Monday, April 22, 2024

Wasteland 2 Director's Cut (PC, 2015)

I've played and really enjoyed Fallout 1, 2, Tactics, 3 and New Vegas. It felt then like an obvious step to go full circle and try out Wasteland 2, seeing as the Fallout series was inspired by the very first Wasteland game released in 1988. While that game looked a bit dated for my patience, Wasteland 2 looked like a good alternate version of a Fallout game. It is inevitable that I am going to compare these two games then, seeing as they seem to be (un?)willingly intertwined.


Wasteland 2 was released in 2014 and the Director's Cut that I have played was released the year after with some enhanced gameplay. Unlike Fallout, Wasteland never created a franchise, so it took them 26 years to finally manage to come out with a sequel. Wasteland 2 has some interesting people attached to it, first and foremost the original creator of Wasteland Brian Fargo. Adding to this were people attached to Fallout 1 & 2, like the game designer Jason Anderson and composer Mark Morgan. Then came Chris Avellone and Colin McComb whom had worked on Planescape: Torment among other things and it really looked like Wasteland 2 could only turn out to be the perfect Apocalyptic adventure, a true hero to carry on the Fallout flag.

Just like in Fallout, the game starts out with the player in the remains of America after a devastating nuclear war with the Soviet Union (China in Fallout). People have bonded together in different factions, some are intent on spreading law, some are intent on spreading death. You control a group of newbie ranger recruits who are tasked to find out what or who has killed a fellow ranger. You get tasked a lot of other things, helping out nearby settlements for instance, and you quickly get many reasons to travel across the desert landscape. Just in Fallout, your party is represented by a symbol on the map and you can come across random encounters which you can choose to engage, or not, depending on your skill.



Your characters have stats which influence your capabilities and can further improve their qualities with skills and perks. Skills can range from how to handle different weapons to being able to remove bombs, repair items, speak to animals, or handle people to mention a few. Perks often allow you to improve certain areas of gameplay, like carry capacity, health, resilience or the efficiency of your skills. You always feel like you aren't quite good enough at doing anything. Some (most?) bigger quests require that you have a certain level of skill to be able to complete it satisfactorily. But you also need to use those precious points to be able to hit anything with your weapons (more on that below). Some things are probably, definitely, more useful to put your points into than others but it's complete trial and error to figure out what they are.

So I run out into the literal wasteland and try to get to work at helping people. Turns out I am not overly good at that. Wherever I go new mysteries crop up that I have to solve in order to keep people happy, or, as is often the case around here, alive. I realize that some of my choices are mutually exclusive, meaning that if I fail to finish a task a certain way or at all, it changes my options up ahead. Nothing wrong with that and I think it works well enough although I often realize after the fact that I messed something up and can't fix it again. Quick save and quick load are your friend here. 

I do quickly find that there is a lot of running back and forth though. And I constantly get lost. I am not sure it is to the benefit of the game that I am capable to turn the camera all the way around, because while it helps me see around corners, it often gets me lost in the directions. Fitting to the wasteland, but less fun to play is the constant scrounging for resources. I feel a frustration between the cost of each shot I make against an enemy, compared to how weak most weapons feel. Not to mention all the missing. I ended up trying to teach most of my characters melee weapons to save on ammo, and often times I ended up doing way more damage with melee weapons than with guns simply because shooting cost more AP and missed more often.



A word about the combat system. If you've played Fallout 1 or 2 you know pretty much how it goes. Each character has a set of Action Points, or AP, that they can freely allocate on different actions, like attacking (with different weapons requiring different amount of AP as mentioned), using a skill (like bandaging), hiding, reloading and so on. I think it is a great system and there is nothing wrong with it here either. In fact, Wasteland 2 is helpful enough to give you a great overlay of the combat area, showing you exactly how far you can move if you still want to have enough AP for a shot.

The problem arises in the calculating of success, which is less often than desirable (albeit nowhere near as frustratingly rare as in The Temple of Elemental Evil). And even when your characters finally hit, they usually only put a small dent in the enemy. Most enemies require a lot of whacking, or wasting of precious bullets, before they go down. In the meantime your own characters easily take a lot of damage and wasting of precious bandages to keep alive.

Wasteland 2, to its credit, has a generous fail system, in which your characters don't immediately die when they go down. You have a certain window of opportunity to resuscitate them and save them back to life. On the other hand, once dead the character stays dead and you can't ever get them back. I fortunately didn't end up in this situation, but I got close a few times.


Overall the combat system is a lot more frustrating than it is fun, even though the core system is good. The end result is often just a lot of flailing and bullet spraying, which just isn't a fun way to spend your evening (unless you're playing Quake 2). Add to this other environmental mechanics, like exploding seed pods that infect your characters with hard to treat diseases and debuffs and there is a lot of quick saving and quick loading, as mentioned. Even then a lot of time is spent having to run back to some safer area to restack on bullets and bandages, to which you might not even have enough money anyway. The combat in Wasteland 2 makes me feel frustrated and anxious in a way that leaves a bad taste. After 8 hours I turned it down to easy, and that only helped so much. It's stiff, even for a turn based system.

The game has an odd claustrophobic feeling as well. Every area you enter only has one or two exit points, meaning if what you need is at the other end you have to run all the way there and back to do your business and be about your way. I don't recall this being the case in Fallout, where you could exit a town from any side straight out into the desert hellscape. Here, everything I have encountered so far (~10 hours) is enclosed by mountains or the like.

Fallout took the concept that Wasteland set up and improved on it in many ways. I had hoped that Wasteland 2 could maybe take yet another step and improve on what Fallout (especially Fallout 2) left behind. I realize now that maybe that was a hard act to follow and Wasteland 2 instead ends up feeling like a step back - like everything is just that tiny bit of a chore instead of fun.

If you're yearning for more isometric role-playing apocalypse, and there aren't too many of those out there, you could definitely get worse than Wasteland 2. But I can't help feeling like Sisyphus pushing the rock up that hill, praying it will just this once stay up there rather than roll back over my face (as the fable goes). While I am having fun with Wasteland 2, it does make me miss Fallout 2.


Sunday, March 17, 2024

Monarch: Legacy of Monsters - TV-series Review

Warning, spoilers ahead. 

If posters on the wall are a sign of fandom, Godzilla is second only to my children in this household. I probably wouldn't call myself a hardcore fan (whatever that is), but I am definitely a big fan of the franchise and I curse the fact that most movies before 2010 are oddly difficult to get hold of here in Sweden in particular. 

And while far from every Godzilla movie is great or maybe even good, I wasn't truly disappointed by a Godzilla movie until the Gareth Edwards movie Godzilla that was released in 2014. That was the first time I watched a movie where I felt the creators had fundamentally misunderstood the reason fans like me return to watch Godzilla stomp, and get stomped.


I've enjoyed some fringe-picks before - the 1998 Roland Emmerich movie Godzilla was very entertaining and who can hate the cute baby Godzilla from Son of Godzilla (1967)? And every Godzilla movie has to find a balance between what you're there to see - big ass monsters punching, kicking and headbutting each other - with the filler stuff - humans and their reactions to big ass monsters punching, kicking and headbutting each other. No one cares about the people really, we accept them because we want to see the monsters and respect that budgets didn't allow for 90 minutes of that, back in the day.

But Godzilla 2014 completely missed the mark. The creators somehow thought that maybe we cared more about the people than the monsters, if only it was dramatic enough. Maybe they thought if we also cared about the people we'd enjoy the full 90 minutes and not the just the 10 minutes of kaiju fighting. This, in essence, is not a bad notion and Godzilla Minus One is a much better executed version of this idea (I have other thoughts on Godzilla Minus One, but that is another review for another day). But Godzilla 2014 tries so hard to make the humans interesting, they completely forget to make the kaiju interesting. And how could you even fail something like that, it's Godzilla!

And that brings me to Monarch: Legacy of Monsters. I know there are a few TV adaptations of the Godzilla world out there, and I've watched an episode here or there but nothing ever caught my interest. For some reason it didn't feel like the core idea of the Godzilla movies would translate well to the episodic nature of a TV-series. The structure of a Godzilla movie is generally very predictable, and trying to spread that out over however many episodes just means you will have some episodes that are 100% without Godzilla (or other kaiju) in it and ergo: boring.

So needless to say, my expectations for Monarch weren't particularly high and I'll be honest, the one thing that made me even watch the stuff was the fact that Kurt Russell was in it. I was hoping that maybe Kurt could make the Godzilla-less episodes at least bearable. 

The show takes place over two different time periods, and since nowadays it's apparently uncool to inform viewers on where and when they are, I more than once was confused as to which order things happened. Since the time in-between is quite far (60 years or so) you'd think it'd be obvious, but the jumps are also made some times within each time period to further confuse things. In the present time-line, we follow half-siblings Cate and Kentaro who are looking for their missing father. He seems to have something to do with an organization called Monarch who seems to have something to do with Godzilla. In the other time-line we follow Cate and Kentaro's grandparents as they set up was is to become Monarch. A common denominator here is Lee Shaw, played in the modern time-line by Kurt Russel and in the old time-line by Kurt Russel's extremely lookalike son, Wyatt Russell. Other characters correctly point out that this should make Lee Shaw close to 100 years old in present day, which he obviously doesn't seem to be anywhere close to - but it's mostly just shrugged off.

Let me try not to make the same mistake Monarch does here, by doing everything except get to the point.  This show will blue ball you for 10 hours of your life if you let it. Monarch is a showcase of how to beat around the bush and I've rarely felt my time more wasted than watching this show. It is about as filled with meaningful substance as an empty mug. I recall having similar feelings when watching the Resident Evil TV-series and yet again it amazes me to see show creators take all this brilliant lore and instead show us the same old teen-angst drama that no one on earth truly cares about.

The three main characters, Cate, Kentaro and their friend Mae, are so annoyingly bland and predictable I am at a lack for any good words to describe how frustrating it was to have to watch them do anything in this show. They were so pointless in fact, I had to google their names even after having just watched their shenanigans for hours. Their whole hunt for their father seems like it could've been cut out completely and it would've already been a much better show. Their time-line isn't entirely hopeless however or I would've probably honestly just skipped their scenes all together. Kurt Russel is always fun to watch, and some of the "evil" members of Monarch are at least not irritating.

The best parts of the show are the old-timey ones, where we see Keiko, Bill (the grandparents) and Lee Shaw hunt for kaijus and form the beginnings of what becomes Monarch. I could've easily done with just those parts and been much happier. Though I suspect I only truly enjoy these parts of the show because they are not as bad as the other ones, not because their particularly good in their own right.

After a few episodes me and my SO started feeling that watching this was more and more of a chore. With two episodes left to go I felt like I just couldn't put up with it any longer. I had to tell him he had to go on without me and leave me behind. I had absolutely zero interest in seeing what else was going to happen in this world, because I already knew it would amount to nothing.

So what about Godzilla? Yeah, he shows up. You get to see his eye or tail in a flashback here and there and he jumps out of a sand dune and rushes off in one episode. There are even some other kaijus that do basically nothing. Overall the ratio boring human relations vs cool kaiju stuff is about 1000/1. Don't bother showing up for this one.

Sunday, March 3, 2024

S.O.S Dino - Board Game

Children are famously not the best at losing, and since my children are the ones I've got to play board games with, I've come to explore a lot more co-operative board games lately. 

I barely even knew co-operative board games were a genre until a few years ago when I stumbled across the first one, having been brought up on proper home wreckers like Monopoly and Ludo. I definitely don't recommend playing them with your kids. Or anyone else for that matter.

In S.O.S Dino, you're tasked with your fellow players to save a bunch of dinosaurs, and preferably also their eggs, from Dino Apocalypse. You start in the middle and need to work your way to the edges, and as you play the board will become more and more covered with obstacles, especially Lava Tiles, that prevent you from reaching your goal. The tactic is in placing your tiles smartly, because each round you get to draw a tile from a bag and have some control in where it goes. Lava Tiles, and they make out the vast majority of the tiles, will tell you which Dinos you can move and which Lava flow to extend, but the direction is yours to control.

The box art is cute too.

If you're unlucky however you get a meteor strike or make a volcano erupt, creating further lava flows. The board quickly becomes overrun, and it's easy to paint yourself in a corner if you don't pay attention. It's quite devastating to see a dinosaur burn in a puddle of lava, and any hopes that this game wouldn't make your kids sad fly out the window. Fortunately the game only seems stressful on the outside, after having played it a few times it seems quite easy to succeed and we usually get all the dinos and eggs to safety. The challenge is definitely in level with children around the age of 4-12.


The board is made up of plenty of little pieces that need to be arranged and assembled before you start playing. But don't worry, this is no Mouse Trap where you spend more time putting things together than actually playing (or having fun). In fact, getting things in the right place is part of the fun for my kids because you sort of build up a little dino world. 


The Dino Figures that come with the game are really nice looking and could've easily been used as any toy outside of the game as well. They're brightly coloured and distinguished from each other - the colouration is part of the game mechanics since each tile prevents a certain dino from moving.


It only takes about 20 minutes to play and doesn't outstay its welcome, it keeps a good pace throughout and is easy to learn. It has a good balance between luck and tactics that fit the age it is aimed for and good production quality. S.O.S Dino isn't amazing, but it's a fun game to keep in your roster for board games to play with your kids. If you find it somewhere I recommend giving it a try.

Sunday, February 11, 2024

The Signal From Tölva (PC, 2017)

 Not every game has to be a five course meal. Or a Nobel prize winner, you know, if games could win those. I am perfectly fine with the bite-sized games and only rarely seek out 100+ hour ones like The Witcher 3. With the limited game time I have, I am happy playing a ~5 hour game, as long as it knows what it is doing. Games like The Room, Five Nights at Freddy's or Gone Home (and heck, every game on consoles before 1995). Often these games sacrifice breadth and instead focus on a certain aspect - the puzzling, the scare or the story for the beforementioned examples. It's even more important then that these aspects are fun or interesting. Because if you don't have that, you don't really have much of anything.


And I've come across a few of those games, that just end up feeling fairly empty. Since they only take a handful of hours to play through I often stick it out if I feel like I can sense the end on the horizon. For some reason these games fail to stick the landing, and they're either so obscure in their story telling or void of content that after a handful of hours of checking it out, you struggle to find any reason to continue. There is simply nothing to motivate you forward. Games like Rymdresa, Year Walk, Superbrothers: Of Sword and Sworcery and Lifeless Planet all fit this category. 

And unfortunately, The Signal From Tölva will be another game I add to this list.

Released by Big Robot in 2017, it starts out promising; you close in on a planet - Tölva - and need to check out a signal (roll credits). Instead of going in yourself, you've got an endless amount of robots to do it for you. Whenever one of your robots gets out of service (i.e destroyed), you simply spawn as a new one in one of the spawn-zones you will find on the planet surface.

It's a beautiful day


I liked the premise of this one, it is was got me interested in the first place and got me to try it out even though screenshots of the game weren't really selling it for me.

On the planet surface your objective is to scramble around and look out different points of interest. Some of these you will scan, which will reward you some vague information about what is going on. These tidbits of text are obscure and never cleared anything up for me. Otherwise there is really not much to see on Tölva. Bandit robots and other enemy robots are also scattered on the surface and they will always (as far as I have played) attack you on sight. There are no other flora or fauna to interact with on Tölva and it's also never entirely clear what it is you're looking for. 

You will be given quests to liberate certain areas, which allows you to spawn in new areas and access your "outfitter". In the outfitter you can buy and equip new weapons and pieces of armor that allow you to traverse certain types of hazards. All of this just sort of happens and it doesn't feel earned. When playing a typical metroidvania, you first get to feel the frustration and curiosity of not being able to access something, before you finally get the tool to do so.  Here I get the ability to traverse a hazard before I even realized that it was going to be a problem, meaning it doesn't feel like a reward or accomplishment to be able to move to a new area. 

Contact of the first kind.

Combat works fine, you get a selection of equipping three different guns, a shield and an AoE effect to play around with. The guns range from the usual types - pistols, rifles, shotguns etc. When you try to compare them in the outfitter/store it is not entirely clear what constitutes an upgrade. It should be that a weapon with higher DPS kills stuff faster, but it doesn't translate very clearly in actual combat. I found that my personal favorites were the ones that reloaded quickly.

Not too far into the game you get the ability to enlist other robots to your team. They will fight for you until they die (which is almost immediately) and work better as a distraction or cannon fodder than your new posse. This is a fun addition to an otherwise incredibly lonely game. Unfortunately you can only enlist robots in certain places, and these are not too common. You either choose to get these robots and do a whole lot of running back and forth, or you juts decide to go at it alone.

Looks nice enough.


There is still going to be a lot of running
. Running isn't even the right term, your robot can either saunter like some playboy on his Sunday walk, or waggle slightly faster if you hold down your Shift key. Considering the distances of sameness you have to get through, the speed is just not enough. Maybe later in the game you get some sort of rocket boots or jet pack, maybe even a teleport (!) but if so the trek there (pun intended) is just too far.

There is something curious that has piqued my interest though, and I suspect it will haunt my nightmares even long after I have stopped playing this game. Every here and there you come across what looks like abandoned bunkers or barracks. As you walk in there it at first glance seems pretty unassuming. There isn't anything to interact with (like most of the rest of the planet), no secrets to uncover and no information that clears up your confusion about the place. As you go to leave however, you notice that the way you came from suddenly has turned into a dead end. You go down a corridor and end up where you entered. You go around a corner and end up in another dead end. You quickly notice that you are stuck in this place and that each corridor and each turn just leads back to the center of the structure. It is frustrating and confusing, but also haunting and eerie. 

I encountered two buildings like this and managed to get out of the first one by walking through the corridors in a certain order, or so I think. Maybe there is a timer or a trigger somewhere, I honestly don't know. The second structure I went into I simply couldn't get out of, even though I asked the rest of my family for help to try to figure it out. Fortunately I could just abandon my poor robot in there and simply respawn as another outside that hellish place. I swore never to enter one again.


As a gameplay element these structures are both intriguing and annoying. Other than the fascination of not understanding their purpose and them being so curious, they're really just another piece of this world that don't add anything of value. There isn't anything to uncover or learn (except maybe the depths of your frustrations).

Tölva is a curious planet - basically void of any animal life except the occasional flock of birds (?) in the sky. As previously mentioned, other than other robots there is literally nothing to interact with. I guess this is kind of what the Mars Rovers must feel like. Visually it ranges from thought-provoking to dreary. While it's pretty to look at, it's also very repetitive. And frustrating. The planet is covered with derelict ships, probes, robots, bunkers, ships flying overhead... you name it. All these beg to be explored, there is the potential to an interesting story here. But the secret about what is going on is a tightly kept one. So you keep on moving around, destroying enemy robots and scanning things - hoping to uncover something that will make it worth your time.

Roughly six hours into the game it's difficult for me to recommend it. Some half-interesting gameplay elements aren't enough to keep me motivated when the story offers so little. On the other hand maybe there is something to be said for a straight-forward, predictable game that doesn't try to be more than the sum of its parts. At least it won't stress you out.

Sunday, January 28, 2024

Timelapse (PC, 1996)

I have a "will they, won't they"-relationship with puzzle games. I love them, I want to be good at them but I just ain't. I have found the perfect place for them in my life however - as something to do with my kids. Turns out, trying to solve puzzles together is just as fun as playing any other old game together. Me and my son (now 10) have played a whole bunch so far, all through The Room 1-4, World of Goo, Trine 2 and now we played through a little gem called Timelapse, released in 1996 by GTE Entertainment (the "content creating" subdivision of GTE Corporation that later became Verizon).


I had never heard of Timelapse before it somehow ended up in my games library on GoG (I really wonder how some games end up there...). It looked a lot like Myst, which I have not played but remember watching my mom play through back in the 90's, and I thought maybe it could be a fun challenge for me and the kid to try out.

Turns out it was, I'll even go on right now and spoil my end conclusion by saying that Timelapse is a bit of a hidden gem as far as Myst-likes go. So if you don't feel like reading farther than this, just know that this is a game worth your time if you like that genre.

Don't worry too much about the story. As far as I remember it barely makes sense in Myst, and it barely makes sense in this game either. I would like to recap it, but honestly I only understood half of it so here is my best try - you're helping some sort of dude, maybe a professor, to look for Atlantis. You can travel to different eras and civilizations in time that seem to somehow be connected to Atlantis through sheer myth-building, like the old Egyptians, the Maya, Easter Island and the Anasazi. In each of these locations you need to solve puzzles to move on.


So let's not dwell more on the story, because the real star of the game has to be the puzzles. For any one not used to puzzle games it is easy to believe that there is just one way of crafting them. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are quite a few different ways you can design puzzle games, here are some off the top of my head (there are more, and there are some that mix them, like Resident Evil);

1. The "fake" puzzle games, like The Room, which actually just require you to find one item to open an item to find an item to open an item and so on. There is little puzzling and mostly searching, in these kind of puzzle games.

2. The environmental puzzling which mainly require you to manipulate the environment to get through the game, like the aforementioned Trine-series and World of Goo.

3. The "real" puzzle games which present you with puzzles that are superficially connected to the game world and/or story, but really are designed to be self-contained puzzle challenges. In this category you'll find games like Myst, Timelapse and Safecracker.

Timelapse is definitely in the latter category. While the puzzles are presented as to fit in the general esthetic of each area, the puzzles themselves don't necessarily logically connect to anything in the world. It's the classic trope of puzzle games, if you think about it too much it doesn't make sense that you would have to play game of Snakes and Ladders to be able to open a certain door. Or a game of Simon Says to be able to open a certain chest. We ignore all that, as long as the puzzles are well designed.

To my amateur eye I find the puzzles in Timelapse very well done and fun to try to puzzle through. Very few of them were so weird that I felt like I never had a chance to get it. They range from the abovementioned examples to finding patterns, assembling objects and traversing courses. At your disposal is a journal full of information and quite vital to your puzzle solving. It also contains a lot of interesting information about the civilizations you are visiting, if you're interested in that. Even if the journal, and a camera that allows you to take pictures of important clues you come across (the camera bugged in my version of the game, so I ended up never using it), I had to take so many notes of everything we saw. Quite a few puzzles require you to take not of a series of symbols in one area to be able to decipher a series of symbols in another area. 

Only once in the game is there a time limit to what you do, and if you fail you get the bad ending. Fortunately this part is right at the end, allowing you to simply try it again to see if you can manage differently.

The controls are fine, just like in Myst you move around the world with arrow keys (or WASD) through different screens. An arrow at the bottom always shows you which directional options you've got and there is a map as well. I still got lost quite a lot however, but my kid didn't so I think that is more indicative of my sense of direction than anything else. You don't have an inventory per se, so no worries that you're going to have to carry around a lot of random objects that you need to figure out where to use. You can only ever carry one item at a time, and it's only usable in the time period it was found. 

The times you have to manipulate objects on the screen you notice the age of the game. Knowing where the game wants you to place something or click on the screen to make something happen can be patience testing and time consuming for some of the puzzles. Fortunately these are rare enough to never ruin the overall experience.

To your further enjoyment, this game is of course full of extremely badly acted FMV's. Think Command & Conquer, or of course Myst itself for that matter. The sound effects and music are what you'd expect from the time, looped stock and completely unobtrusive background jingles. Nothing that you will remember fifteen minutes after you've turned the game off, neither something that will annoy you in the long run.

It took me and the kid around 10 hours to complete the game, scattered across a year roughly. We played it in bouts. Whenever we got too stuck on a puzzle we moved on to something else, but we always came back to this. We definitely had to use a walkthrough for some sections (especially the symbol deciphering), but a lot of it was possible for us to get through with mental team work. There was a fun variety of puzzles and we both really enjoyed it.

GTE Entertainment closed down just a year after Timelapse was released, so even though the end of the game teases a sequel, it sadly never came to be. It is unfortunate, because I definitely would've loved to check that out.

Sunday, January 7, 2024

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor (PC, 2014)

Some times you can almost see exactly how the pitch meeting went down in a game, book or movie. You can see the checked boxes, the business research that went down and the cogs and wheels behind different choices and functions. When some thing is by the numbers, it is rarely entertaining. By the 7th and 8th book of Harry Potter, I could almost see how J.K Rowling knew it was going to be turned into a movie, and it had almost turned into a bland movie script instead of the original, charming adventure it had started out as. Or just take a look at the last couple if Disney movies to see how to not make a movie based on what you think your audience wants to experience. There is no passion, just a desire to get things done as quickly, and profitable, as possible.


With some games however, this glaring obviousness in game design doesn't always turn out to be a bad thing. Even if the thought process behind the game design of games like Thief, Deus Ex, Dishonored and even Mario games is obvious at a first glance, there is a core idea and a want to pursue something fun that is missing from something that is purely created to fill some wallets. 

I am not naïve enough to think that that wasn't the main motivation for the beforementioned games as well, yet they manage to still create that ever elusive "flow", or the feeling that I as a player am in control and the game is my oyster to explore.

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is a game with its blueprint obvious to the player. Every new skill you acquire, every new enemy you meet, the step-by-step of progression is obvious and easy to detect. But it manages to find a pacing and rhythm in the combat button-mashing that just ends up being good old, simple fun.



I've had my sights on Shadows of Mordor for a while. Ever since it came out it was one of the few Lord of the Rings games to catch my interest. I have a pretty neutral relationship with the Lotr-franchise overall. I absolutely loved the first film and enjoyed the other two. I thought the books were pretty so-so, but love the Hobbit. The Hobbit movies on the other hand are a good example of the abovementioned board meeting gone wrong. So I'm not hype with every new Lotr thing that comes out and have had close to zero interest in the new TV-series or the MMORPG.

There was something about Shadow of Mordor that seemed to make it stand out though. Gone were elves, dwarves, rangers and dragons (not that I particularly mind those). It seemed a tighter, more controlled environment where the setting was just an excuse for what was reviewed as good gameplay. It lingered in my backlog for years, as games tend to do, until I decided it was time to bash some orc skulls.

You play as Talion, a human who dies during an orc/uruk attack in the opening sequence (I won't distinguish between orcs and uruks, though I know it will probably annoy some Lotr purists. When I type "orc" or "uruk" just assume I mean one or the other). The game is thus off to an interesting start. Fortunately it doesn't end there. Talion is possessed and saved by a mysterious elven ghosts (ok, so there are some elves in the game). Finding out who this is, is part of the main story line.


You're dropped into a world which could be optimistically described as tragic, more accurately described as 50 shades of brown. You won't see any trees, butterflies or cute lite rabbits running around this place. You're in fact in the vicinity of Mordor and surrounded by orcs and their human slaves everywhere. At first it's easy to become a bit overwhelmed and think that you won't stand a chance against the sheer number of enemies. 

Fortunately Talion is exceptionally skilled at sneaking around. Unlike your protagonist in Thief or Dishonored however, Talion is also a beast when it comes to direct combat, and you quickly learn to deal with hoards of 10-20 orcs and more. 

It would be easy to pick apart the game design choices here - there are convenient bushes to hide in every 20 meters, Talion can climb pretty much any surface better than a mountain goat, the orcs behave predictably, and also stash an unhealthy amount of explosives right next to their camps and so on and so forth. But that doesn't really matter. Tetris has, after all, an extremely predictable game design. The fun comes in trying to plan your advance and attack based on the knowledge that you have on hand. Will you sneak up to a tower and jump the Orc Leader from above? Will you let loose a caragor and try to attack in the confusion? Will you pick the orcs off one by one or try to go in swords swinging?


There are many choices
and they grow as you process through the game. Where you start out pretty simple with a few ways of attacking and defending yourself, you quickly unlock an arsenal of options that allow you to handle fights in more ways. Of course the game then also presents you with new and more difficult dangers to take into account. Overall the level design and combat is very well throughout and designed, it keeps up the fun through all the 15 hours I have played the game so far.

That isn't to say it is perfect however. The game allows you to control and execute a vast array of skills in just a few button clicks, which means they are mainly context-bound. This means there will be situations where the game thinks you want to do something you don't. This is especially true for trying to interact with the environment, like climbing and jumping things. I've been stuck on small thresholds on the ground with 40 orcs around me, because the game is trying to climb something that clearly just needs running over. I have been stuck in "sneak along the wall"-mode when all I wanted was to pass the wall running. I have jumped off things the wrong side because the game can't decide which way I am looking.

But this has never been the cause of my death, just some sweaty and sweary moments. In all the abovementioned cases I can see the logic the game algorithm is trying to apply, it was just a few steps behind or ahead of my own thought process resulting in some hilarious moments where Talion is seemingly humping some wall trying to climb it while I am desperately trying to not get killed.


But overall the system has probably saved me a lot more than it has put me into trouble, and I think they've done a good job balancing your skill with the overwhelming odds that you're some times up against. It rarely feels too easy, it rarely feels unfair.

The voice acting is good. I thought I recognized Talions voice and yeah, duh, it's Troy Baker from Batman: Arkham Knight and The Last of Us fame. All the orcs sounds suitably angry/dumb like they're supposed to as well, and I actually enjoy the little cut-scene of smack talk that comes every time you encounter an uruk captain.

The story is set apart from the other things I have seen from Lotr so far, like the movies and the books. Spoiler alert, but as far as I've gotten there are no hobbits or white mages as far as the eye can see. And I like that. This is about other people having the same fight but elsewhere in this world. It actually makes the world more real, the fight more urgent. I can imagine that Frodo is working is way through some bog at the same time I am slitting throats in my corner of Middle-Earth. I could've also gotten this completely wrong and maybe Talion lives in some other time, but it doesn't matter. The story is just the frame work to get you into the action.

Playing Shadow of Mordor I can easily sink into the game world and pretend I am a badass ghost-riddled uruk-slayer, slowly chipping away at the dread that is Sauron. It's not profound, but by golly is it fun -  the same kind of fun watching a Godzilla or Jackie Chan movie gives. You know what you're going to get, but it is exactly what you want.