I’ll be honest: when I first saw the reveal of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, I was a little skeptical. Not of the tone, nor the story or the art design, but of the simple-looking combat that threatened to underwhelm. But after spending roughly an hour and a half hands-on with it, I couldn’t be happier to have been proven wrong. Guardians’ combat is highly enjoyable and a lot more complex than I first gave it credit for. And at the end of my short time with it, I found myself just wanting to play more.
My sample of the combat came as part of chapter five of the campaign. At this point in the story, the Guardians have racked up a considerable amount of debt that needs to be paid to the Nova Corps. In order to pay that fine, they must head to The Rock, a Nova outpost. Things aren’t quite as they should be though on arrival though; it’s eerily quiet, and evidence of a conflict can be found. After a short period of exploration, I stumbled into some glowing Nova Corp members who are clearly not in their right mind. Naturally, things kicked off.
There are many, many layers to the combat system, so bear with me here, but the closest analog I can find to it is - surprisingly - Guardians’ Square Enix stablemate, Final Fantasy 7 Remake. No, seriously. Like in that game, Guardians is about controlling a primary character and issuing quick-fire commands to your allies as the chaos unfurls. There’s no character swapping here, though: you’re only ever Star-Lord.
Star-Lord can lock onto targets and blast them with his dual pistols. These have a cool elemental alt-fire mode, and a tap of the d-pad switches between four different ammo types: lightning, ice, wind, and fire. I only had the ice option available to me during my session, but I found it to be particularly effective, especially when I was inundated with enemies and needed to slow them down. There’s no ammo to pick up for these pistols; instead, they operate on an overheat system that requires a well-timed trigger pull to reload efficiently, à la Gears of War’s active reload. It’s an all-timer mechanic that I frankly can’t blame any shooter for borrowing. Ranged combat can be paired with fast melee attacks to quickly build up enemy stagger bars, which when full allows you to activate team takedown attacks to deal heavy damage.
Then there are Star-Lord’s signature abilities, which can be periodically used by awkwardly pushing in the left analog stick (to be fair to Eidos-Montreal, almost every other button is under constant use) and selecting the move you’d like to perform with the face buttons. These abilities include Fan the Hammer, which lets you rain a torrent of high-speed bullets in a straight line that melt anyone in your path, and my personal favourite, Eye of the Hurricane, which launches you into the air before unleashing a spiral of grenades that have a wide area of effect and deal heavy stagger damage. Further signature abilities can be unlocked using skill points that you’ll earn as you level up.
Keeping up? Good, because that’s only half of it. While you aren’t able to directly control the other members of the team in combat, you do get to command them, which at times turns the battlefield into a real-time tactics arena. This is where the Final Fantasy 7 Remake of it all comes into play. Holding down the left shoulder button will bring up the option to use the other Guardians’ abilities. For example, Groot can be instructed to tie up a targeted enemy in his tendrils, which can then be followed up with an instruction to Gamora to leap in and slice that enemy up for big damage.
It’s a very fun combat system to play around with, requiring split-second decisions within the chaos. Adding further to this is that if you do enough damage consistently, you’ll build up the momentum meter, which when full allows you to “huddle up”. This unique mechanic not only grants your thumbs a few moments of respite, but also grants stat buffs to either the full team or just Star-Lord, depending on if you selected the optimal dialogue option. Undoubtedly my favourite part of this, though, is when the action resumes and a random 80s hit from Star-Lords’s playlist soundtracks the fight. And sure, We’re Not Gonna Take It by Twisted Sister just makes sense for an occasion like this, but there’s something even more contrapuntally delightful about listening to Hot Chocolate’s Every 1’s a Winner while Rocket fires explosives into a poor soul’s face.
It’s a complex combat system to wrap your head around, but the more time I spent with it, the more comfortable I became, and the more fun I had with it. With multiple unlockable abilities for each character, there’s a wealth of different combinations to try out and find what works best for each situation. You’ll have to think about that too; it’s challenging at times, and these aren’t encounters you can simply button-bash your way through. When all the systems come together it can feel a bit like trying to juggle several lit fireworks, which could result in a beautiful, explosive display of firepower, or just as equally blow up in your face if you aren’t paying attention.
The team throws out witty one-liners during combat, but also has great moments of interaction during cutscenes and exploration. From this small slice, Guardians seems very well written and - crucially - funny. A standout moment saw Star-Lord point out the location of a heavy unit by shouting “Big guy, 12’o’clock!”, only for Drax to dryly reply with “Current time irrelevant!”.
Providing further opportunities for good dialogue is the Guardians’ ship, the Milano. Here, I spent time soaking up my spacious spaceship surroundings and talking to my crewmates. It doesn’t feel a galaxy away from strolling around Mass Effect’s Normandy in that regard, checking in on my friends in between missions and strengthening bonds. In a short amount of time, I managed to squeeze in a heart-to-heart with Rocket about his unpleasant run-in with Kree scientists, blasted out some Rick Astley from the onboard 80s hit-filled music system, and even met a purple llama with a floppy head of lusciously orange hair.
All of this is not a million miles away in tone from the two James Gunn MCU movies, and so very much feels part of the Guardians of the Galaxy lineage. Eidos-Montreal has, however, made the characters feel distant enough from previous iterations, which has helped it avoid stumbling into the dreaded uncanny valley that Crystal Dynamic’s Marvel’s Avengers occasionally did.
Further respect is paid to the relatively short history of the characters by the dozen or so unlockable outfits for each member. These range from Star-Lord’s classic Team-Lord suit from 2008’s Guardians of the Galaxy #1, to Gamora’s look from the 2014 movie. I found a couple of these while exploring the dark corners of the Nova Corps base I was visiting, and they can also be rewards for solving puzzles that act as a break from the high-octane action. While not overly complex, these challenges varied, from using my ice ammunition to freeze a rotating gear in place, to turning digital connectors Watch Dogs-style to power up a grid, and even directing Rocket through small gaps that only he could fit through. It looks like Guardians will try to switch things up on occasion and not rely too heavily on its fun combat.
Ultimately, I came away far more excited to play Guardians of the Galaxy than I had been prior to my time with it. There’s a surprising amount of depth on offer in both regards to combat and characterisation, with plenty of unlockables and player choice available throughout its systems. All of this while also blaring out Take on Me, The Final Countdown, or Hangin’ Tough? Sign me up.
Simon Cardy didn't get to meet Cosmo the Spacedog this time, but hopes to soon. Find him over on Twitter at @CardySimon.