It’s fair to say that Square Enix didn’t have the smoothest entry into the Marvel Universe. The company’s Avengers-themed online action game has had problems with bugs, matchmaking and endgame repetition, and is struggling to retain an audience. But most critics agreed that its story and characterisation were strong; they just didn’t belong in a live game. Guardians of the Galaxy, due out next month, is the developer’s chance to redress the balance and remind Deus Ex and Tomb Raider veterans about its skill with single-player, cinematic stories.
The story is classic Guardians, in that it’s based around a minor misdemeanour that quickly transforms into a colossal cosmic drama. A demo of the game, set in its fifth chapter, has the squad arriving at a police station to pay an overdue fine. Before touching down, you can explore the Guardians’ spacecraft, the Milano, a beautifully rendered mess with scratched floors, junk strewn everywhere and a 1980s boombox perched on a shelf. It looks lived-in and chaotic, like a slightly dysfunctional family home, which is very much the vibe Square Enix is going with for the whole game. This is an action-adventure, but it’s also a sort of soap opera – a character-led drama.
“When we started the project, multiplayer was an option in front of us,” says senior creative director Jean-François Dugas. “But we were always going back to: what is the heart of GoG? What makes it different from other superhero tales? And for us it was all about the family, the interaction between the characters, how they connect and disconnect, and it became clear that if we wanted that, we needed the player to truly inhabit one of the characters.”
Conversation plays an important part in the game. You can instigate little chats with the squad while exploring, and they’ll come out with snippets of backstory or a joke. It creates a loose interpersonal dynamic where simply enjoying being with these characters is as important as making progress – rather like Oxenfree, an indie thriller famous for its believable dialogue and tight cast. “Oxenfree was a big influence,” says Dugas. “It’s a beautiful game, and the characters are just so fluid and so natural when they’re talking.”
“That’s the vibe that we’re going for,” agrees senior gameplay director Patrick Fortier. “AI-wise, we give them routines so that they come across your path, see you and talk to you, they’re aware of you as you’re walking around or in combat. Everything’s been done to make them feel alive and fluid – there’s no stopping in your tracks for big conversations.”
The team is central to combat, too. Peter Quill has his twin blasters and melee abilities, as well as elemental attacks that can stun and inhibit enemies, but during a fight, players can bring up a wheel menu to access Rocket’s array of grenades or Drax’s shoulder barge. It’s like the party-based combat of a role-playing game, but super-simplified. “I wanted everything about the game to feel pleasant to use,” says Fortier. “So when you press the Guardians button, time slows down and you get a breather, you get to look at the battlefield and make a decision – you don’t have to remember a lot of buttons. I wanted it to feel empowering to use the team.”
There’s a nice flow to the fighting. You can move really easily between melee and distance combat and the animations are all beautifully contextual – like, say, the Batman Arkham games, but with a wry smile. When you show skill, variety and finesse in fights you earn points that can be spent on new abilities, but there is a real emphasis on being part of a team and allowing the other characters to express themselves, too. “Whether in traversal or combat, we wanted you to feel like you were hanging out with the Guardians,” says Fortier. “Their personalities are coded into the AI: Drax will have a tendency to take on too many enemies; Gamora’s always going to look for stragglers, and she’ll be acrobatic in her attack. And if you hang out closer to them you’ll improve their fighting chances – sometimes they’ll jump in and collaborate with you.”
One thing I’m really not sure about is the huddle mode. During combat, you can hit a button and call in the other team members; this triggers a cut scene where everyone delivers some dialogue about how the fight is going and you choose between two contrasting motivational speeches. Select the right one, and all the team gets a boost for a short time. I get why it’s there – it’s a nod to Quill’s cheesy leadership aspirations – but it breaks the flow and, since it offers the player no room to be creative, feels arbitrary.
Much more interesting is the seriousness of the interplay between characters during longer cut scenes. Peter and Rocket really don’t get along, and their antagonism is played straight. “We didn’t want these characters to be gag machines,” says Dugas. “We don’t have the biggest game world, but we’re going to create something where you feel like you have a true relationship with them.”
That, in a sense, is where the Avengers fell short. It set up a great story for Kamala Khan, but the demands of a continual live game didn’t allow it to develop. In this more defined space, it seems like the Guardians will be given proper arcs. This has always been the comic book series that felt the most like a video game – brash, hyperkinetic, boisterous, but also emotional. And playing it, especially when you leap into combat just as Wham’s Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go cranks up, it seems like the developers understand this dynamic. This is where Square Enix and Marvel truly align.
Additional interviews by Keza MacDonald