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Wot I Think: Telltale's Guardians of the Galaxy

Cover version

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.

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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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