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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (322)

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The Yawhg 3.5/5
Dungeon Defenders II 4/5
Spelunky 0.5/5
Hard Reset Redux 2.5/5
Girls and Dungeons 4/5
Time Tenshi 2 3.5/5
Time Tenshi 2.5/5
We Are the Dwarves 1/5
Shadow Warrior 3.5/5
Torment: Tides of Numen... 4.5/5
Hammerwatch 1.5/5
Metro Redux 4/5
Dragon Quest Monsters: ... 3/5
Diluvion 3/5
Seiken Densetsu 3 ( Sec... 2.5/5
Titanfall 2 2.5/5
Treasure Hunter G 3.5/5
The Legend of Zelda: Br... 4/5
Shadow Warrior 2 4.5/5
Treasure of the Rudras ... 2/5
Oceanhorn: Monster of U... 2.5/5
The Bard's Tale ( 2004 ) 3/5
Middle-earth: Shadow of... 4/5
Spore 3/5
Mario + Rabbids: Kingdo... 4.5/5

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Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor   PC (Steam) 

Name that Orc!    4/5 stars

Hot on the heels of the critically-mediocre Beat ‘Em Up, “Lord of the Rings: War in the North,” Warner Bros., the movie studio that owns the official non-book media rights to everything related to the late author and philologist, J.R.R. Tolkien’s, seminal ‘Middle-Earth’ mythology created yet another new licensed game based on the IP made popular by the “Lord of the Rings” movie trilogy directed by Peter Jackson. After the afore-mentioned Beat ‘Em Up, a pair of well-received RTSes (“Battle for Middle-Earth” and its sequel), and an abysmal RPG in “Lord of the Rings: The Third Age” (to name a few), I was content to acknowledge that licensed games based on movies based on books are universally not worth the time or money to experience them. But this newest take on the ‘Middle-Earth’ IP unexpectedly made waves, drawing acclaim from critics and gamers alike. This new series, ‘Shadow of _______’ is obviously intended to become an ongoing thing, with “Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor” (“SoM,” and the topic of this review) creating a strong initial burst of goodwill in 2014, which was completely squandered three years later by the microtransaction-and-loot-box-riddled release of “Middle-Earth: Shadow of War.” It’s unfortunate that Warner Bros. decided to monetize this series so heavily with the second entry, as the inaugural effort proves that it is entirely possible to make a game based on a movie based on a book that isn’t complete garbage.

Presentation
“SoM” looks and sounds much like one would expect a “AAA” game to look and sound in the 2010s. The heavy use of canned engines is completely offset by the high quality of the character models, animations (via motion capture, obviously), and environments. Taking place entirely in the immediate vicinity of the black, twisted, and evil-infused nation of Mordor in the ‘Middle-Earth’ mythology, “SoM” almost looks too nice, with plenty of green grasses and blue skies contrasted against the brown mud and gray ruins a Tolkien fan would expect from the place.

The audio is excellent, with movie-quality performances by the vocal cast entirely comprised of established videogame voiceactors and small-time TV actors, including tons of banter and idle comments from Orcs (who otherwise have very few spoken lines in the movies/books). Returning characters from Peter Jackson’s movies are voiced by skilled impersonators (thus wisely saving on the budget). While the comments from the Orcs tend to be entertaining (if not a bit long-winded at times), the relatively small number of discrete comments means you’ll be hearing a lot of different Orcs talking about how they ‘just about got set on fire the other day.’

Technically, “SoM” is quite solid for a typically bug-riddled “AAA” release. It’s still not quite perfect, though. While the game does support Xinput natively on PC and never once crashed on me, it has two extremely annoying visual bugs that shouldn’t have made it past QA testing. First, it is a frequent occurrence that the plain while Windows mouse cursor will appear on menu screens, even when the player hasn’t touched the mouse. Second, the game’s cutscenes, while done in-engine, are all pre-rendered affairs that have a TON of screen tearing that no amount of v-sync can remove.

Story
“SoM” takes place a significant amount of time before the events of the “Lord of the Rings,” but apparently after the events of “The Hobbit.” Our hero is one Talion, a Ranger of Gondor, whose time guarding the Black Gate that isolates Mordor – the land dominated by the Dark Lord Sauron, the Enemy – comes to an abrupt end when agents of Sauron suddenly attack, wiping out Talion’s unit and family to the last man, apparently as some sort of poorly-explained blood sacrifice to Sauron.

As Talion bleeds out, he suddenly finds himself face-to-face with an Elven wraith of some sort, who binds himself to Talion’s dying body, saving him and barring him from death while to two are so united. This wraith is soon revealed to be none other than Celebrimbor, the legendary Elven smith who forged the first Rings of Power long ago, and whose spirit has been cursed to wander Mordor and bear witness to the Dark Lord’s ultimate triumph.

United in the common cause of undermining Sauron’s war efforts against the rest of the world, Talion and Celebrimbor endeavor to use the Elf wraith’s connection to the Rings of Power to sow disarray and subterfuge amongst the Orcs who comprise the Dark Lord’s army. Throughout the game’s narrative, Talion and Celebrimbor meet a handful of characters, both old and new, who help them in their efforts.

“SoM” is definitely the type of lore-based game that works well with a huge mythology like Tolkien’s. The problem with so many past ‘Lord of the Rings’-based games is that they have obsessively followed only the original three novels, completely ignoring the expanded mythology contained in dense volumes like the “Silmarilion” or the “Books of Lost Tales.” One thing I greatly appreciated about Peter Jackson’s movie adaptions of this material is how much better they were than the original novels from a ‘readability’ perspective. No disrespect for Prof. Tolkien, but the man was clearly more skilled as a mythologist and philologist than he was as a novelist, as all of the original books were so bogged-down in genealogies and lists that they were mind-numbing (of course, most epic sagas and mythologies are, such as the “Iliad” or even the “Bible”). The mythology of ‘Middle-Earth’ is treated with a similar gloss in “SoM” as it is in Jackson’s movies, tying together relevant characters and massaging Tolkien’s original timelines into something much more digestible. Tolkien purists will no doubt hate it, but I fully approve of the game’s handling of the source material.

That said, “SoM” is still fairly bare-bones from a narrative perspective. Talion’s and Celebrimbor’s pasts and a few plot twists are really all there is to it. Even worse, the game ends on an obvious cliffhanger leading into the 2017 loot-box-a-palooza sequel, “Middle-Earth: Shadow of War,” which I will likely never play due to the loot boxes.

“SoM” is also fairly short for an open-world Sandboxy Action/Adventure. I cleared the base game in just over 30 hours, and the two story-based DLCs – one of which reunites Talion with a trophy hunting dwarf for more beastly action, the other of which really helps flesh-out Celebrimbor’s backstory and original confrontation with Sauron – didn’t even make my total time with the game crack 40 hours. It is for the best, though, as too often open-world games tend to pad themselves out for the sake of it and wear out their welcome, plus the two story DLCs serve as bite-sized epilogues to the main experience.

Gameplay
“SoM” begins in Udun – or, as I like the call it, Suburban Mordor – just outside the Black Gate. The player is tasked with first learning about, then undermining the organizational structure of Sauron’s army of Orcs. The army is comprised of a large number of Orcish Captains who lead all the other Orcs, but answer directly to 5 Warchiefs. These Warchiefs, in turn, answer to Sauron’s more ‘human’ agents, who serve as the game’s bosses.

Talion and Celebrimbor start out with a relatively small stable of abilities, including sword-based melee combat, bow-based ranged combat, and dagger-based stealth combat. The first half of the game in Udun revolves entirely around killing off all of the Orcish Warchiefs in order to provoke a response from their superiors. Once this is done, the other half of the game takes the unlikely duo of semi-dead Ranger and Elven wraith into Mordor proper, where they learn of Celebrimbor’s ability to mind control Orcs and coerce them to fight on the wraith’s behalf, creating a civil war amongst the Orcs. Dominating all 5 Warchiefs in Mordor proper once again provokes a reaction from Sauron’s most powerful underlings… then the game ends.

While endeavoring to kill or dominate the Orcs of Mordor (and Suburban Mordor), the player is free to engage in a number of side quests. Many of these are actually required, as they unlock essential abilities required to progress. These quests range from hunting wild beasts alongside a burly Dwarf named Torvin to rescuing the large number of human slaves that the Orcs use for manual labor and/or food.

Confrontation with enemies is largely procedural and the player is free to proceed however they see fit. Combat vs. a large group of Orcs can be deadly, so silently eliminating a few of them before all hell breaks loose is typically the best way to go. However, the player doesn’t start out with all of Talion’s and Celebrimbor’s abilities available to them, but must proceed through a set of RPG-inspired upgrade systems. Killing regular Orcs (and other baddies) grants experience, and gaining enough experience grants a perk point which can be spent to unlock a skill. However, these skills are all tiered, and the various tiers must be unlocked by earning power, which can only be obtained by killing or interfering with Orc Captains and their activities. Finally, there’s a third upgrade currency – something that sounds like Mythril, but isn’t – that must be earned by completing side-quests and is used to unlock health, focus, arrow capacity, and rune slot upgrades.

Runes are one of the more over-powered aspects of character development in “SoM.” They only drop from slain Captains and Warchiefs, but they generally offer truly game-breaking abilities, like immunity to poison, or the ability to regenerate a huge chunk of health for a stealth kill or for taking over an Orc’s mind. Each of Talion’s three weapons (sword, bow, dagger) can have up to 5 runes embedded in it, granting tons of bonuses (and some of the Epic runes that come with the GotY Edition of the game are really good).

Combat in “SoM” is highly reminiscent of the recent ‘Batman: Arkham’ games, with combo-and-counter based melee against a large number of foes. There’s a combo meter that allows for Talion to unleash one of four special attacks once it reaches certain numbers. Archery can be used at range or up close, and while aiming the bow, time slows down so long as Celebrimbor has focus in his meter (which drains at a steady rate while aiming). “SoM” ultimately feels more like a Stealth game than an combat-heavy game to me, though, as quietly eliminating Orcs and not allowing Orcs to fire off the alarm beacons in their strongholds is far more effective than just charging in and beating on them with a sword. Talion is quite maneuverable and can climb all over walls, allowing him to assassinate Orcs with impunity. Ultimately, “SoM” feels like a blend of ‘Batman: Arkham’ and ‘Assassin’s Creed,’ only without Batman’s wimpy ‘I don’t take lives’ mentality or ‘AssCreed’s’ urban setting or human targets. The fact that fighting Orcs is really all there is to do, though, means that things can start to get repetitive after a while.

The biggest, most novel, and often talked-about feature of “SoM” is the Nemesis system, by which procedurally-generated Orc Captains each gain their owns unique sets of strengths and weaknesses. Regular Orcs that kill (temporarily) Talion get promoted to Captain and increase in power. Likewise, a Captain who kills Talion gets promoted to Warchief (if Talion created a job opening, that is). The whole purpose of the Nemesis system is to create a series of memorable Orc villains who are unique to each player and who haunt players like a bad smell. The player’s ultimate Nemesis even returns from the dead (unless decapitated) and is present for the final showdown. Unfortunately, I found a weakness in the Nemesis system that renders it ultimately toothless: Don’t die. If Talion isn’t killed by Orcs, they never gain power or promotions. My judicious caution and willingness to just hit Start/Quit if battles started to turn against me (the game auto-saves constantly, so there’s no fear of progress loss) meant that I only died once while playing “SoM,” and it was indeed to my Nemesis, Barfa Black-Blade (an Orc with an annoying repeating crossbow who managed to snipe me). I had killed Barfa three times, and each time he came back and found me, complaining about how badly I’d messed up his face (and I really did… he had to hold it together with a burlap wrap). Then he just suddenly stopped appearing… and didn’t show up again until the final battle, just as weak and pitiful as when I last saw him in the Mordor Suburbs, while Talion and Celebrimbor were completely maxed out. It was a rather… uneven final confrontation.

Overall
Warner Bros.’ control over the ‘Middle-Earth’ IP has been surprisingly good for the source material. While the initial run of videogames that followed in the wake of Peter Jackson’s excellent movie adaption were rather bland (to be generous), the incorporation of the mythology’s expanded lore into original games that don’t desperately try to follow “The Lord of the Rings” or “The Hobbit” has led to something quite good in “Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor.” While the gameplay is a bit derivative of the likes of ‘Batman: Arkham’ and ‘Assassin’s Creed,’ the inclusion of darkly comical Orcs well-adapted ‘Middle-Earth’ lore makes this one of the best licensed games based on a movie based on a book in the entire history of gaming.

Presentation: 4.5/5
Story: 3.5/5
Gameplay: 4/5
Overall (not an average): 4/5

 

 


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