maanantai 8. joulukuuta 2014

REVIEW - LittleBigPlanet 3 | PS4 | 2014

GENRE(S): Platformer
RELEASED: November 18, 2014
DEVELOPER(S): Sumo Digital, xDev Europe, Tarsier Studios, Supermassive Games, Media Molecule
PUBLISHER(S): Sony Computer Entertainment

NOTE: This is my first PlayStation 4 review to feature my own screenshots, relayed from Facebook. I know the thumbs are kinda small in this particular review, but you can see them in full size by clicking on them. Feel free to tell me what you think of the _full_ size, and stuff like that, and whether or not I should keep using the white effect frames I've used in most reviews this far. I'm using this information to make the blog better and more fun to read, and as guidelines while I'm working on the new look of the whole thing. Reviews of games for other systems will remain the same as ever for now.

Last month was one devastating set-up of giant sequels to giant games. Apart from Assassin's Creed: Rogue which I already reviewed, a giant game of lottery went through my cortex concerning which of these games I should review first. Suddenly, I'm sitting here weeks later with three reviews already underway, without half a decision made. Well, my senses tell me to start with the simplest game, and a game which I could play for five minutes and know everything about, and how good it's going to be. ...LittleBigPlanet 3 is the closest to that kind of game out of the big three at the immediate hand, but it really isn't that easy to write about, especially not for a fan of the earlier games. LittleBigPlanet 3 was announced from the purest blue, as being developed by Sumo Digital just a few months ago. LittleBigPlanet 2 felt like the tip of this particular iceberg three years ago, and the only experience I've had with Sumo Digital's work is Dead Space: Ignition. Once again there's a personal connection between Dead Space and a new LittleBigPlanet game, but this time, the memory is one I'd like to forget, as Dead Space: Ignition was an all-around horrible and useless take on the Dead Space mythos. Still, creators Media Molecule did assist, as did Supermassive and Tarsier, who both had their hands locked on tight on certain aspects of the previous game in the series - Supermassive worked on the game itself and Tarsier pretty much made the whole of the fantastic, yet poorly advertised DC Comics add-on published late last year. LittleBigPlanet 3 does finally have just enough fresh material to start a new communal cycle, and exciting new takes on the simple platformer formula to keep the casual player entertained for a while... but the thrill just isn't quite there.

Y u hold back?

Stephen Fry : Narrator
Hugh Laurie : Newton
Lewis MacLeod : Oleg / Captain Pud
Susan Brown : Nana Pud
Tara Strong : Coach Rock / Vera Oblonsky
Peter Serafinowicz : Dr. Maxin / El Jeff / Papal Mache
Lorelei King : Elena / Felica
Nolan North : Marlon Random
Simon Greenall : Zom-Zom the Far-Out
Robbie Stevens : Larry Da Vinci

Newton, an unskilled creator riddled with mental issues, tricks our old friend Sackperson into releasing the three evil Titans to wreak havoc on LittleBigPlanet. With the world specifically designed to keep Sack from being able to save the day by him-/herself, he/she tracks down the three legendary heroes of LittleBigPlanet's yesteryear - OddSock, Toggle and Swoop - to even the odds.

To boldly go, where I have definitely
been before.
Another walk down the memory lane with LittleBigPlanet does sound kind of like I'm trying to make something out of nothing, but now that I think of it, I might have a point. So let's do it. Back when LittleBigPlanet came out in late 2008, it was amazing. Astounishing, even. Visually, it was so different from the conventional game, as a matter of fact we'd never seen anything like it - and gameplay-wise, it was an extremely refreshing throwback to the simplicity of the very basic 2D platformer. It appealed to kids for the mighty challenges that lied within its simple and clean first impressions and its completely unique style. Advanced, and/or more mature players praised the game for its advanced features, the most notable of which was the level editor, the all-time deepest and most complex system of its kind, which only grew with downloadable content. Not that the DLC was only for creators; they were just as much for the casual players. With hundreds of levels - from both sides of the spectrum - emerging every day from the community and playable to everyone hooked up with a decent broadband, LittleBigPlanet really felt like a game that would never end or lose its appeal.

Then, came LittleBigPlanet 2. A game that simply blew the bank with tons of new features, for both the player and the creator; of course, you needed to play through the story mode to find out what you could do in this game, AND discover the tools and items for it along the way. LittleBigPlanet 2 was no longer a platformer - it was a platform for games, as it was not-so-modestly advertised as. With the new Sackbot and cutscene-editing mechanics, you could accomplish anything. Just look at that British guy who remade the whole of Final Fantasy VII using LittleBigPlanet 2's level editor. I've yet to try a decent version of this level pack, and I'll soon tell you why - but yeah, it was perfectly possible, as he proved with this effort that took years to accomplish. Not to piss in this guy's cereal, but it's also been proven the whole thing could've been a real RPG instead of a simple Final Fantasy VII-themed platformer... well, maybe I'll just shut up, having never finished a creation of my own. I do have tons of drafts lying somewhere, though. My point is that LittleBigPlanet 2 was the tip of the whole thing. Especially when the DC Comics add-on came along. It added the final features needed for a perfect LittleBigPlanet experience, from both the player and creator's points of view. If you haven't played that one, it's not surprising; but, if you have, you'll be even more disappointed with what kind of "fresh" and "new" features LittleBigPlanet 3 has in store. This is hardly the next generation of LittleBigPlanet, and as great as the game is in some ways, I really hope the buck stops here. Like I said, we've been to the top. We've been to the creative peak. Creators will reach it here, no doubt - but as players, we were there three years ago. LittleBigPlanet 3 holds back, even with everything that was established a long time ago. A lot.

This spacewalking schtick really ain't
that new anymore. At least they
figured to leave the sticky surfaces
from the Muppets DLC out.
The graphics are pretty much the same as always, and as I assumed beforehand, there really ain't much difference between the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 versions of the game. Not in look, not in the loading times. There are only a couple of things to take note of: dynamic costume effects such as wind flowing through your Sackperson's possible hair, and 16 dimensional planes, which Sumo Digital juices up with platform jumping between the first and 16th layer - not much in the between in-story - and long slideboards between the layers which aren't nearly as hard to deal with as they look. As for the original level design, I must say I miss the first LittleBigPlanet's colourful, surreal and therefore always surprising designs, as well as the cutout NPC's. I found them more appealing and more justified than these Sackbot creatures, for some reason. What I miss even more is the gibberish. Now we've taken a turn to full voiceover territory, even during levels. I don't mind having Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie reuniting - that's quite damn cool in fact - but of course, I don't get to hear them by default. What I get is a whole host of severely overshooting Finnish actors who haven't got one good thought invested in the game. The localized narrator is even more annoying and constantly besides the point than he was in the previous game. In a word, the voiceovers are horrible, and not only in the annoying sort of way. There's a fine line between being a delightful nuisance and being a messenger of Satan. Speaking of annoying, the music in turn is not nearly as annoying as it used to be, and I'm not sure if that's a good thing! There was a certain appeal to even that form of nonsense.

OddSock vs. one damn ugly
fish... pus... man.
Be it a conscious return to the platforming roots of the franchise or a kinda unintentional drawback to make and have time for the three well-publicized new protagonists of the show, LittleBigPlanet 3's story mode misses out on the diversity of LittleBigPlanet 2, by a devastating deal. There are a few "racing" levels, but even those are completely optional, one level that plays out like a 16-bit top-down adventure game such as Terranigma and a multi-phased final boss battle that mixes a few different POV's and pacings. Everything else is pure platforming, trying to keep up with the surge of great 2D platformers that have emerged since the success of the first LittleBigPlanet; I'm seriously sensing a NEED to compete with the phenomenal Rayman Legends and the more recent Super Mario Bros. adventures on the two Wiis. So yeah, LittleBigPlanet 3 is "just" a platformer to gamers, but it's a good one. At its best, very exciting, I admit it... but also, extremely short. There's the introductory hub, and three more - in each one of the latter, your only real goal is to set free the legendary hero by finishing three levels and then the introductory level to that character. After that, you're clear to face the final boss, and that's really it. Of course players can go on for ages, aiming for more score and prize bubbles in the hubs, the story levels and the array of optional levels. For creators (and potential new ones) there's a whole new game waiting at the Pop-It Academy, where they need to finish three semesters by going through a series of "puzzles" based on all the tools available. It seems like a fun way to allow players to really explore the secrets to proficient level creation, but the truth is something quite different. It's all really elementary there at the Academy - the puzzles are not very difficult, and there's just one or two tools for you to use in each level. Keep in mind that when you actually get to the level editor, all those tools and materials are cluttered up as always and it's hard to keep track of what you've "learned" in that damn school. Also, actually building a good level is quite different than drawing a straight line to cross a pit. Still, the level editor itself is smarter and less frustrating, and guaranteed to steal many a good night's sleep, if you already know and remember the basic rules.

Toggle puts the LittleBig in
What I like about the story mode is the inclusion of three different characters besides Sack, but you can only use them within their own hubs to collect stuff out of Sack's reach, and just a couple of levels during the whole game. I like the final levels in particular thanks to their concept of switching between the four characters, doubled with the fast pace I liked about the last Rayman game; and LittleBigPlanet does beat Rayman in the sense that the characters really do differ a lot from each other in every possible way, and the concept of four totally different characters without having to meddle with Sackbots too extensively will surely become the best level creators' new favourite plaything.

OddSock the Swift - or Sackdog, as I used to call him since I could never remember these new characters' names before actually getting the game - is very fast, as his name implies. He can run on walls and jump further than anyone else. Toggle - LittleBigFatsack - provides some of the most challenging, physical and most of all, diverse sequences of the game. He can change from pint-sized to a huge pile of mass in the fraction of a nanosecond, which means - among many things - that he can run through tiny shafts and evade large enemies by simply running under them, but at the same time, weigh down huge elements such as platforms everyone else is too light for, or crash through bulletproof glass, with just one press of a button. Swoop - Sackwing - is a bird, so his contribution to gameplay is quite damn obvious. The flight mechanic from LittleBigPlanet 2's DC Comics add-on gets a little tweak here, as Swoop is able to remain airborne after the... well, swoop. You know. Swoop is definitely the hardest character to handle as far as I'm concerned, even after much practice, but luckily, he's also the least used character in the whole bunch.

Swoop comes face to face with the
prime evil. Who's a mix between a
light bulb and an egg timer, in a suit.
This is LittleBigPlanet, after all.
What really puts a cap on LittleBigPlanet 3's problems, is its whole host of compatibility issues. Yeah, it's cool to be able to play PlayStation 3 stuff on PlayStation 4. It's a cool idea. And that's all it is. I'm not one to review a game after its glitches, because glitches are a (usually) passing flaw, but if developers are pushing 2 gigabits of patches every week to a game and it's not getting any better, it just takes more space on your hard drive for nothing, that's when I hit my boiling point. The game itself is not that glitchy - there's nothing out of the ordinary to my recollection, at least nothing that would break the game. But the compatibility issues are massive. First of all, even if you import your stuff from your age-old profile to the game - I shit you not, I even saw the precise stuff that I wanted into the game light up on the screen - it isn't found in your Pop-It inventory. And the levels? Be they community levels or old DLC levels for the previous games, they glitch and crash all the way to hell and back. All of the physical stuff simply doesn't work anymore. For example, a trampoline that was supposed to bump me to safety in one of the DC levels had minimum bounce and I ended up sliding off it into a gas-filled pit instead. In that same level, I simply couldn't get one of the prize bubbles, 'cause the enemy that was supposed to work as a "springboard" acted totally different than it did in the original. After the Lex Luthor boss fight, the game just froze. In the cutscenes, the characters don't even move their mouths when they speak, they just keep swinging their arms around like retards, which they never did in the original. I could go on and on about the glitches that make the old stuff practically unplayable. The same kind of stuff affected me even worse when I tried out that Final Fantasy VII epic. It simply does not work here. Oh yeah, one last thing: no Metal Gear Solid, Pirates of the Caribbean or Toy Story for you. Not even if it's on the list. Not even if they're clearly marked "purchased". They're not found in the PS4 part of PSN, and I doubt they'll ever appear there. Again, making the game backwards compatible even on the PlayStation 4 was a nice thought. Actually making it work would've been an even nicer thought.

It's time to wrap this one up and I'm really kind of sad. By no means did I expect much out of this game, 'cause like I already stated a few times, we all saw the tip of the iceberg a long time ago, and it was no longer the small team of brilliant minds behind this game, but a whole group of small studios, led by one who simply... does not have that touch, to put it nicely. I expected a very entertaining platformer, and that's what I got. I only wish it'd been longer and taken more out of the base LittleBigPlanet 2 was built on. Come on, there's a helicopter shooter showing up in the screensaver, where's that level or any of its kind in the game?! A first-person shooter in the God damn launch trailer, where's that? I might not be a huge FPS fan, but that's misleading, really. Creators will get much more out of this game than players. I warmly recommend LittleBigPlanet 3 to skilled level creators, but LittleBigPlanet 2 to players. Not that the first game is to be missed by players either, if some PlayStation-owning minority has still managed to do that.

+ A massive playground for skilled level creators
+ Fun new characters
+ Fun new gadgets, too, although not quite as fresh as the aforementioned
+ Fun story mode, as long as it lasts...

- ...In other words, a jiffy
- Misses out on the constant surprise factor of the previous game when it comes to level - or more specifically, GAME design
- Severe compatibility issues with PlayStation 3 content, with apparently no remedy in sight
- Pop-It Academy was better as an idea than as an actual series of levels
- I could strangle the localization team; not really an issue to rate the game after, but definitely worth mentioning

< 7.9 >

keskiviikko 19. marraskuuta 2014

The Inquisitor

I probably don't need to tell you which game's on the plate right now. Thought I'd post this pic of my character - it's already pretty evident that BioWare's character editor has improved a lot in the last couple of years, but the image doesn't do it enough justice. It's great. The game itself feels really good, too, but let's save the rest for another time.

Based on an old school photo of me, Even I couldn't tell the
difference from afar - the editor's amazing.

REVIEW - Assassin's Creed: Rogue | Xbox 360 | 2014

GENRE(S): Stealth / Action
RELEASED: November 11, 2014
AVAILABLE ON: PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
DEVELOPER(S): Ubisoft Sofia, Ubisoft Singapore, Ubisoft Montréal, Ubisoft Quebec, Ubisoft Chengdu, Ubisoft Milan, Ubisoft Romania

Just to avoid any accusations of self-repetition, let's start this year's (first) Assassin's Creed review with a LESS known fact: "rogue" is one of my favourite words in the English language. It's just so smooth: "...rogue." Now that we got that tidbit out of the way, let's move on to the usual statement. My history with Assassin's Creed has been more colourful and unlikely than with any other franchise. It all started about four years ago. My friend had busted his PlayStation 3 and put most of his games in my care, including the first three Assassin's Creed games. Back then, I hadn't even played the first one, and up 'til that point I had close to no idea a third game had already come out. I had wanted to try the first game for quite some time, but I was afraid to fall in love with it if sequels were truly spewing out at such a fast pace - I hadn't the resources to start collecting a new series. What if the fourth game came out just when I had squeezed enough spare dimes for the third one? Well, I have often said how it turned out; while I hated the first game, the second one already made me a fan. It made me such a huge fan that I was able to tolerate almost anything up to a certain limit, and no major game in the franchise has come close to that limit, not even the fourth game Assassin's Creed: Revelations in all its staleness. Unfortunately, no game in the franchise has come close to Assassin's Creed II and its first direct sequel Brotherhood, either, and every year when they unleash a new game, I'm sitting tight on the computer, refreshing GameRankings over and over again, with a pure 50/50 mindset - it could either be the final nail to the franchise's coffin, or a truly good game. You can't really tell, beforehand. So... here we have TWO games instead of just one. The first - both chronologically and spiritually - is a reward, so far exclusively dedicated to those players who have kept with the series from the beginning, but are not yet ready to move on to the next generation. It's called Assassin's Creed: Rogue, and regardless of how this review is going to end, I think it's safe to say that it should not be avoided by any means by any true Assassin's Creed fan.


Steven Piovesan : Shay Patrick Cormac
Roger Aaron Brown : Achilles Davenport
Adrian Hough : Haytham Kenway
Julian Casey : Liam O'Brien
Tristan D. Lalla : Adéwalé
Richard Dumont : Christopher Gist
Shawn Campbell : James Cook
Patricia Summersett : Hope Jensen
Andreas Apergis : Juhani Otso Berg
Lucinda Davis : Violet de Costa

Orphaned as a teenager, 21-year old Irishman Shay Patrick Cormac has served the Assassin Order faithfully - but when a personal mission of his results in the gruesome slaughter of several innocents, which is of course completely against the Assassin's Creed, Shay becomes disillusioned with the Creed, most of all his mentor who could care less of the consequences of Shay's actions when he sees a higher cause. Shay himself becomes the victim of an assassination attempt; after recovering from his wounds in the care of a Templar family, Shay reluctantly begins to hunt down his former friends and allies - or as he sees it, a quest to save the world.

Shay starts out young and fiery...
Initially, Rogue's worst enemy is the Assassin's Creed series itself. Only the most casual of the most casual, and misinformed players would buy this game if they didn't have every major game in the series already. Picking up exactly where the previous game left off has been one of the strengths of the series from the beginning, but now, with the absolute majority of the commercial focus on a separate next-generation title that is promised to be another fresh start for the series, Rogue in all its copy-paste being is bound to get flamed by someone; be it a consumer or a critic, or a whole group of representatives from either side. You all saw Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag last year; how could they squeeze out any more out of the PlayStation 3 or especially the Xbox 360 which turns ten next year? How could they improve on the gameplay, A.I. and all that? Actually, how can they afford to make a decent last chapter for the seventh generation while they're obviously focusing on the eighth? Compare the amount of news, trailers and gameplay videos posted for these two games. Hell, Rogue wasn't even properly announced 'til three months back, and until that, most of us thought it'd been vaporized. Once it WAS announced, I don't think anyone ever expected anything great or thought too highly of it. ...Let's get back to the real world, here: the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 are still very much alive, well, and kicking like a couple of mules. They might not be able to run a much bigger and better game than Black Flag, but the most important question is this: did they focus on this game? The second most important question is: is it at least as good as Black Flag? The third: is it RELEVANT? Or just another filler game that would've been better off on a handheld system? Well, before I go any further and deeper, I'll answer these questions as I see fit. Rogue is a full-fledged Assassin's Creed game, and from several points of view, almost as good as Black Flag. As far as relevancy to the whole story goes, it is extremely relevant assuming you're interested how things went from Black Flag's bad to Assassin's Creed III's worse... and what sort of twists you can expect from Unity. And, if you want to experience the life of the best Assassin's Creed protagonist this side of Ezio Auditore, you've come to the right place. Uh, game.

Chronologically, Assassin's Creed: Rogue is the middle chapter in the trilogy of the colonial era, which started with the last: Assassin's Creed III. (I just realized a connection to GTA in this sense.) The game is set in the mid-18th century, during the French and Indian War, mostly just some time before Connor's birth and his childhood. So, you can safely expect - without any spoilers that the trailers haven't already provided - returns from many familiar characters, from both Black Flag and Assassin's Creed III. Also, the historical part of the story is, in a clever way, a prologue to the historical events depicted in Assassin's Creed: Unity, which takes place in a whole other country and time. So, all these things considered, I don't see any reason why you should let Rogue pass if you've followed the series like a puppy from the beginning; and what I'm going to say next is something even better.

"May the Father of Understanding guide us."

...To end up more mature, with a heart of cold
stone. And with a neat-ass scar on his face.
For the very first time in the series, and I doubt it'll be the last, you are a Templar. Or, "the bad guy". Or, what's that word? Oh yeah... "rogue". The colonial trilogy and its spin-offs have been all about teasing a side change. First, there was that thing with Assassin's Creed III; what happened after the first few chapters was a total jawbreaker. You just didn't see that coming. In Assassin's Creed: Liberation, Aveline turned against her mentor as advised by her Templar mother, but she never really became a Templar - it was more of a personal issue and the main antagonist was still a Templar, who she had an even bigger beef with. In Black Flag, Edward just pissed on people who pissed on him, and most of those people just happened to be Templars - he wasn't really a fan of the Assassins, either, but ended up working for them, mostly by coincidence. Well, now there's no question about it - after the first few storyline sequences, you become a full-fledged, dedicated Templar, and if it wasn't clear to you long before, there really is no good or evil in this set-up. The total lack of sense in this rivalry that has lasted since the dawn of time is exploited further than ever before, and it's a real treat to someone who has followed the story from the beginning to see it through the eyes of a representative of the side considered an enemy until now. And what a story Rogue has in store, really - the storytelling is indeed in a zone it hasn't been in for years. After Black Flag's deliberately warm, tongue-in-cheek approach - which was great in its own way - it's still good to be back on track, in depths even darker than some of Ezio's darkest. Shay might not strike you as the most memorable Assassin's Creed protagonist at first, but wait 'til he gets to the point where he really starts putting things in focus, already having abandoned his former cause; it's really hard when all the people you once considered your best (and only) friends are now your worst enemies. Unlike you might've read, Shay's metamorphosis ain't all that quick and easy. He's one of the best and most multi-layered main characters across the whole franchise, I think; at the very least one of the most interesting ones.

The story is all about Shay, and accommodating the two previous titles; there are no high-profile additions to the historical cast of the game, and there's no historical event to build upon here, the Seven Years' War is just a red herring. However, amidst the completely fictional new faces and the freeform timeline, there are some brief cameos from less prominent figures of the actual past, usually there to get stabbed through the neck, gut or eye. I'm a bit torn between saying that it's good to have a wholly personal story for a change, or saying that such a story doesn't do enough justice to the whole franchise. I'll go with the first option, it's that good. And, there are a few notable historical events here - such as the one that causes Shay's final breakdown. After witnessing that, I can't say I blame the dude for losing his faith.

Back to the future... I've gotta say it seems I'm one of the few fans who actually enjoy the modern-day side of Assassin's Creed. I always have - it's the side that kept me wanting to muddle through the first game, and return to the next, in which Desmond's story just blew me away with the rest of the game. The new modern-day approach they first tried with Black Flag worked for that game in its somewhat humoristic fashion - but now, it's starting to get lame. Or at least it is lame in this case. As far as the modern-day story goes, this game is another take at Revelations in the sense that it just works to confuse you and does it in place, without evolving at all. Basically, you start about a year from where the previous game left off, although it's made clear pretty early on that "you" are NOT the same person who worked the Abstergo desk in Black Flag - which takes away the rest of the already severely lacking immersion, You're still "doing developmental research" for Abstergo in the Animus, when your progress is interrupted by a "glitch"; this glitch presents itself in the form of the genetic memories of Assassin Shay Cormac, who none but the most well-informed Abstergo agents know by name. While your supervisor is working on a way to override the mysterious "virus" and locate some "real" files for you to run, climb and stab through, one of the head honchos at Abstergo takes an interest in Shay and convinces this bitch to let you view his genetic memories in peace. Nothing serious involved - it's the most filler modern-day sidestepping thus far, even worse than Revelations actually. Storywise, I mean - the first-person puzzle levels in Revelations are still the worst thing ever seen in the whole franchise, in my honest opinion. The lack of a modern-day draw is expected, really, since Rogue is not the main product here, but it's none the less disappointing. And one side to it is even outright enfuriating...

Life under the northern lights.
Abstergo executive Juhani Otso Berg has made a few subtle appearances in the franchise. I first caught a mention of this guy in one of the data packs in Black Flag, but he's also appeared as a character in multiplayer modes for Brotherhood and Revelations, it seems. What struck me as an obvious point of interest in this guy is that he's my countryman. a very rare sight in domestic fiction. I have seen and heard ridiculous depictions of Finnish characters in domestic products before, but not on the scale of a primary antagonist. First of all, no Finn speaks English in such an accent - though I guess we're lucky he HAS an accent. He sounds more like a German dude (actually, he's French... I knew it!). What really grinds me is the way he pronounces Finnish words. I'm a bit of a patriot, I know - usually these kinds of things do not bother me, but when we're this close to home, I take great offense. Would it have been so hard and expensive (I HIGHLY doubt it) for Ubisoft to hire a Finnish voice actor? I bet there'd been dozens of guys glad to take the job. Well, at least they didn't translate the game's subtitles to Finnish this time around - that, I ironically can't stand.

Let's get to the game, then. Since I just shed some light on the "developments" in the modern-day "story", let's complete that circle first and discuss the actual game for the rest of the review. What you'll be doing during these sequences - if you want to - is exactly the same you did in Black Flag - if you wanted to. You zoom around the Abstergo offices picking up lost communicators, and breaking into computers. This time you're trying to fix them, not hack them, but it still plays out exactly the same. A simple hack puzzle later, you're rewarded with a data pack, once again shedding some light and new views on the game's events as well as the events of the whole damn Assassin's Creed timeline, from the first game all the way up to Unity. Of course, they don't tell a whole lot of what we don't already know about Unity, since I guess they're kinda expecting the most Creed-faithful consumers and gamers to play through Rogue first. These packs are still very interesting, and work towards what I guess is one of the game's goals, to blur the line between friend and foe, quite damn fine. It's just too bad that you have to tolerate the muddy, non-sensical and irrelevant dialogue to get to them. And it's also too bad about 99% of them relate to Berg's career and findings, from long before and after the legend of Desmond Miles.

The game looks exactly like Black Flag, only in Assassin's Creed III's surroundings with the icy North Atlantic serving as your naval playground, and the biggest key city from the latter game making a return, packed with sandbox "goodies". Special animations from Black Flag are also carried over, such as side mission triggers and stuff like that. It looks like Black Flag meets AC III meets Red Dead Redemption - Shay looks quite a bit like John Marston, and those animal-skinning animations don't change that view one bit. Altogether, the game feels like a long-ass (and much more gory) expansion pack to Black Flag - not that it's a wholly bad thing, much less any surprising. Once again, how could they have done better? Different, maybe, but better, nah. The music, composed by series newcomer Elitsa Alexandrova, is quite good, but why oh why did they use a remix of "Ezio's Family" from Assassin's Creed II as the title theme? OK, it's fantastic, and the most popular song the franchise ever spawned, but it held special meaning and was associated with Ezio - it simply doesn't belong here! Just think of the mere TITLE of the song, God damn it! (What I know of Unity this far is, that game's theme song is yet another remix. What the deuce?) Numerous sea shanties from the previous game are remixed to a more audible form, and several new ones are included; the actual connection is a little hard to make without any pirates in the game, but to hell with that, I love 'em shanties. The voiceovers are great, of course - many artists of days past come to reprise their roles one more time, and as for Shay, Canadian actor Steven Piovesan passes for an Irish dude damn well.

The seventh generation still knows how to
make a flash.
So, if you're fresh off Black Flag, or its Freedom Cry expansion, you're in for easy access - mechanically, Rogue is a carbon re-print of the game. It's just more compact, and definitely harder. Naval combat, for example, is extremely hard in the beginning of the game. You need to make a severe amount of progress in the game just to meet the requirements to unlock weapons on all sides of the ship - I'm actually really bothered by how the game's wide open from the beginning, but it makes next to no sense to go for a sandbox adventure since you can't fight properly and completing most locations in terms of collectibles and side errands is outright impossible up 'til a certain point. Ironically, some very early storyline missions require you to search for collectibles and raw materials to upgrade your ship before you're ready to take them on; well, that's never been a problem for me since I'm the kind of sandbox gamer that avoids making progress to the last. In this particular game's beginning, I was really eager to make progress instead, just to be a little more ABLE (and since the story's the most interesting part here); but it's really disheartening to vacuum a large settlement far out on the sea out of all its collectibles and then find there's one collectible or side mission there you can't reach before making actual progress. And, it just so happens that the materials you actually need are under the blackest stone. Rogue muddles a lot, I'll give you skeptics that much. But it gets better; moreover, quicker, once you let go of your sandbox mentality.

As far as story missions go, they're expertly written, longer, more diverse, and as I said, harder, than in Black Flag. Just the most basic mission in the game has an average of three different sequences, sail-tail-kill for an easy example. Stealth is more important to your success than it's been in a while, for both the conclusion and reaching it. In turn, the game doesn't really offer the most interesting sandbox experience around. Assassin's Creed has always been made by its story, here it's more evident than ever. Collectibles are severely of quantity over quality, and the level design simply isn't quite as interesting as it was in Black Flag. Again, I'm the type of sandbox gamer who enjoys going out there and avoid the main destination at all costs as long as he can. It has been more interesting in the past. Removing underwater levels altogether doesn't really hurt the game all that much - I wasn't that much into them due to the quirky controls that have always been the franchise's darkest scourge - but I'm pretty sure I ain't imagining when I say nearly all forts, fortresses and small forests in the game are designed 95% identically. There are hundreds of Animus data fragments and treasure chests hidden around the world, even in uncharted locations and hidden inside icebergs, and halfway through the full collection, it feels like there's nothing else. As you make progress through Shay's fantastic story, it all feels less necessary. You just want to see the story through; not necessarily to be able to finish the game and move on, but to see what's next for our antihero. Each time I switched to the modern day, I felt like muting my TV, running between all the unlocked computer terminals, and return to the Animus as fast as possible. Never happened before. Thank you very much, Otso fucking Berg. Seriously... if they go to so much trouble making Italian and French characters sound like Italian and French characters, even if the voice actors were British, Canadian or American, why not go to such lengths to have a Finnish character who could at least be taken seriously? I feel like calling Ubisoft and demonstrating what the word "perkele" REALLY sounds like - numerous times, 'til they get it right. Or until I've made a point. Perkele!

There are no huge changes to anything; I can't think of one thing different enough to make Rogue feel any less like a (particularly long) expansion pack to Black Flag. Except for Shay, who comes complete with a few, simple side mission types that you couldn't imagine doing as an Assassin - such as actually defending an assassination target by scoping out your former allies stationed around 'em and eliminate them before they can launch their assault. However, if you liked Black Flag's advanced features, I can't see why you wouldn't like Rogue, 'cause all that's concretely missing is that wide array of underwater levels. Nothing else. The remote naval missions are still exactly the same, although again, it will take a while before you can afford a chance against something bigger than a schooner and add it to your fleet. Building renovation returns quite like it was in the renaissance trilogy; luckily, you don't have to travel to a random bank and back to cash in on your steady income. Instead each of your safehouses, including the captain's cabin on your ship, is equipped with a desk that magically stores all your money, and you can pick up your hard-earned cash there any time. In a worse bit of news, the renovations require the very same raw materials and huge amounts of money as the upgrades to your ship - which are the only truly essential upgrades in the game. So you decide what's important; it's not a very uplifting thought to go blasting away at whole fleets for several hours in a row just for a bit of cloth and metal, or wood, which you need the most and which is the hardest material to find. Or it might be, on paper, but try it out for yourself. Or think what it would've been like a year back, that helps too.

It's like riding a bike.
The last thing on my list is Shay's weaponry, which is the same as ever but has one addition quite different than anything you've seen before - while the poor Assassins struggle and try to make the best out of age-old weapons, excusing their lack of resources with "tradition", the rich Templars are fascinated with the future of warfare. FAR future, as seen in the inclusion of grenade launchers; quite primitive ones, to make their mere existence remotely believable. It's actually funny that Shay is seriously puzzled by the discovery of a silenced rifle, but has next to no reaction towards this powerful new weapon. Well, the grenade launcher is pure gold, it packs one hell of an oomph, and just the tutorial mission linked to the weapon and its three different types of ammo was enough to convince me that I was going to have much fun with it. So, no gripes here - the killing's still fun, and there's something notably different to that one practical element of Assassin's Creed. Could we actually ask for more? Sure we could. But would we?

Even the Achievements are pretty much the same as before, there are next to no surprises in that field. I suppose the Achievements provide enough incentive for you to keep on collecting shit - that one time. You will actually very likely want to play the story again, but there's absolutely no good excuse to go for another hunt for the ugly alternate attires and useless weapon upgrades that the game offers up on one huge platter for a second time. The game generally offers up more challenge and more diverse missions to go with it than Black Flag, and just because Rogue is arguably a little less self-repetitive than its predecessor when it comes to the story missions, the optional objectives sound more fun and substantial.

It's far from the best and most important game in the franchise, but far from the worst as well, seeing as the story holds meaning; it's a good stand-alone product, not to mention a solid, interesting part of the colonial saga, unlike Assassin's Creed: Revelations was in its time. In the end, I seriously believe that Assassin's Creed: Rogue could not have turned out any better. I seriously didn't believe it could be this good. It's cramped with unnecessities, it's severely unchanged, Mr. Berg can pull a leap of faith straight into the sidewalk for all I care, but it has a very interesting and different, character-driven story, and it makes good use of the very basic Assassin's Creed formula within that storyline. For that one last hail and farewell, Rogue is just fine. As far as Unity is concerned, I'm expecting "a bit" more.

+ Follows a great game, in mind, body and spirit...
+ ...With the exception that it's darker and more violent, the way I personally like my Assassin's Creed
+ Great story with a standout lead character
+ Fun missions that ring of the best in all past games; I can't really think of one that I really hated, actually

- Feels a bit too much like a year-late expansion pack from time to time
- Not the most interesting, least repetitive or fruitful open-world experience we've had; repetitive side missions, boring collectibles. Desperately looking for even the lamest possible treasure does not quite feel the same as a vengeful Templar as it did as an adventureous pirate captain.
- Apart from about a half of the "hidden" data packs, the modern-day setting (which I've usually enjoyed very much) is a wet fart, especially its main antagonist

< 7.5 >

tiistai 11. marraskuuta 2014

Brushing off the October rust and dust...

A couple of weeks ago I did a little rant on my back problems and gathered I would be done with them in a few days, but obviously that wasn't the case and Halloween went to the shitter as far as the blog's concerned. Well, time to look forward, and I've got a few bits of good news. First, and foremost from all views concerned, I'm healthy again, and I'm ready to start whipping it. Of course Halloween came and went, so the Monster Mash might not have as much meaning now, but it will continue right up 'til the planned end.

I'll have to put it on hold for a few weeks though, 'cause as you know, as far as new releases go - the kind of releases I simply MUST review as quickly as possible - the rest of November is just crazy. Unforgiving, and insane. Tomorrow night I will head to GameStop to pick up my copies of both Assassin's Creed: Rogue and Assassin's Creed: Unity from the midnight launch. Whether or not you've read the first reviews of either one of these games, one thing's for certain: we're in for a long trip with these two games on this blog. Originally, I didn't have much faith in either one of the games; Rogue is like a last hurrah for the systems that spawned the franchise, and while it might've been a noble idea from Ubisoft, they were not expected to really put their hearts into it. Well, apparently they did - Rogue is described as a full-fledged Assassin's Creed experience with a great plot. Extremely similar to Black Flag, yes (well, how could it be much different?), but a good play nevertheless.

Let's leave it at that for now - Rogue is, of course, first on the list of reviews, 'cause Unity is THE product, another rebirth of the Assassin's Creed franchise, possibly the first part in a new sub-series. Now with this game, I originally had two huge gripes; the plot setting, and the focus on co-operative play. These last few days have brought a lot more information to the table than I expected to hear from the game before actually playing it, and I'm starting to feel like Unity could be an excellent game after all. Sure, the ratings have been great, but that doesn't affect me in this game's case at all. What does is the written content of the reviews. But, let's leave that too, all for the gigantic review coming up, hopefully and most likely as early as next week - depending on how big of a slice Rogue cuts off my spare time. Well, either way, at least one of these games will be reviewed very soon.

In a bit of a surprise moment, I woke up this morning and checked my phone if there were any official reviews of either one of the Creeds online - sure there were, but what caught my attention was the flurry of reviews already online regarding Dragon Age: Inquisition, with the game's North American release still a week off. I'm surprised EA didn't force an embargo on the game, and why should've they, since apparently the game is fucking excellent!? I've read professional reviews stating the game's length to surpass both previous Dragon Age games combined (!!), and solid comparisons to Dragon Age: Origins and moreover, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Finally, LittleBigPlanet 3 is coming up in the end of the month.

Regardless which game you're most waiting for, the rest of this month will be pure heaven, or hell. Or both. I have four games to get prepared for, so if you'll excuse me. I'll get to these subjects as soon as I can.

lauantai 25. lokakuuta 2014

Monster Mash '14: The Curse Gets Worse

Halloween's approaching, and while it seemed only a few weeks ago that I had a great pace going on and that I was definitely able to do things just the way as I envisioned them and have reviews of several interesting horror- and monster-themed games, including the brand new The Evil Within, online by October 31st, now it's almost certain that it isn't going to happen. You see, I must have a curse or something. Halloween's a time for curses and witchcraft and all that, but this is ridiculous - this is the second year in a row that a Monster Mash has gone to hell. However, I refuse it to let it go all the way down to the ninth plane - it will continue to the planned end, just not on schedule. I'll have to come up with something else for Hallow's Eve.

For the past two weeks, my back's been killing me. I can neither stand up, or sit down properly. The pain (or occasional numbness) shifts between my upper and lower back, and even my neck, making it hard for me AND the doctors to pinpoint the actual cause, or the cure, whether it's just an acute deficiency of [insert medical mumbo-jumbo here] or if I'm really in need of physiotherapy. I've been using up all the physical energy and strength I have to be able to do my job at the highest possible efficiency. Just the thought of sitting at the computer for more than 30 minutes, even if it's positioned on my lap, has been the last thing on my mind lately. Right now I feel I'm getting a little better. I've stretched, worked out, done everything I can to get back in shape for any everyday function.

That being said, I believe I can squeeze out a review or two next week, in time for Halloween, but the Monster Mash will carry on for a while after that, I really don't want to skip any of the games on the list, least of all The Evil Within, of which I'm sure I'll be able to whip up a very interesting review as my initial take on it was quite mixed. We'll see what I'll come up on Halloween as a substitute.

'Til then.

tiistai 14. lokakuuta 2014

REVIEW - The Addams Family | GB | 1992

GENRE(S): Platformer
RELEASED: January 1992
DEVELOPER(S): Ocean Software
PUBLISHER(S): Ocean Software

Back to the family - seemingly for the last time - to check out a couple of odd handheld games based on Charles Addams' strange and very macabre, but surprisingly functional comic book family, or more precisely, Barry Sonnenfeld's 1991 film adaptation. Five different versions of the video game license were produced, of which I've already done two. The third and last one I have access to, at least at the moment, is the Game Boy-exclusive iteration, which was among the first, if not THE first Addams Family game directly based on the film. It's very similar to its NES and SNES counterparts, but it has its own quirks. Terrible ones, but the game is not utterly unplayable as a whole. In that sense, it also follows the Addams Family video game code.

Black, white and kooky

The Addams family has been evicted from their mansion by the devious lawyer Tully Alford and goes missing while attempting to re-negotiate with the man - with the exception of the family's eccentric patriarch Gomez, who heads back to the mansion to save his loved ones. The more danger and death awaits him, the better - he was getting bored anyway.

Though I've never had too much fun with any Addams Family-related game, I feel a certain sort of giddiness every time I take on one or two games in a franchise I started dissecting back in the earliest days of this blog. It always bedazzles me when I think how much time has passed and how much everything's changed during that time, in many senses. Can't say I believed or even dared to hope that my fast judgement towards these games would've changed, or that an Addams Family game on a Game Boy would be any better than any of the games I've played on the NES or SNES, but I guess I hoped it to be decent; although mediocre all the way, the Addams Family games I've reviewed this far have been far from the bottom end. The Addams Family on the Game Boy is, as I feared, the worst iteration of the first film's license I've played thus far - but, as I hoped, it's not an utterly unplayable game, just even less playable than the big boys.

Teddy gone bad. Nice shadow.
The game looks the ugliest of 'em all, which is kinda obvious, but really, there's no explaining the emptiness of the backgrounds when gameplay's still compromised with the Game Boy's usual problems. The presentation is so off-key it hurts; the boss design is the most ridiculous out of all the games, and Gomez looks more like Marlon Brando in The Godfather than the sleek Addams patriarch played by Raul Julia. "Kiss the ring." Surprisingly diverse music, though, especially on this platform - I was expecting a maximum of three different tunes. It's nothing special, but I gotta tip my invisible hat to the game having at least one over the bigger releases.

Like the NES and SNES releases, The Addams Family is an open-world platformer - which sounds much cooler than it actually is. There's a certain pattern you must follow to simply be able to beat the game - the open-world schematic is for children that are small enough to not care whether they're able to beat the game or not. To us children who are grown up a little, it's a fuck to hack through a long, repetitive level just to get impaled by the fact that the only weapon in your inventory does not work at all on the boss, and at that point, the only way to exit the situation is to intentionally rally for a Game Over, as you're stuck on the boss you can't beat as long as you have lives left. Well, at least the checkpoint system works, huh? ...No smart-ass comment here, it really does. It's just the wrong time and place for a decent system.

Devil went down to the Boiler
Every time you beat a boss, you save one of the family members, and gain a new weapon. Jumping on enemies doesn't always work and when it does - it's really quite random, there's no distinction between enemies you can or can't jump on - it merely stuns them and you need a weapon with its own power meter to really dispose of 'em. Generally you should just dodge the enemies and save your weapon meter for the boss fights. The weapons are split up into two categories: shit and shitter, also known as ranged and melee, in that order. Whenever you get hit, you start flashing like in any old platformer - except in boss fights where you take continual damage as long as you remain in contact with the boss - but occasionally the flash stops you from moving, and your weapons stop working. Projectiles can actually disappear into thin air in mid-screen, and melee weapons are just simply useless, their range is less than pathetic. Wait 'til you get to the swimming part to get a true feel of how mediocre the gameplay is. Gomez doesn't actually even swim, he merely floats, and you have to use the digital pad to keep him off instantly lethal hazards. It's even way worse than it sounds.

"These games are hardly spooky, but I guess they're kinda kooky / they're altogether ooky, the Addams family!" This is me finding my inner poet at 5 A.M.. The Addams Family on the Game Boy is indeed thus far the most hopeless case in the surprisingly long line of different games based on the first film, but not from the most unplayable end of the whole franchise. I'd take this one's mediocrity over the utter pile that is Fester's Quest any day. That's the biggest compliment I can give it, and it's not even a very light one in my view.

+ Hmm... generally harmless?
+ A fair checkpoint system, technically speaking

- Looks the least legit out of the many different games under the same title
- The controls and gameplay, most of all underwater

< 4.9 >

perjantai 10. lokakuuta 2014

REVIEW - Chiller | NES | 1990

GENRE(S): Shooter
RELEASED: 1986 (Arcade)
PUBLISHER(S): Exidy, American Game Cartridges (NES)

Now here's a game I've wanted to add to the Monster Mash for ages; it's definitely not good, but it fits the usual bill perfectly as it is one of the most intentionally distasteful horror-themed games ever made. Chiller was first released in the arcades in 1986, after several modifications to the very thin "plot". Nobody rightly knew where arcade veterans Exidy were going with this game - some believed they were intentionally rallying for bankruptcy. The early 90's were the golden era of unlicensed NES cartridges, made by a few American companies as inspired by Tengen's success in the field of unlicensed NES games in the 80's. American Game Cartridges was one of the "biggest names" in the field and in 1990, they delivered an 8-bit port of Chiller, which was kinda interesting since it actually supported the Nintendo Zapper despite being an unauthorized release. No one in the right mind would've ever expected Chiller to turn up on the NES as it was in the arcades; even as an unlicensed game, it went through some heavy censorship. ...But it's still quite revolting. Let's have a look: this might not be a long review, but it's something that absolutely has to be done.

The only way to exit is going piece by piece

Here's the plot as described on the box: a medieval castle has been invaded by some evil force which is causing the dead to rise from their graves, and you play the role of a poor man's ghostbuster who's been tasked with collecting the 32 talismans of the castle and stop the undead uprising.

Do not worry, I've come to save you! ...Oh, wait.
No I haven't.
Here's the plot as it really is: you're a sick puppy with a penchant for not just killing zombies, but torturing and slaughtering utterly defenseless people. No use in just simply tearing them limb from limb with your "gun" - whatever that is - as it takes so much time. Time is short, and creativity is "rewarded".

Oh, dear Lord. The title of the game paints a picture of a very standard, somewhat comedic b-horror game - not far apart from the original Castlevania, Monster Party or even Ghoul School. Sorry for mentioning Castlevania in this context, but it did come out around the same time as the original Chiller. The box art for the NES game supports this assumption, looking like a poster for an 80's horror comedy, graced with the tag line "Dead People Are Cool". That tag gets a whole new meaning once you start the game. Let's make it clear at this point that I'm not that disgusted by the game, I'm just wondering what the hell went on in the developers' minds.

In terms of the amount of content, Chiller is a throwback to classic arcade - it only has four levels, looped over and over, and they get harder each time, with more required targets and a tighter time limit. However, unlike other arcade games built like this, you can "beat" Chiller by shooting out special items or just some random bundles of pixels in each of the levels - 32 in all - to gain talismans. You see all the talismans you've gathered and the targets you've missed during the whole game in the level start screen. Now some of these "talismans" are indeed some background details, or some easily missable stuff amidst the "excitement", such as a rat randomly running across the level floor, Some of them are something completely different.

You guys having a party in here? (Notice how
calm they are?)
After the first two levels, you're in the mindset that you're indeed a good guy, some glorious hunter of the supernatural, but the next two levels spill the truth. First off, you're at an underground dungeon with a river of blood running through it. There are no ghosts or zombies around, just three innocent people tied up in torture racks, one guy chained to the floor, one guy hanging from the ceiling and one guy who's apparently come to rescue these people, lurking in the doorway. Yep, you're actually supposed to kill the shit out of these people. Shoot that last guy too, to avoid disturbances. You can't take damage from anything in the game, but the time limit in conjunction with the required targets is very strict. Bonus targets like that wannabe hero over there gain you an advantage over that limit. There are a couple of ways you can do this, you can either use the torture racks to rip those people apart or just simply shoot their bodies to unrecognizable shapes with your... yeah, what is that, really?!

Anyway, the next level, the last one, is even worse in terms of taste, as it brings a few more people into the mix, really close up - including a naked young lady strapped into a full-body gutting device, another into a guillotine, and one guy's literally got his head in a vice. Once again you can just blast your way through this last level, or get creative with your sick mind and get both of those vice and guillotine running for starters. How utterly exciting... not nearly as exciting as being taken back to the beginning of the game to hunt for the missing talismans, though. And the circle goes on and on and on, until you power off. Which is something like ten minutes into the game at the most.

Unlicensed NES games were rarely half decent, and never very creative. If Chiller is one of the most interesting unlicensed titles out there, things were not well in that field - even if my "interest" in Chiller has nothing to do with quality or creativity, it's about testing the limits. I appreciate that in a certain way. It's a fun game to SEE running on an NES, that's all there is to it.

+ You know, I really can't come up with anything useful

- Same as above; it's obvious how bad the game is

< 2.0 >

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

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