(Pocket-lint) - Guardians of the Galaxy is something of an outlier in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: jokey and super-quirky, along similar lines to Deadpool, only much more family-friendly. But it's an immensely popular one, so a certain amount of trepidation surrounded Square Enix's approach to turning the franchise into a game, following its lacklustre, loot-centric Marvel's Avengers.
The good news is that Guardians of the Galaxy fans can collectively exhale: what developer Eidos Montreal has crafted is nothing less than a labour of love. It's the polar opposite of Marvel's Avengers: a single-player, more or less single-path game – a type of game which many feared was endangered. For such a game, it bucks the modern trend in that it doesn't end just as it is getting into its stride: with a prologue and 16 chapters, it offers 20 to 25 hours of gameplay, although there isn't much by way of replay value.
A thing of beauty
More importantly, it nails the essence of Guardians of the Galaxy in a manner that will excite fans. Its production values, at least on the next-gen consoles (we played it in on Xbox Series X) are through the roof, setting new standards for performance-capture and character animation.
It has a distinctive and very enjoyable combat engine: even though you only get to exercise direct control over Peter Quill, you must make full use of the special abilities the other Guardians acquire in the course of the game in order to progress.
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And it varies its gameplay cleverly: although combat is to the fore, it throws puzzle-solving, a bit of platforming, space combat and traversal of conversational trees (more fun than it sounds, since it's also really well scripted) into the mix.
A suitable story
Its storyline is as bonkers and over-the-top as you would expect from a Guardians of the Galaxy game, and it accommodates some favourite GotG characters, such as Cosmo the spacedog, Adam Warlock and Mantis, as well as adding some great new ones such as the scary but fascinating Lady Hellbender and Cammy, the purple llama.
Story-wise, it starts off with a flashback to Quill's last days as a bratty Earthbound teenager before being plunged into eternal galactic shenanigans – a useful slice of origin mythology given his arrested-development nature. That explains the provenance of his blaster-guns, which he next gets to use on a scavenging mission to the post-war quarantine zone with the full team of Guardians.
Eidos Montreal chose not to recreate the likenesses of the actors playing Quill, Gamora and Drax in the movies – just like Crystal Dynamics with Marvel's Avengers – but it's a decision that pays off, since their likenesses and voices simply fit those well-established personalities. Rocket and Groot look and sound pretty much identical to their movie equivalents.
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The Guardians' foray into the quarantine zone goes even more disastrously than you or they realise at the time, leading to a run-in with Nova Corps, the space-cops, headed by Quill's old flame Ko-Rel. Attempting to pay off the resulting fine by duping the Amazonian Lady Hellbender, they start to become aware of a growing threat to the very existence of the entire universe which only they can avert – in the most farcical manner possible, naturally.
Gameplay-wise, the focus is on combat, against increasingly tricky enemies, mini-bosses and bosses. And the combat is great: Quill has both blasters and a fairly powerful melee, and as the game progresses he acquires ice, wind, electrical and heat-ray alternative fire modes, which prove useful both for puzzle-solving and on the battlefield (the wind-shot, for example, can pull snipers to him so he can dispose of them with a couple of melees).
Each of the Guardians has various special abilities that they will unleash, when directed, on whatever enemies Quill is targeting. Gamora deals the most damage to single enemies, Drax also causes melee damage, but with a larger area of effect, Groot can hold enemies in place for a while and resurrect downed colleagues, and Rocket can lob various bombs (including one which suspends enemies in mid-air for a while), and deliver a fusillade of gun and rocket-fire. Quill's special abilities are varied: a rapid-fire blaster-burst, a spectacular jump that delivers ice-bombs below him, temporary invulnerability, and the chance to hover above the battlefield for a while. He also has a great dodge move.
All those abilities have a cooldown, and there are also environmental weapons that Guardians can be directed to unleash – Drax, for example, can throw explosive barrels. As you work your way through a wave of enemies – and the game throws plenty at you – you build up a Huddle meter, which pulls the Guardians off the battlefield temporarily so that Quill can give a motivational speech in response to whatever the others are saying. That gives a short-lived attack and defence boost to the entire party, as long as you choose the right speech.
It works brilliantly, feeling appropriate to the Guardians' different fighting strengths, but also supporting a variety of tactical approaches, which you will have to employ since you come up against tough enemies. For example, in the later stages you encounter hovering enemies who heal and buff their surrounding comrades and are heavily shielded, so you need to concentrate on taking them out first, via triggering the optimum special abilities (which have cooldowns of varying lengths).
The Guardians have other abilities which can be used for puzzle-solving at specific points (often discerned via Quill's helmet-scanner): Gamora can slash pipes blocking entrances and jump high and dig into rock-faces, allowing her to boost Quill up to higher areas; Groot can build wooden bridges; Rocket can hack things and crawl into tiny spaces; and Drax can move heavy objects and smash anything with structural flaws.
It all gels nicely into a very cinematic rollercoaster ride which is archetypally Guardians of the Galaxy the whole way through – additional touches like the constant banter in which the Guardians engage and the beautifully realised version of the Milano, which swiftly becomes a familiar home-from-home, add icing to that particular cake.
Eidos Montreal has done a brilliant job of taking a familiar comic-book/movie Marvel franchise and turning it into the exact kind of game that fans would want to play – in marked contrast to Marvel's Avengers. But there's a catch, in that it might just have done too good a job.
It leaves you yearning for more, but when you finish it, you unlock a New Game Plus mode, but that's all. You can return to replay individual chapters, but there's only one which rewards exploration and offers anything beyond a single path: Chapter 6, set on the dodgy mining colony of Knowhere, which has a few short side-missions, shops and mini-games that it's possible to miss in your first play-through. Guardians of the Galaxy is simply crying out for DLC, so we'll keep a keen eye on Square Enix's plans in that regard.
The game also sets an ideal precedent for a sequel, presumably dependent on decent sales figures. Which deserve to be impressive: if you're a fan of Guardians of the Galaxy, it's an essential purchase, and if you merely have an intellectual curiosity about the process of turning pop-culture franchises into games, Guardians of the Galaxy shows exactly how that should be done.