Tag Archives: Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor

The Year in Review: #1 Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

The Year in Review: #1 Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

To talk about Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, I have to first talk about Grand Theft Auto V, which also was number four in 2013’s Year in Review. The Rockstar opus is, perhaps, a game that singularly qualifies what it means to have an open world. It feels unbelievably full, like it’s about to burst at the seams with just stuff.

It is also something they have done before and continued to iterate and improve upon since the first Grand Theft Auto in 1997. More than that, it’s something everyone else has been doing for quite some time as well. The urban fervor is ripe with possibilities in an open world. Steal cars, fire guns, and blow stuff up. The recipe is something we know well à la Mafia II, Watch Dogs, and Saints Row.

Bits and pieces change here and there, but the overall flavor remains the same. Even Red Dead Redemption, one of my favorite games and one set in a rather original time and place, still felt overly familiar. (Not least of all because it was another Rockstar joint, but we can get to that another time.) And then games that remix large portions of the framework like Infamous creates an open world with much to be desired.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

Here is where we find Shadow of Mordor. It stands tall among others who attempt to imbue a digital landscape with some semblance of life by doing things drastically differently. Leaving the clichés of inner city freedom behind, we are in a wholly fantastical place of orcs, elves, and possessive yet empowering ghosts. The closest we had before this was the Assassin’s Creed series (which, admittedly, is structurally similar to a fault), but those were still tied to a reality of physical consequences and historical architecture.

A city is easy to fill, albeit if only in concept and not execution. Civilians freely wander the sidewalks, drive their cars, and go about their day. Cats, dogs, and birds can turn a park from an empty lot to a visual treat as you plow through on your blood-soaked rampage. Gin up some construction and place some choice incidents and you have a town that feels lived in.

A different time and place for Shadow of Mordor does not guarantee a better open world, as proven by The Saboteur (decent, but not great). In fact, filling up a fantasy world does not give you the opportunity to stuff the turkey with all the usual suspects. And if not a vibrant social or wildlife infestation, interesting gameplay has to make the sandbox compelling.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

This is why Shadow of Mordor is so interesting and so well worth playing. It makes its world of dark fantasy feel alive and worth exploring because its gameplay and mechanics make it feel alive and worth exploring. Its Nemesis system creates an entire living, breathing network of militant dynamics and social hierarchies. It injects your otherwise run of the mill encounters with fodder enemies something personal and unique.

Other games create a facade of a beating heart. Those people you run over with your car and buildings that you blow up with your bombs mean nothing in the grand scheme of things. You outrun the cops and you marvel at the indestructible construction of fictional cities. Most games are, if nothing else, but a facade for storytelling.

But Shadow of Mordor takes one more layer away from that mask by creating these customized and deserving foes. For each fellow that strikes you down, you create someone with a name, but it feels like he was there all along. As he rises through the ranks with each battle you fight, it becomes something perverse, drawing inklings of pride for your repeat offender.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

It is something that, programmatically, is nothing overtly memorable. Data like names and fight results are stored and analyzed by the terabyte every second in the fighting game community. But the presentation makes it so special. They hate you. They kill you. They remember you. It feels very much like you are walking a deadly walk into a world that existed long before you ever came around with your sword and dagger (which is also really just a sword, the second best part of the game).

By breaking the mold of what makes an open world feel like an actual locale of people and places and things, Shadow of Mordor creates something special. It’s unique for the genre and it is felt as unique by you and me as the players. The world doesn’t just feel alive but it feels like it is something that exists just for you. And it’s why Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is my number one game of the year.

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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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Trailer Roundup: Tekken 7, Battleborn, and More

Trailer Roundup: Tekken 7, Battleborn, and More

Okay, we can all admit it: I’m terrible at keeping a schedule. I mean, you don’t have to admit it, but it really makes me feel better not doing it alone. I missed a week and now I’m doing this on a Tuesday. I know you all normally set your clocks to when a Trailer Roundup goes up, but let’s just go with it this week, huh? Can’t we all just get along?

Besides, there are some, like, big announcements that happened. Let’s get to it!

Tekken 7

Here’s another confession: I lost the thread to the Tekken story so god damn long ago. I only have the faintest idea of what is going on in this trailer, but I do know that based on the reaction from when it was announced at Evo 2014, people are excited for Tekken 7. Also, major props for sticking with the straight numerical naming scheme for all these years. No timeframe specified, but it will be coming to next-gen consoles.

Battleborn

I am, like, 90% sure that Mikey Neumann had 100% to do with the song in this trailer for Battleborn, the upcoming game from Gearbox Software. While you can’t really tell from the video, Battleborn is an FPS with co-op, loot, and RPG-style growth mechanics. It sounds an awful lot like Borderlands, especially when Gearbox President Randy Pitchford describes it.

However, it really sounds more like a MOBA that happens to be from a first-person perspective, but don’t tell them that. Creative director Randy Varnell sounded weirdly defensive about being called a MOBA in this Polygon piece. Doesn’t matter, though. Gearbox seems to have a pretty good handle on the co-op shooter thing. It will launch on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC in 2015.

The Wolf Among Us

If you haven’t been keeping up with this first season of The Wolf Among Us, you’ve been missing out. It’s not quite the groundbreaking or genre-redefining experience as The Walking Dead, but it’s still quite the harrowing collection of episodic content. The last episode came out last week, and seems appropriately titled as Cry Wolf. Hopefully I’ll blow through it tomorrow and then we can talk about it!

Back to Bed

Here’s what I know about Back to Bed by Bedtime Digital Games: it looks…unnerving. I mean, just look at that weird cat thing. Would you trust it to exist? I’m just kidding, though; I know a bit more about the game. It started as a student project in 2011 and then went to Kickstarter last March and is now about to see the light of day this August as a 3D surrealist puzzle game. But seriously, fuck that cat thing.

Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair

I feel like I need to apologize. But I won’t. I never got around to playing this when it came out back in 2012 for the PSP, but now it’ll be making its way to the PS Vita on September 2, and I actually know where I put my Vita, so chances are good I’ll finally be able to play this weird visual novel murder mystery thing.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

I really don’t know why Troy Baker isn’t a movie star yet. Perhaps he doesn’t really want to be one, but he’s got both the chops and the looks, and he’s good at giving PR-fueled answers in interviews. Either way, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is really quite the interesting game from what I’ve played, and I really can’t wait for the full release on October 7.

VizionEck

I mean, it’s possible that VizionEck is a competitive first-person shooter. Hell, it might even be a game, but just don’t tell this inscrutable trailer that. The website does a slightly better job of describing what the hell it is you’re seeing, but it doesn’t really matter. I’m already intrigued. It’s headed to the PlayStation 4 sometime this year.

Assassin’s Creed Unity

Gosh does Ubisoft know how to make gorgeous cutscenes. And now that technology is catching up with their visual aspirations, their games are becoming equally beautiful. If only they could make a mechanically fun game, too. At this point, I feel like any sufficiently large production will garner a bevy of E3 awards, which of course isn’t anyone’s fault in particular. More money means a more polished and idealized vertical slice, and that’s how you win those awards. Find out if Assassin’s Creed Unity deserved them on October 28.

Hyrule Warriors

I’m still not wholly convinced about the idea of Hyrule Warriors, but I will say that with each trailer that comes out, my interested is piqued just a little more. I appreciate the layers that the fantastical seems to add the Dynasty Warriors formula, but I don’t know if it’ll carry my interest for longer than an hour or two, and it doesn’t seem like Nintendo is very much invested in it (the website is a freaking product page, and Nintendo’s official channel is super behind on its trailers). Releases September 26 for Wii U.

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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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