When I first saw the reveal trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy (GOTG for short), my immediate reaction was trying to skip the segment but forgetting it was a live show and begrudgingly sitting through it. Then, the game came out and it was a resounding success with critics and fans alike; so, I stopped ignoring it and dug a little deeper to find that I might actually enjoy this. During a recent sale, I decided to take the plunge and try it out; 20 hours later, my thoughts are mixed. I understand why people called it a surprise and, had I played it when it came out with much lower expectations, I might have agreed with that sentiment, but with higher expectations comes more scrutiny which I’m still not sure whether the game deals with. The visuals are as impressive as any other game out there; the writing is brilliant and is the only trait I feel as highly as some of the most positive reviews; even features that I don’t usually pay that close attention to like voice acting or features I’m particularly picky on like music and campaign pacing are all great. However, the game performed very poorly for a huge section of it on my Series X with performance mode, and the gameplay mechanics were not interesting or good enough to deliver a great experience that gelled well with the better parts of this game. On the whole, I think GOTG is pretty good and I would highly recommend it as a product; having said that, I feel the most interesting aspects of it are the details and the way mechanics, visuals, audio, and writing mix together to create a singular experience. Thus, this is not going to be a review of the game. Instead, this is going to be a discussion and an examination of a few things I found interesting about it.
I want to start with an aspect that I have not seen discussed as much in reviews, which is the way the game handles dialogue choices and their impact on the narrative – or, more accurately, the experience. Choices have an impact on the game, but are mostly not that important; you can piss off Rocket, for example, and “Rocket will remember that” will pop up in the top right-hand corner, but it won’t actually affect what Rocket does or where the story goes. Then, there are decisions that will impact what follows that choice, but not the actual story. For example, you will get a choice about how to deal with a situation, and depending on what you’ve chosen, you may get a combat scenario or a cutscene; then, there are the rare choices that will have consequences much later on, but those are very obvious (with one exception) and not that common. This design decision is the safest risky dialogue choice system the devs could have made and it showcases some of the best aspects of two dialogue choice designs without getting the best experience of either or the worst. One extreme is the Mass Effect, ‘good ending, bad ending’ where choices are meant to be a gateway to fleshing out the characters and keeping dialogue interesting with select choices having an impact on a long-term resolution. I am not a fan of this design, because most choices are under time restrictions and simplify the complex moral or personal questions posed to choices meant to fit in a dialogue circle, as well as forcing the player who wants a particular ending to look at these choices as pathways to the end they want and not as a way to express or explore their views. The other extreme (my personal favorite of which the best version is the one found in Kentucky Route Zero) is the “color book” design where dialogue choices are meant for the player to set up the backstory or traits of the character but don’t influence the story or narrative in any real way – just like picking the color in a color book will not change what you draw but how it looks. This approach allows for a directed narrative to unfold and for the player to have a sense of ownership over some aspects, however for most, those aspects are purely cosmetic and there isn’t enough interactability to feel like the game is taking full advantage of its medium; GOTG is a weird mix of both extremes to arrive at something that does not have the lows or the highs of either approach, yet it consistently delivers a good narrative. The story is linear; your actions and decisions don’t actually have an impact on where the story goes. The compromise is mostly on the ‘how’ the story gets there. For example, a decision you make may decide if later down the line a combat encounter is harder or completely skipped. That makes a lot of the interactions be mostly about the characters and your understanding/definition of them; Rocket, as an example, can be treated as a piece of trash (jestingly so for the most part) and he will remember that, but it doesn’t really affect the direction of his character (as far as I can tell). However, it does have a significantly different impact on the player when the story starts using Rocket and his fixed character traits; be nice to him and that broken part of his psyche that you’ve explored previously will begin to manifest and you will feel the frustration and anger you’re meant to; be mean to him and you’ll empathize with his viewpoint a bit more and maybe feel a bit of guilt. This approach creates characters that are well written, well defined, funny, and memorable, alongside a storyline that is entertaining like a good blockbuster should be; however, it never goes beyond ‘good’. Since a lot of the attention went to the characters and the situations that will lead to bombastic set-pieces or character-driven scenes, the story itself takes a back seat and is largely forgettable; on the flip side, the “coloring” of these characters sparingly feels like the player’s doing or has the “pull” of similar systems to make those interactions anything more than fun.
That is one interesting side effect of the combat system’s mediocrity though; the moments where decisions can lead to more fighting or less (or even better skipping it) actually work for this game. In similar situations, it rarely feels like a consequence but, for GOTG, the combat is so mediocre that skipping it feels like a reward – especially in the closing chapters when all abilities are unlocked and the game is beginning its crescendo. I understand the reasoning behind the design decisions; GOTG are a relatively new entity on this timeline and they need to learn to trust each other, deal (and fix) with each other’s personal demons (and their own), and become a team. Thus, playing as this team’s leader, struggling at the beginning to be effective and needing to understand your own limitations (as well as those of your team) before systems click together and the team’s full potential is finally unleashed, is a great way to tie in narrative themes and provide a meaningful and fun gameplay experience; it simply doesn’t work that well. Starlord’s abilities and style feel generic, while his limited damage capabilities make him feel weak; moreover, long cooldowns for the team’s abilities and menus that never felt natural for selecting them, also make the team aspect not that engaging. Having said that, I never felt the combat was bad just disappointingly mediocre and needing more time in the oven to come together as intended. This middling combat though did make decisions that skipped combat encounters feel great; it also points to another design decision that didn’t work as planned. There is a good and bad way to decide on choices in this game; there are choices that will leave you without the necessary resources to complete a side plot, or will give you barely enough to do so and not allow for extra to spend later on; there are choices that will allow combat sequences to be skipped or be made significantly harder. I don’t enjoy this design, because as soon as I am made aware of it, I just find it nonsensical to potentially experience the bad version of events; I find a guide and follow the path to the best ending/outcome.
Having said all of that and realizing that these points are somewhat critical of the game, GOTG is a pretty good game that simply fails to live up to its fullest potential; the art, writing, performances, music, and the way these features coalesce as an experience are still very much worth the price of admission and the time to experience them. The reason I find the points I explored more interesting is that these features are not badly designed or executed, they are just missing that extra step and refinement to push the game beyond “pretty good”.