Drax has a book on understanding sarcasm on his bed in the Milano, and there's a llama with an emo fringe in the loading bay. That's just two of the things that made me laugh out loud during my hands-on with Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy, and just two of the reasons why I spent more than 40 minutes simply exploring the Milano.
The team's ship and intergalactic home is filled with lore. These might be familiar characters, but Eidos Montreal's story and interpretation of the Guardians is unique. This is a team that has only been working together for around a year, but the fact you don't really know these characters makes the Milano a fantastic way to dive into their rich narrative backstory. Each of our Guardians has their own sleeping quarters, and stepping into any of them gives you an idea about how these characters function. Rocket is incredibly messy, Gamora collects Funko-esque figures, and Star-Lord's looks more akin to a teenager's than that of a leader.
In each of the rooms, you'll find various items belonging to each of the Guardians. Some are interactable, the keys to unlocking new pieces of information and insight into the characters you'll be spending so much time with throughout Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy. Striding into Gamora's room as Star-Lord, she's quick to appear behind you and question why you're in her space. But instead of being offended, you end up talking about her relationship with Thanos, and the things she's been through during the galactic war that all of these characters have lived through.
"It's not an origin story in our game, but we needed to develop that [background] and for you to understand the relationship between these characters," explains Patrick Fortier, senior gameplay director. "How they met, how they were affected by the war…"
It's clear that these are Guardians that have been through a lot. They are fragile and damaged, and although the trademark humor is there, there's a tenderness and sensitivity to the conversations that you'll have with them here in the Milano that's more akin to the dynamics of the team in the Guardians of the Galaxy 2 movie. As you move through the game too, the Milano will gain more and more trinkets and items from the team's travels, allowing you to dive further into their unique personas.
"They have different background stories, they have different life experiences, but they all have that sense of loss in common – they've lost something," adds senior creative director, Jean-Francois Dugas, when I ask about this more emotional side of the game. "What they have with the Guardians at the beginning of the game is more like business partners, but they know deep down inside that's the closest thing to a true family that they have, and they will through the game discover and embrace that more."
Having dropped some four hours into the game, my preview time joins the Guardians after they've just escaped from Lady Hellbender's fortress, as they head to the Nova Corps station to pay off a huge fine. But, as you can imagine from a bunch with such murky morals, not all of them are best pleased to be doing the right thing by caving to the space cops' demands. So the atmosphere on the Milano is, at best, tense, at worst, on the brink of explosion.
My time spent on the Milano pre-mission was then as much about learning about these characters and how they tick, as it was about trying to diffuse the situation somewhat. You can upgrade the Guardians' perks at work benches using the components you collect during missions, which boost the moves or weapons the Guardians already have – like shields, health, or cool-down times. You also have Ability points that you can use to unlock new moves for each Guardian that you can equip at any point. But on the Milano I take a moment to chat through the plan with Rocket first. He's still grumpy about it of course, but it does make some of the later conversations a little easier.
But I do eventually leave the Milano, ripping myself away from the reams of backstory available even in this small introduction to the game, to head to the Nova Corps base. It's here that I get a look at some of Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy's puzzle mechanics, where I have to tell Rocket to crawl through a small vent to reach a control panel beyond to turn on the power. But, before a gigantic door can pop open in the eerily and unexpectedly deserted Nova base, I have to use Quill's visor to flick switches in the floor to direct the current. It's a familiar puzzle, but figuring out how to use each of the Guardians' skillset to solve a particular problem is another part of getting to know them.
It's the same with combat too. At one point in the base, the team finds an abandoned helmet, and you're presented with a choice – respond to the voice talking on the comms inside, or throw the helmet away and move on. Running through this preview section twice, if you reply you'll bring the mysterious enemies down upon the team and start the combat sequence straight away. Ignore the chatter and you'll have the element of surprise on the enemy, granting yourself a little more time to assess the situation before you turn your guns on them.
But, regardless of your choice in that moment, combat is all about preparing for the battlefield, almost with an RTS-like style of analyzing your enemies and how to attack them. Like with the puzzles, you'll be able to command your various teammates in battle – and you'll absolutely need to. While Star-Lord has his blasters and elemental weapon, you won't have everything you need to defeat foes yourself.
In this sequence, shielded enemies needed to be taken down by Drax, and you could then use Groot to immobilize them for a while before using Rocket's ranged bomb attacks and Gamora's impressive close-range damage to cut down a chunk of their health before the shields regenerated. There were also items I could use – Drax flinging an explosive barrel into the fray, or Gamora dropping a hanging crate onto the unsuspecting enemies from above – to help take them all down, which only added to the feeling of constantly strategizing.
The more you do well, the more you'll build literal momentum – pulling off combos, using different powers, and blending various moves. The more momentum you gather, the more you'll be able to use the Guardians' combos and build your Huddle gauge. When it's full, you can draw the Guardians in for a chat in the middle of combat, listening to how they're feeling and give them an appropriate pep talk. Get the right vibe and all of you will get a boost, but mess it up and you'll only give Star-Lord the power-up. Either way you'll be rewarded with an '80s power ballad, like Pat Benetar's 'Hit Me With Your Best Shot', to soundtrack your battle, which feels incredible when everything's going your way.
"What was important to us was – and it was the most challenging thing to do – to create this ecosystem in which all the parts need to play their roles. So you, as the player being a so-called leader, it's also being part of the action and being invested in it, and finding the different ways to deal with the enemies," says Fortier. "It's about finding that balance where you're not the most powerful person on that battlefield, but you're a key part of it, you're critical to the success in combat."
That balance feels like it's very much at the heart of Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy. Every conversation you have, every choice you make – both in battle and in exploration – affects how you experience the game, with Dugas even teasing that putting down the controller and leaving the characters idling can unlock secret dialogue options. The small things, like taking your time to explore rather than following Rocket's instructions, or asking the wrong Guardian to hack a terminal, can cause different reactions and make things pay out slightly differently.
Although I only played an hour or so segment of the game (twice), it's the ripples of choice that drives it forward constantly. It's a promising look at Eidos Montreal's solo debut into the Marvel universe, and I can't wait to see how it all plays out come October.
Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy hits PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X, Xbox One, PC, and Nintendo Switch on October 26, 2021.