By Neil Merrett
Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, released on PS4 in 2021, developed by Square Enix & Back 4 Blood, released on multiple platforms in 2021, developed by Turtle Rock Studios
Back 4 Blood and the Guardians of the Galaxy are games that use their respective gameplay mechanics to try and explore the idea of what makes great or not-so-great teams.
One is an intense, unrelenting first-person horror squad shooter and the other is a single player adventure complete with jet boot platforming and a soundtrack of iconic hair metal tunes and mix-tape-worthy power ballads.
Yet success in both games is largely based on knowing how best to coordinate and keep your head under pressure either as a leader, or a vital part of a wider team battling against sometimes literally impossible odds.
Square Enix’s Guardians of the Galaxy game is a separate entity from the hugely successful movies that have seen characters such as Star Lord, Groot and Rocket Raccoon become beloved movie icons on par with a Superman or Spider-man.
However, like the movies and comics these characters come from, the game explores often esoteric themes about legacy, the responsibilities we have as ‘parents’ and friends, as well as the morality of hurling colleagues over chasms to find a quick shortcut.
Somehow, an almost charmingly simplistic single player shooter/smash-em-up starring these ‘guardians’ builds an interactive story that effectively asks whether any single good or bad action is enough to define an individual.
In the grand Marvel Comics tradition, the game’s narrative is built on the concept that, “good is not a thing you are, it is a thing you do.”
One of the game’s latter missions, found in between mastering the most effective way to punch, blast and fly kick brainwashed cultists into oblivion, is to help a character accept the pain and torment of living, over the comforting lies of succumbing to a universe ending parasitic simulation.
All this is explored in a game that involves battling space cults alongside a mythical intergalactic dragon to a background soundtrack of Billy Idol and the underrated Culture Club tune, ‘I’ll tumble 4 ya’.
The game story’s themes about a rag tag group of individuals struggling to band together in the hope of becoming a profitable and perhaps semi-decent group of space mercenaries is effectively matched with a single player squad management game.
The combat is not too dissimilar to the 2019 comic book-themed action game Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 – which also offered the chance to play as the Guardians of the Galaxy. Both games require the player to coordinate a group of multiple superheroes to combine their unique abilities and powers into devastating attacks to crush large swathes of bad guys.
Yet while Ultimate Alliance allowed up to four players to work together and swap between the different heroes – the Guardians game is more like a team management sim that only allows you to control the humanly flawed character of Star Lord.
Success in the game is about as much perfecting your dodges, precision shooting and rocket punches, as it is about determining the best moment to order your team mates to unleash their unique abilities. As more powers are unlocked, it can become satisfying when coordinating a combo of attacks that bunches, traps and then smashes together a stubborn group of self-healing warriors, before hurtling them into the air to blow them to pieces.
This theme of leadership is important not only in how well you work with the computer-controlled teammates in battle, but also in the quiet interactions and choices you make in-between missions when planning your next course of action.
It is a game that posits that the sometimes-maddening compromises required of being a good friend and a leader might ultimately be a more effective approach to surviving life’s complexities than ‘shooting through the walls of heartache’ and existential doom.
Like the old point and click adventures of Lucasfilm Games, Star Lord must listen to each of the Guardians’ terrible jokes, fears and hopes before deciding when to comfort, goad, defy and perhaps even disappoint them with the aim to try and keep the team together to fight another day.
It arguably builds on a range of mechanics Square Enix has previously developed in other games, notably with its more modern action RGPs such as 2016’s Final Fantasy XV and the 2020 remake of Final Fantasy VII.
Much like these games, strategy on the battlefield gets about as deep as commanding team members at specific points of battle to focus on a certain-groups of enemies, or use special attacks that might trap or smash ‘baddies’ together to let other team members rain down punches, swords and ballistics. But it is satisfying when a plan comes together – even if it’s a simplistic one.
In keeping with the Guardians movie’s stylistic use of pop music and mix tapes to punctuate the action or emotions of the team’s struggles and triumphs. one of the game’s major selling points is the option to huddle the team together for a much needed pep talk.
If Star Lord listens well enough and responds to their concerns or overconfidence, the whole team will get a health and power boost, regardless of how bad or well a battle is going. This second wind is also punctuated by some classic 70 or 80s pop banger to kick ass to.
It certainly gives new context to the lyrics of a pop standard such as AHA’s ‘Take on Me’ when turning the tide of a gruelling boss battle as your squad comes together to kick ass to a classic beat and synth guitars.
A different kind of team
Back 4 Blood, by contrast, is a game that makes you wish you had the time to engage in a comforting group huddle before zoning out to a pleasant 80s power ballad while trying to fight off a violent hoard of mutated monstrosities.
The game is a spiritual follow up to the much-loved Left 4 Dead series of team-based squad shooters that required up to four human or computer-controlled players to traverse a zombie ravaged US and survive with some sharp shooting.
The original game series was designed to be unrelenting in its higher difficulty modes in order to force closer collaboration between players gathered via the internet or a Local Area Network (LAN) connection. This was overseen by a game system known ominously as ‘the director’. This AI would decide when to grant the player some much needed support or health, or punish them with a sudden and brutal monster attack to try and tear them apart at their most vulnerable or unprepared.
A previously successful strategy of holding a specific room or strategic position on one playthrough could be completely ruined in the next run by the director’s cruel positioning of monsters or vital items in order to incapacitate and brutally murder each player one by one.
The idea of the director is that each time the player visits the same two dozen levels, each experience would be widely different in terms of odds, weapons, challenges and scares.
More than a decade after the last official Left 4 Dead game, Back 4 Blood seeks to modernise these mechanics with some new gameplay mechanics.
The overall idea of the game is still to survive as a squad of four players to support and ideally protect each other from an army of monstrous ‘ridden’ that eat, stalk and murder very much like Left 4 Dead’s zombies.
Back 4 Blood however aims to adopt more of a Rogue-like structure where each player can customise their character and abilities with a series of cards that they can unlock and potentially use for each subsequent playthrough.
The strategy is building different decks that will incentivise and effectively grant abilities to support a certain way of playing. This might be as a more durable axe wielding tank, or a long distance sharp shooter with extra effectiveness at exposing an enemies weak points.
Early cards in the game offer basic abilities such as extra health or greater stamina that might grant you one last swing of a baseball bat under pressure. But higher value cards found after multiple playthroughs can effectively grant superpowers if used smartly, such as getting health boosts for all long distance shots that kill ridden.
Theoretically, a well-coordinated team can become not so much a group of survivors, but a crack team of super powered zombie hunters. Think of it more as the guardians of small-town America, if not quite the galaxy.
A ‘difficult’ game
However, the game complicates factors by limiting the player to choose a small number of their cards at the start of each run through the game. From then on, one additional card can then be chosen per mission. A team is also only given one chance to fail a mission before forcing the squad to restart their run with fresh abilities.
The ridden, whether at the easier difficulties, or higher challenge modes, often set upon the squad in brutal numbers, meaning it can become difficult to unlock enough cards to live up to your potential.
This certainly makes the prospect of finding a coordinated team and new cards exciting enough to play though Back 4 Blood’s often brutal missions.
Of course, if you could crush each mission with your abilities, what would be the point of returning to the game? So the game’s own director AI will spice each mission up with its own selection of cards that will introduce increasingly intense challenges at the player – such as heavily armoured special enemies, or zombies that leave a lingering toxic odour upon defeating them.
Even by Left 4 Dead’s standards, it is a game that can be punishingly difficult if your cards and skills aren’t well coordinated. So much so in fact, that the game’s developers have admitted they are still working and patching the game to get the challenge just right so that a zombie apocalypse game is actually fun to play while punishing the player.
Zack Zweizen writing for Kotaku in November, noted the game has already received some tweaks to address player concerns about difficultly in the game since its October launch. More changes are expected over the course of 2021 and beyond.
He wrote, “Back 4 Blood’s devs explained that the rate at which special Ridden spawn is still far too high, even after a patch earlier this month tried to knock it down. At first the studio thought they had fixed the situation involving AI spawn cards, but it seems another problem is still in the game causing more special infected to spawn, leading to more frustrating missions for players.”
As opposed to encouraging collaboration in planning decks and working together as a squad of players, Mr Zweizen said the difficulty was encouraging players to prioritise trying to run through levels and survive alone.
He said, “[Developers] acknowledged that right now the most popular and effective character builds to beat harder missions involve decks built entirely around speed and stamina, letting players ‘speedrun’ levels.”
“This is leading to a lot of frustration among folks grouping up with randos as many of them are just running off alone right at the start of the mission, leaving everyone else behind. Turtle Rock didn’t go into detail about how they plan to address these ‘speedrunners’ but did say future patches will aim to change this current meta.”
Clearly not everyone takes solace in building some kind of team to work together in facing up to seemingly impossible odds and challenges.
But as it stands as of late 2021, surely the only way to really thrive against the unrelenting challenges of Back 4 Blood is to hope that even the most ragtag group of individuals can become something more than the sum of their parts.