perjantai 10. lokakuuta 2014

REVIEW - Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor | PS4 | 2014

GENRE(S): Action / Adventure
RELEASED: September 30, 2014 (PC)
AVAILABLE ON: PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
DEVELOPER(S): Monolith Productions, Behaviour Interactive (PS3, Xbox 360)
PUBLISHER(S): Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

The Monster Mash continues with a game that's not thematically quite what you'd expect from it, but a game that just happened to have its release date on consoles slated for now and, well, it's 99% about mashing monstrous beings, and finally, it's a game all you've geeks been waiting for all year long. Back in late 2013, an employee of Monolith Productions - who were responsible for the fairly successful downloadable MMO Guardians of Middle-earth, released in conjunction with the first Hobbit film - leaked information of a huge third-person action/adventure game set in J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth, more specifically the shadowland of Mordor. Throughout the rest of the year and this far into 2014, the game was one of the most outspoken titles in the gaming media, as well as among the Tolkien fanbase, who have very rarely been graced with a half-decent game featuring their much-cherished lore. The game, written by Red Dead Redemption co-writer and designer Christian Cantamessa, tells a whole new tale loosely set between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Some old acquaintances, a whole troop of new ones, and a lot of dying orcs - in the land of Mordor, where the shadows lie.

No stranger to danger, this ranger

Troy Baker : Talion
Alastair Duncan : Celebrimbor
Abigail Marlowe : Lithariel
Claudia Black : Queen Marwen
Adam Croasdell : Torvin
Nolan North : The Black Hand of Sauron
Travis Willingham : Hirgon / Nemesis Orcs
Emily O'Brien : Eryn
JB Blanc : Tower of Sauron
Liam O'Brien : Gollum

Talion, a ranger captain from Gondor stationed at the Black Gate, is brutally slaughtered along with his wife and son as part of some blood ritual, courtesy of the Black Captains of Sauron and the Dark Lord's Uruk forces. Talion's mind and body merge with a mysterious wraith, who has no recollection of his life, nor supposedly much idea as to why they are "cursed" together this way. Kept alive and granted inhuman talents by the spirit within him, Talion starts an epic quest through the lands of Mordor to destroy Sauron's army and exact revenge on the Dark Lord.

Mordor's huge.
I've never been much of a sucker for traditional fantasy as I've mentioned a few times before. No, I wasn't going to say The Lord of the Rings is any different, after all it's the gold standard for such fiction. I didn't know a hell of a lot more than the basics of The Lord of the Rings when I went to see the first film with my best friend back in 2001, just to keep him company, and well, it was such a hyped flick that I guess I needed to see what all the fuss was about. The rest is history; Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings film trilogy is some of the best cinema ever made, and The Hobbit started out just as great, didn't enjoy the second film quite as much though. I got infatuated with the lore so much that I broke out of my no-reading, just-writing mold not long after seeing The Return of the King, and read all of Tolkien's books carefully, from cover to cover, "humbly" starting with the gigantic tale that is The Lord of the Rings.

My actual hands-on history with games based on Middle-earth is a much shorter tale than everything I've read about any Tolkien game ever made, and judging by what I've read, I haven't missed a lot. I used to have The Fellowship of the Ring on the PlayStation 2 - based on the book rather than the film although it was promoted as official movie merchandise - and that game sucked. I also suffered through a lot more of The Lord of the Rings on the SNES than it was good for - in other words about 20 minutes. The movie tie-ins to The Two Towers and The Return of the King were pretty good, I hear; I've only played Return on the Game Boy Advance and even the handheld game had some good stuff in it, so I can't help but believe it. Alas, all of this is good material for a possible Tolkien marathon (I was going to do that to hype this game, if the schedules had matched a bit better), so let's not let it go to waste. Let's see what Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is all about.

Storywise, it goes both ways. Those not too keen into details might find the story amazing, especially since it's basically written and acted so well (Troy Baker, Nolan North & Co.), but I can almost hear the girly cries of true fanboys when it comes to some plot twists, including the ending which has already spurred up some loud gripes in the community, and the plot outline itself, as the Middle-earth legendarium does not generally support life after death. Some might think overturning everything we've learned about Middle-earth so far is even worse than overturning Star Wars. I think the game's tied between these two when it comes to the severity of the consequences. Yet, the developers have (more or less) clearly stated that they wanted to expand the universe and not to think of the official Middle-earth timeline too much, otherwise they wouldn't have been able to deliver such a powerful gaming experience or a game as clearly apart from the two major trilogies in mind, body and spirit. They also didn't want to overutilize familiar characters regardless of how much money they'd made, instead they settled on less relevant cameos and new representatives of the most essential races to not piss on the original characters' legacies too much. Fair enough, I think; smart, too, very much like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. The tone is set very apart from Tolkien's actual works; this is Mordor, and as you know, Mordor is very, very dark. There are no singing, dancing, weed-smoking hobbits here, and even elves aren't that pretty - the only one essential to the plot has scars all over his ghostly face. The dwarven hunter Torvin and the opportunistic Uruk grunt Ratbag add some humour to the mix, but even they have their dark key moments. All in all, I think the game introduces a small, but capable host of characters, and it goes without saying that any time a Hobbit or Lord of the Rings or Silmarillion character steps on the screen, it's showtime in the fanboy's ballroom, even if it lasts for 30 seconds at a time, at the most.

Takra here didn't do his job very well.
As a game, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor hits you like a ton of bricks in the start, and not in a good way, at least not as far as I'm concerned. New abilities and features are introduced at an extremely rapid, uncontrollable pace, and every single one of them has shamelessly been ripped off from another game - so even if it's uncontrollable, it's almost immediately accessible to anyone who's played game X. The HUD and GPS map, even Talion's death-defying jump out of the appointed checkpoint tower are straight out of Assassin's Creed, more specifically Black Flag, while the story has a lot in common with Assassin's Creed II. There are some things that point to Red Dead Redemption, such as the ambient challenges spread through the world, and the rest of it comes straight from the Arkham series. There's a counterpart for almost every single special ability in one or more Arkham games, and the combat system is pure Batman. After making some progress, you'll start to realize that these things I just mentioned are nothing but beneficial for the game - and when it comes to combat, it might just be that Middle-earth's BETTER than Batman. In that one, single, but extremely important area. Make no mistake about it - Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is very likely a very slow hook if you've spent a good part of the last 13 years playing every major sandbox game out there. But when it hits, it hits hard - it's almost just as good as anyone expected, and you'll most definitely get more for your money than you did with Watch_Dogs some months ago - a game I still haven't had the energy to run through, while I ran through this one in four days.

Prior to the game's release I was under the impression that the game's audiovisual department was supervised by many people involved with adaptations of Tolkien's literature all the way from games to theatre, and with the actual product in hand, I am certain of it. Middle-earth is a gorgeous game that against all expectations does introduce us to a lighter, greener side of Mordor never spoken of before. So, it's not all dark, bleak and smoky, and without its distinctive landmarks aside from the Black Gate and Mt. Doom - actually, you can't even go to Mt. Doom, it's just mentioned in dialogue a few times which was kind of a disappointment. The level design is absolutely perfect - although the world might do well to have a few more of true landmarks or sights apart from the campaign, the levels are designed perfectly from a gamer's point of view.

Open your mind. I know there's not a lot to see
there, but hopefully enough.
There are a lot of ways to go at certain missions, especially once you've upgraded your talents to the max; the levels are designed with dozens of possibilities for your creative mind to consume. It's all about your preference: fight, flight, or staying out of sight. Everything works, and I'm personally glad to be granted the choice of switching between these styles at a steady pace, whereas I was disappointed with the repetitive bush-to-bush stealth missions in the otherwise great Assassin's Creed IV, where being exposed meant mission failure. Being exposed in Middle-earth rarely spells out mission failure directly, but it can get you into a heap of trouble which is hard to escape from. And if you can't escape, bad things happen. Many games nowadays prompt you with changing to an easier difficulty if you die - not only does Middle-earth have just one single difficulty setting, things only get HARDER for you if you die. You'll soon find out how and why, and why the game rocks so hard.

Rocking hard brings me to Garry Schyman's (BioShock) music, which is extremely influenced by Howard Shore's scores for Peter Jackson's films, but once again, since the tone of the game lacks those calm and light moments of clarity ("oh, Sam!"), it's generally more action-oriented all the way, should I say pretty heavy! The sound of those battle drums when you're heading into your final confrontation at the very least has Helm's Deep written all over it. As a matter of fact, it's probably the most plausible adaptation of a good old-fashioned Middle-earth brawl you've ever seen in a video game, if you're not looking at the numbers too much. Remember, there's only so much a game can handle. Or your thumbs. One more cheer for the absolutely perfect voiceover work, and the mocaps as well; Troy Baker pulls another perfect role as Talion, hard to rank specifically when the guy's already got Joel in The Last of Us and the Joker in Batman: Arkham Origins under his belt. The silver award goes to small-time TV actor Adam Croasdell as Torvin, and the bronze to Liam O'Brien (yep, who I last called typecast as an asshole!), who pulls the best Andy Serkis impersonation as Gollum, depicted just as he is in the Jackson films, bringing the game even closer to the films, in other words what I consider home.

The baseline is this: Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is an open-world game with two separate maps, the second of which becomes available to you at the halfway mark of the story, and it's sized about the same as the already fairly large world you see before you in the beginning of the game. Like in the last two Batman games and in Assassin's Creed from the start, strategically placed Forge Towers unlock new areas on the map and reveal their secrets and side missions, which come in remarkable amounts. Unlike in every open-world game (you're free to debate with me on this one) except for Bethesda's RPG's, the side missions make the game, not the story. The moments the story has have nothing on the side missions, they offer you so much more liberty to do things your way than the story which sometimes feels shallow, and a little too scripted. For example, the Outcast missions which require you to save a set amount of human slaves under different predicaments do give you a bonus objective (a small EXP bonus) to accomplish just like any other mission, but basically you can go at 'em just the way you want to - just as long as those slaves are rescued. There's a time limit to few of the missions, but very few of them; I spent an hour on one of the missions even though there were just three slaves to save. I carefully planned the whole rescue out and then went on to pick off all the enemies one by one, never being seen, before actually getting to (and just remembering!) what I was supposed to do. Killing those orcs is just so fun that you don't even care about your mission - as long as it involves the opportunity to shed some muddy blood. And do it VERY violently.

What, again...? Oh well, it IS just that fun.
You can upgrade your three weapons (sword, bow, dagger), all of which have their unique qualities and side missions, with runes dropped by strong enemies such as bosses, and superior officers of Sauron's orc army. Talion's abilities are upgraded in two different skill trees: the Ranger and the Wraith. The Ranger abilities add to Talion's basic sword tactics and traits, while the Wraith abilities spice combat up with the ever-increasing supernatural powers of the spirit inside him. More tiers for the abilities are unlocked with Power Points, which you get from meddling in your stronger enemies' direct affairs clearly marked as side missions on the map (or simply hunting them down outside missions), and gaining certain amounts of EXP grants you Ability Points to use on the unlocked abilities. Some abilities are unlockable only by making progress in the storyline; even many side missions are completely locked off until you get an ability that is often not actually required to accomplish your task, but they usually make those missions much more enjoyable. I like that. Mirian is a currency you gain alongside EXP, used to unlock attribute upgrades, for health, "bullet time", capacity and such. It sounds so much more complex than it actually is, and even feels like it at first. It's a slow hook, just like I said. The next bit's the most complex part of Middle-earth, but also the coolest.

About 95% of the game's enemy cavalcade consists of orcs (or the Uruk), but calling the enemy design boring couldn't be further from the truth. The one unique aspect to Middle-earth is the Nemesis system. Fighting a large group of orcs or otherwise causing a major disturbance might lure in an orc captain. These sons of bitches have their own sets of tactics, weaknesses and strengths. You can find out all of these by interrogating certain grunts marked with a green icon (yep, the Riddler informants from Batman). By knowing your enemy, you can greatly turn the battle to your favour. For example, if a captain is marked as having a fear of Caragors, and you have the ability to ride one of these beasts, or if a Caragor cage is placed close to wherever you find the bastard, you can either ride to battle with a Caragor to scare the guy shitless and greatly lower his odds, or shoot out the lock of the cage and let the beast do more than half of the work for you on both the captain and his henchmen before jumping down and cutting off his head to seal the deal. You gain Power, and with Power you are one step closer to unleashing your full potential and conquering Sauron's army of uglies.

...But, in Middle-earth it works both ways. ANY Uruk that kills you might be promoted to captain. If the captain has YOUR number, he grows in Power, maybe even rank as I said, and the next time you see him, he might well be much stronger and more educated; the same tricks might not work on him anymore, at least not as well as they did before. As the name of the Nemesis system points out, some of these guys might go on to pester you repeatedly, at the slightest opportunity they get; especially those ones you've defeated, but who have also defeated you. It's like a wrestling rivalry. The funny thing is that even if you've even decapitated them several times, they still keep coming back, but well... you're dead and you're coming back all the time, ain't ya? Still, it's a little disturbing. Some of the guys won't even kill you. They just leave you for dead, especially on the second half of the game, after a verbal assault on your testicular fortitude which hurts even more than a knife through the heart if you're undead. There are so many different enemy behaviours I won't even start listing them all. One other thing I dare not touch is a complete list of all the things you can do to fuck with Sauron through his army, but one of them, I must. 'Cause depending on how keen you are on the advanced military management beyond the confines of the storyline, it can carry this game for months to come, no matter how easy it is to complete.

Thrown into a bullpen with 50 bloodthirsty orcs?
Count me in!
Near the end of the storyline, you'll gain one of the coolest abilities ever created for a video game, and slowly discovering all the things you can do with it will blow your freaking mind. OK, so what you've got to know first, is that there are grunts and captains in the Uruk army, but also warchiefs and their personal bodyguards (comprised of captains). If you go straight for a head-on fight with a warchief, especially one who has just one of your arch enemies as his bodyguard, you're toast. Regardless of your upgrades, and regardless of how well you've planned out the showdown, you're in for the fight of your life. The Brand ability tips the scale to your favour; instead of simply killing a bodyguard while he's out on his own, separate from his master, you also have the opportunity to brainwash him once he's weak enough in both mind and body. A warchief with a total of five bodyguards, even better. Hunt down and brainwash all five, head to the showdown and activate their possessed minds, and watch the shit hit the fan. Anyone who strikes the fatal blow is the new warchief, and his troops at your command as long as you keep him as your puppet. Or, you can brainwash any low-level captain and gradually help him become a warchief, through the very same missions you went on to simply fuck with them - this time, you're fighting for them, not against them. Or brand existing warchiefs. Or send a high-level orc captain on a mission of his own to assassinate a warchief - if he gets his head cut off, big deal. At least you're in the clear. I make it all sound so simple here; it's an extremely deep, complex, but magnificent system once you learn it. Like in so many games, you won't learn anything by reading all of this from a tutorial or an instruction manual (as if modern games had instruction manuals, God damn it), but actually doing stuff. If you're feeling uncomfortable with the system, I must say so did I at first, as I did with the whole game, but it's extremely fun, believe me.

One thing Middle-earth is not, though, is the most replayable game on Earth, and for a true sandbox veteran (and addict) it's not much of a challenge. It's extremely easy to reach 100% completion, 'cause unlike in Assassin's Creed, the bonus objectives only grant you that small EXP bonus; completing them does not count to the 100%. I completed the game to 100% with my Trophy count at a whopping 90% in just four days. The games which most influenced Middle-earth, such as Assassin's Creed, Red Dead Redemption and Batman all had something they could deliver beyond a full completion. A more interesting story, a more interesting and distinct world, more substantial rewards for hard work, collectables and even easter eggs which were actually hidden. The always fiery and feisty basic combat, and especially the Nemesis system offer you a good, fun challenge, as long as you can take it - you can carry on forever dabbling with it if you want - but as far as other forms of open-world adventuring go, Middle-earth is a little too open and obvious from the start, and once you're done, you're done. There simply ain't nothing besides taking advantage of your cheap military tactics. Again, it's fun, though. But for how long, that I don't know. It all depends on you.

I'll have to publicly get back on this subject at my earliest convenience - which is probably not that early - but I think it's safe to assume, for now, that Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is the best Middle-earth game ever made. It has its flaws, and apart from the innovative, unique and simply amazing rivalry, enemy development and military management system all tied up into one, all the best parts of the game come from elsewhere - but at least this particular region of elsewhere is a whole bulk of some of the best open-world action games in the world. Even if you're not a Tolkien fan, you should check the game out - or like some might say, especially in that case.

+ The graphics and surround sound are magnificent; this is the first time I actually fear for the upcoming PS3 and Xbox 360 versions
+ Impossible brutality
+ "Unique" and "deep" are understatements when it comes to the Nemesis rivalry system
+ Side missions with similar goals are always different from each other in content, and you can often go at them in any of the three main ways; melee, ranged, or stealth
+ The freeflow combat system from the Arkham series is polished to pure perfection here; it's rarely been this fun to kill (literally) thousands of orcs - wait... it's NEVER been this fun!
+ An incredibly well acted game...

- ...Considering that the story itself is a bit shallow, and not such a perfect fit for Tolkien fans as was expected
- A little too open and obvious, which leads to the next one
- Beating the game to 100% - including most of the Trophy/Achievement collection - takes time, and nothing else
- The HUD straight out from Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag is still what it was back then: cramped
- You can never immediately retry a failed side mission, instead you always have to make your way back to the starting point; this is honestly the most annoying thing about the whole game, and there is absolutely no reasonable explanation for it

< 8.9 >

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