In my review of the game based on Thor: The Dark World [Free], I remarked about how, as a child, I never would have expected Thor of all characters to become a major media star for Marvel. There are always bigger miracles, however. I remember flipping through the pages of a Marvel Handbook when I was in elementary school and coming across Rocket Raccoon. It was my first time seeing him, and to my eyes, he looked stupid. Not just The Shocker-stupid, but genuine, unadulterated Razorback-level stupid. He was the kind of character who you would only see in a Marvel Handbook, with a handful of appearances to his name, doomed to disappear entirely for 15 years of publications. Several years ago, he and many other somewhat forgotten members of Cosmic Marvel returned as a new Guardians of the Galaxy team, in an effort to revamp that part of the Marvel Universe. It was so successful, they've got a live action movie coming out next week, and with it, their very own game. Now, that's improbable.
I may not have been able to appreciate Rocket as a kid, but over time I developed a bit of a fondness for some of the quirkier characters of Marvel's history, so it makes me happy to see such unconventional heroes do well. It gives me hope we'll see a Darkhawk game someday. Maybe that game will even be as cool as Guardians of the Galaxy: The Universal Weapon [$2.99], the latest iOS release from Marvel Entertainment. In this game, you play as the Guardians of the Galaxy in a game that's more than a little inspired by Battleheart [$2.99], fighting your way through more than 70 stages in search of pieces of the Universal Weapon. As you play through the story, you'll unlock new characters and equipment, upgrade them, and bear witness to the special kind of platonic love that can only exist between a raccoon and a tree.
Naturally, since they've got a big Hollywood movie coming out, the first set of characters you unlock will be from the modern Guardians team, but older fans can rest easy. Vance Astro and Charlie-27 from the original team are here, and they will apparently be joined by Yondu in an update. In addition to those classic members, other Marvel characters such as Beta Ray Bill, Phyla-Vell, Hulk, and a mysterious sometimes-alcoholic shellhead, among others, are either available or soon to be available. You can even unlock the game's villains, though they can only be used in the Arena mode because otherwise the Time Variance Authority will have a cow. There are a few notable absences here, but with this many characters, it's hard to complain much. Each character has their own special powers and unique traits, but you can only bring four of them with you into each stage, so you'll have to choose wisely.
If you've played Battleheart, you'll be instantly familiar with Guardians of the Galaxy. If you haven't played Battleheart, you should, but I'll give you a gameplay explanation anyhow. You'll have to clear each stage of a set number of enemy waves without losing all of your characters. You can drag a line from each character to an open spot to move there, to an enemy to attack it, or to an ally to heal or buff, provided that character has the capability to do so. Each character also has access to a few special moves that have a cooldown timer connected to their use. Some of these moves are team moves, requiring the character to be in the vicinity of a certain other character. The stages are limited to a single screen, so keeping weaker characters out of harm's way and sending appropriate attackers for each enemy type can be a bit tricky as you go on. Every so often, you'll face a boss character who, in addition to having beefed up stats, sometimes pulls out a few dirty tricks of their own.
As the game is quick to tout in its description in the App Store, buying this game gives you the complete experience with neither a single IAP to be found nor any sort of online requirement. Although the game makes use of two currency types, both flow quite readily and neither can be bought with real money. You can use silver to buy new gear or upgrade existing stuff, and you can use silver and gems together to buy new characters once they become available. The inflation on new items quickly outpaces what you earn from a single run through of each stage, but you'll probably be done in by the difficulty before that becomes a big issue. Instead, you're meant to replay stages to earn three badges, which has the side effect of earning you a bunch of loot and experience points on the way. Levels are short enough that this only rarely feels like a chore, and you'll never have to stop for too long before you'll be ready to move on to the next stage.
The gameplay isn't the only thing to take after Battleheart, as Guardians of the Galaxy sports a very cartoonish style that makes even Drax look cute. That's not an easy feat by any means. Each character has a few unique animations, though outside of the win poses they're very rudimentary. The characters are goofy enough to get away with this kind of style, though some fare better than others. Rocket looks as great as you'd expect, while Gamora definitely loses something in the transition. After certain levels, you're treated to some cut-scenes made up of still frames, evoking a comic book feel. The dialogue in these scenes is pretty funny and fits the tone well. On the audio side, the classic hit song from the movie's soundtrack, Blue Swede's version of Hooked On A Feeling is surprisingly included, or at least several seconds of it. It plays occasionally when you clear a stage, but since it's the same part of the song every time, it does get a bit old after a while, if it wasn't already for those of us who lived through the Ally McBeal Wars of the late 1990s.
In addition the main story mode, there's an Arena mode where you can face endless waves of enemies with the team of your choice to see how far you can get. This is where you can use any villains you've unlocked through the course of the story. Some of the game's extra missions are tied to the Arena mode, so you'll want to check it out now and then just to get that beautiful extra bounty. There are also a bunch of achievements through Game Center, and they're a good mix of expected and unexpected goals. Between playing the story mode, challenging the Arena, unlocking and leveling up all of the characters, and rounding up achievements, Guardians of the Galaxy has enough to keep you busy for a while.
Apart from its near-complete lack of originality, the only real knock I have on the game is in how fussy the controls can be at times. When your characters are near to each other, it's hard to pick out the one you want sometimes, and there are times where you could swear you sent someone over to an enemy only to see them just walk over and do nothing. In general, you have to babysit your characters a lot more than you did in Battleheart, since they're kind of stupid about doing things on their own even when an enemy is in the immediate vicinity. Some aspects of the game aren't explained all that well unless you dig around in the menus to find things, such as upgrading your gear and using ISO-8 effectively. It's not a big problem once you figure it all out, but it really should have been part of the game's tutorial or perhaps given a section in the Nova Database.
Fans of the Guardians, whether the new team or the old, will certainly be pretty happy with The Universal Weapon. It's not an original game, but it is a well-crafted one, and it fits a team-based set of characters nicely. There's a lot of love shown for the history of the team and Cosmic Marvel in general, which is an unexpected treat. If you aren't a fan of the characters but you enjoyed Battleheart, you'll probably want to look into this game, too. It's not quite as good, but it's more than good enough, and with that series moving in a different direction of late, those who are looking for a new game in that style will likely enjoy the antics of Star-Lord and friends.
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