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‘Middle-Earth: Shadow of War’ – a Phenomenal Gameplay Experience Let Down by an Underwhelming Story

iddle-Earth: Shadow of War is quite simply one of the most mechanically exquisite games I’ve played in a long time.

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Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is quite simply one of the most mechanically exquisite games I’ve played in a long time.

The combat is intense and visceral, the controls tight and responsive, the difficulty perfectly balanced, and with some significant upgrades to the Nemesis and progression systems, it also possesses an enviable level of depth. However, Shadow of War is held back by its many narrative failings and its abysmal treatment of Tolkien’s work – problems that, no matter how absurdly fun the game is to play, can’t be overlooked.

The game begins with protagonists Talion and Celebrimbor – the Elven wraith who possesses Talion’s body, making him immortal in the process – ensconced within the very heart of Mount Doom, hard at work crafting a new ring of power capable of rivalling Sauron’s and thus giving them the strength they need to overthrow the Dark Lord. Unfortunately, no sooner have they applied the finishing touches to their mighty new trinket, than Celebrimbor is captured by Shelob (in the form of a sexy goth woman rather than the gargantuan, nightmare-inducing spider she’s depicted as in The Lord of the Rings) and held to ransom.

From this point on, the game essentially devolves into 3 interconnected stories. One follows Elven assassin Eltariel and her endless quest to destroy the Nazgul, another chronicle’s the final days of the beleaguered city of Minas Ithil, while the third and most significant focuses on Talion and Celebrimbor’s efforts to construct their own army of Orcs so as to defeat Sauron. Strangely, given the nature of the source material, it’s a tale as much about power fantasies and personal revenge as it is good overcoming evil.

In principal, it’s an enticing proposition; a multi-faceted story exploring a range of themes, set within the distinctive, evocative realms of Gondor and Mordor. However, in practice, it feels fractured and incoherent.

Almost as soon as the introductory sequence has finished, the player is bombarded with a startling array of side-quests and optional tasks that, though unquestionably fun, prevent the story from gaining any real momentum, especially as Talion/Celebrimbor’s quest to depose Sauron is delayed until they’ve first assisted the Gondorians in Minas Ithil and have reclaimed their lost ring. But, even when the player has gained the ability to conquer forts and dominate Orcs, and is thus ready to begin their assault on Mordor, the narrative becomes more staggered still as all the usual RPG side distractions – vast new areas to explore, secondary missions to complete, collectibles to find, challenges to be beaten etc. – submerge the player in a deluge of map markers and HUD icons.

Consequently, by the time the player’s actually ready to face Sauron, it’s difficult to remember exactly what’s connecting these disparate narrative threads or why we should care. It’s not a problem unique to Shadow of War – Skyrim’s a great game but suffers from similar issues – however, as Horizon Zero Dawn and Breath of the Wild demonstrated so effectively earlier this year, it is possible to tell disparate stories and fill a game with entertaining content without hampering the pace of the central narrative.

Those who’re just looking for an enjoyable and challenging action RPG might not be overly concerned. As I said above, the individual sub-plots aren’t necessarily bad, they simply struggle to find room to breathe. But for fans of the source material, like myself, it’s hard to ignore Monolith’s extremely disappointing treatment of established Lord of the Rings canon.

Like Shadow of Mordor before it, there are countless changes that, though innocuous enough on their own, are utterly gratuitous – the widespread use of magic or the substitution of Caragors for Wargs, for instance – along with a considerable number of larger, less permissible alterations in both tone and theme.

Talion’s moral ambiguity and Celebrimbor’s imperious, vengeful personality clash jarringly with the Manichaean fight between good and evil that’s at the very heart of Tolkien’s work, while Shelob’s willingness to assist the protagonists (not to mention her shapeshifting powers) and the use of Necromancy by specific, high-ranking Orcs are equally out of place in The Lord of the Rings universe.

I’m not criticising Monolith for using artistic licence. Indeed, so long as it’s implemented for the right reasons, it can help rather than hinder the source material. However, if a developer or publisher is choosing to make an established IP the foundation of their game, I would argue they’re obliged to show it a certain degree of respect. Otherwise, all they’re doing is lazily cashing-in on someone else’s creation because it’s cheaper and easier than designing a brand-new setting from scratch.

Thankfully, the superlative gameplay (almost) makes up for these narrative and thematic shortcomings.

Combat is fast-paced, tactical, and visually stunning. The player feels incredibly powerful when he or she overcomes a gang of viscious grunts, systematically working their way through each low-level individual with a chain of devastating attacks and abilities, culminating in a gloriously violent execution animation. While going toe-to-toe with enemy captains or warchiefs, who are now more diverse than ever, is always a satisfyingly tense, tactical affairs that give the player a real sense of accomplishment when they emerge victorious, especially as these high-level individuals are now able to adapt to Talion’s fighting style. Rely too heavily on his vault ability, for example, and Talion’s opponent will quickly learn how to neutralise it. It’s a sublimely executed mechanic that has the potential to alter the dynamic of the contest and will hopefully become a common feature of the genre in future.

These well-balanced mechanics are supported by an equally impressive progression system. The skill tree, split into 6 broad categories, contains a wide range of abilities that are earned through defeating captains (not grunts) or completing specific tasks. Interestingly, each of these abilities can be further augmented by one of three sub-skills. For instance, once Talion has unlocked the ‘Brace of Daggers’ ability, it can be modified with a secondary skill that increases his throwing speed, the number of projectiles he can throw at any one time, or its potential to deal critical damage. There’s even a pretty robust if hackneyed Destiny-style loot system that further incentivises players to undertake the procedurally generated Nemesis missions, as a shiny new piece of gear is guaranteed to drop each time an enemy captain is killed.

Though powerful weapons, armour, and accessories are standard rewards for defeating powerful foes, the well-documented online marketplace also allows players to spend in-game currency or real-world money on loot boxes containing these items too: the latest example of thinly veiled player exploitation, though one that’s arguably more out of place in a largely single player game like Shadow of War.

Loot boxes aside, the real show stealer here is the updated Nemesis System, the biggest change to which applies the same emergent back-stabbing and opportunity-taking mechanics that made Sauron’s army of Orcs so dynamic in Shadow of Mordor, to Talion’s army.

When not competing for their master’s favour, Talion’s followers can be commanded to complete a range of missions, from infiltrating an enemy warchief’s camp (potentially simplifying the process of capturing one of the game’s imposing forts) to assassinating a particularly difficult captain on the player’s behalf, adding yet another tactical, unique dimension to combat.

Enemies, meanwhile, in terms of appearance, personality, and behaviour, are even more diverse than in Shadow of Mordor. They have an uncanny knack of getting under the player’s skin before and after battle which, in turn, gives rise to numerous personal stories of persistence and redemption specific to each individual player’s experiences. I find there’s nothing more satisfying than turning a gloating commander into one of Talion’s followers.

It’s far from perfect mechanically, however.

Traversal, which is usually quick and fluid, can be imprecise and clunky at times, for example, while during large-scale melees, Talion has a nasty habit of wasting a precious execution finisher on the wrong Orc. But the biggest single issue is the end-game content. Comprised of an unnecessarily large series of increasingly difficult sieges, it turns one of the main game’s most enjoyable elements into a boring, repetitive grind and, since the game’s true ending is only available once this section has been completed, it is, to all intents and purposes, unavoidable. I have a sneaking suspicion this was an intentional design choice; the thinking being that players would be far more tempted to drop a few bucks on loot boxes here and there if doing so would expedite the process.

Still, at least ‘The Shadow Wars’, as this section’s called, gives players ample opportunity to explore the atmospheric environments of Shadow of War’s world at a more leisurely pace, free from the bulging quest list that demands their attention throughout the rest of the game.

The rich greens of Nurnen and its surrounding forest, along with the icy peaks of Seregost are particularly eye-catching, contrasting as they do so markedly with the desolate, ash-strewn plains of Gorgoroth and Cirith Ungol. The character designs too, specifically the Orcs and Uruks, are, if not beautiful, impressive in their sheer grotesqueness, and demonstrate the astonishing amount of work and imagination that must have gone into creating such a diverse collection of NPCs.

And, it’s only fair to say, Monolith brought a comparable level of assiduity to the game’s sound design as well. While not everyone appreciates the DualShock 4’s in-built speaker, it’s used to great effect in Shadow of War, emitting the eerie sounds of the wraith world and the meaty crunch of weapon on flesh to help immerse the player in the game world. The voice acting’s similarly impressive, despite some inconsistent attempts at reproducing the English accent, Troy Baker impressing in particular with his portrayal of world-weary, vengeful, but ultimately virtuous protagonist Talion.

If it was being judged solely on the quality of its gameplay mechanics and the amount of pure, unadulterated enjoyment it provides, Middle-Earth: Shadow of War would be up there as one of the year’s best titles.

However, given that Shadow of War places a heavy emphasis on its story and is, moreover, set in a peerless fantasy world beloved by many, its incoherent narrative, exasperatingly poor use of Tolkien’s legendarium, and incongruous microtransactions can’t be ignored.

Counting Final Fantasy VII, The Last of Us, the original Mass Effect trilogy, and The Witcher 3 amongst his favourite games, John enjoys anything that promises to take up an absurdly large amount of his free time. When he’s not gaming, chances are you’ll find him engrossed in a science fiction or fantasy novel; basically, John’s happiest when his attention is as far from the real world as possible.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Kyle Rogacion

    November 1, 2017 at 12:57 pm

    It’s frustrating to see games, AAA or indie, stuck with outdated game design. The side-quest fluff is one of the big reasons I ignored open-world games for the longest time. Dragon Age Inquisition’s starting area, the Hinterlands, left an incredibly sour taste in my mouth.

    Thankfully, games like ‘Breath of the Wild’ are proof that the open-world style of games can evolve to be more approachable and fun, while still keeping scope large.

  2. John Websell

    November 2, 2017 at 6:42 am

    That’s how I felt about Horizon; there’s certainly plenty to do and some really interesting side-quests, but I never felt like I was simply ticking off boxes on a check list.

    Have to say, I quite enjoyed Dragon Age 3, despite all the filler. Though I’m quite fond of Dragon Age 2, so I’m hardly the most objective DA fan!

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Game Reviews

‘Life is Strange 2’ Episode 5 Review – “Wolves”: A Worthy Send-off

The final episode of Life is Strange 2 may take a while to get going but it does offer a solid conclusion to the Diaz brothers’ journey.

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Life is Strange 2

Life is Strange 2 hasn’t made any bones about being a political game over the course of the last year. The 5th, and final episode, “Wolves”, doesn’t just continue with this message, it doubles down, and in a big way.

Set near the Arizona-Mexico border, “Wolves” follows the Diaz brothers on the final leg of their journey. Having escaped from the cult that held Daniel up as a messianic figure in the previous episode, Sean and Daniel are camping out in a sort of pop-up town filled with outsiders like themselves.

Life is Strange 2

The location provides Life is Strange 2 with its final breath of relaxation before the story enters its high tension endgame, and it’s a much needed reprieve. Unfortunately, it does seem to go on a bit longer than the player might like, and that makes things drag a smidge.

To give you some idea of how long you’ll be spending in the village, 4 of the 6 collectibles are found here. So, yes, this starting area is the main place you’ll be spending “Wolves” in. To be clear, the area isn’t bad per se. There’s a lot to see, a scavenger hunt to go on, and a few interesting characters to speak with, including a surprise cameo from the original game. The bummer of it all is that players will be feeling the time here more laboriously simply because there isn’t much of anything happening.

Life is Strange 2

In the 2nd or 3rd episode of this story it’s perfectly fine for an extended bit of down time. Episode 3, in particular, benefited greatly from allowing you to settle into the setting and get to know a diverse and likable new group of characters. However, by the 5th episode, players will be so eager to see how things are gonna settle up, they won’t be able to get out of this area fast enough.

On the upswing, once Sean and Daniel leave the village, the story moves at a pretty solid clip to the credits. As the key art and trailer for “Wolves” might suggest, the Diaz brothers do indeed challenge the border wall in the final leg of Life is Strange 2. Where things go from there, I won’t spoil, but rest assured that Daniel will absolutely go through the crisis as you’ve trained him to do.

By this I mean, you will see the final results of your choices throughout the game, and they’re pretty impressive. With 4 possible endings, and 3 possible variations on those endings, Life is Strange 2 can ultimately play out in a variety of ways. How yours plays out will, of course, depend on the choices you’ve made and how you’ve influenced your brother throughout your journey.

Either way, though, Life is Strange 2 closes off “Wolves” with an emotionally satisfying and generally fulfilling conclusion to your journey. It might be a necessary evil that the events can’t be intense the whole way through, being that this is not an action or combat-focused game, but the fact that things take so long to get going in the final episode is a bit of a problem.

Still, fans worried that Life is Strange 2 might fail to stick the landing can rest easy. “Wolves” might not be the best, or most satisfying, episode of the series but it does what it needs to do and it does it well, particularly in the back half.

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Game Reviews

‘Yaga’ Review: A Bittersweet Fairy Tale

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Yaga Game Review

Some games feel perfectly suited to their genres, as if they fulfill every ambition that their genre could promise. On paper, Yaga from the developer Breadcrumbs Interactive, should be one of those games. This roguelike RPG is meant to bring traditional Slavic folktales to life, and its procedurally generated structure allows the game to change in every playthrough, just like how the ancient fairy tales it’s based on can change in every telling. Yaga immediately shines on a conceptual level, but as a game, the most important question remains: will this fairy tale be enjoyable to play?

From start to finish, Yaga uses the rich source material of Eastern European history and folklore to create a vibrant, fantastical world. The entire game is framed as three elderly women telling the story of Ivan, a heroic blacksmith who has been stricken with the curse of bad luck. These women spin a fanciful yarn, one in which Ivan is constantly plagued by horrors from traditional fairy tales such as the hideous One-Eyed Likho, along with more realistic foes, such as a corrupt, overbearing Tsar. The game thrives on this balance between history and fantasy. Its world is filled with peasants who face daily, universal struggles with war and agriculture, while massive ogres and goblin-like Vodyanoys haunt the surrounding wilderness. This mixture creates a strong setting that finally gives Slavic history and mythology its long-overdue representation in games.

Yaga Game Review

“Take the presentation and story together, and Yaga becomes a playable portrait of the lives and superstitions of Eastern European peasants.”

The frame story always remains the same: Ivan will always have to serve his Tsar while avoiding bad luck in every playthrough. However, beyond these core details, the old women are extremely flexible storytellers, often switching events around or changing story beats entirely. In some playthroughs, you may discover a woman raising an enormous chicken; in others, you may instead encounter a band of thieves waiting to rob you. You will frequently face important decisions to make that will dramatically impact the outcome of your quest. yes, you can always break into monster hideouts with hammers blazing to slay every creature before you; but more often than not, you are also given the opportunity to peacefully talk your way out of these toxic situations. Even more dramatically, oftentimes the game will zoom out to the old women storytellers and allow you to choose how they tell the rest of Ivan’s story. Yaga is at its best when it doubles down on this player freedom. It makes every moment engaging and allows its stories to truly come alive.

Yaga

Yaga’s writing and presentation only serve to make this world even more striking. It features a distinctly dark sense of humor – for instance, a man may ask you to push a boulder into a well behind his house, but he will neglect to tell you that he has also thrown his wife into the bottom of that well ahead of time. Much of this dialogue is even written in rhyme, enhancing the otherworldly, fairy tale atmosphere. On top of that, nearly all dialogue is fully voice acted, with most voice actors delivering some eccentrically charming performances that make the game feel as if it’s a playable Disney film. The visuals look like they’re taken straight out of a Russian children’s book of fairy tales, while the music incorporates traditional instruments and language into an electronic, hip-hop fusion soundtrack that captures the cultural heritage that Yaga focuses on while connecting it to modern culture. Take the presentation and story together, and Yaga becomes a playable portrait of the lives and superstitions of Eastern European peasants.

However, this leads to the gameplay. Quests may be randomized each time you play, but nearly every one of them takes the same general format. One character will request help, and then Ivan will have to venture out into the world to fight some demons or recover an item. Worse yet, the levels are just as randomized in their procedurally generated design, and not in a particularly clever way, either: most of them likewise follow the same formula, being little more than arenas full of enemies connected by copy-and-paste environments. Many paths in each environment lead to nothing more than pointless dead ends. The combat has a satisfyingly simple basis, with basic moves like long- and close-range attacks, roll dodging, items to use, and a variety of different weapons to equip, although his trusty old hammer is generally the best choice. However, while this simplicity makes the combat enjoyable on its own, there is very little depth to it, and the inherently repetitive design of the mission only serves to highlight how paper-thin combat can be. Most battles involve little more than hacking away at enemies until they die, which becomes increasingly repetitive by the end of the roughly ten-hour campaign.

Yaga

At the very least, the robust customization system helps add a little intrigue to the combat. As a blacksmith, Ivan is naturally gifted with the ability to craft weapons for himself to use. By scavenging parts and items from fallen enemies and treasure chests around the world, Ivan is able to create the most powerful weapons. Crafting is simple to use yet extremely ripe for experimentation, requiring only one base item and a handful of accessories to create unique new items. With dozens of components to discover and use in your forging, there are plentiful opportunities to create the best possible weapons.

“All told, Yaga achieves a bittersweet ending: it’s bitter as a game but sweet as a fairy tale.”

The crafting system would be the standout aspect of the moment-to-moment gameplay if it weren’t foiled by another one of the game’s systems: Bad Luck. Ivan has been cursed with perpetual Bad Luck, which grows constantly throughout the game – whenever something good happens, Bad Luck is sure to increase. Whenever the Bad Luck meter fills all the way, Likho will appear and strike Ivan, generally breaking one of his weapons or stealing his money.

Yaga Game Review

On paper, this mechanic makes sense, since it prohibits the player from becoming too overpowered and also fits into the folklore style off the story. In practice, however, it is an infuriating limitation on player progression and invention. It effectively punishes players for putting thought and care into their weapon crafting and character-building – at any moment it can all be washed away in bad luck, so what’s the point? Considering how enjoyable the crafting and combat systems are, it’s a shame that Bad Luck seems to exist solely to diminish the very best parts of the gameplay, leaving the game feeling like it cripples itself.

Your enjoyment of Yaga depends heavily on what experience you want out of it. If you’re looking for a deep and satisfying RPG, then it likely won’t deliver. Although it features satisfying combat and customization systems, the frustrating randomization of its level design and Bad Luck system only serve to foil these good qualities. If you are instead looking for a faithful, fleshed-out image of Slavic cultural heritage, portraying both the harsh realities of peasant life along with its fanciful folklore, then Yaga is a clear triumph thanks to its emphasis on player choice, its excellent writing, and its beautiful hand-drawn visuals and inventive soundtrack. All told, Yaga achieves a bittersweet ending: it’s bitter as a game but sweet as a fairy tale.

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Game Reviews

‘Remothered: Tormented Fathers’ Review: I Want My Remummy

There’s merit to be had if you just want a quick bash at a quirky, indie horror game, but with so many flaws, I can’t recommend Remothered.

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Remothered: Tormented Fathers Review

It feels like a while since the ‘survival horror but you can’t fight back’ genre was at its peak, especially with the recent, tradition-tinged revival of the Resident Evil series, but back in 2017 when Remothered: Tormented Fathers was being developed for PC it was all the rage. Like any indie game that’s had even the slightest amount of interest or acclaim during the current generation, Remothered has received the now-obligatory Switch port. Although its modest technical requirements clearly made a successful transition to the platform more than manageable, they don’t help to hide the game’s very obvious shortcomings.

Players take control of Rosemary Reed in her attempts to investigate retired notary Dr. Richard Felton, who is currently undergoing treatment for a mysterious disease. Oh, and he has a missing daughter that he probably murdered. The plot of the game feels a little cliché, but it’s undoubtedly its strongest facet. However, suspending your disbelief at the ropy animations and dodgy voice-acting is needed to avoid being sucked into feeling like you’re watching Theresa May running around a big mansion trying to escape from a John Cleese impersonator with his arse hanging out. Alas, I clearly failed in this endeavor.

Remothered is essentially a game of ‘go there, fetch that, bring it here, use it’ with an added element of ‘don’t let the annoying old man kill you in the face with a sickle’. Yeah, one of those ones. The story takes place almost entirely within Felton’s huge mansion, and navigating the ol’ girl is by far the game’s toughest element. It’s made especially harder while you’re constantly on edge, trying to avoid the stalking lunatic without a map, weapons, or a proper objectives system. Be prepared for your bearings to be quite considerably lost.

There are a couple of ways to avoid that face full of sickle. There’s a dodge button (provided Rosemary isn’t too tired to actually dodge), a run button, distraction items, and defense items that will automatically be used to escape a grab attack if you have one equipped at the time. Remember those crappy bits in Resident Evil 4 where you had to play as Ashley? This is like that… for a whole game.

While a little tired in 2019, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the formula of the weapon-less survival horror game – it’s just that in Remothered, it’s not implemented all that well. Enemy AI routing is weird, which should be grounds for an unpredictable fright-fest, but leans more toward the annoying and/or hilarious. It seemed like the stalkers would either sit directly outside the room I needed to enter – barely moving and refusing to be distracted for longer than a few seconds before returning immediately to their original spot right on my current objective – or simply bugger off to another floor and never come back.

Even with his penchant to completely vacate the area, and despite his advancing years, Dr. Felton possesses supersonic hearing. It seemingly doesn’t matter how far away you are – if you run in this game, he will hear you. To make matters worse, the sound design just doesn’t make sense. With every press of the run button, enemy dialogue would instantly change to indicate they’d heard you and then loud footsteps would permeate every room you enter as if they were right behind you, when they most certainly are not.

It’s either a cheap scare tactic to give the impression of enemies constantly being within touching distance, or the fallout from a combination of naff sound design and the limitations of my Switch’s Pro Controller not having a headphone port. What makes it worse is that everything is so campy that it’s seldom scary in any tangible way. When the man trying to murder you is constantly shouting about how he hasn’t got anything to eat that isn’t moldy while you hide in his cupboard, it’s not exactly bone-chilling.

As a result of the big-eared murderers and their impeccable radar tuned to the sounds of running, I spent almost the entirety of the game… well, not running. Unfortunately, Rosemary walks slower than an asthmatic ant with heavy shopping, and this made exploring the mansion a monotonous chore – especially when getting caught and subsequently having to run up and down floors to hide before slowly sneaking back to restart the investigation.

Puzzles are that old school type of obtuse where you’re tasked with finding everyday items to fix problems. The puzzle itself lies in realizing the item the developer decided should work, finding it in the giant four-floor mansion, and slowly returning to the its intended area of use without dying. For example, in order to get into an attic, you have to search rooms at random to find an umbrella to pull down the door’s previously-out-of-reach cord. It’s such a shame that Remothered eschews any type of self-contained puzzle for a string of confusing fetch quests, as everything feels more tedious than taxing.

It feels a little unfair to bemoan the lack of polish for a two-year-old indie game, but Remothered is full of niggling issues. Animations are janky, lip-syncing is non-existent, and the camera wigs out after the QTEs to fight off enemies have finished – always pointing you in the wrong direction. I also encountered a couple of game-breaking bugs where Rosemary did her door-opening animation without the door actually opening, and I couldn’t enter the room without rebooting the game. Lastly, and I don’t want to be too harsh to an Italian developer, but the in-game English is pretty abysmal, and lots of the game’s expositional notes and articles border on illegible through their poor translations.

There are some people out there who can’t get enough of the whole hiding under sofas schtick, but I like my survival horror games with better psychological tension, a (limited) means to fight back, and coherent puzzle-solving. There’s merit to be had in the game’s labyrinthine setting and short length if you just want a quick bash at a quirky, campy indie horror game in the Haunting Grounds model, but with so many flaws and such a frustrating gameplay loop, I can’t recommend Remothered: Tormented Fathers outside of anything other than morbid curiosity.

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