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The Guardians of the Galaxy all stand up to a big space whale Image: Eidos Montreal/Square Enix

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Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is the biggest surprise of the year

They may be a rag-tag band of misfits, but they’re my rag-tag band of misfits

I went into Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy expecting a few chuckles, but the tears surprised me. I’m an emotional guy, and I’m secure in the fact that I’ve cried during multiple video games and Marvel movies. But there’s an exploration of loss in Eidos Montreal’s newest outing that genuinely caught me off guard.

Then again: Nothing about Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is quite what I expected.

Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is a third-person action game where you play as Peter Quill, AKA Star-Lord, the ’80s-obsessed captain of the titular mercenaries-turned-heroes. The game takes you and your squad to a variety of planets where you’ll need to blast enemies with your dual guns and command the rest of the Guardians to perform special moves in combat. The game’s quieter moments have you exploring the weirdest parts of Marvel’s galaxy, selecting dialogue options and using your allies to break down walls or create bridges out of branches. But, at its best, the bridges and walls in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy are, in a sense, purely metaphorical, and your relationship with your crewmates is paramount.

Most of the 16 chapters feature the Guardians making their way through a new planet, ship, or space station, shooting the shit, launching into cutscenes, and solving environmental puzzles with Drax’s strength or Rocket’s hacking skills. While bumbling around, I can hit one of the shoulder buttons during key moments to select a dialogue option, steering conversations in one direction or another. Sometimes the game pops up with a typical “Rocket will remember this” prompt, and sometimes my input just adds a bit of flavor.

The titular ragtag squad of mercenaries Image: Eidos Montreal/Square Enix

Combat occasionally interrupts the exploration, and as Star Lord, it’s my job to not only fight but to command the rest of the team as well. Groot is great at binding enemies with his roots, while Gamora excels at dealing heavy damage to individual enemies. Guardians nails such a strong sense of camaraderie that when one member is absent from combat, I feel the loss.

However, Eidos Montreal understands its source material and knows that arguments and internal drama are essential to the Guardians’ dynamics. About halfway through my adventure, everyone on the team was feeling a bit disenfranchised. Rocket and Star-Lord were in the middle of an argument. Gamora was depressed for unknown reasons. Drax had uncharacteristically given up. And Groot … was Groot. I stepped out into a space station, and within minutes, we had all gone our separate ways. For the first time, I was apart from my teammates, and it’s to this game’s credit that I actually felt lonely.

I eventually stumbled upon Drax staring into a great cosmic void. Dialogue options appeared and we began to chat. Canonically, these characters’ pasts aren’t exactly the same as the James Gunn Marvel movies, but there is at least one constant: Peter Quill and Drax the Destroyer have both lost their families to tragedy. As Peter, I explained the human concept of heaven to Drax, and he explained the beliefs of his own people. Drax ended the conversation by asking for some alone time, but as I walked away, he stopped me to say, “Peter Quill, I hope your mother found her way to ‘heaven.’” On its own, the line might seem trite, but at the tail end of an uncharacteristically emotional conversation with an otherwise stoic brute, it was affecting.

The Guardians all have strong personalities, so watching them come together is a major highlight in an already excellent game. At one point, I denied Drax when he suggested we simply toss Rocket across a chasm to then let us across, and we all took the long way around instead. Through hours of their ambient chit-chat, I watched the pair build a friendly relationship with one another that I helped foster. When Rocket himself eventually asked Drax to chuck him for the good of the team — much like Gimli in The Two Towers — Drax denied the request, saying Rocket was a valuable teammate, not a tool. We found another way around at Drax’s behest.

I’m unsure if that moment would’ve happened if I hadn’t said no to Drax’s initial throw, but I’m not sure I care. What matters to me is that I watched their relationship build from animosity to trust and respect — eventually, Drax saw the same potential in Rocket that I did.

Star-Lord, Gamora, and Drax all battle Nova Core members Image: Eidos Montreal/Square Enix

One of my favorite moments in Guardians of the Galaxy didn’t occur until I was nearing the end. After spending the entire game telling Groot to make bridges for the team, Groot walked up to a gap and placed a bridge without me asking. At first I thought it was a bug, but Peter complimented Groot on his initiative. Similarly, Rocket began hacking electronics of his own accord. I treated my teammates with respect from the beginning, and they were paying it back to me in the gameplay itself.

Guardians of the Galaxy is full of genuine moments like these. The Guardians never stop sniping at each other — it’s their nature — but it’s the difference between intentionally hurting a rival kid’s feelings and ribbing a sibling. True to life, the Guardians don’t change on a dime when you say the magic words — their evolution is gradual and, occasionally, painful.

Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is about the difficulties that come with friendship and found family, but also how necessary connection is for all of us. The game shows how frustrating characters like Rocket Raccoon can be. But in his absence, I found myself exploring less and pushing through the story just to find my way back to him, even if he was still mad at me — anything not to be alone anymore. It takes work to love someone, or a group of someones, and it’s that shared labor that Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy taps into.

Life can be isolating, and I’ve turned to many video games to make friends and help me keep in touch with real-life loved ones around the country or — over the past year — just around the corner. Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy won’t fool you into thinking you’re having those same, genuine social interactions with people you care about. But to Eidos Montreal’s great credit, the Guardians give a convincing performance.

I always expected to jet around blasting aliens in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. But its new place as one of the more emotionally resonant video game stories in recent memory easily makes it 2021’s best surprise.

Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy will be released on Oct. 26 on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. A “Cloud Version” will also come to Nintendo Switch on release day. The game was reviewed on PlayStation 5 using a pre-release download code provided by Eidos Montreal and Square Enix. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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