Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Out of the Shadow of the License

Game: Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor 
Monolith Productions, 2014 (PC version reviewed)

Who would’ve thought a licensed Lord of the Rings film tie-in would handily surpass both Assassin’s Creed and the Arkham series as the king of the Open World Action Rhythm Combat Stealthy-Stabby Things, or whatever we’re calling this genre now? Shadow of Mordor not only perfects the crowd combat and parkour mechanics that have become the core signifiers of these games but introduces the remarkable “Nemesis” system to bring its open world to life. Without going into much detail, since it’s been written about extensively elsewhere, Nemesis essentially creates a procedurally generated army of orc leaders each with their own personality and personal history with whom you as a player develop your own stories and conspire to infiltrate Sauron’s forces using a kickass set of magical mind control powers. However simple the mechanic sounds on paper (and it’s not; the tactical variations of your abilities are nearly limitless), it animates and elevates every enemy encounter in SoM into a piece of your own epic narrative and keeps Mordor’s mooks from ever feeling like the mindless masses of the Assassin’s Creed series or the inconsequential overworld encounters of the last few Arkham titles.

Slip of a story notwithstanding, SoM’s presentation actually succeeds in making Lord of the Rings’ lore compelling in a way I can’t remember any of the other games doing in a long time, even if it does behave over-seriously about the whole affair. It certainly helps that (a) the world actually feels lived in and (b) it doesn’t litter everything up with cutscenes from the films or tangential tie-ins to the actions of the Fellowship characters, some unnecessary Gollum cameos notwithstanding. SoM avoids Assassin Creed’s cardinal sin of becoming an endless icon hunt by being confident enough in its core gameplay to eliminate nearly all the half-baked minigames that have become unfortunate staples of the genre. It’s also not afraid to steal the best elements of Far Cry 3 and 4’s base design and wildlife interactions, which add even more exciting variability to the whole affair.

Despite offering two massive open world battlefields, SoM doesn’t overstay its welcome, offering enough content to keep you coming back potentially forever but wisely keeping its core story trim and free of fat. I comfortably completed the main quest in about 15 hours while taking advantage of a good chunk of the side content, which felt like exactly the right length for this kind of game and a refreshing change of pace after the endless bloat of the last dozen or so Ubisoft open-world titles. The campaign does conclude rather abruptly, but it’s more a factor of the final mission feeling a bit rushed than any problem with the narrative, which wraps up rather nicely even while leaving open a clear path to a sequel.

I could go on about SoM’s other strengths endlessly - the near-perfect pacing and challenge scaling, the almost total lack of load times, the smooth introduction of all its systems without obnoxious tutorializing, the extraordinarily competent cutscenes, the beautifully fluid character animations - but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention at least a few of its shortcomings. A few of the unskippable cinematic conventions, like the theatrical WWE-style introductions of the orc captains, get tiresome really quickly and can royally fuck up the flow of combat. Although the parkour mechanics manage to be far more reliable than Assassin Creed’s, there are still those inevitable moments of frustration when you try to scale sideways from wall to corner and wind up lunging fifty feet down to a waiting army because the contextual pathing misinterpreted your command. Stealth is a bit too forgiving, offering a temptingly simple way to undo careless mistakes and avoid the very interesting procedural consequences of player death (upon which the world advances and Sauron’s army grows and evolves while you spend some unseen downtime in the grave). And despite some gorgeous environmental design, Mordor’s fortresses can get a bit samey, with frequent deja vu confusing your infiltration strategy.

But while SoM may not be perfect, it’s as damn near perfect as any triple-A studio title of last year or this one, learning all the right lessons from its inspiration sources and introducing radical innovations so successfully as to become the definitive new standard for the genre. In an era defined by big budget failures and genre stagnation, wherein tiny indie titles have come to dominate the market of inventive ideas, Shadow of Mordor is an excellent argument that there are still some things money can buy when it’s thrown at the right people.

Loved it!

Monday, November 23, 2015

I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire

Two weeks in, I think I'm ready to call Fallout 4 a broad failure. Beyond the usual Bethesda technical mess that's becoming less and less acceptable with each passing decade of this engine, the game is so regressive in terms of writing, quest design, and NPC interaction as to make me wonder what on earth the studio has been doing with the seven years and hundreds of millions (billions, by some estimates) of dollars in income they've been raking in since Fallout 3. 

***Minor early-game spoilers below the jump***

Monday, April 13, 2015

Top 10 Games of the Past Generation: Faster than Light

10. FTL: Faster Than Light

Shields are failing. All but one weapons system are down. Multiple hull breaches have taken the lives of crew members in engineering and the command deck, leaving only the captain, the chief combat officer, and a newly rescued young psychic locked in hand to hand combat with invading enemy Mantises in the medbay of the Aegis. While his two crewmates buy precious seconds, The captain struggles through burning corridors in a last ditch attempt to repair the door control subsystem before the flames consume the ship’s dwindling oxygen supply. All seems lost. 

Suddenly, an opening. An errant asteroid strikes the enemy vessel precisely as the combat officer unleashes the last of the Aegis’s missile reserves. A single missile penetrates the shield opening left by the asteroid, smashing into the enemy’s own weapon’s bay and setting nearby systems ablaze. The interruption in the barrage buys the Captain enough time to repair the Aegis’s door controls, sealing the enemy invaders in the Aegis’s own burning corridors before venting their air into the void of space. 

The tides quickly turn. With the fires and invaders under control, the weapons officer and psychic are able to being the weapons system back alone while the captain restores full power to shields. The enemy ship, now themselves nearly devoid of crew members and quickly losing hull integrity, attempt to jump to light speed and make their escape. No such luck. Another asteroids cripples their FTL drive, and a final missile seals their fate. The Aegis lives to fight another day. 

If you could point to one defining trait of this past gaming gen, it might to be the arrival - or, arguably, revival - of widespread emergent gameplay. Emergent gameplay, loosely put, refers to those “unprogrammed” moments when a game’s open design allows the player to witness something wildly unexpected and unique to their own gaming experience. While for the most part this trend has been associated with free-roaming sandbox games in the vein of Rockstar or Bethesda’s work, the mostly linear FTL: Faster Than Light features perhaps the most stunning emergent moments you’ll find anywhere. That sense of possibility, the chance that something new and unexpected could happen at any moment, that there might be any number of previously undiscovered solutions to any given problem - that’s what emergent gameplay is all about.

You could argue that this has always been the biggest draw of the Roguelike genre, but FTL stands out in particular for its accessibility. It’s by no means an easy game - brutally difficult, on the contrary - but it overcomes the massive barrier to entry in otherwise phenomenal titles like Nethack and Dwarf Fortress:  the user interface. While hewing to Roguelike tradition in using only the most rudimentary 2D graphics, FTL’s clean and intuitive control menus put those other titles and the byzantine Star Trek: Starfleet Command GUIs to shame.

Anyone even vaguely familiar with the tropes of TV space combat can pick up FTL and instantly understand what it means to divert power from engines to shields, represented here by simple icons and energy bars and accompanied by sound effects that always signal exactly what even a casual SciFi film viewer would expect them to. The pew-pew of incoming laser fire, the shhhck of a pressure-sealing door, the humming decrescendo of a failing power supply - nothing could make more sense or communicate the complex turns of space combat so easily. Even my boyfriend, who has no patience for punishing gameplay difficulty, abandoned Dark Souls in less than hour, and categorically refuses to play anything he doesn’t find superior to Civ V as a baseline, took to FTL immediately and has come back to it regularly for years without fail. Which says more than you might think about the game’s staying power.

True, the “losing is fun” philosophy turns a lot of people off by default. And yes, even after the (free) additions of the Advanced Edition, FTL is a little sparse in the variety of unique encounters, most of which you’re likely to see repeating after a handful of playthroughs. But the beauty of FTL is that the impact of those encounters is utterly unique every time. The individual narrative of your ship, your choices, and your crew alter the meaning and outcome of those encounters with infinite variation. FTL, in other words, though always new, is always familiar. In all the right ways. And that’s only one part of what makes it my tenth best game of the past generation.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Game of Thrones First Thoughts: The Wars to Come

And just like that, Game of Thrones is galloping out the gate with no reservations about leaving George R.R. Martin in the dust. Whether or not the writing team was aware at the time that they’d have the chance to beat GRRM to the finish, they’d clearly given up interest in reigning in the pace of the show. Exposition has been viciously cut, reams of novel dialogue eliminated in favor of dramatic pacing as taut as the tightest moments of the last season. Already in less than an hour season five has covered what seems to be hundreds of pages of its source material, though it’s been long enough since I read it that my memories may be clouded by my frustration with the series by that point.

SPOILERS abound in some loose thoughts after the jump.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Irregularly Scheduled Maintenance

With the impending return of regular content I've finally gotten around to fully migrating the old Blogger comment system to Disqus. An unfortunate consequence is that a large number of old comments have vanished. Let history mark their loss (and hopefully not

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Literal Necropost (With Thanks to Dorian)

Hardly a fitting revival after two years of slacking, but I thought I'd throw my December Facebook micro-review of Dragon Age: Inquisition up here while getting to work on new content and fixing the comment system.

The Good:
  • Epic scope and tone; draws you into its world in a way that DA:O tried and failed to do, and DA:2 only accomplished on a small scale. BioWare’s finally made something unique and exciting out of this series, which no longer feels like a wannabe-Lord of the Rings vehicle or ersatz Song of Ice and Fire. Thedas has become a rich, developed world just bursting with personality and lore.
  • Excellent writing and sharp dialogue with the strongest BioWare characters this side of Mass Effect.
  • Stellar voice acting, including from the player character. Much stronger than Shepard and much less frustrating than Hawke, with a huge range of dialogue options that actually let you shape your Inquisitor’s personality and tone.
  • Solid combat, something in between DA:2’s and Baldur’s Gate. Battles never quite match the visceral, tactile feel of something like Monster Hunter - a fact of which I was unfortunately reminded every time I fought a dragon - but they’re far more engaging than DA:O’s left-click-and-yawn affair, and way less frustrating than DA:2’s thanks to (mostly) having removed that stupid enemy reinforcement mechanic.
  • Gorgeous environments that make you wish they weren’t littered with exclamation marks, endless enemies, and lootable distractions.
  • The music. Holy cow, the music. Scenes that were already moving or inspiring thanks to the writing were elevated to crazy heights by the score. There’s one scene in particular at the turning point of the narrative which gives words to the title theme - already one of the most memorable since Halo - and it’s just haunting in effect.
  • Blows up the maddening RPG cliche of boring opening sequences waiting for the story to start with a literally explosive prologue that hurls you into the action within seconds of character creation and keeps the adrenaline rushing for hours before it runs out of steam.

The Bad:
  • In keeping with the Dragon Age trend, the villain is utterly forgettable, and not at all credible as an antagonist. He's barely present for a good 95% of the game, and whenever he does show up the Inquisition kicks his ass so thoroughly that it’s impossible to take him seriously as a threat.
  • Despite the popularity of the distinct KOTOR and Mass Effect approaches to RPGs, BioWare seems to think what we’ve *really* wanted from them all along was a single-player World of Warcraft. While the scope of the game is its greatest strength, it’s also its greatest weakness. The Thedas that seems so huge and inviting at first quickly reveals itself to be a junkyard of meaningless fetchquests and faceless, throwaway NPCs. Even if you just want to ignore the seas of punctuation marks floating above people’s heads and all the “gather me fifteen mushrooms” or “kill ye forty-five hamsters" nonsense, you’re forced to plow through hours of these distractions if you want to advance in the main quest, thanks to the finite “Power” system required to move the plot along.
  • For that matter, even the primary and companion quests lack the creativity or thoughtfulness of pretty much any other title in BioWare’s library. Instead of facing trial for mass extinction of a species to save a planet, bargaining with a Desire Demon for a boy’s life and soul, or mastering the politics of a Sith enclave, you can pretty much always expect to be running from Point A to Point B to kill Target C. No real intrigue. No serious moral quandaries. No complex relationships to balance. Not even so much as a thoughtful puzzle unless you count one token Zelda ripoff in one of the final dungeons.
  • Other than the distinct (gorgeous) aesthetics and somewhat varied enemy skins, every place you go is exactly the same. Same mindless fetchquests, same whining faceless NPCs who expect the savior of the world to fill their grocery lists, same demons emerging from the same rifts to be defeated in exactly the same way for the six hundredth time. And occasionally there are dragons, who despite palette swaps are also exactly the same.
  • The plot never goes anywhere. It explodes into action with a phenomenal prologue sequence that makes up most of the first ten hours, then slowly peters into nothingness as it runs through the same basic set of motions over and over and over again until it finally just ends with a whimper.

The Ugly:
  • The game is an early beta-level mess that probably needed at least six more months of development.
  • Graphically, it’s a nightmare, at least on the Xbox 360. What looks gorgeous in stills just looks ridiculous in motion, with textures popping in and out and characters clipping through their own faces throughout every conversation. Entire landscapes disappear at random, your Inquisitor’s face morphs into a complete stranger’s at random intervals, and there’s not a single custcene that doesn’t break down into a 12-frames-per-second epileptic puppet show.
  • Bugs abound. The worst are game breaking; the number of times I had to force-restart the 360 to fix stuck dialogue or menu-created crashes numbered in the dozens. But even the glitches that didn’t fully freeze the system resulted in me reloading at regular intervals to get rid of some crazy problem or another.
  • Dragon Age Keep is broken. Despite spending a good hour inputting my choices from the previous games and assuring me that they had imported to DA:I after jumping through dozens of hoops, I realized about 15 hours into the game that my Keep file had either been corrupted or just never imported at all. By that point I wasn’t going to restart, but it was pretty frustrating to have had all my choices from DA:O and DA:2 thrown out the window to BioWare’s incompetence.

The Beautiful
  • Despite its colossal flaws, DA:I is the strongest entry in its series by far and my favorite RPG since Mass Effect 3. It’s got scale and ambition that I imagine BioWare will only continue to perfect in coming DLC and expansions, and I can easily see it becoming the flagship franchise of the new console gen in the same way Mass Effect was for the last.
  • Sera. Iron Bull. Varric. Dorian. These are the kinds of characters you remember forever, and the kind of conversations you don’t mind jumping through endless hoops to unlock.
  • More than Revan, more than Shepard, more than Hawke - the Inquisitor is a character you can make truly your own, and the feeling of “ownership” of your world, your personality, and your choices is the strongest any game has managed to generate to date.

Really liked it.