When Square Enix announced Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy at E3, I was left a little confused. I was expecting a co-op multiplayer game ala Marvel’s Avengers, where everyone controls a different hero. Instead, I learned that it’s a completely solo experience where the player only directly controls Star-Lord, while also being able to issue commands to Drax, Groot, Rocket Racoon, and Gamora, but not play as them.
At first glance, it seemed like an obvious missed opportunity. I mean, who wants to play as Star-Lord when Groot is standing right there? But after playing a 90-minute demo of the game, I’m completely sold on the concept. The traffic-directing gameplay of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy nails the team-based dynamic of a Marvel squad better than any superhero game I’ve played.
A sly parody
I started off a little ways into the story, as my team lazed aboard the Milano. After bantering with Rocket Racoon and getting some of his tragic backstory, I jumped in the cockpit and navigated to our first mission. We needed to head down to a planet and grab parts to fix the ship — it seemed a pesky llama chewed through some wires.
Right off the bat, the game’s Mass Effect influence is clear. Walking around the Milano and chatting with my crew was very reminiscent of hanging out in the Normandy, minus the romance options (let me smooch Drax, cowards). That similarity started to make a lot more sense once we actually landed. Guardians of the Galaxy essentially plays like a parody of those games, trading in their grizzled stories for goofy one-liners and fictional swears. It’s a video game version of Spaceballs.
Teamwork makes the dream work
The squad mechanics are no joke, though. I quickly found that the systems make a lot of sense. Pressing the left bumper opens up a little wheel featuring each Guardian. Star-Lord can issue commands to each both in and out of combat. Early on, the squad found themselves stuck behind a locked door. I shot a small vent open and used the menu to send Rocket through it. Later on, I’d command him to hack into a door panel (I tried to ask Drax to simply rip it off first, but he scoffed at the idea).
The system really starts to gel in battles, though it took me a second to get used to the flow. By using that same bumper wheel, Star-Lord can target an enemy and send an ally to perform a specific skill on them. Groot, for instance, can briefly tangle enemies up in vines, while Rocket can drop a bomb that’ll knock out a wide area of enemies.
Characters also have some environment-specific actions. If I see a crate precariously hanging over some enemies, I can hit a button to send Gamora up there to cut the ropes and squash my foes. Star-Lord himself can fight by firing guns and performing some basic punches, but the game is much more about managing the crew and calling the shots in battle.
Once it all clicked, I was totally enamored. I could command Drax to throw an exploding barrel at a group of enemies, send Gamora to take out a sniper above me, and have Groot lock an enemy in place, allowing me to get a few good licks in before Rocket finished him off with a big bomb. Beating enemies down enough will trigger some special attacks ,too, adding to the team dynamics. When I get the prompt to hit B and Y at the same time, my entire team comes together to knock an enemy senseless.
What’s most important here is that all of this happens very fast. Menuing can be a slow process in action games, but it’s all extremely quick here. Sending out commands to all four allies only takes a few seconds, with a few quick button presses for each. With quick cooldowns on abilities, fights become a superhero cacophony, with allies causing pain in every direction. When all goes well, I feel like a competent squad leader. When they don’t, I feel like I let my team down, not the other way around.
That whole idea culminates in the game’s goofiest team mechanic: Huddles. When prompted to press both bumpers, Star-Lord calls a time-out. The whole team comes together and bickers for a few lines of dialogue before Star-Lord has to choose between two inspirational lines. That activates a super mode where everyone gets a little boost. But more importantly, it causes an ’80s tune to start playing. The first time I triggered it, The Final Countdown began blaring over the battle. I can’t tell you how much that instantly hyped me up.
My only real worry with the game’s squad systems comes from dialogue. Characters are constantly quipping, as you’d expect from the Guardians, and I noticed a lot of repeat one-liners in my short playthrough. Whether it was lines said in huddles or off-hand remarks during combat, the repetition was noticeable, making me wish I could command the crew to pipe down and focus on fighting.
Nitpicks aside, I’m surprised by how much I enjoyed the squad systems here after initially being turned off by the idea on paper. While I’ve played plenty of games that ask me to issue commands to my party, this is one of the few that really made me feel like the leader of a well-oiled team. In some ways, it makes a lot more sense to me than multiplayer superhero games where everyone runs off doing their own thing. This isn’t a free-for-all; it’s a coordinated effort.
Or maybe I’m just a narcissist who wants to be in control. But how can I help it when calling the shots feels this good?
Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy launches on October 26 for PC, PlayStation4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and Nintendo Switch.