Tag Archives: action

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

The best Assassin’s Creed game yet!

I love Monolith. I’ve loved them since way back when they made Blood. They have always made solid games with interesting twists, such as F.E.A.R. and first-person slow-mo, and Condemned: Criminal Origins with its melee and crime investigation focus. They did it again with Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor.

Shadow of Mordor is a third-person action game that plays like a combination of Assassin’s Creed and Batman: Arkham Asylum. In the Assassin’s Creed vein, there is a lot of climbing on buildings, sneaking around, stabbing orcs, interrogating informants, and finding collectibles. Shadow of Mordor does all of these better than Assassin’s Creed has in the past. The climbing feels better and it’s more obvious where you can and cannot climb. The stealth makes more sense, as breaking line of sight gives a ghostly outline to show where you were last spotted. This makes following enemies seem less omniscient and not unlimited in numbers, while still presenting overwhelming amounts of enemies. The informants are also better done in Shadow of Mordor. Taking a page from the Arkham games, information on your particular target can be gained by grabbing a particular orc, instead of tediously following NPCs, or (even worse) innately somehow knowing everything about your enemy from the start. This last one is something Assassin’s Creed has botched badly in the last couple games.

Taking pages from Arkham, the combat in Mordor is very much influenced by those games, with the same attack, counter, evade, and stun face buttons. It’s a well-done imitation, and I found that my skills learned from the Arkham games translated perfectly to Mordor. Also taking a page from Arkham‘s books, the collectibles include bits of Middle-earth lore which makes them something that (as a Middle-earth fan) I want to collect, rather than just boxes to check to completionists.

What Mordor does that neither of those games do is introduce the nemesis system. You see, true to Middle-earth lore, Uruk-hai lead the orcs and they are nasty. They’re mean, they fight each other, and power is the rule of law. In the game, there are around 20 Uruk captains. They all have unique names. They all have a unique mix of strengths, weaknesses, fears, and hatreds. For example, a particular captain might be invulnerable to stealth attacks, weak against fire, afraid of Caragoar (large four-legged beast), and a hatred of losing. This would mean that stealth is useless against him, and he will regenerate his health if you take his health down but not out, but fire will do more damage, and he’ll lose all of his strengths and hatreds if he sees a Caragoar.

Controlling the 20 something Uruk captains are five warchiefs, with more power and unique attributes themselves. They also have bodyguards, which are Uruk captains. Taking on a warchief without accounting for their bodyguards is a good way to find yourself fighting a lot of powerful Uruk. But you don’t know any of these attributes or command hierarchy from the start. You don’t even know these Uruk’s names. You have to collect intel to learn these things. You can go into these fights blind, but it’s much easier when you know what to expect and who might show up. Later in the game, you can exploit the command hierarchy by turning bodyguards against their warchief, or turning warchiefs and captains against each other.

Reading this, none of it might sound particularly compelling, but it is so well done that it makes the entire game. The named Uruk must have thousands of lines of dialog because repeat encounters result in them bringing up things that I had done to them in the past. Where Assassin’s Creed forced me to collect intel just to put me in the same sneak, murder, run away cycle, Mordor made intel optional, and made the unique Uruk attributes a way of forcing me to be creative with my approach. The nemesis system created stories in Mordor that few games can replicate even with crafted encounters. I’ve written up a great example of one of these stories involving Orthog the Crafty at my blog.

Despite all of these strengths, Mordor isn’t perfect. In fact, where it is lacking is in the crafted story. You play as Talion, and, right from the start, your wife and son are fridged and you’re killed by a minion of Sauron. However, you learn that Talion can’t die because he’s possessed by a wraith. The wraith doesn’t know who he is, but his power keeps Talion from dying in his quest for revenge. The story isn’t particularly bad in itself, but it suffers from too much fan service. You run into a handful of antagonists modeled accurately from their characters in the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy who seem to just pop up for no good reason. Or at least, not good enough reasons. It’s a bummer, because I loved all of the collectibles and their stories and found them much more interesting than dragging out movie characters for the apparent purpose of saying “HEY THIS GAME IS LIKE THOSE MOVIES! REMEMBER THOSE?” It’s the movie poster cover art on the latest print of a classic novel. Tacky and unnecessary. The game itself stands alone great without the ham-fisted cameos.

The game ends weakly, and leaves the doors wide swinging open for the sequel, and I personally cannot wait. Maybe they’ll get the story right next time, but if they don’t, I’ll hope to make my own, better stories with an improved nemesis system. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is one of those rare games where the gameplay mechanics create better, more interesting stories than what was written for it, and I hope that we see more of the nemesis system in these type of open world action games in the future.

Darksiders 3

When I beat Darksiders, I thought it was the best Zelda game I’d ever played. It’s not Zelda. It’s really a mash up of a lot of good games, but its most obvious influence is the 3D Zelda games. Darksiders 3 most obvious influence is Dark Souls, but it’s not the best Dark Souls. It’s not even the best Darksiders.

The story of Darksiders 3 is convoluted, and it doesn’t help that there’s not much “in the previous games” lead up. The short of it is that you are one of the horsemen of the apocalypse, Fury (not an actual historic horseman, but whatevs), and you have to hunt down and kill the seven deadly sins. They’ve been set free on Earth in the middle of the apocalypse. Now there are demons, angels, and sins to kill.

After release, Darksiders 3 got a couple significant updates to address some of the major complaints reviewers had. One of those was “classic” mode, which was intended to make the game more like the previous two installments. I played the whole game in “classic” mode, and I still felt the Dark Souls influences in nearly every aspect.

In a game where you play as Fury, there’s a dearth of fury shown. Enemies rarely come in groups larger than three, and they’re mostly durable. It has a somewhat slow pace, especially compared to the rest of the series, with a focus on watching attacks and dodging them to counter attack and punish the enemy. I was slightly surprised at how few huge monsters there were, especially considering that huge bosses are staple of the series. The sins themselves are rarely bigger than Fury and follow the same approach as the basic enemies: watch the pattern, dodge, and punish.

There’s nothing really spectacular here. It’s an okay action game that obviously apes a lot of mechanics from Dark Souls. The problem is that Dark Souls‘ mechanics match its world and Darksiders 3 does not. Darksiders is a world of comic book action, heaven versus hell, four horsemen riding, deadly sins running amok. The sins are just bosses at the end of uninteresting dungeons. It mashes in some Metroidvania qualities by adding movement options when you get new weapons, and there’s some degree of non-linearity to the middle game. It doesn’t use the Dark Souls influence to elevate the world, and it never turns down the comic book influence to match the more methodical gameplay.

Darksiders 3 is confused about what it wants to be, and I hope Gunfire Games can sort it out by the fourth game and possibly the conclusion of the series. I’d hate for them to get to the end of it and never overcome the greatness of the first game. Darksiders 3 is not going to do it.


Reference: Gunfire Games. Darksiders 3 (THQ Nordic, 2018)

Source: Purchased from Green Man Gaming

Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner – Mars

Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner – MARS (ZOE2) is not a new game. It originally came out on Playstation 2 almost 16 years ago. But in the year 2018, Konami saw fit to brush it up again and release it on PC, and that was a great idea. ZOE2 hasn’t lost a single bit of luster.

You are Dingo Egret and you’re on the Jovian moon of Callisto, mining something in a rickety old mech. After some slow walking and clumsy movement, you stumble upon a hidden mech called Jehuty. From there, the rest of the story is anime nonsense, but you can ignore it. The game itself is super fun.

That introduction in the mining mech serves to demonstrate the contrast between the mechs of this game and the Orbital Frames, particularly Jehuty. Those few minutes in the mining mech are painful. It’s slow, unresponsive, and clumsy. Jehuty is like a surgical knife with jet engine. It moves like liquid and it’s armed with a half dozen types of attacks before you even get to the subweapons.

ZOE2 is the anime mech game you dream of. Instead of plodding and counting ammo, you soar through the air, slice up enemies with your sword, light up the air with homing lasers, and augment your attacks with a dozen different subweapons, from a gatling gun to giant laser that takes 10 seconds to charge. The missions span from arena fights against handfuls of enemies, to traditional boss battles, to battlefields full of enemies and allies.

It’s not perfect though. By the time you’ve acquired all of the subweapons, which don’t really build upon each other in power but give you different options, you’re near the end of the game. It’s short, almost to the point of being too short. I had so much fun with it that they could’ve doubled the length and I still wouldn’t have gotten tired of it. Unfortunately, it does pad the time a bit with the last two boss fights, which are significantly more difficult than any boss leading up to them. Out of the six hours I logged in the game, I must’ve spent two of those hours on those last two bosses alone. I died over and over and over again. And they weren’t fun either.

In 2019, I can still recommend a game that was released in 2003. It’s not the looker that it once was, but it’s still sharp and the gameplay itself absolutely holds up. I would’ve preferred if the last two boss fights were more fun, but the rest is so great that I don’t mind. At 16 years, it might be time to call Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner a classic.


Reference: Konami Digital Entertainment. Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner – MARS (Konami Digital Entertainment, 2018)

Source: Purchased from Humble Store

Assassin’s Creed Origins

I tell people I have a love/hate relationship with the Assassin’s Creed series, but I’m going to be totally honest here: it’s mostly a love/annoyed relationship. I find them to be brainless timesinks, and that’s not really a bad thing. They’re a reliable, often enjoyable 20 something hours of game. I haven’t played all of them, and the ones I have played are often regarded as the bad ones, but I almost always get one when I want to kill time. Assassin’s Creed Origins, however, is better than a time killer. It’s a great game.

Assassin’s Creed Origins takes the history-skipping game way back to ancient Egypt, in the times when Cleopatra’s brother occupies her throne, and he’s propped up by a Greek army. You play as Bayek, a Medjay, and you’re hunting down the people who killed your son. This mission will take Bayek all across Egypt and lead to uncovering a greater conspiracy.

Origins bins a lot of hallmarks of the Assassin’s Creed series. In doing so, it becomes a much more enjoyable game, and probably a more accessible game, but it loses some of what makes Assassin’s Creed unique. Origins presents a huge, sprawling Egypt, that you’re free to explore and engage with on your terms.

Origins took a lot of, let’s call it, inspiration from The Witcher 3. It’s very much about having a lot of stuff to do, and letting you do it in whatever priority you want. Often, you can even run off in the middle of a quest to do something else and then come back and pick it right up. While the quests aren’t quite as well written as The Witcher 3, and they rarely do that thing where it acknowledges when you’ve already solved a step in the quest ahead of time, they are competent. They don’t feel like a waste of time. Bayek himself, along with the rest of the cast, is also well written. Compared to some of the rest of the Assassin’s Creed series, this is the best it’s been.

What is loses is the strict focus on stealth. Bayek can get into a lot of fights and leave most of them alive, where most Assassin’s Creed protagonists would wilt like a flower. Additionally, if you do find yourself in over your head, you can simply run away and it’ll almost always work. This is in stark contrast with other games in the series, where enemies are almost omniscient and ever-preset to the point that being spotted means reloading a checkpoint. Add in that you no longer have the ability, or much need, to blend in with crowds, nor much need to run along rooftops to avoid being seen, means this Assassin’s Creed feels least like a game in this series. If it weren’t in a historical setting, with a single “assassinate” button, and good climbing mechanics, it’d be a different game entirely.

Some people aren’t going to like this shift; I’m not one of those people. I loved it. Like The Witcher 3, it hooked me early on and I spent a lot of long stretches of time playing it. Unplayed games notwithstanding, this is the best game in the series. The extra time Ubisoft put into its development clearly paid off; they made an Assassin’s Creed that I just loved.


Reference: Ubisoft Montreal. Assassin’s Creed Origins [Ubisoft, 2017]

Source: Purchased from Steam store.