Shadow of Mordor: The Padding of the Rings

Everyone who has played Shadow of Mordor has a story about their favorite nemesis. That orc or uruk who just keeps beating you to the ground, or always getting away – returning later with scars and bruisers ready to go for round 2.  For me, there was a duo of bruisers who would inconveniently show up as I was going about my business and expertly pummel me into the ground. Luckily, cause I am playing Talion who has been cursed to never die, I promptly get resurrected at the nearest ancient magic elf tower. However, the orc who kills me gets stronger and more powerful, making it harder to take them down.

Luckily, they usually have weaknesses and to find those out, I just need to mind melt a certain type of orc or another orc captain with my funky elf ghost powers. As I reach out my hand, my ghost buddy takes my shape and my now shimmering blue palm is planted onto the orc, who now looks possessed – which I suppose he is. With a overly dramatic “SEE ME NOW” the elf is able to read the mind of the orc and now I know that my nemesis is vulnerable to fire. After disposing of the mind controlled orc, I set about thinking how to introduce some flame to our next fight.

Turns out this orc captain is having a feast for his crew. I can invade and disrupt the celebrations and, if successful, he will either flee or I get the kill. If he succeeds in holding the feast, or if enough time passes and I do not get around to dealing with it, he will grow in power. There are a few events like these around the map and I am not sure if I will have time to interfere with all of them. There are more powerful orcs that would be an absolute pain if they gained power, so maybe my flammable nemesis will have to wait.

This system, praised in almost every review, is a lot of fun. It gives life to a world in a new way and opens up the game to systemic interactions – such as when dueling with an unknown orc captain and getting my ass kicked, suddenly a caragor rushes onto the scene from the bushes and scares him away. (Caragors are these giant dog/lizard like creatures) Later, when you are able to mind control the orcs, you can try your hand at king maker by manipulating the military hierarchy to put the orcs under your control in the positions you need them to be in. This becomes the main quest in the second part of the game, where having the highest ranking orcs – the warchiefs – under your control becomes the main factor. The best part of mind controlling the orcs, or “branding” them, is seeing groups of orcs walking around the world under your influence, who will join battles on your side and elicit appropriate barks from the enemies.

The world is well created and is alive in a way most other open-world games I have played aren’t. The orcs have small conversations, the captains and warchiefs remember you and you build these emergent love-hate adversarial relationships totally naturally. It is the kind of system that should serve as inspiration to other games, but hasn’t yet.

The combat is fluid, mostly, and pretty brutal. Often the camera will switch into slow motion as you gruesomely decapitate an orc, blood flying everywhere as the orc’s head slowly soars over your head.  The game even has a special camera mode so you can make sure to catch the action and gore for posterity. A little gross, particularly as the game tries to humanize the orcs by giving them personalities and a culture. It elevates them from the mere cannon fodder that NPCs often inhabit in other open world games. They don’t just exist, they are. It is a testament to the craft and love Monolith Studios poured into the game.

You are armed with three weapons – sword, knife, and bow – each allowing for a different approach which you can combine as you see fit. The sword is for jumping in and hacking wildly. The knife is used for stealth and insta-kill takedowns (as long as you remain hidden) and the bow can take out enemies from afar. As you progress and take out captains, you gain runes which are used to enhance your combat abilities, some of which make certain play styles more efficient. In addition, there is a skill tree which you unlock slowly over time that grants Talion and his elf friend special abilities that you can add to your combat kit and allow you to deal with certain situations in a different way, sometimes even introducing new systems into the mix for you to play around with. It is incredibly rewarding even though there were a handful of skills I barely used.

Yet, it still falls short because in pulling the good things from previous open world games, it also pulls the bad.

First off, there are too many collectibles that do not really matter except to increase the completion score. Finding artifacts that gave some background lore to the characters was interesting, but the survival and hunting challenges seem to be added just to have another thing to do. The most disappointing was collecting what is called Ithildin, which are these luminous seals that as you collect, construct what looks like an elven gateway – like from the movie! It looked intriguing but the reward didn’t even come close to match the build-up.

Second, it also adds padded content in the form of a second, gated area. While there is a contrast in look and feel of the two (one is mud, the other is green) the second area doesn’t add anything that couldn’t have been included in the first. Of course, there are a few bigger nasties, and your buddy character is different, but it mainly rehashes the first area in all ways except the main quest, which did not need a complete second area to accommodate. Shadow of Mordor is very entertaining but a whole new area with basically the same things, just a bit harder, really feels like padding. The nemesis system is so interesting and invites experimentation, another area with just more junk to do gets in the way.

Of course, the map is littered with side quests and towers you need to unlock. The enjoyable side missions are those connected with your weapons – your sword, bow, and knife – which increase the amount of runes you can attach to them. Only about half of these missions need to be completed to unlock the special abilities of your weapons, which is good if you do not have the time or the will to slog through them. I found these missions engaging because they set goals under certain limitations. When you reach the second half of the game, Talion becomes quite powerful and the whole game becomes rather easy. Missions such as sneaking through a whole orc stronghold without being spotted and without killing anyone were still challenging despite the power I had built up and were much needed at that stage of the game. However, there are other missions that were particularly bothersome, and these were the outcast missions. Unlike the other side missions, these are not initially shown on the map. Instead, as you roam around you will come across some orcs being exceptionally cruel to some human slaves. Kill the orcs, free the slaves, and you will get a new mission where you need to free even more slaves. These missions were all the same and the rewards were negligible so I couldn’t make myself finish them. Unfortunately, for some reason, there are more outcast missions than any other type of side mission in the game.

All these elements just feel like padding. Distractions from an already interesting and novel game.

The most egregious part of the game was the number of Quick Time Events. I really hope games stop adding these in. Especially when the final battle is just a series of quick time events. You spend most of the game learning how to fight specialized orc captains and chiefs, taming giant monsters, and generally dying over and over until you become powerful enough to wipe entire orc strongholds. The final bad guy, instead of a challenge that requires a culmination of all the skills and combat knowledge you have gained, is downed with a few quick time events. Mash “A” to finish the game.

It was very anti-climactic, even from a cinematic point of view. The story is passable at best, which is a shame because the voice acting is generally very good, so it was a surprise they wanted to hinge the ending of the game on the narrative aspect rather than the combat aspect. They could even have incorporated all the past orcs you had clashed with and bested, presented the history of your nemeses in some way. Instead, press a few buttons and watch the credits roll.

In the end, the game doesn’t really have much to say. Elements of previous genre titles are included and mixed well and the nemesis system certainly is special, but on the whole, the game is rather tone deaf. Women characters are all damselled or fridged for no reason whatsoever. There isn’t any narrative reason for this save for one instance perhaps, not that it would have made it better if there was. The worst case of this is when a quest is to rescue Lithariel, an elf princess and fighter. By all accounts, she is introduced as a competent warrior but the main quest she is part of, the game has you drag her out of an orc stronghold, dropping her like a sack of potatoes to fight off incoming enemies. Why?

Half the game is about effectively enslaving orcs, which themselves are slavers, and while the irony isn’t completely lost on Talion, his elf buddy waves it away in the name of revenge and power. While technically, the game says you control them by fear, the effect is the same. By branding the orcs, you are enslaving them against their will to fight for you, blurring the lines between the heroes and the villains in the story. Not necessarily a bad thing in a story, but the game doesn’t explore it at all in any meaningful capacity.

The end result is a very enjoyable open-world game that lasts too long, is padded with the same meaningless tasks as other games of the genre, and a game that is afraid of taking risks or giving punches in its story. For a major studio release, it is par for the course. It is fun to play and slay orcs, but besides the nemesis system, the game isn’t memorable.

 

 

 

Blues and Bullets: Review of a Dead Game

Episodic games always come with the chance of never getting to the end of the game. I tend to avoid them at all costs, choosing to purchase only after the entire season has been released. However, when Blues and Bullets came along, it looked exactly like the kind of game I would enjoy so I went in early and purchased both episodes when they were released. I haven’t seen a game do Noir this good. It takes all the tropes and jams them into a story with kidnappings and grotesque cults in an alternate reality 1930’s United States. The Volstead Act is still in effect, so prohibition is in full swing and Capone was never caught.

You play as Elliot Ness, former hard-boiled detective turned pie baker in his diner. Life is pretty good, despite being alone and having your police career end after an insidious case of missing children. You spend your days serving burgers and getting shit from your old police buddies until a messenger from Al Capone, your old arch-nemesis, arrives to summon you. The old criminal needs your help to track down his kidnapped daughter, and you reluctantly agree to do it for her. Ness’s guilt of his past case failing fuels the fire he brings to investigating this new case, and Capone’s daughter is just one of many children that have gone missing.

Are they connected? Probably, but it doesn’t matter.

The game is a series of scenes where you either explore and talk to people a la Life is Strange/Telltale games or investigate crime scenes. This latter part is probably the best, where you look for clues and then have to piece them together to deduce what happened. The challenge is more so in finding the clues than putting it together but it is done in a way which proves satisfying. The clues are presented as photos and you need to attach the correct photos to the bulletin board much like the standard web created in procedural police serials.

There are also some shooting bits, but these get boring fast. They are no more than hiding behind cover and shooting like laser gun arcade games and don’t serve much of a purpose besides adding some violence to an already gruesome tale. It also did not make any sense within in the narrative. Brutal murders and occult dismemberment is fine, but having Ness gun down 15 of Capone’s men and then spare him made the bodies meaningless in a game which everything should be meaningful.

It is noir as hell and draws heavily from the genre, but it still finds ways to include humour and one instance in particular, a bit of refreshing but completely unexpected slapstick. The choices you make have an affect more so on future conversations and how characters react to you than how the story unfolds (as far as I could tell anyway) and give the player the power to determine what kind of person Ness is.

We know he is tormented by his past and has a reliance on alcohol (which is illegal and Ness is somewhat a crusader against it, in public anyway) but how does he act in the situations he is in? We can play Ness as a person bent on revenge at all costs, a person who hides his flaws through poor jokes, or maybe we want Ness to be pragmatic and honest. Whatever you choose, the characters you interact with respond accordingly. This isn’t some false choice where whatever you choose results in the same response.

Early on in a scene in the diner, one of your former co-workers is hassling you about his burger taking too long. From the manner this guy talks you can tell he is an asshole. He asks Ness to go easy on the chilli sauce and as you prepare the burger, the game prompts you to ask if you want to add some sauce to the burger. And then some more. Maybe there should be some more? Depending on how much chilli you add the police officer’s response to your burger is going to be different.

It is kind of funny but it can also be sad. As the police officer leaves, whether you spiced his burger or not, Ness can respond in different ways. The game does not tell you what Ness will say, but instead will give you an adjective – friendly, angry, reserved? – the game asks. Play it angry, and it looks like these two have some bad blood between them, maybe they have never liked each other, or maybe something happened between them. Respond friendly, and these two are awkward colleagues who tease each other.

The dialogue system defined the way the relationship was between Ness and the police officer and you can interpret it as much as you want. I really liked this because it didn’t stress me out that I would choose the “bad” option or have to go through all of the options to get the information I needed.

It takes the Telltale formula and throws a lot of stuff in it – elaborate sets, investigations, shoot-outs. The content of the game is almost as diverse as the story and setting. It sometimes feels too much, and this might have had a hand in the game’s ultimate demise.

The setting was intriguing and I broke my rule of staying away and I was rewarded with a very good, sometimes awkward, and stylish as hell narrative game. I also rewarded myself with a game that will never be finished. Although there was never an official statement saying that the studio closed down, Internet sleuthing revealed that the company was slowly losing its key staff. Now, it’s been a over a year (Episode 2 was released in March 2016) and A Crowd of Monster’s website no longer exists.

No one knows what really happened but it’s easy to speculate that the studio’s plan was to use sales from each episode to fund the next – a risky business move considering the new IP and relatively unknown status of the developer, which was further complicated by porting the first episode to consoles as soon as possible. This not only drew resources away from completing the other chapters, but it delayed the release of chapter two. There was a year between the first and second episode as well, which is a lot of time for fans to maintain interest.

A Crowd of Monsters did a few unusual, if not controversial, things with Blues and Bullets. The first was to offer a season pass. Customers who got the pass paid a higher price up front but would get access to all future episodes. Coming from a brand new indie studio working with an original IP, it’s a bold ask. It might be cynical, but maybe they knew they would run out of money even if the first episode did modestly well.

Another red flag came when they were initially offering the second episode only with a season pass, effectively making people who only bought the first episode to buy the second episode at a much greater price than the first. This was later taken back and changed by the studio with an added discount. It didn’t look good and the “sorry!” discount probably hurt a lot more than it helped. At that stage, they weren’t trying to incentivize people on the fence to get the game but rather convince people who were already fans that they had insulted to feel better and buy.

I understand the benefits of episodic released from both a developer and a consumer stand-point. Developers get to stagger their release schedule and recover some costs up front which should allow them to lock in resources for the rest of the episodes. Consumers get to experience the game at a set pace which helps keep “the conversation” manageable for those who do not have much free time to play and the costs associated with the game are lower and more spread out which make it more manageable for some.

Blues and Bullets failed to make the most of both of these advantages.

First off, I believe that A Crowd of Monsters was hurting for resources early on and needed to desperately show some returns for the studio and its investors. It is clear that they were going for a highly polished game but for whatever reason they implemented pricing practices that were dubious at best. The thing with episodic games is that you have to be pretty sure you can get it done one way or another before you start releasing the episodes.

Telltale games and DONTNOD are both successful from the episodic format so we know it works. Even a small indie game like Dreamfall is getting complete (if it isn’t already) and so is Kentucky Route Zero, even if time between episodes is incredibly long. The point is that these developers most likely planned on being able to complete most of their game in time whether it did well or not.  An episodic business model is not sustainable if you can’t foresee delivering on the majority of the episodes from the beginning.

Secondly, the time between episodes helps build hype and anticipation. We saw this during the release of Life is Strange’s episodes and the conversations that happened on Twitter and Reddit. We see this in TV, in Game of Thrones, where time between each episode is used to build interest and anticipation from the fans discussing their theories and speculating about what might happen next week. The suspense between episodes prevents the game (or TV show) from ever completely leaving the minds of its fans. However, with a year between the two episodes, there was plenty of time for Blues and Bullets to become a mere memory.  The core story of Blues and Bullets doesn’t lend itself to the nail-biting suspense either.

There was no real cliffhanger at the end of the first episode. It was mostly an introduction and it did it’s job very well but the episode ends on a character – most likely Capone’s daughter – surviving in the dungeon she is being kept in. The central mystery of the game is to find out what happened to her and who took her prisoner. The problem is we know the payoff will come later and what was needed was a cliffhanger about the characters we got to know and care about. Otherwise we don’t have anything to talk about between episodes.

And there’s a lot of messed up stuff in Blues and Bullets – body mutilation, cultists wearing the skulls of what look like deer, zombie bodyguards, and a Russian Nuclear submarine. Even though each episode ended on an attempted cliffhanger, there was nothing to really talk about. The Russian guy is a small bad guy and the deer cultists are the real big bad guys. The game doesn’t give us a lot to speculate about. Compared to Life is Strange, Blues and Bullets feels hollow because it is based so much on noir tropes that we already “know” the characters. We are here for the setting and craziness. Life is Strange takes place in a relatively boring place but the characters are unique and relatable in a way that Blues and Bullets’s characters probably will never be. And that is not an inherently bad thing – two different games and all that – but its also a lost opportunity.

I like the characters in Blues and Bullets but I also know that they are mostly cardboard set pieces to move around. Even Elliot Ness, the heart and soul of the game, follows familiar tropes of noir detectives we have seen time and time again since Philip Marlowe.

Looking around the Internet I see a small but dedicated fan following that has been almost erased by the lack of communication from the now non-existent studio. I stumbled across it on Steam and vaguely remembered someone on a podcast talking briefly about it. I believe it could have survived if more people had heard of it but it is a moot point now. I really wish I could see the end of Blues and Bullets. Maybe five episodes is what was needed to work on the not so great parts of the game. The ending of Chapter Two definitely had some great potential.

 

 

 

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