Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Is the Most Surprising Game of 2021

Guardians of the Galaxy is simply incredible in ways that few people saw coming.

Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy
Photo: Square Enix

In a year that’s been partially defined by surprising video games and surprising video game news (both good and bad), it’s truly telling that Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy has to be the most surprising game of the year.

When we talk about surprising video games, we typically talk about indie titles that come out of nowhere and blow us all away. Well, Guardians of the Galaxy may be the opposite of that type of game in so many ways, but in terms of expectations vs. results, it has to be considered one of the most shocking video game experiences in quite some time.

What is it about Square Enix’s latest Marvel game that makes it such a deviation from our pre-release expectations? Well, Guardians of the Galaxy‘s somewhat unconventional sleeper status really comes down to a few key factors…

Expectations for Guardians of the Galaxy Were Low After Marvel’s Avengers

I don’t want to focus too much on the negatives while talking about Guardians of the Galaxy (at least not right now), but if we’re talking about why the game is such a surprise, we have to start with Marvel’s Avengersbotched debut.

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Marvel’s Avengers had its moments (most of which were related to the game’s campaign), but its incredibly simple gameplay, weak online service elements, and controversial content update plans alienated quite a few people who were otherwise willing to fall in love with the concept for that game.

It was never entirely fair to apply all of Avengers‘ struggles to Guardians before the latter was even released (they’re even made by different developers), but it’s easy to understand why some gamers were prepared to be let down yet again.

Guardians of the Galaxy Is Sometimes As Generic As We Feared It Would Be

While Guardians of the Galaxy shouldn’t be held responsible for Avengers‘ shortcomings, it has to be said that the initial previews of this game strongly suggested that it could be about as “generic” as Square Enix’s previous Marvel adaptation sometimes was.

To be honest, Guardians of the Galaxy is a generic game in a lot of ways. Its basic gameplay won’t surprise anyone who is vaguely familiar with the evolution of gaming over the last 20 years, and elements of the game’s character designs and voice acting do invoke that “not quite MCU” label that was also applied to Avengers.

In fact, I imagine that Guardians of the Galaxy‘s familiarity will chase some players away during those first few hours. However, that’s roughly the point where the game’s greatness starts to kick in…

Guardians of the Galaxy Is Linear and Uncomplicated in the Best Ways Possible

While Guardians of the Galaxy offers a few sidequests and distractions here and there (an upgrade system, collectibles, and optional dialog sequences, for instance), it’s a fairly linear game that doesn’t deviate from its “A to B” structure very often.

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As it turns out, that’s one of the game’s best qualities. Guardians of the Galaxy is a narrative and character-driven action-adventure game with no microtransactions, live service elements, multiplayer, or film tie-in baggage. It’s pretty clear that this game’s developers knew exactly what kind of experience they wanted to craft, and there’s something to be said for the fact that their vision is so remarkably free of so much of the modern game design clutter that is sometimes implemented to make games feel bigger than they actually are.

It shouldn’t be this remarkable that a major studio decided to make what some may describe as a “smaller” game, but given the state of the industry, Guardians of the Galaxy‘s simplicity truly is a breath of fresh air.

Guardians of the Galaxy’s Level Design Is Some of the Best in Years

I honestly didn’t think another 2021 game would come close to besting Psychonauts 2 in terms of level design, but there’s a strong argument to be made that Guardians of the Galaxy does just that.

Few major games in recent memory go to such incredible lengths to ensure that every single level and every new location not only feels distinct from everything else in the game but showcase a style that feels distinct from pretty much everything else out there. Alien worlds in this game feel truly alien in ways that even the grandest MCU films arguably can’t quite match.

I wanted to lose myself in Guardians of the Galaxy‘s levels in a way that many modern open-world games strive for but few achieve. The sheer visual creativity on display in this game is matched only by the ways the developers managed to somehow tie all these truly unique worlds and concepts together.

Guardians of The Galaxy Is Charming in a Way You Can’t Fake

“Charm” is one of those concepts that is sometimes more of a feeling than it is something you can teach and define. In the same way that something can be so charming that you overlook its flaws, there are times when something is trying so hard to be charming that you can’t look past its insincerity.

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Well, Guardians of the Galaxy is genuinely charming. From its immaculate ’80s bedrooms and spaceship quarters with stories to tell to those aforementioned glorious alien worlds, there are few corners of this game that don’t exemplify the apparent glee its creators felt at the opportunity to dive into this franchise and share their joy with the rest of us.

This is the kind of game that just puts a smile on your face when you play it, which is one of those qualities that has been valuable since video games were invented but it is also one of those qualities that we sometimes overlook as the medium has evolved and grown to be far more complicated.

Guardians of the Galaxy’s Story Makes You Feel Every Heartache and Triumph

As I mentioned above, Guardians of the Galaxy‘s opening hour or so is a bit rough. In fact, the shaky opening’s weaker writing, slow development, and incredibly simple gameplay left me wondering whether I would ever truly care about anything in this story or these characters beyond my inherent fascination with this universe.

In a way, though, that slow opening just makes the moment this game “hooks” you that much more impactful. Mind you, I’m not necessarily talking about a single moment in the game that does the trick, but rather your own personal moment when you realize just how in love the developers were with these characters and this story. There’s an infectious nature to this game’s story that leaves you feeling the weight of every character moment, every player decision, and every plot beat in a way that I’m not sure I’ve experienced since Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Season One left me feeling so responsible for a group of characters I genuinely wanted to help.

Even if Guardians of the Galaxy‘s story wasn’t as “epic” as it is or as heavy as it becomes, the way it constantly refocuses itself to ensure you never forget that this is a story about a family of misfits that you grow to love would have been enough to make it one of the best video game narratives of the year.

Guardians of the Galaxy’s Licensed ’80s Soundtrack Is the Best Since GTA: Vice City

While some people think it’s easy to just throw a bunch of already beloved songs on a soundtrack and call it a day, we’ve seen enough examples of licensed soundtracks gone wrong in film, television, and games to know that the right mixtape is about so much more than playing the hits.

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Well, Guardians of the Galaxy features the best use of an ’80s soundtrack that I’ve seen in a video game since GTA: Vice City (the two titles even share a couple of songs). Much like the Guardians of the Galaxy MCU movies, it’s less about the individual songs (though many of those are phenomenal) and it’s more about the ways the developers considered the stories those songs are trying to tell (both in their lyrics and how we’ve culturally adopted them) and expertly deployed them in ways that heighten the emotions that are already there rather than simply relying on your familiarity with these tunes to invoke false and cheap feelings.

I recently talked about how the GTA games aren’t quite the same without their original soundtracks, and Guardians of the Galaxy is another example of how the right licensed music can just make something already great somehow even better.

Guardians of the Galaxy Is What Adaptations Should Be

There’s no universal rule to what makes a great adaptation so great, but I do think that most great adaptations start with the right group of fans adapting source material that they genuinely love while being given just enough freedom to speak loudly with their own, enthusiastic creative voices.

Ultimately, that’s exactly what Guardians of the Galaxy is. Does it have problems? Absolutely. It’s slow at the start, its combat is rarely great, a few mechanics feel half-baked, and the pre-launch patch version of the game I played was more than a little glitchy. This is not a perfect game, a game that will change the medium, or even the game of the year.

However, if you’re wondering why Guardians of the Galaxy is the biggest surprise of the year, it’s simply because the game is the complete opposite of the cheap cash grab that some worried it might be based on early previews. At a time when even fans can’t help but get caught up in sales figures and platform wars, the genuineness of Guardians of the Galaxy feels like the cure for the underlying cynicism we can sometimes feel about the nature and direction of the industry.

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