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...

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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.

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Skyrim DLC

In my Skyrim review, I pretty much only considered the base game content. But the game does include three paid DLC packs that are fairly hit-or-miss. Instead of making my original review longer and more complicated (it's already long enough), I'll lump all the DLC reviews into this one post.

As a reminder, I am playing the PS3 version of the game, so my review applies specifically to the console version. Many (if not all) of my complaints can probably be relieved on the PC by mods. Sadly, I do not have access to mods...

Table of contents

  1. Hearthfire adds more meaningless time-sinks
  2. Stupid vampires create genuine motivation in Dawnguard
  3. Dragonborn hides worthwhile rewards behind an unmotivated adventure and horde of glitches
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The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - title

Skyrim is one of the biggest names of this console generation. It's already earned the status of "classic" in some circles. It's over three years old now, and I've been playing it (and its DLC) on my PS3 off and on for much of that time. I've been wanting to write a review, but I just never felt that I had progressed far enough into the game to have a full idea of its overall quality. Considering how long the game's been out, and how successful it's been both critically and commercially, this is more of a retrospective than a true review, since I'm not going to influence anybody's purchase decision. All I can do at this point is talk about what I think he game did right, and what it did wrong, so that future games can hopefully improve on the formula.

After years of playing, I've finally made enough progress with various characters to feel comfortable writing a review. With the recent rumors that Fallout 4 may reuse Skyrim's engine, I feel that this review actually has some relevance still.

The game also includes DLC, which I have reviewed separately in a another post.

The engine finally works! … Mostly …

It seems like Bethesda’s open-world game engine is finally maturing. It’s still a little rough around the edges and has its fair share of bugs and glitches (particularly pertaining to companion characters and home customization), but I was amazed when I realized that, for the first time with a Bethesda RPG, I had been playing the game for weeks without needing to consult the online wiki to find a work-around for a glitch that rendered any characters missing, quests inaccessible, or items missing! With Oblivion and the two Fallout games, it didn’t take more than a few hours of gameplay to start running into such glitches.

Skyrim - world size
The large, open world is finally stable enough to be more fun than frustrating.

My roommate actually had a game-breaking glitch that prevented him from saving after the initial character creation (including auto-saves), so he lost a whole Saturday afternoon’s worth of progress and had to restart the game. That one was a doozy, and admittedly the worst bug that I've experienced so far in any Bethesda game! But these problems have been the exception rather than the norm.

So that’s one big check mark in Skyrim’s favor compared to previous Bethesda games!

Removing level-scaling makes leveling a reward rather than a punishment

Believe it or not, it wasn't the frequency of glitches that deterred me from finishing Oblivion; it was the level-scaling system. On paper it seemed like a good idea. Leveling up the enemies, quests, and loot so that the game is consistently challenging and rewards are consistently worthwhile sure sounded like a good idea!

Oblivion - overleveled bandits
Oblivion's level-scaling resulted in a world overrun by trolls, glass-armored bandits, and Daedra.

But in practice, it turned out to be completely ruinous. Leveling felt more like a punishment than a reward, as everything in the world also became progressively harder. This issue was compounded by the poor balance between different classes. If you weren't leveling your combat skills, and had created a class built around - say - Mercantile, Athletics, and Acrobatics then you could easily over-level early in the game simply by walking around and talking to NPCs, only to get slaughtered in the first Oblivion gate because the enemies were stronger than you and you couldn't talk your way out of the fight.

Skyrim fortunately, does not retain Oblivion's strict level-scaling feature.

Some quests, enemies, and loot are scaled, but most things are not (or they're only slightly scaled). Now, bandits are always just bandits, overpowering enemies start the game overpowered, and the world does not suddenly become exclusively populated by trolls and Daedra halfway through the game. "Dungeon bosses" do seem to scale with the character’s level. As you start going up in levels, you’ll start to notice that the grunts in the dungeons are trivial to fight and leave worthless loot. You’ll actually feel like all that leveling has paid off! Then you get to the "boss" at the end of the dungeon and might get your ass handed to you and have to reload several times.

Hard areas should be hard, and easy areas should be easy. It's just mildly annoying that this game gives you no indication which it’s going to be until you’re already a mile underground, and the difficulty varies wildly - even within a single dungeon crawl.

Skyrim - bandits
Most ambient encounters aren't scaled to the player's level, so bandits always remain just bandits.

Removing the class skills frees up the player to develop whatever skills he or she needs without the compulsion to micro-manage leveling class skills versus non-class skills. Character development feels much more natural and organic, and you can change your specialization at any time if circumstances change ...

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The Evil Within - game title

I had some really high hopes for The Evil Within. It looked like Shinji Mikami was trying to bridge a gap between the survival horror trappings of the original Resident Evil and the more action-oriented shooter gameplay style of Resident Evil 4. The former was a slower-paced game that emphasized open-ended exploration, puzzle-solving, and resource management in a horror setting. The latter game dropped most of its horror ambitions in favor of totally campy action shooter schlock. Early trailers for Evil Within looked it would hit a good balance between the two styles.

I didn't jump right on this game at release because I saw some mediocre reviews and heard that it failed to deliver on its promises. After booting up the game, waiting for an hour-and-a-half for the 4.7 GB update file to install (what did this update do? Tack on a whole new game?!), navigating the slick title menu, and then proceeding through the first few chapters, I verified that the game does indeed fail considerably as a horror game.

But it is worth noting that The Evil Within (unlike Resident Evil 4 and Shadows of the Damned) does seem to be making a legitimate attempt at being a horror game, rather than just an action shooter with zombies. It just doesn't really succeed at this goal.

Early levels in particular are full of exceptional lighting and ambient effects that really help to build an ominous atmosphere. The addition of stealth mechanics does put a greater emphasis on avoiding direct conflict and encouraging a more cautious approach (compared to RE4's guns-a-blazing attitude).

I've heard a lot of complaints that this game's story doesn't make sense and is stupid. I think most of these people didn't finish the game (or at least get to the point around chapter 10 where the story is explained). The story makes sense. The problem is that the game is very disjoint and never really builds on these foundations.

The game's narrative causes the character to jump (seemingly at random) from place to place - even within a single chapter. Each new place quickly starts to feel like a narrow-scope set-piece for an action scene rather than any kind of terrifying world. The game and individual chapters lack narrative cohesion and unifying design. There's very little opportunity for the game to allow open exploration or atmosphere-building, since the whole game feels like a collection of randomly-thrown-together set pieces and battle puzzles. So even though the overall story makes sense (in retrospect), the individual scene and level-progression doesn't.

The Evil Within - reality warping
Reality is being warped, resulting in some trippy effects, but a very disjoint sense of progression.

The designers seem to be trying to mimic the Otherworld of Silent Hill, but the transition is so jarring, and the places feel so completely unrelated to one another, that it just doesn't work. You get through a pain in the ass, trap-infested maze while dodging monsters, only to be teleported to another maze area when you reach the exit! "OK, we're done with this area, let's just go to some other random challenge room." There's no sense of ever achieving anything because you're rarely ever allowed to actually go to the places that you are trying so hard to get to. And once that sense of futility sets in, any fear starts to dissipate. You're no longer concerned with getting out or saving yourself or even progressing the story because you realize that you can't achieve anything without the game giving it to you.

It's a real shame too, because some of these reality-warping mind tricks might be very effective if they were organically integrated into the flow of the game. I especially liked one bit in which a character falls down a bottomless pit, only to have the whole world re-orient itself so that the walls become the floor. So instead of falling to his death, he harmlessly rolls to a stop. Unfortunately, these effects lack subtly and feel random...

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Grid Clock provided by trowaSoft.

A gamer's life...

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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