My family holidays have a lot of chaotic energy. My most vivid memories of childhood trips abroad are always of arguments, getting lost, someone storming off and not being seen for a whole day, getting assaulted by local wildlife, and that one time a cowboy proposed to my gran. Playing Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy is just like going on a Brown family holiday.
Star Lord, Gamora, Drax, Groot and Rocket are a found family for whom there is never a wrong time to bicker. Starting the demo (which picks up around five hours into the campaign), I find the crew of the Milano raring for an argument, and as "so-called leader" Star Lord I've got to try and defuse the tension. Usually with bad jokes.
This is not just evocative of trips with my family—it's also very true to the Guardians as they're presented in the comics and films. Pretty quickly it becomes clear that Eidos Montreal has nailed the tone of its adaptation and captured the characters and their complicated relationships perfectly. For the two hours I played, it was never anything less than authentic.
Marvel's cosmic heroes, true to form, are in a bit of trouble with the space cops, otherwise known as the Nova Corps, and must take a detour to a Nova Corps precinct to pay a fine. Before the cops get their cash, however, there's time to explore the Milano, the ship that serves as the game's hub. There's a workbench where Rocket can upgrade Star Lord's gear with new perks, a jukebox filled with Star Lord's favourite tunes and lots of opportunities to have exposition-filled conversations.
It's a very traditional hub, and I find myself getting impatient as Star Lord blethers away with his buds. While Eidos-Montreal has done a great job making the crew match their comic counterparts, the one-on-one chats are just a bit too formulaic and awkward. I'm itching to get into a fight, so I put an end to my socialising and head to the cockpit. It's time to pay a fine.
Naturally, things go awry. The precinct appears to be deserted, the Milano gets impounded and we've got to find someone who will take our cash so we can get back to saving the galaxy. As we explore the ghost precinct there are plenty of opportunities for more organic chats, with the quintet constantly commenting on things and, of course, arguing. The dialogue here is a lot more natural than the one-on-one chats, and the source of plenty of jokes.
If you were to jump into the game at this point, with no experience of the Guardians, I suspect you'd pretty quickly get a clear impression of what they're all about. It's constantly reinforcing the team's personalities, whether it's through Rocket's constant complaining and insults, or Drax refusing to grab a soda from a vending machine that you've broken because it would be dishonourable.
Star Lord is the only character you can directly control, but you can still give your pals commands. Outside of combat, this seems to mainly be used to overcome obstacles like locked doors or blocked routes. In the Nova Corps precinct, Rocket gets to show off his skills by crawling through vents to get to hidden areas or fiddling with door consoles. In one instance there's a hacking mini-game where I have to work with him to reroute power to a door, a sequence that's elevated by the fact that I can reroute power to other objects, finding a hidden item in a toilet—a new outfit for Drax—and creating more excuses for banter.
The Guardians are not your minions, though, and don't like to be bossed around. When faced with another locked door, selecting Rocket again just pisses him off. He wants to leave the precinct instead of continuing to explore it. Asking a second time makes him acquiesce, though there will be moments where the Guardians will simply refuse to do things because of prior decisions that you've made. In the E3 demo, we saw Rocket being tossed over a chasm by Drax, after which he made it very clear that he'd never allow that to happen again.
How you react to certain comments from your pals will impact your relationship with them, and inside the precinct there are a few other choices to make that slightly change how things play out. One of them, what to do with a lone prisoner, seems to mostly be a setup for a visual gag, though there could be greater consequences further down the line. Another has a more immediate consequence, allowing you to skip the first fight.
After a bit more exploring we discover that we're not alone, and that the cops are still here—except they're not themselves. They're under an alien influence, necessitating a lot of punching and shooting.
Star Lord's got a brisk, acrobatic combat style where he can dash across the battlefield with his rocket boots, dodge punches and projectiles, and pester enemies with elemental attacks. Between the weapon perks, special abilities, team attacks and your mates' abilities, there's quite a lot going on. Generally, you want to stagger enemies to make them vulnerable, which is a straightforward principle, but the volume of enemies, many of whom have pesky shields, means the encounters can get a wee bit tricky unless you're making full use of your powers.
While Star Lord has loads of utility and the other Guardians are pretty capable on their own, throwing a bit of teamwork in there makes the world of difference. You can select a target, a character and an ability and then watch as your mate pulls off a flashy move, but what you're really trying to do is find synergies and use them to create openings. Groot, conveniently, can trap enemies with his vines, which is the perfect opportunity to unleash Star Lord's barrage attack—an ability that is infinitely more effective when you can focus on an immobilised enemy.
There are environmental hazards, too, which you can target directly or tell your companions to use. As Star Lord, you can simply blow up an explosive barrel, but Drax will actually pick the barrel up and throw it at enemies, so you don't have to worry about the blast missing everyone.
When the chips are down, that's when it's time for an inspirational speech and some good tunes. This is essentially Star Lord's ultimate ability, where he can gather his teammates when the bar is full and inspire them to go all-out. It's an ability that feels true to the comics, and you even get to choose what kind of speech you give—though no matter what you choose it seems like it's always going to be a bit generic and corny. With the speech given, the Walkman comes out, the music starts blasting, and everyone gets supercharged. While the speeches might not be great, I can't deny that there is something inspiring about watching my BFFs kicking the crap out of space cops to some cracking '80s bops. It gets the blood pumping.
I'm surprised by how tactical the brawls can be, too. Sure, sometimes you're just beating up some goons, but even on the normal difficulty you need to think about how you're taking advantage of your team and when's the best time to deploy their abilities. It's still a fast, kinetic action romp, but you get to really feel like a leader, a tactician, where your calls can turn a slog into an effortless ballet of death.
Marvel's Avengers, which Eidos-Montreal also worked on, makes for an interesting comparison. Even though you're playing in a team of heroes, there's so little actual teamwork, especially in singleplayer, where your AI-controlled buds just do their own thing and never accept any input. Guardians of the Galaxy's fights are also infinitely more fluid, in part because even the very healthy enemies can be taken down swiftly with the right abilities, but also because the controls are so much tighter. In Avengers it feels like you're driving Captain America or Iron Man, but in Guardians you are Star Lord.
I had so much fun hanging out with the Guardians that I took the demo for a spin a second time, and that tiny bit of familiarity with the combat system did a world of good. I was flipping and flying and blowing Nova Corps goons to smithereens while sliding on my knees like a seasoned pro, and damn did it feel great. I can't wait to return next month.
Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy will be getting into trouble with alien dictators and space cops on October 26.