Wot I Think: Telltale’s Guardians of the Galaxy

The cassette tape in Telltale’s Guardians of the Galaxy [official site] is called ‘Rad Mix’ instead of ‘Awesome Mix.’ A crueller man than I might observe that this is all we really need to know about Telltale’s not-based-on-the-film-and-yet-kinda-is spin on the adventures of Rocket, Groot and chums. I.e., that it really, really wants to be be just like what is arguably the most purely entertaining superhero film on the past decade, but it can’t quite pull it off.

I’m not that cruel. Not quite.

To get it out of the way right at the start, don’t look to this to break with the now-familiar Telltale formula – not in this first episode at least. It’s essentially a string of attractive cutscenes interspersed with a few mild quicktime events to direct the action, and conversational options that in theory have major effects on the outcome but more realistically simply enable you to modulate your character’s personality to a greater or lesser extent.

GOTG turns the polish dial up a little (lovely lighting! proper anti-aliasing!), and in one key action/quicktime event sequence has your control grasshopper-leaping between the five main characters, but otherwise it’s the interactive movie that this studio is so known for – yer Walking Dead, yer Batman, yer Game Of Thrones, yer Wolf Among Us.

If anything, there’s an even keener sense than usual that this was created as script first, interactive elements second. Sometimes, being handed a crumb of control felt like almost an afterthought – a grudging acknowledgement that this wasn’t just an excuse for writers, artists and actors to play in one of Marvel’s most colourful playgrounds.

I’ve made my peace with this in Telltale games, though I do appreciate it when they try something a little more ambitious, such as the ambush-planning in their Batman series. I’m not telling this videdogame that it should be a completely different sort of videogame – I just wanted to be clear that you should play this because you want another story about Star Lord and his mates, not because you hope it’s some grand exercise in either action or choice and consequence.

I watched GOTG1 on the telly the day before playing this, so I was all primed for another bout of jokes, incompetence, squabbling, spaceships and contrived friendship-saves-the-day resolutions. In hindsight, perhaps this was a mistake, because it threw the realisation that, compared to the original act, this game is basically a pub cover band into sharp relief.

I don’t mind a pub cover band. I don’t mind GOTG either. It’s just that, realistically, there’s no hope of convincing myself this is the real deal.

It’s not the fact that this, like the Batman games, is Telltale’s own universe rather than either film or comic canon. That’s only sensible, really.

It’s not the fact that it doesn’t have any of the same actors, or that three of the main characters look dramatically different from their cinema appearance. (They’re based, presumably for licensing reasons, more on the comic look, but hybridised with a fair few elements from the film, particularly in terms of personality and backstory).

It’s not the core plot, which mixes some arguably over-familiar origin story beats with a mildly shocking fresh setup of its own.

It’s the fact that it is so heavily influenced by a propulsive, sparky action-comedy movie but is hamstrung by constant slowdowns that devastate its pacing. Sadly, many of these slowdowns are a consequence of it being an uneven combination of showy cutscenes and limited interactivity. When Star Lord has to walk somewhere, he does so achingly slowly, in what I imagine is supposed to be an approximation of Chris Pratt’s swagger but looks more like his underwear just took an unexpected hit.

It’s a collision of license and game style, really. I mean, Batman was suited to a certain amount of hanging around, either on top of gargoyles or at boring posh parties, but the Guardians’ silver screen thing is that they’re almost always getting on with it and only worrying about the consequences after the fact.

This, by contrast, has far more in the way of sitting around worrying about feelings, and in addition slow-paced basic investigation of an area. Very often, it’ll also have its cast break into poses, aping the steady stream of hero shots in the film. It makes a gag out of this once, to its credit, but otherwise it’s just one more type of waiting in a tale that clearly, clearly wants to race on ahead but has had to make concessions in the name of being both a videogame and a close-as-lawyers-allow recreation of the film.

To be clear, the slowdowns – the unhurried wanders back and forth to talk to people or grab a single item from an otherwise non-interactive room – wouldn’t grate if this was ‘just’ a Telltale game, as opposed to a Telltale game that so very badly wants to be a Guardians of the Galaxy animated movie more than it does a Telltale game.

Which rather begs a final question – is this a good Guardians of the Galaxy animated movie? It’s alright. It’s probably rather comparable to what an actual GOTG animated movie would be, in fact, or reading some of the less accomplished comic runs – reasonably well done, but a distant second to the live action movie. The gags aren’t as good, the performances aren’t as charismatic, the spectacle is more serviceable than spectacular, the baddies have less presence, the emotional beats are a little too earnest for their own good. Honestly, it’s alright, but, yeah, don’t do what I do and play it right after watching the film.

I had a reasonable time with it. I found the awkward pacing distracting, but really my main issue with it is that it squanders its chance to make a true team game and instead locks you into playing as Star Lord for all but one sequence – because that’s how other Telltale games work.

There’s a suggestion that the remaining four episodes will each be focused on a different member of the team, which I look forwards to (particularly, I’d like to see Gamora given a rare opportunity to get the best lines, which even the film denies her), but it’s not the same as switching between them frequently to resolve situations in a manner of your choosing.

Instead, the slow focus of both this first episode and, it seems, the whole series, is of dividing the team, both physically and emotionally, for surely inevitable re-connection at the end. The obvious route for wringing drama out of the tale, yes, but I wish it had a more distinctive hook than ‘friends get cross with each other.’

There is another, better hook, in fact, which I alluded to earlier and can’t say much more about, but it has a shot at rewriting the Guardians rulebook. I don’t think it’s going to ultimately take that shot – there’s something of a Chekov’s spacegun in play that is likely to undo the twist – but I enjoyed its relative boldness nevertheless.

In short, then? Pretty much exactly what you might have expected from the Walking Dead folks doing Guardians. Which is to say competent enough as these things go, but far less suited to manic action-comedy than it is to languid angst and survival.

Oh, and it’s got a 70s and 80s soundtrack – the Rad Mix – featuring songs not quite as effective as those on the film’s Awesome Mix. Figures. Nice ELO number, mind you.

Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy: The Telltale Series episode 1 is out now for Windows via Steam and GOG, with four further episodes to follow over the coming months.

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18 Comments

  1. kwyjibo says:

    I had a reasonable time with it.

    The faint praise, it hurts!

    They keep on tackling these big licenses where everyone (creator and audience) has pre-conceived notions of what it should be.

    Yet I think their most successful game is The Wolf Among Us, which most people hadn’t a clue about. I hope they return to that, because it does animal based noir better than Batman.

    • Booker says:

      I think you mean BEST game, not most successful. If it would have been so successful commercially, they would have continued it by now. The fact that they don’t, says it all.

  2. Derty says:

    I totally agree, The Wolf Among Us is their best effort to date. I did enjoy the first episode of this game though. I think the article was spot on. It is pretty much exactly what I expected. Which isn’t a bad thing but it’s no game of the year or anything. I was surprised by the quality of voice acting (especially Rocket) and the soundtrack. I think those 2 things were the highlight for me.

  3. Xzi says:

    TWD was good. Not even great. Yet from that, Telltale gets licenses for every damn franchise and turns them all into a samey slog through so-so writing and an aesthetic that never changes. I can’t wait for TT’s eventual and inevitable fall from grace so that we can go back to having a bunch of bad licensed games and a few really good ones. At least then even the bad will have actual gameplay again.

    • Mandrake42 says:

      Eh, I like pretty much everything Telltale has done. Their games since TWD are definitely less games than they are narrative experiences, but I still enjoy them a lot. There are still plenty of awful licensed games out there if you look. Pining for the old days where you had one Riddick: Escape from Butchers Bay for every 500 Superman 64’s is just masochistic. Telltale are definitely in a kind of rut and their games aren’t for everyone. But honestly, I’d rather that than the colostomy bag explosion most licensed titles are.

  4. ShiArch says:

    Why telltale games? The guys who did ‘Life is Strange’ are way more competent and better storytellers.

    • malkav11 says:

      And probably not in the market to license other people’s IP and do variations on Life is Strange for the rest of their careers, whereas Telltale is clearly happy to stick with a formula that’s working for them.

  5. malkav11 says:

    People saying The Wolf Among Us is Telltale’s best game really need to play Tales from the Borderlands.

    • Mandrake42 says:

      I agree. I loved Wolf Among Us (And can’t wait for more) but Tales from the Borderlands was their best yet. When the review said that the style is far less suited to manic action comedy, my first thought was “Oh, he hasn’t played Tales from the Borderlands”.

    • jusplathemus says:

      They are pretty different in my eyes, so they are tied in first place.

    • haldolium says:

      All TT games (since TWD) are vastly the same, with minor technical differences here and there, except in their writing, music and the resulting atmosphere.

      I don’t see any of their games fit for proper action oriented gameplay mechanics. Their tech might be great for getting out content fast, but bad for audiovisual or mechanical excitement that can’t be compensated by storytelling (which for me is true for Borderlands, since Gearbox overdone that one massively for my taste).
      I overlooked their technical choices when they were still a young company. By now, I find their lack of game flow less and less tolerable and their animation style became even annoying.

      Guess I’ll skip Guardians as well, seems exactly like what I’ve expected. I still hope for The Wolf Among Us, even with the technical flaws.

      PS: I really really liked TT for the Sam&Max series. Too bad that one got discontinued, but at least it had 3 great seasons that didn’t end too sudden.

    • Booker says:

      Tales from the Borderlands is fun no doubt, but it doesn’t hold a candle to The Wolf Among Us.

      I have no idea what happened in Tales from the Borderlands, because it’s just some generic stuff, it doesn’t matter at all – everything is just an excuse to try and be funny. The Wolf Among Us also has something for the brain – it’s a well thought out story which works. I still remember everything that happened in this game. That says it all really. It’s not just another forgettable product.

  6. Mandrake42 says:

    I think one of the problems with reviewing episodic games is that you are never quite sure where it’s going to go. Sometimes individual parts that seemed weak at the time can seem more solid in retrospect, once you have seen the whole. If that makes sense.

  7. thekelvingreen says:

    Up until the film, Rocket was inexplicably English in cartoons and computer games. I quite liked how odd and off-kilter that was.

  8. manny says:

    A suggestion, perhaps a team of competent actors who act out the scenes in real time for them to test ideas would help with the writing. Nothing fancy, but would be faster than animating it. (less miscommunication too)
    I am not sure about the relation telltale has with obsidian entertainment, but they have developed advanced text tools specifically for RPGs with branching storylines. These tools have also been integrated with the unity engine.
    Animation is terrible something needs to be done about it, perhaps something like what the solution thought up by this guy who also worked with unity. link to youtube.com
    Would go well with my actor in the

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