The TL;DR version: After playing one of the best console video games I’ve ever played, unfortunately I followed it up with one of the worst.
In writing about Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, I feel I must make comparisons to an earlier game based on the characters: Guardians of the Galaxy: The Telltale Game. To spare you from parsing too much italicized text, I’ll refer to the former as MGotG and the latter as “the Telltale game”.
What I liked
Before I tear into what I didn’t like about MGotG, I’ll start with what I could appreciate.
Visually, the game is well-designed. There was always something interesting to look at: the chaos of a space junkyard; the mountains of an ice planet; the alleyways of an asteroid city; even the tiny personal details of Peter Quill’s cabin. To be fair, I thought the art design of the Telltale game was almost as good, but you couldn’t explore the environment from different angles the way you can in a full-motion console game.
The stories of the two games are strangely similar: There’s a galaxy-wide super-menace that only the Guardians can defeat. Along the way, the characters have to deal with the tragedies of their backstories. Both games tend to stick to the origin stories as given in the movies. The main difference is in the fate of Peter’s mother Meredith, MGotG is closer to the origin given in the comics, while the Telltale game stuck with the one in the movie.
The other Guardians also get another retelling of their origin stories. After watching the two movies and playing the Telltale game, MGotG felt like another retread. It was a bit like watching Bruce Wayne’s parents gunned down in that alley yet again. But I’ll allow that many (if not most) MGotG players will not have played the Telltale game, so I’ll give that a pass.
From a story perspective, I think I prefer the narrative in the Telltale game over that of MGotG. For one thing, in the Telltale game you had control of the story; the ending depended on the choices you made along the way. In MGotG, while you have some choices, they only affect the relative difficulty of some encounters in the future; the ending of the game is always the same.
Another hold-over that both games had from the movies is the use of 80s pop music. MGotG has a much larger catalog of songs available, possibly due to the influence of Disney money. Even I, music snob that I am, recognized most of them. A bonus was that you could choose to switch the music soundtrack to non-copyrighted songs, so you could stream your gameplay in venues like Twitch without worries about being sued.
A good part of MGotG revolves around the banter between the Guardians. I didn’t find it as funny as some of the game’s reviewers did, but there were a couple of chuckles in there. There was more playful interaction in MGotG than there was in the Telltale game, but MGotG is a longer game. Both games captured the flavor of the back-and-forth among the characters that the movies had.
No, I’m not talking about fighting giant insects (though there is some of that). I’m talking about glitches and problems with the game. Most of these were in the speech captions (which I normally turn on to make sure I don’t miss a key spoken word). The most frequent bug: a character would speak but their caption would be blank; a couple of times the character’s lips would move but the caption displayed what they were supposed to say. It reeked of a game that had been rushed without being sufficiently playtested.
On the other hand, I purchased the game the day it was formally released. Post-release patches for video games are nothing new.
What got to me was a critical bug roughly two-thirds of the way through the game. I had to direct Peter Quill across a ledge. Once he was on that ledge, I could direct him to the other side, but if I tried to move the character in any way, he would hop back on the ledge. Once there, he could only be moved in one direction. Once off the ledge from where he started, he could only be moved back onto that ledge, again only moving in one direction.
This meant that the game was stuck, and I could make no further progress.
I thought, “OK, that’s a bad bug. But MGotG was released for PS4, PS5, the various XBoxs, Microsoft Windows, and Nintendo Switch all at once. They probably didn’t get a chance to test everything on all the different platforms.” Again, this is a sign of a rushed release.
I went to file a bug report.
Thus started the first hassle: MGotG‘s publisher, Square Enix, doesn’t have an obvious bug-report page. Or rather, they do, but it’s only for Final Fantasy XIV.
After much hunting and clicking through the Square Enix site, I finally found a contact page. I filled out a detailed description of the problem. After I sent the report, I got a page that said they’d back to me within 72 hours.
They did, but with another automated response. It said, “We would like to gather more information to help with the issue reported” and asked a series of questions. However, I’d already answered every one of those questions in my original bug report.
In other words, the Square Enix bug-report system is nothing but a delay mechanism. No one read my original bug report. They just sent out a boiler-plate email to see if a customer would have enough energy to follow-up on their complaint.
I suppose it’s an effective system for filtering out bogus bug reports. But I see it as an excuse for not dealing with the problems that they created with their own poor playtesting. Instead of trying to fix the problem, they put the burden back on me to type out the problem again.
As far as I’m concerned, if this is the way Square Enix treats their customers, I’m not going to purchase another game from them again.
As it happens, I found a “solution” to the ledge problem. It turned out that the section of the game I was in was the only one in which there was more than one route to get to my ultimate destination. I found another way to get there that didn’t involve that ledge.
This impacted the end of the game slightly, in that I had to bypass getting an optional costume and didn’t quite have enough resources to purchase every single gear improvement.
Perhaps I should have just stopped. By that point, the game provided little pleasure for me. Frankly, if it wasn’t for the thought of writing this review, and my hope that the story would somehow dramatically improve, I would have given up.
Why “little pleasure”? It’s time for me to rant.
Before I purchase any video game, especially a combat-oriented one, I check to make sure it offers adjustable difficulty levels. I’m in my 60s. My vision isn’t great. My reflexes have never been all that fast. If there isn’t a “easy” difficulty level, then I won’t buy the game. It’s why I didn’t buy Control when it first game out. It’s why I’ll never try Dark Souls or Returnal.
I made the same check for MGotG before I purchased it. I made sure that the setting was on “easy” before I played the game.
When I set the difficulty setting for a game to be “easy,” I expect the game to be… well… easy.
It doesn’t seem like a difficult concept, does it?
To be sure, I’ve played games for which “easy” was relative. In God of War I hit some very challenging combats. However, for the most part, those were in end-game content that was not explicitly labeled as such. It wasn’t hard to play the main story of the game.
You’ve already guessed it: Even at “easy” difficulty level, combat in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is not easy.
I went into the accessibility options and turned up all the timing features to maximum. I turned on “auto-complete Quicktime events.” I set every available option to be easier than “easy” if it existed.
It didn’t help.
Why wasn’t it easy?
Combat in MGotG is a wild chaotic mess. Typically you’re swarmed with hordes of enemies. You kill the monster in front of you, only to be struck down by four monsters behind you.
As a result, just to have to chance to survive, I found myself dodging all over the battlefield. It kept the monsters from hitting me, but it also kept me from doing anything to the monsters. It became rougher as the game went on, because many of the creatures gain the ability to heal either themselves or their comrades.
What of the other Guardians? Yes, they do some damage, but they rarely seem to defeat foes all by themselves. Instead, they have to use their special abilities. They never use these abilities on their own. You must micro-manage their ability use.
Both you and the Guardians gain “ability points” from combat experience, which you spend on increasing the number of abilities available to both yourself and each Guardian. But this does not make the combats much easier. Each Guardian is on a timer until they can next use one of their skills. You have to be aware which Guardian is now available, and select which of their skills might be most appropriate for their current situation. I had the devil of a time trying to remember which icon corresponded to which skill which had which effect.
All of which you have to do while dodging to stay alive.
Peter Quill has his own skills, which are activated and selected via the left knob button on the controller. I found I had little control over the use of those skills, but it was all too easy to press the left knob by accident to find that I’d activated the rocket barrage without being ready to aim it. Those few times when I tried to use it, the enemies would be moving so swiftly that I rarely hit anything.
I should mention the “huddle” mechanic, which becomes available in a combat when you’ve invoked enough of the Guardians’ abilities. When you call them to you, the Guardians banter a bit, then you select an inspirational speech. Select the right speech based on the banter, and all of the Guardians get a damage bonus for a while (and a pop song plays on the soundtrack); select the wrong one and only Peter Quill gets the damage bonus. I had little trouble selecting the right speech.
The problem was that huddles are only supposed to be activated when you press the L1 and R1 controller keys simultaneously. About a third of the time the huddle was invoked when I just pressed the L1 key. That’s the same key that’s used to select a Guardian’s skill. The net effect was that the damage bonus could occur at the wrong point in the combat and was wasted.
While the other Guardians can’t “die”, they can become wounded or trapped during combat and require you to rescue them. So now you have to get to the disabled Guardian, being pursued by even more enemies (since there’s one less Guardian to distract them), to stand next to them and press a controller button for two seconds (a long time on these battlefields!) to restore them.
What’s even more problematic is that you have to be standing at a particular orientation with respect to that disabled Guardian to even press that healing button. You find yourself “dancing” around the fallen Guardian, looking for the icon that tells you that you can press the healing button, while the enemies chase you down.
All throughout this, the Guardians banter with each other. It’s mildly amusing at first. Then it gets repetitive and I tuned it out. After a few battles I became aware that the Guardians were also giving hints (or what the game designers thought were hints) amidst their idle banter, but I wasn’t listening and couldn’t pay attention with all the chaos going on.
In many of the boss battles, you have to end it by pressing a special button on the controller. But you have to be looking in the right direction to see the button to press. The Guardians will say some phrase that might even appear to be relevant, like “Peter, I think we have an opening.” If I was lucky, I might even be aware they had said it. But when I was surrounded by enemies and dodging just to give my shields a chance to recharge and trying to heal three Guardians who’d fallen, it was unlikely I’d be looking in the magic direction to hit the magic button.
I might spend 45 minutes on a single battle, glasschewing my way through the encounter. At least that let me huddle with the Guardians several times, though it didn’t do much good.
Most of the combats I managed to end through luck, not skill.
This is supposed to be easy?
This is supposed to be fun?
I know there are gamers who thrive on chaos. I assume they have reflexes fast enough to adapt to changing battlefield conditions. I guess those gamers would be entertained by these combats.
I was not. I just felt frustrated and tired.
Am I too old and broken down to enjoy video games? Possibly. But I got through many other games on easy difficulty with the same slow fingers and reflexes: Ghost of Tsushima, Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, Spider-Man, Spider-Man: Miles Morales, GreedFall, Final Fantasy XV, Red Dead Redemption 2, The Last of Us Part II, and others.
So I’m pointing my finger at the designers of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Don’t provide an “old folk’s mode” for your game unless you playtest it with actual old folks.
For what little it’s worth, MGotG is not the worst video console game I’ve ever played. That honor is still held by Batman: Arkham Knight. That’s not a distinction that I’d be proud of.