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Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor Review: Tex-Orc-Ana

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

Much of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is completely unoriginal. From its combat to its traversal to the very foundation of its narrative lore, this is a game that stands wholly on the shoulders of those that came before it. Even its most distinguishing feature (the Nemesis System) brings up old flavors of racing rivals. And despite all that, Shadow of Mordor is still one of the most inspiring and well-executed games made this year.

The crux of the game is that you play Talion, a Ranger guarding the Black Gate between Mordor and the less sticky-looking part of Middle-earth. Set somewhere between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, your watch is attacked by Orcs, resulting in a dead squad, a dead family, and a dead Talion. But when he wakes up inextricably attached to a wraith, things get really interesting.

Strangely enough, it’s almost entirely the things not related to Talion’s quest that are most enticing. Well to do the story justice, it’s important to note that it actually goes some cool places and introduces nuance to an otherwise straightforward tale of vengeance. The dead family and revival thing rings a bit hard for God of War, but after coming across some twists and layered characters, the quality writing becomes apparent and showcases an engaging story, if you can ignore a few misguided delves into the land of tropes.

But the big highlight is the aforementioned Nemesis System. Shadow of Mordor is an open-world game replete with the usual and well-strewn smattering of collectibles and what not, but it feels far more like a living, breathing organism than most other open worlds before it. The Nemesis System complexly but intuitively replicates and integrates an Orc hierarchy into the game’s emergent narrative.

There is a continual upheaval of both what you would expect fodder enemies to do with their time and what you would expect from a game otherwise centered on delivering a predetermined, discrete tale. You see, as time passes, these Orcs and Uruks go about their lives with their weaknesses, strengths, desires, vices, and history. For instance, one lower ranking grunt may make a power grab at the captain above him. If successful, he will move up. If not, he leaves a hole for an even lower foe to advance.

You will develop a personal history with your ladder of Uruk. One warchief of never failed to call me a coward, relishing that he forced me to retreat once. (Like, once, dude. Let it go!) Another bore the scars of my sword from our first encounter to our last, ending with my blade finishing what it started so long ago. And it’s remarkable just how much they can react to and, just as importantly, vocalize. They call you out with incredible specificity, especially when you meet the hand that fell you.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

More than advancing graphic fidelity and 3D-modeled, physically accurate sound echoing, this is one of the first things you will encounter in the new generation and realize what beefier machines can offer. It is emergent yet personal, feeling both wide open to reaction and designed with staid consideration. It is finally an open world that feels entirely open while being an actual world. And once you are able to directly manipulate Orcs in the hierarchy, a modicum of unexpected political strategy enters the mix.

It’s important to mention alongside this fantastic systemic development that it integrates a refined retelling of some previously explored mechanics. The combat is wholly lifted from the Arkham series, using unreal acrobatics to enable a fluid, combo-oriented fighting system. Attack, dodge, and counter, with special variants directed towards specific enemies. For instance, shielded enemies require you to flip over them, and others only can be killed by stealth. Sound familiar?

It is especially evident where the inspiration came from as you earn upgrades to your combat that allow you to use your special moves that would normally require a high combo to only need a small one. And as you sneak around, using arrows to attract and sonically manipulate wandering guards, you realize that both Arkham managed to nail action and stealth all in one go and that Shadow of Mordor managed to not fuck it up. (More superficially, the way Talion’s cape flows around him in a fashion eerily identical to Batman’s cape.)

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

And in a smart move, opting to fuse with a more interesting and more appropriate method for traversal, the freerunning over obstacles and up walls comes straight from Assassin’s Creed. It’s simple but satisfying pushing your stick a direction and having Talion figure out a badass way up there, making huge leaps from window to window and leaping sizable gaps.

But the game also makes wise improvements. For instance, rather than have to climb down or jump down from only particular points, you just leap and it’s all good on the ground. And if you run for a bit, you engage with a super fast wraith run, speeding up otherwise tedious late-game maneuvers. Also, believe it or not, the stealth actually works.

Then, rather than piling on more and more gadgets and weapons, you only ever have you bow, your dagger, and your sword and then get to bind with runes that enable special abilities. Some allow you to regain health as you inflict damage while others or prevent Uruk from running away. Most of them, though, allow for experimentation and noteworthy shifts in play styles.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

Combined with increasingly complex enemies and terrain, fighting becomes as interesting and as personal as the Nemesis System. Rather than being a set of mechanics that fill out some arbitrary (and potentially imaginary) content requirement, combat in the game only serves to become more layered and nuanced but never complicated or rote.

Unfortunately, and somewhat surprisingly, the scripted parts of the game are the bits that are lacking. Missions are often simplistic and lack any impetus to internalize its context. So much of what was made to be deliberately fun and engaging ended up being obstacles to the juicy bits of Nemesis. Then the instilled drama of slow motion sword-bashing and head-rolling can eventually take its toll on your patience.

There’s also a distinct lack of an endgame regarding the Nemesis System. It ambiguously (yet strongly) motivates you to engage with its advancing slots and players but never reaches a conclusion beyond having reached your self-proclaimed goal of overtaking the Orc military society. And while a sharp-looking game, it only becomes a good-looking one after it opens up in the second half.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

Those, however, are middling affections floating amidst the scope of a feature that should define other open-world games that follow. Innovation lacks in the majority of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor‘s designed feature set, borrowing from successful and tested franchises that have come before it, but refinement is not lost on this melting pot. It all supports the Nemesis System, a network of intrigue and personalization meant to drag make-believe vendettas into a shifting, systemic tableau. It comes together in one of the best action packages of the year.

+ Borrows and refines combat and traversal from tried and true methods
+ The Nemesis System makes slaying hundreds of Uruk (and even death) interesting
+ Rune system makes meaningful changes to your play style
– Lack of goal to Nemesis makes the climb up the ladder eventually feel fruitless
– Terribly bland campaign missions

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

Game Review: Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor
Release: September 30, 2014
Genre: Third-person action
Developer: Monolith Productions
Available Platforms: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC
Players: Single-player
MSRP: $59.99
Website: https://www.shadowofmordor.com/

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Amalgams and Whatnot

Amalgams and Whatnot

There’s a trailer for an upcoming game that everyone’s been talking about. (I know. What a shock!) It’s an eight-minute walkthrough for Monolith Productions’ Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor wherein the protagonist—a ranger by the name of Talion—shows off his Wraith-like abilities by peering into the nether, controlling simple minds, and racking up a body count higher than the actual The Lord of the Rings movies.

It looks cool. Correction: it looks super cool. It captures much of what makes the battles of the films so cool, which is to say it makes the heroes feel powerful and the big bad guys commensurate, ensuring that victories feel worthwhile. The literal balance isn’t right, but hey, this is a pre-alpha build. And besides, it feels right. I mean, I’ve never sliced the head off of an orc, but I imagine it feels pretty good after slugging it out with him with sword and shield.

The crux of the trailer is highlighting the fact that every single playthrough of the game will be unique. Major enemies (and there are a lot of them) each have their own memetic interpretation and physical reminders of past events in the world. For instance, it could be as obvious as Orthog Troll Slayer having burn scars from Talion and his last fiery encounter, but it could also mean Ratbag’s career path goes down a different path, leading us to find him in one place instead of another.

It’s called the Nemesis system and seems pretty slick. Given that this is a game from Monolith, I have no small amount of faith in the game following through with the words of its marketing. We do have the results of F.E.A.R. and Condemned to back it up, so a modicum of respect is appropriate. Even their last Tolkien outing fared pretty well.

The strange thing is that bits and pieces of the trailer (once you get past the highfalutin talk of dynamic, persistent, and determinant world interactions) feel just a bit…off. Perhaps just a tad too familiar, so much so that they actually seem too foreign to work. In reality, those moments of discontent—those moments where you try to recall something on the tip of your tongue while the answer hops away—are too familiar.

That’s because they are too familiar. It combines nearly every pillar of every successful franchise in the past few years into a single game and applies its own layer of specificity (which, obviously, is the most important part, but we’ll get there later). Talion can climb around on just about any piece of the environment, moving around the world like a Nathan Drake. He strikes with the speed and ferocity—and single-buttonness—of Batman in the Arkham series. Then his Wraith vision gives him Assassin’s Creed-like insight into any given encounter.

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor

Each of these pieces has been previously adopted into other games as well, perhaps for similar reasons. Jumping and clambering about ledges and walls and conveniently placed ropes, we get hints of Tomb Raider as well, the bounciness of Croft and Drake’s collective climbing abilities noteworthy and inhuman in every regard.

The Arkham implementation of combat has been shoehorned into so many varied titles from Captain America: Super Soldier to The Amazing Spider-Man. Quick, one-time button presses that directly correspond to attack and defense, and each one as a response to an immediate need.

Detective vision has been the bane of many game critics’ existence. Named as such after the Arkham version as well, its origins go far deeper. Assassin’s Creed‘s Eagle Vision accomplishes the same thing, and The Amazing Spider-Man actually has something similar. Dishonored does it, too. But it’s a fine line between an addendum ability thrown in at the end of production and one that is finely integrated into the experience. Not sure where Shadow of Mordor lies yet.

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor

It’s very clear, though, that outside of the open world of responsive and unique enemies, Shadow of Mordor is really an amalgam of past mechanics du jour. It seems to have looked at a Rolodex of successful franchises in the past five years and said, “We’ll take one of each of those.” Once the initial amazement faded, a lot of ire of the trailer began to surface for this exact reason.

The thing to remember, however, is that it’s the particulars that make something work or fall apart. You know, devils and details and all that. Take a look at Resogun, one of the best games from last year. It was, without question, a simple cocktail of bullet hell games, Defender, and its own past amalgam of old school tropes Super Stardust HD.

It worked precisely because it combined all of those familiar elements in such a specific way. Like a surgeon, it cut out laser-level portions of things you’re accustomed to and then like Frankenstein, stitched it all together into something new. It’s the same reason why you can take flour, butter, and eggs and end up with either a bunch of great pancakes or a ruined Sunday brunch. It’s the particulars that matter.

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor

Of course, the argument of familiarity is also an authentic one. A lot of resources obviously went into the whole Nemesis system; it’s not easy creating an open world that wholly responds to player actions like that. It’s pretty easy to cobble together proven successes when you run out of time to gin up something entirely original.

But that is also a cynical way of looking at it. The auteurship involved in mold individual corners of a simple box elevate or degrade it either to art or a travesty. We are, after all, all just lumps of carbon and water; what makes any of us better than another? The details, of course. That’s where all the devils live, after all.

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Not Really Exploring Gotham

Not Really Exploring Gotham

The latest Batman: Arkham game came out last Friday to rather tepid reviews, although I say that only given the fact that Asylum and City both racked up a ridiculous amount of year-end awards and Batman: Arkham Origins appears to be poised only to get Most “Eh, It Was All Right” of the Year. I’m still working my way through it (few outlets outside of the big ones got advanced copies) and a review will be coming soon, but I have some thoughts on it as it stands now.

Asylum was a taut little adventure that felt like a simultaneously expansive and claustrophobic adventure, something like shuttling through a pitch black roller coaster and you can only sense how close the walls and rafters are as they zoom by your head. (It’s also one of my favorite games of all time.) City introduced, well, a city: Arkham City, in fact. It was a the result of former Arkham Asylum director Quincy Sharp becoming mayor of Gotham and turning the projects of the city into one big ol’ outdoor, poorly maintained prison.

It allowed the player to explore Gotham in a way we’d always wanted: freely, albeit a small subsection of it that is largely disgusting slums and dirty streets. Batman’s cape gliding mechanic from Asylum translated to the open world rather well, especially with the addition of the grapnel boost which allowed you to hook onto ledges and launch yourself higher and faster for sustained travel. It actually reminded me of how amazing it felt in Spider-Man 2, slinging webs and zipping around the city like a spandex-clad god. It is a comparison all open world superhero games aspire to make.

Batman: Arkham City

The single problem I had with the system was that right in the middle of the city was a huge facility, locked down the private military firm TYGER. It presented you with an immense impasse if you wanted to travel from one side of the city to the other, forcing you to go around because getting into it early would break the story’s flow. It was, needless to say, a gigantic bummer.

Now imagine that instead of one instance where that’s the case, they just made an entire city of grapnel roadblocks and gliding obstacles. That is Batman: Arkham Origins. A lot of people will casually call it polish or refinement, and though it is a horribly generic term when it comes to games criticism, it is still a true statement.

Origins comes from a new developer, Rocksteady Studios opting for Warner Bros. Games Montreal to take a crack at their masterful take on the storied property. And each time they failed to design or implement some structure to meaningfully allow you to traverse the city, they also failed to give you a satisfying experience. Not just because we have a game that does it better but because it is altogether frustrating.

Batman: Arkham Origins

It seems like half the buildings don’t let you grapnel up to the tops for no other reason than just because. And all those communications towers you have to solve to unlock fast travel destinations? Not a chance. Those are no fly zones even though their entire heights are so far below the grapnel’s range and half of them are shorter than the buildings surrounding them. I don’t even recall seeing the little red circle-cross in City, but it might as well be permanently affixed to the screen in Origins.

This may not seem like a big deal, but comprehensiveness is what makes an open world game. Spider-Man 2‘s decision to attach webs to the open air if it served the flow of locomotion was a critical one because it made the world feel complete. Getting from one place to another was slick, fast, and fun. Getting to the top of any building was just a matter of you understanding how to flip your way up there, not figuring out how to cheat the game.

Then look at Grand Theft Auto V. The previous iterations were great as well, but this Los Santos is undoubted the best city Rockstar has ever crafted because of the attention to detail. There are no roads that exist in that game that, as you approach them, turn out to be unattainable mirages. And all the small stuff from the rumble strips to the crumple barriers make the city feel like something you’re intimately familiar with.

Batman: Arkham Origins

Now we have Origins. Fast travel was ostensibly added because this game world is even larger than City, but I use it even when I have to travel just a few hundred meters because I know the frustration involved in bumping into the limitations of the game’s travel mechanics. If fast travel had been in City, I wouldn’t have used it because seeing that loading sequence would have broken the visage of a complete, real city. Now I just don’t care because I don’t want to be frustrated at a game that has a lot of other good things going for it.

Yes, there is a lot of good to Origins and I’ll put all of those thoughts (and more bad ones) into a review later this week, but this little nugget I had to get off my chest immediately. It’s a new developer, sure, and you can’t expect different and better at the same time (though it’s nice when we get it), but this is still an unfortunate turn. I like Batman: Arkham Origins, but it also took one of the best parts of Batman: Arkham City and turned it into a mess.

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The Atomic Unit Of Games

The Atomic Unit of Games

Listening to a recent Idle Thumbs episode (the one with The Fullbright Company’s Steve Gaynor), a reader asked a question that prompted an interesting notion from Chris Remo: atomic units. In the context of the response from Remo, he was saying that Tetris is basically a fundamental concept in video games and called it “atomic,” an implicit analogy to how atoms are pretty much the base unit for matter composition. It was a simple, almost throwaway line, but it really made me think: are there things in video games we can call atomic?

If your first instinct is to bring up subatomic particles, then all you’re really doing is building the case for the answer to be in the affirmative. Just as there are protons and electrons and so on and so forth, Tetris can similarly be divided in its atomic state to sub-elements. Blocks, for instance, are in probably every video game ever made. Scores are a staple that have been around from the get-go and don’t look to be going anywhere any time soon. We can easily (and almost trivially) subdivide Tetris ad infinitum to fit the subatomic structure. But that’s not what’s interesting here.

More so we’re talking about the conglomeration of indivisible concepts that, once gestalt and made whole, are nigh inseparable as a new idea, such as Tetris. These new ideas cannot be effectively reduced any further. Tetris has been the base of many composite ideas over the years. Many of them are still well within the realm of puzzle games, but that doesn’t stop them from being based on Tetris. It has given way to everything from Dr. Mario to Puzzle Fighter to every match-three game you see today. Tokyo Crash Mobs is built on top of Zuma and Luxor, but it all can be boiled down to the atomic unit of Tetris.

This, perhaps, is what we talk about when we discuss video games reductively. When we say Punch Quest is simply Canabalt but with punching or Jetpack Joyride is Canabalt but with jetpacks, we are really saying that Canabalt is the atomic unit of endless runners. Canabalt is the basest of endless runners because it is pure in its intent, which is endlessly run and jump to avoid falling or crashing to your doom. Anything that Canabalt has to offer is what makes up the endless runner atom.

Then in reductive conversation, we can easily identify those atoms. The combat system in the Arkham series has become atomic. The way crowds sift into singular attacks that prompt rhythmic, univalent responses can be found in Captain America: Super Soldier from 2011 and in Sleeping Dogs from last year. That has become the rhythmic response combat atom.

Denoting types of atoms is an interesting subject, too, which is to say that each composition of subatomic particles results in a different element. In that same way, the subatomic parts of gaming come together to form different atoms. Going back to Canabalt, its subatomic parts are running and jumping, but so are Mario‘s. So are every other action or adventure game ever made, but put together with forced scrolling, we have the endless runner atom.

You’ll notice, though, that this is not new. Super Mario World actually had these bits and pieces before in levels that had forced scrolling, but that also had enemies and a goal and so many other things that it is a conglomeration of other atomic pieces. Distilled to its essence, Canabalt is the endless runner base.

New atoms are discovered (or created, depending on your philosophical stance on the subject), too. Speaking to the recent Dead Space 3, it caps of a trilogy that created the methodology of creature-killing that depends solely on dismembering enemies. Necromorphs, the zombie-ish foes lost in space that Isaac Clarke finds himself to be fighting interminably, can only be defeated by shooting off limbs one at a time. This is something that hasn’t quite made it into other games (the shooting of enemies being a subatomic particle), but that doesn’t mean it won’t. Not all atoms are in all matter, after all.

Perhaps that’s why we get so excited when something new comes along like the active reload from Gears of War or the aforementioned dismembering combat style of Dead Space; it’s because it’s a discovery. It is analogous (if not tantamount) to the actual discovery/creation of new elements in the real world. We are part of the process when we take part in games that bring to light these new atoms of the table of gaming elements. We can see the fundamental framework in which our digital worlds work and we know what has been made from them.

But we don’t know what can be made, and that is so very exciting.

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