Middle-Earth: Shadow of War - title

Dang. I was really hoping to have this out before the end of the year...

Shadow of Mordor was easily one of my favorite games of 2015, and one of my best reviewed games of that year, and I even cited it as an example of successful open world game mechanics. I've praised the game for its tightly-focused design, relatively limited scale, and the fact that it didn't waste the player's time with an excess of meaningless collectible hunts.

"The developers showed plenty of restraint in many areas of design so that they could focus on the innovative new feature that everything in the game revolves around. The design is tight and streamlined. They didn't waste the player's time with an excessively large, complicated map, or a multitude of irrelevant mini-games and side quests."
    - from my Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor review

Yes, the original game did have some collectible hunts. It did have some filler content. It did have bullshit, game-y missions with arbitrary win/loss conditions. But those issues weren't pervasive enough to bring down the game as a whole, and the game generally flowed very smoothly. In their quest to mindlessly monetize the sequel, Shadow of War, Warner Brothers and Monolith have doubled down on both the best elements and the worst elements of Shadow of Mordor, and the result is beautiful when it works, and ugly when it doesn't.

Middle Earth: Shadow of War - defending fortress
You now recruit orc captains to defend fortresses from Sauron's army.

The biggest problem is that the game now feels like a grind. In order to get you to pay for in-game, randomized micro-transactions called "War Chests", the campaign has been needlessly padded-out. Instead of having the option to hunt down uruk captains for the utilitarian purposes of gaining intel or gathering an army of mind-controlled slaves to do your bidding, you now must recruit orc captains into your own army in order to siege and then defend castles and fortresses from Sauron's counter-invasion. In principle, this sounds like a brilliant idea! I've often criticized open world and sandbox games for not having actual threats or consequences that pressure the player into acting. In fact, requiring that the player defend and hold captured strongholds from enemy counter-attacks is exactly the sort of thing that I've proposed as a compelling way to keep the game world feeling alive, and to keep the villain actually feeling threatening and antagonistic.

The problem is that (aside from one scripted castle defense) all the castle defending is back-loaded into the final act of the game. At this point, the plot is basically over, ... [More]

Mad Max game

Normally, I try not to get excited about movie-tie in games. They have a very bad track record - with only a handful of exceptions. But this Mad Max game wasn't a direct movie adaptation, and it didn't release simultaneously with the movie, implying that it hopefully wasn't being rushed out the door to meet the movie's release. Warner Brothers Interactive had previously released Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, which was also sort of a tie-in to the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies, and that game was actually very exceptional! It had a novel and innovative concept around which the entire game revolved (making it very focused), and it was a very well-polished game that was immensely comfortable to control. So Warner Bros had earned some benefit of the doubt for its next game. I wasn't expecting Mad Max to match (let alone exceed) Shadow of Mordor, but I still had hopes that this one would turn out to be a well-realized game that could stand tall and proud as one of those rare, good movie tie-in games. After all, the concept of an open-world, post-apocalyptic action game about smashing spiky, nitrous-fueled cars into each certainly sounds like a solid premise for a game!

Well, not quite...

Wasteland chaos

Mad Max - conflicting button prompts
Many actions are overloaded to the X button - the game even displays conflicting prompts at times!

Virtually every interaction that I had with the game was either naggingly uncomfortable in some way or was prone to glitches. Even the basics of moving around and interacting with objects in the game world was a constant chore. When one button does everything; it does nothing (see my Assassin's Creed III review). Fortunately, a couple really important functions (like getting in and out of cars) were mapped to different buttons, but virtually everything else uses the X button. So if you're standing in front of a ladder and holding a weapon, it's a crapshoot whether the game will decide to let you climb the ladder or make you drop the weapon, and then it'll be a crap shoot whether the game lets you pick up the weapon again. Oh there's button-prompts to tell you what you can and can't do, but sometimes they outright conflict with one another. Besides, when you're running or fighting, then you're reacting on impulse and muscle memory rather than reading screen prompts. It doesn't help that the character's movement is very fidgety, so it's hard to position yourself properly when trying to interact with objects. I think the developers recognized this, which is probably why they make you have to hold the button for a second in order to perform most actions - to give you time to ask yourself "are you sure this is the action you want to do?".

Not enough space for vehicular combat

Clunky movement isn't limited to walking on foot. Steering vehicles is also very fidgety and floaty, and I found it very difficult to perform any precision maneuvering in the cars. The cars all tend to understeer at high speeds, but then strangely oversteer or fish-tail whenever you let off the gas. Trying to hit a ramp or knock down an enemy scarecrow or ram a sniper tower would often require multiple passes in order to succeed, and doing slaloms through the canyons resulted in a lot of cheap impacts. The rough terrain also leads to a lot of spin-outs. The vehicles feel so weightless and floaty that they can park on nearly vertical slopes, and running over a pebble can send the car hurtling and flipping 20 feet in the air. On a more personal note, I prefer my driving games to have cameras very close to the action, and so Mad Max's driving camera feels like it's a mile away from the action, which makes it harder for me to get a feel for precisely where the car is in relation to the environment. Virtually none of the game's vehicular set pieces really worked all that well for me due to these nagging control and scaling issues. If the map were bigger to accommodate multiple vehicles running side-by-side on a road, then dealing with the low-traction sand or the unlevel rocks wouldn't be so much of a consistent problem. Even having the option to zoom in the camera (an option that I couldn't find) would go along way towards helping me make more precise maneuvers.

Mad Max - vehicular combat
The primary gimmick of vehicular combat works fairly well in spite of the map not feeling big enough to support it.

This game really lives or dies based on how well the cars perform. The bulk of the game is played from within your car. You use the car to travel the world, and it's actually your primary weapon thanks to the game's novel vehicular combat. This vehicular combat would actually be really fun if the cars handled a bit better and were durable enough to actually take the beating that the combat entails...

[More]

Witcher 3: Wild Hunt - title

Let me tell you a little story. It's a story of my first few days with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. This is a game that I eagerly anticipated. The previews for it were grand, and I expected it to be everything that Skyrim wasn't, and more! I was all ready to give my first 100/100 game review! I spent some time juggling whether to buy the game on PC or PS4. I knew that PC would likely be a better overall experience, with prettier graphics, shorter load times, and the eventual ability to mod. But I decided to go with PS4 instead for two reasons:

  1. my cousin had pre-ordered the PC version, so I could play his if I wanted to see if it was any better,
  2. I wanted a good showcase of what the PS4 is capable of compared to high-end PCs.
The Witcher III: Wild Hunt - open map
Previews talked up the large, dynamic world, in which your decisions supposedly have major consequences.

Bad first impressions

Oh boy, The Witcher 3 did not make a good first impression with me!

I started the game on the hard difficulty. I had just come off of Bloodborne, so I was in a mindset to be challenged. My first two reactions to the game were fairly negative. Load times seemed long, but then again, the world is supposed to be open and seamless, so loading shouldn't be a frequent necessity. I also had some comfort issues with the controls in the tutorial. I dismissed them as a result of my unfamiliarity with the game and assumed I would get used to it.

The biggest problem was trying to figure out how to reliably heal. I kept losing vitality in small skirmishes, and it just wouldn't recharge. I kept running out of potions, and the game wouldn't let me make more. I had to throw away the empty potion bottle in order to craft more of the healing potions. I assumed this was a glitch.

Does the game require absolute perfection from the player? If so, I wasn't sure if I could handle it. The combat controls are sketchy to say the least. As I got into the game proper, the nagging discomfort that I felt in the tutorial was only amplified as the game threw more enemies at me. Even Geralt's "fast attacks" are lumbering compared to most enemies, and he is fidgety in his movement. Enemies are swift and relentless. It was hard to find an opening for my own attacks without taking damage, and my finger started getting tired from holding down the block command that only sometimes worked. The dodge commands also seemed unreliable, the camera never seemed to focus where I wanted it, and the target lock was nigh useless. It didn't help that the spell and accessory wheel is cumbersome to use.

The Witcher III: Wild Hunt - Nithral
I almost gave up on the game at this first Nithral fight because I had completely forgotten about
the meditate feature, and didn't have any healing items (not that healing items do much).

I eventually hit a brick wall in which all the attrition set in. The sloppy combat mechanics constantly sapped my vitality, and I gradually ran out of healing items which the game was unwilling to provide more of. I ended up in a boss fight with literally half my health gone and no healing items left. My NPC companion spammed lightning spells at him, but these did no damage and only got him stuck in a corner so that I was unable to get behind him and actually attack. To make matters worse, my weapons started breaking, and I had no replacements, and only one repair tool. I tried lowering the difficulty, but it didn't help. It seemed to be a no-win scenario.

I had to reload from an earlier save and tried some other quests to hopefully gain experience, levels, and supplies. I tried exploring the world to gain experience from random encounters, and I sometimes come across mobs of monsters and try to draw the sword and start blocking as I approach. Instead, I go into Witcher sense mode, since witcher sense and block are the same buttons. Often, the enemies get close enough to attack me before the game switches me from witcher sense mode to block mode, and so they get to leech some health away with free hits. This lead to some cheap deaths.

The Witcher III: Wild Hunt - witcher sense in combat
Witcher sense is overloaded to the block button,
leading to some cheap hits while exploring.

I jumped between the quest menu and the map (because the map could only track a single active quest at a time) to try to find a quest in my level range that was nearby. I tried a missing person's case that lead to a warewolf den. The warewolf proved impossible for me to take on, since his health regened faster than I could cause damage. So much for that "doable" quest.

I tried picking up the lowest-level monster contract available (a level 5 one), and died to some kind of porcupine alghoul enemy that damaged me everytime I attacked it. After a reload, I was able to beat it, and for some reason, it didn't damage me when I attacked anymore. Weird. What had I done differently? But my health was low, I was once again out of healing items, and I wasn't even halfway to earning my 5th level yet. The next set of bandits killed me.

I was about ready to give up, as I was getting sick of staring at the long load screen every time I died and not having any sense of learning or improvement. I started squinting at the microscopic text of the menus to desperately find something to help me progress. It was then that I noticed the Meditation option in the menu. It was something that I had forgotten about all this time. I tried meditating for an hour thinking it might restore at least some of my hit points. I figured a full 6 or 8 hours would be required to fully heal. But, much to my surprise, that single hour fully restored my vitality. And it refilled my healing potions. Armed with restored health, some new weapons, and the knowledge that the constant war of attrition that I'd been fighting with the game was unnecessary, I pressed on, defeated the bandits, and managed victories against some other mobs of enemies in the overworld!

Perhaps now I could finally start enjoying the game?

This game certainly has a steep learning curve. But admittedly, most of my early troubles were largely my own fault for not remembering to use the meditation feature...

[More]

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor - game title

Shadow of Mordor was a game that almost sold me on the next gen consoles. I knew I was going to need a PS4 for Bloodborne, and I was very tempted to buy one early so that I could play Mordor. The central game mechanic of orc NPCs fighting amongst each other in order to become Sauron's personal favorite sounded like an interesting mechanic for organic story-telling. It was a concept that sounded like something truly deserving of the name "next gen". The biggest thing that held me back was the fact that the game was also available on last-gen consoles, so I figured it probably wasn't pushing any serious boundaries of game design.

Bat-Assassin's Creed: Arkham Middle Earth

The basic gameplay is highly derivative of Assassin's Creed and the Batman Arkham games. It ports both of these feature sets more or less as competently as those original games, including the same perks and problems. The free running feature suffers from the same lack of control that plague's Assassin's Creed, in that it's sometimes hard to predict exactly where the character will land, and he loves to climb up a wall if you run too close to it. Is it really that hard to allocate a dedicated "climb" or "jump" button?! In Mordor's defense, every button on the controller is mapped to something, so at least it has an excuse (unlike Assassin's Creed with its redundant jump button).

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor - investigating dead orc
The martial culture of the orcs means that when they find a dead comrade,
they assume he was murdered by an ambitious peer, leaving the player off-the-hook.

Stealth mechanics work pretty well; although the orcs are a bit oblivious to my movements through the game world. Sometimes, I can be moving right across their field of vision within 10 feet of them, but because I'm crouched or hanging off a wall, they just don't see me. Orcs don't care much about each other. Their martial culture means that when they find a fellow orc dead, they assume that he was killed due to his own stupidity, or in a brawl / duel with another orc. This removes the need to drag and dispose of bodies while also masking the fact that orcs don't look for the player when they find a dead body. There are examples of stealth games in which enemy guards don't notice or care about dead bodies that they find, and that's always immersion-breaking. Shadow of Mordor cleverly turns what could have been an immersion-breaking limitation of the A.I. into an appropriate element of the world and narrative. As long as they don't actually see you kill their fellow orc, you can rest assured that throwing an archer off a ledge won't alert any guards who pass below to your presence.

Combat mechanics are almost identical to Arkham Asylum, except you have an ethereal bow instead of all the gadgets or grappling hook. But it also blends some elements of Assassin's Creed insta-kills into the fighting mechanics as well. Fights are much more challenging than in Assassin's Creed because you can't insta-kill enemies when you parry them. Instead, you can stun them and then perform an execution or coup de grace, but you're not impervious during this time. You have to time your coup de graces appropriately in order to avoid being hit in the middle of slitting a prone orc's throat. There are insta-kill special attacks that behave a bit more like Assassin's Creed's counter kills, but you have to build up a combo streak before they become available.

Executing a coup de grace [LEFT] on a single orc in a mob requires split-second precise timing.
Or you can perform a combat execution [RIGHT] mid-combo if you get your hit streak high enough.

Attacks are fluid, controls are responsive, timing is tight, and you can counter or dodge out of any single attack or action. This all combines to give the player a tremendous sense of control as long as you are patient and deliberate in your button-pressing. The strict timing will severely punish you for button-mashing, which makes the combat challenging and satisfying throughout the game.

[More]
Lollipop Chainsaw

Ladies, perhaps you can help me:

Is Lollipop Chainsaw a smart, funny commentary of the sexist treatment of women in video games? Or is it a stupid, offensive piece of sexual exploitation? I honestly can't tell, and based on the lack of maturity in the humor and visual styles of both Shadows of the Damned and Lollipop Chainsaw, I'm leaning more towards "stupid". I can say, however, that if you are a 13-year-old boy, then you shouldn't bother reading any more of this review, because this game has a hot, blonde cheerleader in it that kills zombies with a chainsaw, and you will love it! But don't get too excited: despite the notice for "partial nudity" in the ESRB ratings label on the box, you won't see anything that you couldn't see on a pixelated beach.

As for me, a ditzy, busty, blonde cheerleader isn't going to be able to overrule my discriminating tastes and single-handedly carry the game alone on her well-endowed chest. If the gameplay doesn't hold up, then even the best character design and cleverest wit won't save the game from a mediocre review.

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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