Adventure Gamers Awards
Just prior to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 hitting the big screen, Telltale Games jumped the gun with its own slightly-more-interactive take on Marvel’s ragtag band of outlaws-turned-heroes. There are more than a few similarities to its theatrical counterparts, but the game is not directly connected to the film franchise – which is probably a good thing, since movie tie-ins are historically awful. Lots of familiar names turn up here, but don’t be surprised to find some different faces (and voices) attached. With a number of rip-roaring cinematic fight scenes, a brand new villain, and an intriguing new superpowered relic with links to the past putting the cosmos in jeopardy, plus some snarky banter between friends and foes alike, the five-part series generally follows the same formula we’ve come to expect. Unfortunately, the script isn’t nearly as funny as the films, and the characters cross the line from loveably unlikeable to downright detestable far too often. In many ways, this series feels far out-Guardianed by the studio’s own far superior Tales from the Borderlands.
Like the movies, the cast of five unlikely saviours consists of human spaceship captain Peter Quill (who’d prefer to be known as Star-Lord), the green-skinned former female assassin Gamora, the heavily-tattooed behemoth Drax, the furry but feisty don’t-call-him-a-raccoon named Rocket, and the lumbering he-tree Groot. Apparently the license must have cost extra for likenesses, so there’s no Chris Pratt, no Zoe Saldana, or even Dave Bautista. The same goes for voices, so while Rocket and Groot look more or less the same as their CG movie models, don’t expect to hear the likes of Bradley Cooper or Vin Diesel this time around. The good news is that the characters all look and sound just fine on their own once you get used to the difference, so it was probably a wise idea not to attempt vocal impressions.
I was far less impressed by what they actually had to say, however. Writing anti-heroes is a delicate business: make them too personable and they don’t seem volatile; make them too antagonistic and they come off as nasty. The first movie, in particular (the films being my only frame of reference, as I’m not familiar with the original comic), found the sweet spot through the use of humour. The more this motley crew bickered and bitched, the funnier they were, and you couldn’t help but cheer for them in spite of themselves. While each character’s personality was abrasive on its own, the group dynamic managed to bring out the best of them, however reluctantly.
The game takes the same general approach, just not nearly as successfully. Rocket and Gamora both constantly act like insufferable “jerks”, while Drax seems overly subdued and not nearly as prone to overly literal interpretations as he wallows in self-loathing over his family’s demise. Everyone’s favourite tree-man is usually good for a chuckle, despite his severely limited three-word vocabulary (a hungover Groot is particularly amusing, if nauseatingly gross). Peter, meanwhile, although given the opportunity to make quips under pressure, is essentially the straight man – a little cockier than he has any right to be, but the most “normal” one of the lot.
It’s not so much that there’s anything wrong with the dialogue; it just doesn’t really zip and zing like we’ve seen first-hand from the Guardians before. The group interactions are decidedly underwhelming, and since the characters supposedly know each other well at the start of the game, there was no narrative reason not to hit the ground running. In fact, they spend a fair chunk of time on the verge of a break-up and are held together more by circumstance than by a shared bond of affection. One character or another is continually sulking or threatening to leave, and the arguments are so mean-spirited that you’ll feel real animosity. Really the most engaging Guardian this time isn’t a Guardian at all, but a tag-along alien named Mantis. As an empath, she feels particularly vulnerable to the hostility within the group, but you don’t need to be specially attuned to emotions to share her belief that the rest seem to “hate” each other and should just get it over with and split.
This bitter dissension among teammates would seem to be the result of trying to shoehorn a franchise into the Telltale storytelling model that really doesn’t fit. Without enough interaction with external forces of opposition, the dysfunction is mostly turned inward, creating an environment that’s more angrily toxic than friendly or even funny. The problem is further compounded by Telltale’s increasing reliance on heavy-handed browbeating over choices made. Making difficult decisions is a welcome part of the experience, but here you’re guaranteed that every significant choice will once again turn teammates against each other (and against you, as the so-called leader). It’s a tiring process to keep trying to make peace and repair relational rifts, and maddening to know ahead of time exactly how everyone will react. If I chose A, then character X would surely berate me for how much I suck afterwards. But if I chose B, I’d be blasted by Y, without even a hint of understanding the complexity of the situation. Drax even states it plainly at one point, noting “No matter what you choose, your decision will leave you despised by much of the team.” Yup!
All that’s pretty damning, and deserves to be, but these Guardians are not a total disaster on the character front. In between the nastier confrontations there’s a bit of wisecracking fun, but the best parts of the series are the flashbacks for each of the main characters – well, four of them (Groot gets one, but it’s anything but an “origin” story like the rest). I won’t give too much away, but a glimpse into Peter’s past with a dying mother, Rocket’s laboratory love interest, and Drax’s softer side with his young daughter are welcome insights. Gamora’s turbulent history with her cyborg stepsister Nebula is also explored, and this becomes linked to the present as well, as their ongoing conflict becomes an integral part of the present day story. That too, is a good thing, as their rivalry being raised as children of an evil monster had real consequences that continue to play out in destructive ways today. Still, it’s a shame that this Guardians of the Galaxy is at its best when its heroes are separated, especially when it accounts for a relatively small portion of the overall experience.Continued on the next page...