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Game Review: Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor

It has been a mere week since I wrote up my First Impressions of Monolith’s open-world Tolkien-based stab-’em-up Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor. While I have not finished the game, I have opened up quite a bit of the world, engaged in a plethora of power struggles, learned a great deal about one of the darkest corners of this famous fantasy realm, and nearly thrown my controller in frustration on more than one occasion. I think we’re on to a winner, here.

Courtesy Monolith & WB

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor takes place after the time of the adventures of Bilbo Baggins in the Misty Mountains but before his 111th birthday in the Shire. At that time, Gondor was in control of the Black Gate of Mordor, its Rangers keeping watch over the dark and blasted valley of Udun that lead into Mordor. Talion, a Captain of those Rangers, lived there with his family, and was training his son to fight when the Black Gate is overrun. The assault is lead by the powerful and menacing Black Captains, on-the-ground commanders of Sauron’s armies, one of whom personally puts all of Talion’s family to the sword. Talion, however, does not die. His murder was part of a ritual, and that ritual somehow bonded him with a mysterious Wraith who has no memory of his former life. The two consciousnesses strike a deal: the Wraith wants answers, and Talion wants revenge.

It has been mentioned previously that Shadow of Mordor has some elements in common with the games from the Assassin’s Creed or Arkham games. Talion can certainly scale buildings and rock faces like an Assassin, and his combat style does have the same satisfying hit-block-hit-fininsh structure as Batman, but that is where the similarities end. These elements help shape the foundational gameplay and there really isn’t much to say either way about it. The combat is fun when it’s rolling, and it’s good to have movement capabilities that foster both exploration and escape, but a truly memorable game needs more than that.

Image courtesy
Not listed: Azdûsh’s love for ice cream sandwiches and irritation with people snickering at his name.

Shadow of Mordor does far more than giving you a list of targets to kill or a solitary objective to follow. Open world games will scatter quests, collectibles, and challenges all of the map, and this game does that as well, but apart from the map is the Nemesis system within Sauron’s Army. Every orc you encounter has the potential to become a part of this system, just by killing you. When you die, the orc who defeated you gets promoted and more powerful, possibly challenging another orc for their position. Other orc captains within the Army struggle and squabble to get closer to the Warchiefs, the cream of the orcish crop. These characters do have distinct personalities – some are afraid of fire, others become enraged when they are wounded, and still others REALLY don’t like the fact that you shot them in the face with an arrow and left them for dead. Thanks to these cantankerous Uruks, the world of Shadow of Mordor isn’t just open; it lives and breathes.

At first, the knowledge that there is no real penalty to the player for dying may sound like a deal-breaker. “Where is the challenge?” one might wonder. The answer is the Nemesis system. When you die, you have all of your powers and experience intact, but the world around you changes. Your killer gets glorified, power struggles resolve without your intervention making other orcs stronger, and another one of Sauron’s Army becomes a target for your revenge. On more than one occasion, I have put aside my desire to advance the plot or learn more about the Wraith’s story just to hunt down that one really irritating Orc that keeps getting cheap shots in on me while I am trying to kill his buddies. Dying may be free of direct consequence, but there are still ramifications that make it irritating, and coming back to exact bloody vengeance on your killer is incredibly satisfying, especially if they are in a position where killing them makes taking down one of the Warchiefs even easier. It is a stroke of brilliance that makes Shadow of Mordor unique and thoroughly enjoyable.

Image courtesy
That “dagger” has a story. Ratbag (the orc) has a story. Talion’s story has real pathos.
The world is rich and textured, and I’m not talking about the image rendering.

There are a handful of things that keep Shadow of Mordor from being perfect. There are a few mandatory stealth missions as part of the main story that slow down the action, the way mandatory stealth always does. Getting the right prompt at the right moment can be dodgy at times, costing you precious resources as you try to detonate an explosive barrel or mount a ravenous, deadly beast to use as a mount. And your only thinking, feeling foes are the Orcs. While the Captains and Warchiefs have personalities and strengths and weaknesses, for the most part you’re just slicing through the ranks to get to those unique guys, and that can get repetitive after a while, sooner for some if you’re really itching for a lot of variety. But honestly, those are just some general nit-picks about the game, and the only real flaws that I could find that had nothing to do with my own learning curve or lack of experience.

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is definitely a winner. Its combat is visceral and satisfying. Its Nemesis system makes it a unique and challenging experience. The story is steeped deeply in the rich lore of Tolkien, from the identity of the Wraith to the texture of Mordor itself, from the connection of Gollum to the goings-on to the palpable sense of dread contingent with the return of Sauron. The music is haunting, the voice acting superb, the environments well-realized, and the game is filled with moments you will never forget. If you are a fan of Middle-Earth, solid combat systems, or unique gameplay features that make the game compelling regardless of its story or other aspects, you must play this game.

First Impressions: Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor

At first glance, the concept for Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor seems like something you’d find on a fan-fiction site, aching for the sort of opportunity that was afforded to 50 Shades of Gray. An Illithen Ranger, one of the fabled Dunedain, falls victim to an untimely death but is resurrected thanks to the intervention of a Wraith that is, apparently, unconnected to the Ring-wraiths that plague Frodo and the Fellowship later in the canon of Middle-Earth. So now he’s immortal, a skilled fighter, and has the grizzled, manly voice of Troy Baker. That certainly sounds like a self-insertion fantasy persona to me. Thankfully, there’s more than enough going on in this game to merit more than that somewhat dubious first glance.

Courtesy Monolith & WB

First and foremost, Shadow of Mordor (as I will call it going forward because I’m not a fan of colon cancer) is steeped in atmosphere. While Mordor is not yet a barren, blasted wasteland, as this tale takes place before Lord of the Rings, the darks are deeper and the land definitely feels corrupted. While Howard Shore did not compose the music, the score is definitely in tune with the themes and timbre of those famous strains from the six films. Despite the stick I gave the developers for putting Troy Baker’s voice behind our hero Talion, he sounds less like Booker DeWitt and more like someone who’s been living rough in the outskirts of Gondor right before the events that propel him into the adventures through which players guide him.

Seeing as this is a video game on major consoles, the primary means of that guidance will be through various forms of combat. Shadow of Mordor has looked on the success of both Assassin’s Creed and Rocksteady’s very successful Batman-based games (Arkham Asylum and Arkham City to be exact) and worked on a way to combine the two. The result is quite compelling: Talion moves from place to place to avoid detection, climbs to and leaps from ledges and tall places with grace, is limited in weapon choices, and uses prompts to avoid or block incoming blows which he redirects into deft ripostes. Movements are smooth, blows are powerful, and skills are satisfying – but the really interesting stuff doesn’t happen until someone dies.

Courtesy Monolith & WB
Things look pretty amazing, as well.

Rather than simply be a quest to slay endless, nameless orcs in a quest for vengeance and XP, the game takes pains to give its antagonists names and personalities. This is more than window-dressing, however; it is essential to what makes Shadow of Mordor stand apart. Each orc Talion kills brings him closer to his true goal: the Warchiefs who control the mighty armies of Mordor. The array of nasties seen when you check your progress tells who where they rank and how much closer you are to victory. This also has intriguing implications when it comes to failure. Shadow of Mordor is not the first game to boast an immortal protagonist, at least in terms of being considered that way in-universe, and making failure mean something when you cannot die has often challenged designers. Rather than lose experience or suffer an otherwise arbitrary setback like paying a toll to the underworld, when Talion is defeated and requires rescuing from his wraithly friend, the orc lieutenants and captains he was fighting grow stronger in the intervening time. There is also a system in which orcs squabble with one another for control, and if Talion does not sweep in to kill everyone involved, the victor of the squabble will gain power in a similar fashion. It’s one of the many things that contribute to giving the game a living, breathing world.

On top of innovative design and satisfying combat, Shadow of Mordor has not skimped on the Middle-Earth lore. Dipping deep into the history and culture of Middle-Earth, the story of Talion is far more than one of mere wish fulfillment. While the Ranger has a rather immediate need for vengeance, his benefactor has an even more seething bone to pick with Sauron: he was Celebrimbor, the elf-smith in the Second Age who forged the Rings of Power to begin with. Through his experience and vision, Talion (and by extension, the player) learn the tales of the items scattered throughout the land, unearth ancient runes that add to the ongoing story of the events at hand, and give all the more reason for us to fight our way through the diabolical forces of Sauron the Deciever.

Courtesy Monolith & WB
There are even some familiar faces around.

So yes: my very first, up-front impressions of this game were entirely wrong. A lot of care has gone into the game from all sorts of perspectives. The combat, stealth, and open world draw from a plethora of contemporary, quite successful sources. The story has threads that tie it deeply into the rich lore of the beloved tales of Tolkien. It looks and sounds pretty amazing, taking full advantage of modern rendering and development techniques. And if that weren’t enough, it both delivers satisfactory results for success and reasonable, compelling consequences for failure. In short: I must play it.

Pilot Review: Gotham

It’s officially Autumn. New television shows are starting to come out of the woodwork. After the season premieres of The Blacklist (which was excellent) and Sleepy Hollow (as delightfully and shamelessly fun and adventurous as always), I watched the pilot of the new series Gotham. With the sort of premise that guarantees a built-in fan base, a top shelf cast, and the promotional power of the FOX network, I was curious to see what the show might bring to the table every Monday night.

Courtesy FOX

Most stories involving Batman gloss over the years that follow the murder of his parents. Gotham opens with that event, and what follows immediately after. The focal point of the story is James Gordon, who is a recently-promoted homicide detective of the Gotham City Police Department. He and his salty, potentially dirty partner Harvey Bullock get saddled with the Wayne murders, and tasked with solving the case as quickly as possible to allay the fears of the populace. In their investigation, the detectives inadvertently become involved in the underworld rivalry of crime bosses Carmine Falcone and Fish Mooney, and come across more than a few characters with names quite familiar to Batman fans watching the show.

While I have only seen a few episodes of Smallville, I got a very definite and similar vibe from Gotham. As much as stories that blossom from the fertile fields of comic books tend to be grandiose in scale and scope, this show is more intimate, more human, and more gritty than a lot of that fare. We’re dealing with the origins of a great deal of characters beyond Batman, which is definitely not a bad thing – it’s been said that Batman is the least interesting character in the Batman mythos. But as I said, the overarching plotlines write themselves, as they have already been written, and the end of the series is likely to be Bruce donning the cape and cowl, so the devil is clearly going to be found in the details.

Courtesy FOX

If nothing else, Gotham has an excellent cast. Donal Logue is doing fantastic work as Harvey Bullock. In the animated series, Bullock was mostly a fat slob bent on arresting Batman and being a pain in Gordon’s ass, but here, he’s a nuanced character who is not necessarily completely corrupt but nonetheless operates in a gray area between the law and the underworld. The nascent versions of the Caped Crusader’s villains are appropriately cast, from the sadistic and ambitious Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor) to the quiet and meticulous Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith). The incomparable Sean Pertwee plays Alfred Pennyworth opposite a young actor named David Mazouz who is already showing the sort of deep disturbance that would cause a grown man to dress up like a bat and fight crime. So far, the linchpin of the whole enterprise, Ben McKenzie’s James Gordon, seems a bit non-descript, but there are hints to more going on beneath his surface, so in spite of his dry delivery, I’d say I’m on board.

Gotham looks to be off to a decent start. The background of the city feels authentic, and rather than drawing direct parallels to the animated series, the Burton/Schumaker years, or Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, television’s Gotham City feels very much like its own urban beast. The characters have bite to them, and the performances come from authentic places. It’s entirely possible that this will fall off as the series goes on, and not every episode will be up to snuff, but this is a good start. I would recommend checking it out, even if you’re not that fond of the Caped Crusader.

Welcome Back, Carter

Courtesy Marvel Studios

I know that not everyone is a fan of Marvel’s recent forays into television. There can be an implied obligation to watch the shows to ensure nothing is missed between films, and I can understand why that’s a turn-off. I’m not going to defend either side of the argument, nor am I going to sing the praises of Agents of SHIELD here. However, with the announcement of Agent Carter, I wanted to take a moment to point out, from a high-level perspective, what a good thing this is.

For those of you who don’t know, the character of Agent Carter was introduced in Captain America: The First Avenger. Played by Hayley Atwell, Margaret “Peggy” Carter was part of the group that recruited Steve Rogers, assisting in his training and giving him guidance. She’s more than capable of holding her own in a fight, demonstrates intelligence and poise, and even presented herself in a way that you wouldn’t be surprised to find reproduced on the nose-cone of a B-17 bomber. Quite well-rounded and polished, she was definitely an equal to the all-American Super Soldier.

Marvel produced a one-shot that featured Carter on her own. Set a year after the events of the film, Carter is working for the Strategic Scientific Reserve, where the male leadership see her as little more than a glorified secretary. She takes it upon herself to follow up on a lead that seems insignificant and uncovers a major potential threat. In the wake of her heroism, Howard Stark approaches her to become part of the organization that will become known as SHIELD, and that is more than likely the jumping-off point for the series.

I have no idea if the show is going to be good or not. So far, Marvel has demonstrated high production values, excellent world-building (even if it was a touch slow in Agents of SHIELD – it got better), and good characterization. This leads me to believe that Agent Carter will be just fine in that regard. But let’s not overlook the fact that this show, with a female protagonist in a time period when such a thing would be inconceivable to the rich, conceited men in charge of the entertainment industry, just got greenlit, whereas Wonder Woman can’t get more than a cameo in someone else’s movie.

Marvel’s track record isn’t perfect. Iron Man 2 was probably their roughest outing so far, but it did introduce us to Scarlett Johansson’s portrayal of the Black Widow, another character who has really come into her own, especially in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. While Jane Foster & Darcy are overshadowed by the Asgardians in the Thor films, Lady Sif has no trouble standing shoulder to shoulder with Thor and the other demigods of that world. Pepper Potts and Maria Hill definitely have strong characters of their own, and Agents of SHIELD‘s ensemble is a good balance of male and female alike. It’s things like this that, more and more, make it look like DC simply can’t get its shit together. I hear good things about their Arrow television series, but I’ve honestly been too busy keeping up with Agents of SHIELD to get up to speed with that show.

Not unlike when Sony started running away with a good portion of the video game industry while Sega struggled to keep up, Marvel continues to outstrip the competition. With Agent Carter, that is still the case, but it’s more in the sense of progressiveness than profit. Again, I have no idea if the show will actually be good – I certainly hope it is. But the fact that the show exists at all, let alone greenlit for a run on one of the United States’ biggest television networks, feels to me like a universal good, a step in the right direction, and another reason that, until Superman stops brooding and Batman gets his throat fixed, you can Make Mine Marvel.

500 Words On Two Movies

I missed yesterday’s review for several reasons. So let me break down the double-feature I did today in about 500 words. Including those last 20. Consider this a flash review.

Robocop (2014)

My initial reaction? “Meh.” It wasn’t terrible, by any stretch, but I wasn’t blown away by it. I liked some of the things they did with the concept, to be sure. There were moments that really brought home the horror of what happened to Murphy and what was done to him after. A great deal of time is spent on Murphy’s recovery, family, and impact on the future society.

However, a lot of the film feels overly long and drawn out. As fun as it is to see Samuel L. Jackson channelling Bill O’Rielly, a few of his bits are a little long in the tooth. The same goes for several scenes of the Murphy family. On it’s own, the movie feels a touch padded and slow.

In comparison to the original 1987 film, this new version feels a great deal like it’s missing the point. RoboCop‘s ultra-violence, quick cuts to vapid press coverage, and corporate interplay all contributed to its undercurrent of social satire. I understand that remakes involve changes, and not all of the changes were bad, but some left me with major unanswered questions. Why was Lewis gender-changed to male? Why was this story laid out so deliberately and linearly, when flashbacks of Murphy’s emergent memories could have been a far more effective storytelling tool? Why was the only blood we really saw in the film coming from a kill at the end that means the victim will not be brought to justice? It’s another case where a revision of an established character could have turned out a lot better than it did, but at least it wasn’t as shameless as any of the previous RoboCop sequels, nor was it quite as dour or plodding as Man of Steel.

The LEGO Movie

I just got a haircut today, and the young lady doing me that service told me she had herself seen The LEGO Movie recently. She had expected the theatre to be full of kids – not all of the adults she found! From the sound of things, she really enjoyed seeing it.

I told you that story because I really have nothing to say about The LEGO Movie that has not already been said in a thousand other places. The universal sentiment is that this film is pretty terrific, and I have no reason or desire to disagree! This is especially good for families. It’s fun, inventive, creative, and you’ll notice things on your second viewing you didn’t see the first time.

After seeing it again, I don’t think the message is quite as strong as in Wreck-It Ralph.

Then again, Wreck-It Ralph doesn’t have the goddamn Batman.

Honestly, the two films pretty much stand shoulder to shoulder. I’d recommend either very strongly to either parents with kids, or folks just wanting a great time at the movies.

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