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When Square Enix revealed Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy at E3 this past summer, the reaction couldn't have been any more mixed. Marvel games have currently been on an upswing in recent years, but Guardians has had a lot working against it from the moment it was announced, and no one really knew what to make of it in the months since. At best, it seemed like it could be a curious experiment, which seems silly to say about anything connected to Marvel these days, but apt. Though they are a major presence on the big-screen screen, the Guardians have a fairly small video game resume compared to other Marvel fixtures, with the key standout being a 2017 narrative adventure from Telltale. However, much like their initial 2014 film, Eidos Montreal's take on the characters is a surprising, genuine success that embraces the spirit of the films while managing to carve its own niche for itself among Marvel's gaming lineup.
Because of the unstoppable juggernaut that is the MCU, AAA Marvel games will forever be judged alongside its silver screen brethren, which openly draw from it. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 told its own spin on the Infinity Saga, and more famously, Insomniac's Spider-Man games gave their Peter Parker a Tom Holland facelift in last year's Miles Morales. Even with the divisive visual designs, Square Enix's Marvel games so far have continued this trend: The Avengers in last year's RPG absolutely feel cut from the cloth of the cinematic versions, and no amount of Kamala Khan can change it. So it goes with Guardians, at least on the surface: This Peter Quill is still a child of the '80s kidnapped from his midwest home to become a Ravager, Gamora continues to be Thanos' daughter and a top tier assassin, Drax remains a straight-laced hunk, and so on. But it's in the finer details where things take a different bent from James Gunn's films.
Even though the game easily incorporates or references things from the movies like Knowhere, the Ravagers, and the Nova Corps, there's a notable omission, at least in the game's first half: Thanos. Killed by Drax years ago before the game starts, the lack of a Mad Titan means the Guardians can have a story that is strictly about themselves without worrying about him looming in the background. The team is only a year old as the game starts, and the shared link of Thanos between Drax and Gamora hasn't entirely been smoothed over. While the assassin will sometimes mention her abusive father or compliment her sister Nebula's skills, Drax still harbors distrust towards her and openly announces those feelings repeatedly in early chapters. It's only if you choose to talk to him and remind him of everyone's not so savory past that he's able to start to get along with her.
In the space of a video game, the characters have a lot more room to breathe where the films have them darting from event to event. On the Guardians' ship, the Milano, Quill can walk around, Mass Effect-style, and chat up the crew or just listen to them converse. While the team will always talk on missions, it's on their ship where Eidos' characterizations shine through, and may win over those not fully in love with the MCU incarnation. Quill actually feels like a man in his 30s rather than someone who simply looks like one, Groot isn't trying too hard to be The Breakout, and so on. Gamora, most impressively, is more than just The Girl; she's got a secret love for dolls, gets in some good one-liners, and gets opportunities to live up to her reputation. (Likewise, when Mantis shows up, she's got a lot of charm that may remind many players of Aerith from 2020's Final Fantasy VII Remake.
As a character piece and space odyssey, Guardians is satisfying in its own right, but its success can be just a little bit owed to the disappearance of its silver screen competition. Where the Spider-Man games were released following recent Spider-Man movies and the Avengers game was delayed to a year after Endgame, there's been a considerably larger window between Guardians Vol. 2 and its immediate sequel than expected. Eidos' version of the characters get to hog the spotlight just long enough that should there be a sequel, the anticipation will be earned on its own terms instead of being Another Marvel Thing.
Guardians of the Galaxy isn't perfect; its combat isn't as challenging or flashy as it should be with five characters of different skill sets. But it succeeds in bringing the characters to another medium, and it's got a sequence built around getting Drax to flirt with a buff albino woman with a large hammer. Sometimes, that's just what you need to help wind the year down.
Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy is out now for PC, Xbox, PlayStation, and Switch.