A game can sometimes become a punching bag and, sadly, Marvel’s Avengers is one of those games. While Insomniac Games’ two Spider-Man titles were thoughtful games based on the beloved web slingers, Avengers felt like the safest and most boring bet that was made worse by the games-as-a-service nature that infected the whole thing. It tainted the idea of a Marvel game with a group of heroes. The Guardians of the Galaxy may not be the most heroic group of the Marvel lot, but their upcoming title being developed by Eidos Montreal seems to be a lot stronger than Marvel’s last ensemble game.
From the outside, Guardians of the Galaxy’s gameplay does seem to bear some similarities to Avengers, but Guardians is much more complex and far less mashy. Players control — and only control — Star-Lord and command the other four Guardians using the four face buttons. Tapping the corresponding face button will open up yet another menu with four specific moves for that chosen hero. Managing cooldowns becomes a central strategy as players have to use each character to become victorious as Star-Lord isn’t strong enough to finish the fight himself. He’s no Master Chief.
“Strategy” is a key takeaway since the game has synergies that empower the player to actually think instead of brainlessly pummeling away. Gamora deals high damage. Drax does great stun damage. Groot can play defensively and immobilize opponents. And Rocket’s big weapons have an even bigger spread, making him adept at dealing with crowds. Each character also has other moves earned through upgrades that go outside of their specialization, giving more flexibility and allowing combos to extend in different ways.
Star-Lord’s own abilities revolve around his gun and jet boots, giving him a more fitting and tactical overview of the battlefield. His physical attacks can be effective in certain scenarios but can easily be overpowered by enemies and his blasters are only effective at medium ranges. This combination means that he has to stay somewhat close enough to the action to do damage, but not too close as to get physically beaten around. His elemental ammo also plays into the game’s strategic deck and give players yet another component to keep in mind since certain enemies are weak to certain ammo types.
Although not a tried-and-true strategy game (although, Marvel has got that covered, too), Guardians of the Galaxy appears to be a remarkable and engaging mix of strategy and action. There’s always something to do and think about and hopefully the game’s enemies, much like Doom, can constantly shift and combine in ways to provide a consistently fresh challenge. The ranged and shielded soldiers seem to point to that being a likely case.
Eidos Montreal is aware of the effect enemy variety can have, but that’s just zooming in one part of the combat. It took the team quite some time to find what worked. Senior Gameplay Director Patrick Fortier talked about how it all started as a convoluted mess with too much to juggle before morphing into what it became.
“The idea and desire was there from the start to have this ensemble fighting experience,” Fortier said. “They’re not just bots doing their own thing on the sides but are contributing to a fight together. You can do combos and stuff like that. It came through different iterations. Like once we figured out what we wanted. We wanted the feeling of empowerment when you called on them and we wanted them to be integral to your success in combat. So it was about finding that fine line between them not doing everything and you being a cheerleader on the sidelines.”
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But, again, this goes back to the enemies. Eidos Montreal had to find ways to counter what the Guardians did and that meant thinking up the archetypes to challenge their abilities while also making a game open enough for players to craft their counters against them and adapting when the variables change.
“[The Guardians] have a dedicated function so if here’s problem A, here’s solution A,” Fortier explained. “For example, Drax is the stagger guy and you need someone who staggers. But what if you don’t have Drax anymore? Do I have a plan B? Maybe you want to invest in those abilities so you have other solutions to the problem, which means you can start being creative with it.”
Of course, the freedom of the Guardians universe to craft whatever foe fits the job is extremely liberating. Eidos Montreal is known for creating the two most recent Deus Ex games, a series that goes in fictional and futuristic directions but adheres to some sense of grounded reality. And while making enemies is useful for gameplay since the studio can just assign an alien visual to a function, it also works for the overall game design, too. Senior Creative Director Jean-François Dugas described how developing those Deus Ex games was like sitting down and reading a nice book. Guardians of the Galaxy, on the other hand, was like bungee jumping.
It is, in his words, a “totally different mindset” as Deus Ex ran on themes like humanity, evolution, and (albeit, clumsily at times) oppression whereas Guardians is laser-focused on its characters first and foremost. It’s more about the plight of the five protagonists than it is about the plight of humankind against technology and arguments about the ship of Theseus.
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Dugas said this switch didn’t happen overnight. The team was still locked into developmental strategies that worked in Adam Jensen’s world for at least the first year where the members of Eidos Montreal had to unlearn how it made games. Dugas jokingly gave the example of how the team would sit around and debate realistic door frames in Deus Ex, a limitation they did not have in space. Fortier gave his own example, one that relates to a certain one of Gamora’s abilities.
“But an example of liberating ourselves was in one of Gamora’s abilities called Deadly Strike,” Dugas explained. “She can go from enemy to enemy really quickly and it’s super powerful. But at first, we were like, ‘That’s not realistic.’ [laughs] At some point, we were like, ‘No! It’s about the fun and the pure joy and the celebration of that Marvel magic.’ At some point, our brains opened and we fully embraced that.”
That embrace is clear within the art. There are more typical indoor interiors with various amounts of machinery, but there are also a ton of alien planets with vast, bright color palettes. It’s a visual spectacle and completely different than any of the black and gold environments in Deus Ex so hopefully the game keeps up that sort of alluring and vibrant style throughout.
But it wasn’t like the team didn’t take anything from its time making Deus Ex. Those games were narratively focused and some of that shines through even in the depths of space in Guardians of the Galaxy. Dugas spoke about how Eidos Montreal’s skills using environmental storytelling bled through, which was evident in one of the levels where the team shows up to an abandoned station and has to slowly piece together what happened.
There are also choices in Guardians of the Galaxy and while there is one story to tell, those choices will let players color their playthroughs in different ways. These also bleed into the gameplay and was something Dugas was adamant in getting through. He explained how it wasn’t a cycle of cutscene, fight, cutscene, and fight as the story and characters were always being at the forefront of the experience even during combat.
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Sometimes the narrative will even crossover into the puzzle as there was one scenario where Star-Lord had to repeatedly badger Rocket to hack a machine. This was presumably because of an earlier scuffle and stuff like that will allegedly be a part of the entire experience. Dugas said this was all in an effort to, again, focus on the main cast and give them a personality and arc.
“So instead of having a cinematic about characters that goes into a fight that then goes to another without character and then to another story moment with character,” Dugas noted. “No, that’s not our game. We created something that makes the characters feel alive throughout and you are one of them and you are constantly engaged and sometimes you don’t even have to engage, that’s your call.”
All of this characterization from five beings means a lot of talking. There is almost never a moment of silence during Guardians of the Galaxy; someone is always yapping, be it Star-Lord squabbling with Rocket or Drax, much like his movie counterpart, dryly missing a joke. It’s all written and performed relatively well, but it remains to be seen if that furthers the narrative or is tiring to hear for the campaign’s duration. Dugas said he knew it would have a lot of dialogue, but knew it was in service to the story.
“We knew that it would be a chatty game,” Dugas admitted. “And by taking the POV of one of the Guardians, it’s not you following from a distant perspective and watching the characters talk among themselves during the story. It’s a story of you being in that party and part of that experience and so when the conversations happen, it’s not just about filling space: It’s about who they are and who you are. And some of those choices are the player role-playing. Some of those narrative components that aren’t necessarily choices constantly make them feel alive.”
The Guardians of the Galaxy feel alive in their upcoming game, a game that they still need to fully prove themselves in. After all, while from different developers, Square Enix didn’t make the best first impression with Avengers so it’s easy to have some skepticism. But by focusing on its characters and its gameplay systems and not turning it into something it’s not, Eidos Montreal seems to have its heart in the right place, something it may have learned from the Guardians while creating this game based on them.