Was Guardians of the Galaxy 2021's true game of the year?

Guardians Of The Galaxy Screenshot
Guardians Of The Galaxy Screenshot (Image credit: Square Enix)

While many have their own opinions of what was the best release this year, you can't say there weren't a lot of options. Few could argue that It Takes Two didn't deserve to win the top prize at The Game Awards for pushing the boundaries of what a couch co-op experience can look like. Halo Infinite and Resident Evil Village were some of our other favorites here at Windows Central.

However, there are always games that get overlooked, and one that played brilliantly, looked beautiful, and was engaging in a way that few games were this year was Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy. While it deservedly won Best Narrative at The Game Awards, it arguably should have been placed alongside the best that 2021 has to offer.

Game of the Year material

Source: Square Enix (Image credit: Source: Square Enix)

While it is difficult to compare wildly different games to one another, Guardians of the Galaxy did a lot well. The story is particularly strong, a fun and interesting take on a well-trodden "save the galaxy" format. The stakes are high enough to stay invested during its 20+ hour length, and the peppering of emotional moments and satisfying character arcs throughout adds a huge amount to the overall experience.

Character development in general is some of the strongest I've seen in some time, and the voice acting, particularly from Jason Cavalier as Drax and Kimberly-Sue Murray as Gamora, is excellent. The combat is smart too, with the player able to select abilities in real time for team members to perform in a method somewhat reminiscent of the one used in Final Fantasy 7 Remake or other turn-based RPG. Each Guardian possesses abilities suited to a range of encounters, so you start off with a light tactical feel and unlock more powerful and varied moves throughout progression. Learning how to balance all of the characters' moves with the unique combat scenarios adds a layer of complexity to the proceedings.

The game is also notable for how it balances fan service, with lore present through entirely optional easter eggs and collectibles. It starts off with some familiar concepts, like the core team being what you know from the MCU and Peter's love of music, but breaks off on its own quickly. Both fan favorite and lesser-known Marvel characters are introduced gradually throughout the game and given room to breathe. All of this allows it to appeal to both newcomers and fans through its writing, while not relying primarily on the source material or its most famous adaptation to sell it to the players. This approach makes it feel very similar to Marvel's Spider-Man in this regard, and quite far away from Marvel's Avengers.

Why was it overlooked?

Source: Square Enix (Image credit: Source: Square Enix)

But if the game is so good, I hear you cry, why isn't in contention for Game of the Year in a lot of places? The comparison to Marvel's Avengers is an unfortunate one because many people didn't realize Guardians of the Galaxy was at all different. The sterile, microtransaction heavy, business-like Avengers game is in no way similar to the single-player, microtransaction-less Guardians of the Galaxy, and the marketing didn't help convey this, with Square Enix poorly communicating the strengths of the game. A combination of both factors resulted in many (including myself) writing off the game before it was released. I picked it up on sale and realized what I had missed, but many wouldn't have given the game a second thought.

A report by Bloomberg supports how overlooked it was. The game hit around 11,000 concurrent players on Steam at its peak, compared to the 38,000 peak concurrent players achieved by Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Square Enix's previous single-player release. However, it has an 84 on Metacritic, an 8.3 user score, and we found the experience to be a game absolutely worth playing in our review, so it's not like people are skipping it because of quality. What is it then?

A dying breed?

Source: Square Enix (screenshot) (Image credit: Source: Square Enix (screenshot))

Many have celebrated It Takes Two's Game Awards win as being good for the industry. In a gaming landscape full of increased homogeneity and established IP, an original, mostly wholesome game (sans elephant scene) playable only with a partner represents a huge shift, and its win proves that variety is still needed and desired.

Guardians of the Galaxy achieves something similar by successfully making a type of game less commonly found in today's AAA industry, and while obviously not an original IP, its execution on a character driven, linear, story-focused experience feels unique enough to make it stand out. Cinematic AAA games of this type that do exist are released infrequently, and are often in other genres like platformers or roguelikes. Outside of Sony's first-party developers, these kinds of experiences are even harder to find.

The same praise directed at It Takes Two for a fantastic and mature approach to that kind of cinematic, setpiece-based game can also therefore apply to Guardians of the Galaxy. Sadly, there is less appetite for a third-party linear campaign than there used to be, and although player enjoyment is high, this could also have impacted overall engagement for the Marvel title.

Final thoughts

While the games nominated for Game of the Year deserved their place, Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy should have at least been listed among them, and a case can be made as to why it should have won this year's crown. I'm a fan of most of the games that were nominated this year (except for horror. I don't do horror), and believe that although they are excellent, Guardians of the Galaxy's writing in particular pulled me in unlike anything else released this year.

Unlike many games that lean on a household name, it didn't just recycle something that already existed — it enhanced it, and brought it to life in a way that hadn't been seen previously. Square Enix even moved away from the microtransaction-heavy direction of Marvel's Avengers, and perhaps the game's insistence on providing a refreshing, straight forward single player experience has me pining for the old ways, a hope that the industry isn't going to be reduced to a live service, NFT filled hellscape.

Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy is a demonstration and celebration of what the industry can achieve when story takes center stage.

Matt Shore