I'm not sure what Guardians of the Galaxy wants to be.
On one hand, it's a wonderfully accessible adventure wrapped up in family-friendly packaging, with an action-packed storyline that takes you on a delightful voyage through some of the galaxy's most colourful climes. On the other, it boasts an aggressively complex combat system that requires a high degree of digit-dexterity and rarely forgives your mistakes.
On a third hand (well, we're literally in alien territory here, so indulge me), the game routinely pastes together blistering action sequences with monotonous walk-down-this-corridor scenes, rambling exposition, and a generous dollop of tedious teamster "banter" on the side. It makes for an extraordinarily uneven experience that means you're usually only doing one of two things in Guardians of the Galaxy: getting your arse kicked by a cube of jelly; or being somewhere en-route to getting your arse kicked, listening to the other Guardians squabble.
That's not to say I didn't enjoy my time with Guardians of the Galaxy, though. Admittedly, during the earlier chapters, I actively did not have fun. As much as I liked getting to know the cast (which I come to as an MCU noob having - GASP! - never seen the movies), it felt like the game was doing all it could to keep me from getting immersed in its world-building.
And it is a story worth hearing, by the way. Whilst the forced banter and arguments you're compelled to wade through feel a tad inelegant at times, the story of how Star-Lord Peter Quill and the rest of the Guardians - Drax, Gamora, Groot, and Rocket - come to save the galaxy this time around is a predictable, if curiously poignant, tale of love and loss... although the emotional impact of its climax dissolves pretty swiftly when you're forced into an infuriating final boss fight.
To touch too deeply on the story will teeter into spoiler territory, so I promise I won't do that here, or even list the names of the characters and creatures you square up against (mainly because I have no idea who or what may be surprises taken directly from the cinematic universe). I can say, however, that in atonement for straying into a Quarantine Zone and being caught carrying contraband, the Guardians are forced to pay a hefty fine that, even collectively, the unmerry band of outcasts can ill afford. And so our story begins.
The trouble is, despite its PG-13 presentation and wondrously peculiar lifeforms - there's no blood, gore, or overt violence here, and I wasn't joking when I said one of the enemy types you take on is a cube of jelly - Guardians of the Galaxy's combat is tough and its enemies frustratingly spongey. Not only can you punch foes, but you can shoot them, fire elemental shots, perform special attacks, instruct your teammates to attack, tell them to dole out special attacks, or deploy the ultimate power move by having all of the Guardians attack at once.
That sounds cool enough - and it is when it works out - but a lot of the time, there's so much visual noise and noise noise that it's hard to keep track of what's going on on-screen. Add in environment traps, electric mines, stagger meters, mystical shields, and a broken health recovery system - Quill will merrily collect health drops around him regardless of whether or not he needs them, which means when you do need them, they're all gone - and I found myself succumbing to the bad guys with embarrassing frequency. Oh, and for good measure, the Guardians refuse to revive each other too (there's one notable exception, but that's straying into spoiler territory again), so you're often fighting the "heal" button prompt as much as the enemies themselves.
It's a tightly controlled experience, though, one that whizzes you through the story on rails with zero opportunities to explore off the beaten path. In some ways, it's hard to fault the game for that - Guardians of the Galaxy is a gorgeous looking game that boasts some truly stunning vignettes by forcing your perspective; I took 280 screenshots - but it does mean there's little merit in turning left when the others turn right. Most of the time you'll uncover a dead end rather than a secret collectable.
"There's a lot here that Eidos can be proud of, but those things are hard to find amongst an oversaturation of systems and mechanics."
And there's so much else - maybe too much else? Quick time events. Wwwwwoooaaaahhhh! slide sequences. Real-time combat. Environmental puzzles. Momentum streaks. Team takedowns. Spaceship battles and chases. Watchdog-esque hacking sequences. Swappable outfits. Dialogue choices, but I don't think they have a bearing on the outcome of the game. Unlockable perks, but I gathered enough resources to unlock all but one in my first playthrough. Ability points, but there's not a lot of those, either, even though you can unlock new abilities for Gamora and the lads as well as Quill.
But wait, there's more! An obnoxious visor that coats your surroundings in a sickly hot pink glow to help discover lore, resources, or tips on what to do next, but I often found it unreliable, failing to properly choreograph my next steps. It's great that Edios has worked so hard to keep gameplay fresh, sure, but the downside of this is that you're never certain what the hell you're supposed to do next. If you're stuck and can't progress, is it because you haven't instructed a Guardian to do something or do you need to do it yourself?
The most curious of all, however, is the Guardians' huddle, which unceremoniously yanks you from the fight into a first-person point-of-view to gee up - or calm down - your squaddies. To be successful, you need to listen to them - some will be cock-sure; others fearful of defeat - and pick from two responses to get them refocused. It's utterly pointless, though, as, during the speeches, keywords will appear in the air behind them to really hammer it home, so all you have to do is match the words to the statement. It adds nothing to the game other than a chance to reset the cooldown on the Guardians' special moves and allow you to kick butt to Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go or some other delightful 80s tune.
It was sadly buggy, too. Playing the PS5 version, I encountered numerous issues, including a good dozen crashes, progress and audio glitches, broken button-prompts and HUD instructions - I once had "Chapter 3 - The Cost of Freedom" emblazoned across the top of my screen for 20 minutes, and a triangle prompt that wouldn't go away until a soft reset - and it took six attempts and an overnight reprieve to conquer the Dweller of Darkness boss fight because each time I cut off its third appendage, the game would crash.
Bugs aside, there's a lot here that Eidos can be proud of, but those things are hard to find amongst an oversaturation of gameplay systems and mechanics, and uninspired combat. As much as I enjoyed the game's stunning set-pieces and thoughtful storyline - not to mention the prerequisite post-credits (and post-post-credits) scenes - unlocking the full complement of your pals' sparring skillsets and getting to the end of Guardians of the Galaxy feels like an unmitigated slog when you're fighting an endless sea of tanky, bullet-spongey Centurions. And I still can't quite understand why a game that relies so heavily on cooperative play offers no co-op option at all.