the command for their special attacks. Each character has up to four special attacks that can be unlocked, and naturally each character has a cooldown meter for their specials, so you can’t just spam Rocket’s grenades over and over. You’ll quickly realize some of those specials work really well in tandem—have Drax plow through a bad guy’s shield, and then immediately command Gamora to deal them a jumping sword strike, for example. It can sometimes be a little too easy to forget to give your teammates orders when you’re feeling the flow of the fight, but you’ll probably die often enough during battles to get over that pretty quickly. Knowing how and when to use the other Guardians’ special attacks is crucial if you don’t want to quickly die in every battle.
Probably the highlight of any Guardians fight is when you get to call a team huddle. Your “huddle meter” fills up during combat, and when it’s full you can call your squad in for a quick strategy session. The actual main mechanic behind the huddle is unfulfilling—as your teammates talk, certain crucial words will appear on the screen above them. Those highlighted words are clues to which of two pep talks you should have Peter give; if you pick the right one, all five characters will get momentary buffs, whereas if you choose wrong only Peter gets a burst of power. Either way one of the game’s 30 classic ‘80s songs will start playing—the only time you’ll hear them during a battle—and that alone makes me call a huddle as often as I can. The connection between the Guardians of the Galaxy concept and old pop songs is absolutely played out at this point—it’s basically turned the Disney’s Tower of Terror into one of those Himalaya bobsled rides at the county fair that blast ‘80s hair metal while you spin around—and it’s ridiculous (more in a good way than a bad way) that Peter’s one mix tape in the first movie has apparently turned into a comprehensive collection of every memorable ‘80s song ever. (This game totally does that thing where it seems to think the entire decade of the 1980s happened at the exact same time, by the way.) As goofy as that is, complaining about it is a pretty good example of overthinking things. Just accept that Peter has an iPod’s worth of mix tapes out there in space, where he lives and works with a talking raccoon and a giant tree man, and enjoy beating up asshole aliens while Pat Benatar or Europe blasts through your TV.
Despite being a narrative-heavy game that constantly stresses how urgent and dangerous every mission is, you’re still expected to spend a lot of time exploring every nook and cranny for space junk that can be used for crafting. (It’s 2021. Of course this game has crafting.) Crafting lets you build “perks,” permanent power-ups that (very marginally) improve some of your basic abilities. You can also unlock new special skills for all five Guardians with the experience points you win during battle. If you don’t know how that works, then this must be the very first videogame you’ve played in the past 35 years, in which case, welcome! Or welcome back, as the case may be; games can be a very entertaining and rewarding hobby, if you don’t take ‘em too seriously. It’s good to have you on board! If you are familiar with how games have progressed over the last few decades, or even have any amount of experience playing AAA console games in the last 10 years, all of this will feel instantly familiar.
That sense of familiarity clings to the entirety of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, from how it plays, to how it’s structured, to (obviously) the major intellectual property it’s based on. Guardians sticks close to what has proven to be popular and successful in the past, eschewing inspiration and ambition for competence. It’s very competent. I kept chugging along through its story and its battles without either ever feeling like much of a chore. Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t have the ingenuity or spark of James Gunn’s movies, but it should do just enough to keep you interested on a lazy afternoon when you don’t have anything else to do. That’s a perfectly fine role for a game to fill, and this game is perfectly fine with filling it.
Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy was developed by Eidos-Montreal and published by Square Enix. Our review is based on the PlayStation 5 version. It is also available for Xbox Series S|X, Xbox One, Switch, PlayStation 4, and PC.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.