Middle-Earth: Shadow Of Mordor

A fairly epic fully open world tie in set in Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings universe somewhere between the events in The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings trilogy themselves. You play a newly dead Ranger possessed by the infamous creator of the Rings Of Power, Celebrimbor. You are tasked with hunting down the top chiefs in the Dark Lord’s army in order to extract vengeance for the murder of your loved ones. In doing so you also complete Celebrimbor’s objective of preventing Sauron from being able to take physical form.

Gameplay is straight out of the Assassin’s Creed playbook complete with view towers that lift back the fog of war and shows you nearby side quests and collectables. The actual game map though is more expansive than a regular Assassin’s Creed city taking on the landscape of Mordor itself. It fills much closer to the open world Egypt of Assassin’s Creed Origins in this regard. On the combat front the game lifts pretty directly from Warner Bros Gotham franchise. The overall end result is a pretty tight game that offers a better Assassin’s Creed experience than anything Ubisoft have delivered since Syndicate. Certainly better than Valhalla or Watch Dogs: Legion and as an overall experience on par with the first Watch Dogs.

Shadow of Mordor is very much a game of two halves. The first part of the game is fairly restrained and feels like an overly long tutorial as you grind your character levelling and get introduced slowly to various game mechanics. The second half switches scenes to a more Uncharted feeling platform greenery domain and with it a switch in focus to a much more Assassin’s Creed stealth style gameplay. Overall you are left with a feeling that the second half the game could have been easily extended by a few hours and introduced much, much sooner.

While it does play a part during the first act, the games unique foe system really comes in to its own during the more stealthy second part with you slowly taking control of the five war chiefs. The Nemesis system, as it is known, allows NPC’s to have a life outside your direct interactions. As such they grow in stature when they beat you on the battlefield and remember you when you next meet them in the game world. The idea is you have a unique foe who you struggle to dispatch and end up having a personal beef with, adding to the satisfaction when you finally pick off that one difficult opponent.

Overall Middle-Earth is a well polished game that is fun to play in a way Assassin’s Creed have long forgotten with a single play story that fits the game between the two Tolkien franchises very well indeed.

4/5

Assassin’s Creed

I’ve played this game far too many times in recent years. Mostly because it is one of two games that reignited the flame for this past time. It was the PSN hack of 2011 that brought this to my attention. Everyone got a free months membership to the premium PS Plus service. At the time there was a selection of games available for a 1 hours free trial, this game among them. The rest is history.

The game itself is far, far, from perfect but it gets the core ideas out their and sets the foundations for what has become one of games best and most important open world franchises.

Originally developed as an entry in the then popular and well established Prince of Persia franchise, the story uses advances in DNA technology to unlock ancestral memories allowing the player to replay events of the past. This game is set during the time of King Richard’s Crusades and sets of a continuing feud between Assassin’s and Templar’s over control of the Holy Lands.

You play as part of the Assassin’s clan, hence the game title, and after an initial disgrace are given nine targets in three middle east cities to dispatch. It is played in the third person and relies heavily on the parkour mechanics originated in the previous Prince of Persia games. The focus is very similar to the earlier PlayStation 1 classic Tenchu: Stealth Assassin’s with the player blending in to the environment and aiming for a more stealthy style of gameplay.

This is were the first criticism comes in. Despite the words of the creed being rammed down the players throat the game actually doesn’t want you to play with any kind of stealth and actively goes out of its way to force combat. This becomes more and more noticeable during later stages as city guards are happy to pounce on you for merely breathing the same virtual air as them.

The real set pieces are the nine assassinations but you as a player a funnelled through a set piece sequence and not given as much freedom or imagination in completing your task as future games will offer. Again mostly these set pieces involve a somewhat less than stealthy conclusion.

Outside the main assassination sequences you have three fair sized (almost) fully open-world free roam medieval cities to explore. The cities themselves do very little to distinguish themselves from one another though and the whole experience does feel very same-y. During these moments you are supposed to be gaining clues from the natives as the location and motives of your target. This is a really great idea but unfortunately it comes of very cut n paste here. You have nine missions that ultimately all play out in the very same way. Alas once you’ve done a couple of missions you have seen everything the game as to offer.

Despite its short coming it is still a fun game and one I can still happily replay mostly because the setting and core ideas are there.

4/5

Atic Atac

Back in the late 1980’s I only had a ZX Spectrum for a year. Even then it was only the 16K model and I only remember two main games from the time. All my ZX Spectrum experience either comes from ports for the Amstrad CPC or games I’ve found in the years since using emulation.

Atic Atac is one of the later. As far as I know this was a Speccy exclusive and never found its way to the Amstrad micros. Shame as this is easily the Stamper brothers finest moment. In the early 80’s the Stampers, through their company Ultimate Play The Game, dominated the ZX Spectrum gaming market thanks to a production quality their competitors struggled to rival.

Atic Atac offers a psuedo-3D top-down view of the action. The heart of the game is a very standard for the time maze affair. Though it is a pretty big maze set in the environs of a fairly large mansion. The maze is traversed in a typical for the era flip screen approach walking through doors to flip the action to the next room.

The object of the game is to open the main door in the lobby where you actually begin the game. You do this my finding the three parts of the main door key that spell out ACG (Ashby Computer Graphics – another company name used by the Stampers). This is made harder by random monsters appearing to drain your energy which can be fended off by pressing the fire button.

As you travel around some doorways will be blocked and can only be passed if you are holding the appropriate colour key. Adding to your difficulties is the fact you can only carry three objects at a time. So there’s an element of going back and forth, finding what you’re looking for, dropping main key parts in the opening lobby, while fending on energy sucking nasties.

Your energy also depletes while you move, but thankfully there’s plenty of food to pick up as you travel around, and three lives if you need then (hint: you will).

The only real negative I found in playing this game was the controls. Remember this game was made for a computer with rubber keys, that most would not have added a joystick to, by a company that had just recently released the brilliant Jetpac with very userfriendly keyboard perfect controls. In this game they choose to line up the movement and fire in one line – Q,W,E,R,T. Not even the horrid Speccy standard of cursor control on the number keys. Trying to get used to moving up and down in that layout is a right mindbender. Literally a game breaker. If we review the game from here, as we probably should, it falls from grace down to a 2/5 experience.

However, I can’t do that. Plug in a Kempston compatible joystick (not really that uncommon for the time) and this game easily becomes one of, if not the, best gaming experience on the Spectrum. Later Ultimate games have better looking 3D (like Knightlore) but honestly randomness hinders those games where they enhance this one.

5/5

Lego Star Wars II: A New Hope

Traveller’s Tales Star Wars Lego games are a compilation of smaller mini games, much like the Die Hard Trilogy on the PlayStation 1. Each mini game focusing on the events of its respective film. The first Lego Star Wars collection, on the original XBox and PlayStation 2, focused on the newer prequel trilogy of films. This sequel is based around George Lucus’s classic trilogy from the late 70’s and early 80’s.

There’s something very endearing about Travelers Tales Lego games. Over the years I’ve seen it in their Batman Series, Star War Series, City Undercover, and Marvel Superheroes. In every case they manage to pull off the seeming impossible by remaining true to the source material, true to the foundations of Lego as a brand, and had a spice of knowing humour with references to keep Dad happy while also keeping Junior amused.

This section perfectly recreates the plot of the 1977 original movie over 6 entertaining chapters. Gameplay is very much a modern wide-linear third person action adventure variety with you guiding various lead characters through key sequences lifted directly from the movie. For those of use knowing some of the dialog almost word for word it’s particularly fun seeing the Lego miniatures act out many of our favourite scenes. Nothings is lost in translation and in some ways successfully builds upon the original source.

While one or two puzzles left me head scratching for a moment or three, for the most part the difficulty is kept relatively low so even your average 5 or 6 year old could pick up a controller and not get overly frustrated over progressing through the action. That said these games are very much designed for co-operative multiplayer. Plug in two controllers and suddenly the game really opens up. A real father-son bonding experience.

Even so, if you’re in your mid-40s and going in for some solo gameplay there is still plenty of value to gain from the experience offered here.

4/5

Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla

After the one set in ancient Egypt (Origins) I’d kind of reached the end of my passion for UbiSoft’s premier openworld series. While I enjoyed the game the direction had moved far from it’s peeks with Brotherhood and Syndicate. The developers had chosen a move away from the stealth mission assassination gameplay and focused more in to the sprawling openworld RPG arena not a million miles away from games like The Witcher 3 or Horizon: Zero Dawn.

Much like Watchdogs: Legion it was easily the setting that drew me back. But also much like Wachdogs, as a life long resident of the areas depicted, the setting was also a bit of let down. There’s a certain amount that can be forgiven taking into account known geographical changes since the time the game is set, such as the Norfolk Broads being built in the 1800’s and drastically reshaping the landscape. But then you get things like no real feel for being in the Peak District and the Pennines. And Essex felt much hillier than I recall from living there and Maldon finding its way closer to modern day Southend.

Still there were plenty of nice touches that made it very easy to overlook and forgive and topological anomalies found. Things like jump off a synchronisation point in Essex and bumping into a local Braintree based band with a pretty funny reference to one of their more well known songs. Or seeing some possible ancient beginnings to a certain festival just south of Stonehenge.

Valhalla is a huge, huge game. Easily the longest game I’ve played to date. Most modern ‘AAA’ games tend to take me around a month to play. Just over two months later and I get to what appears to be the end of the main story missions. It all happens in such a damp squib way that if there is more then I was just happy to leave here because the game had long outstayed its welcome.

Not that the main gameplay isn’t fun. The game is very similar to Red Dead Redemption 2 and Ghost Of Tsushima in it’s moment to moment action but Ubisoft really have mastered the art of giving these games a deep breadth of activity and making encounters seem fresh and different which Tsushima in particular struggled with.

Ultimately though it’s the focus on RPG progression and the endless side objectives that brings the game to its knees. Most of the time to properly progress your characters skill level needs to be within the vicinity of the recommended level for the area or task you are heading in to. This puts a big focus on constantly levelling up and that means busy work. By the end of the game my characters level was around 260 and the game was asking for a level of 340.

Thankfully the story missions rarely needed close matches so completing that part of the game was easy but I certainly never completed all the members of The Order or got close to “The Father”. But I suppose that just gives me somewhere to start up from again when I next come round to playing this one.

3/5

Hitman: Blood Money

The best laid plans of mice and men, and all that. This was to be an XBox 360 version review but alas I’ve been defeated by modernity! A modern TV and an ‘E’ version of the console do not make a good combination for one of the very few early 360 titles that struggle to auto-switch into PAL60 mode over HDMI. It’s an annoyance rather than an issue. Easily fixable with the right cable (not to hand) but anyway the game is on the Series X backwards compatibility list so there’s a better long term solution. Anyway I actually completed the game last on the PlayStation 2 around a year a go so I feel safe going off that playthrough and a YouTube 360 walkthrough as a memory refresher.

I actually first played this game back around 2012/3 time when I first got back into videogaming as a hobby. The Hitman Trilogy on the original XBox were part of a key group of games I was playing and discovering retroactively on that system. It’s one of the games that showed me what I had been missing out on a decade earlier. All three games are among the best gaming experiences on offer and Blood Money, the third game, is the absolute pinnacle of that era.

While there is a story being played out through intermission cutscenes, something about the CIA trying to hunt down 47, but honestly I’ve always found the back story best ignored in these games. Just give me a target list and let me loose!

And this is were, frankly, all the Hitman games excel. You are given a pretty wide openworld sandbox to explore and reek whatever mayhem takes your fancy. You play follicly challenged Agent 47, an assassin for higher. Played in the third person you are given one or more targets and objectives to complete and are left to get on with it.

Here is were the real genius of the series comes in. There’s no right or wrong way to play, no correct answer. Every level, every kill, every target, has multiple options for you to discover in completing the mission. The fun of the game is in the trial and error. Watch timings of this NPC, try that disguise, experiment with a kill style. Doesn’t go the way you plan? reload a previous save point and try again, alter your tactics slightly. And once you’ve completed any level go back, replay, and try a different assassination method.

You can go in guns blazing and clear out every level pretty quickly using a machine gun and rapid fire – but were is the fun in that? The first game wasn’t called Stealth Assassin for nothing. A lot of the game is about waiting, hiding, sneaking, getting the right disguise, getting in to position, creating an accident, administering some poison, garrotting, or pushing over a ledge.

Every level is Blood Money is well designed, huge in scale, and almost always very rememberable years after playing. Flock of Birds with the unique carnival costumes and impressive NPC density, the maze of Curtains Down, rolling down the Mississippi on a steam liner.

Finally, based of some YouTube footage and a year old memory from the PS2 version, I’d say the 360 does have a noticeable graphical uplift over the two previous generation consoles. Much as you’d expect. It is the exact same game in every detail, you’re not really gaining anything material, but the resolution is noticeably sharper, the environments seem a little more detailed and the lighting is improved.

5/5

Tomb Raider

Going back 25 years later and there’s a lot not to like about this seminal classic. Being the first of its kind there’s a lot of rough edges that stand out today in a way they didn’t way back then. For this reason we need to take care how we judge games like this. It is an early PlayStation 1 classic and everything that goes with that after all.

Importantly Tomb Raider really was the first of its kind and set the ground work for everything that has come since. 3D games existed way back before the early ZX Spectrum days. Machines like the Spectrum, C64 and Amstrad CPC where pioneering this kind of solid 3D rendering in the mid-late 80’s. But it’s very difficult to think of another game that offered this kind of third person action-adventure platforming prior. A couple of contemporaries, Die Hard Trilogy and Fade To Black, come close but it was Tomb Raider that defined the language of 3D third person gameplay that game makers would spend the PlayStation 2 era perfecting.

In Tomb Raider you play Indiana Jones-like adventurer Lara Croft on a mission to locate the missing pieces of the Scion. A quest taking you to fully realised 3D worlds set in caves and tombs around Puru, Greece, Egypt and Atlantis. The majority of the gameplay involves platforming climbing, swimming and leaver pulling to solve a variety of puzzles impeding your progress. This is interspersed with a touch of quick gunfire to ward of dangerous critters and the old rival adventurer.

Looking back from a modern perspective the low screen resolution, minimal texture detail and flat 2D sprites in place of 3D objects do stand out but all were incredibly impressive to gamers at the time coming from, at best, flat shaded 3D models on earlier 16-bit machines.

Likeways the tank controls can be a trial. Being used to modern dual analogue thumb controls with control over camera positioning. Tomb Raider hails from an era where the venerable D-pad was the only option. Still once you get used to the controller layout it is an incredibly responsive and fluid game to play.

One area where Tom Raider really excels over modern games is in it’s level and puzzle design. It’s the Goldilocks design of puzzle platforming. Modern games tend to be a little to hand-holdy. Earlier puzzle platformers could be a little obtuse in their solutions (get jerry can and take to Fred fill with spring water before pouring on magic bean to grow beanstalk to climb!?!). Tomb Raiders puzzles revolve mostly around finding the platform path, pulling the right leavers, and locating fairly obvious keys.

All in all the game still stands up. It’s a little clunky today but once you get used to the controls the revolution gameplay design shines through and remains every bit as enjoyable and challenging as when it first hit the shelves.

5/5

The Last of Us, Part II

Videogames have long struggled with the trade-off between story and gameplay. It’s a dynamic that arcs back to the very birth of the medium. Jumpman rescuing Pauline from Donkey Kong (or Dizzy, Daisy, and Wizard Zaks if you will). Over the last couple of generations great strides have been made at pulling these two strands together. Highlights like Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice and the first Last of Us particularly showcasing the art of storytelling within a videogame framework.

Part 2 wants to tell a story. It’s very much the story that needs telling following the climax of the first game. Unfortunately this leads to similar issues faced by Red Dead Redemption 2. The need to tell a story often times feels as it’s getting in the way of gameplay – switching between playing character, extended cut scenes, and the like.

That’s not to suggest there’s anything wrong with the gameplay when you take control. Much is what you expect and learned from the original. Focusing on stealth movements, exploration and crafting. However hats of to Naughty Dog who here give a masterclass on how to introduce player controls and gameplay mechanics. Tuition sequences carefully crafted and seamlessly integrated within the main story/gameplay narrative.

Still, even once the game really gets going, there were no real standout moments. No encounters that are going to live on in your memory and excite you on a replay as in the first game. In Part 1 you remember your first Bloater in the Sports Hall, Ellie being given the rifle on top some scaffolding covering Joe below picking off the army. One or two moments in Part 2, the sneak through the park with whistling Scars, come close but are quickly over and pale in comparison.

The game is centred around two main characters. Ellie from the first game and new comer Abby. Abby’s story is the focus of the second half of the game. Overall I found Abby to be the more likable and relatable character, she had a much stronger story arc and the better, more memorable, encounters all occur under her watch.

Graphically my first impression, loading up in 4K HDR, was how magnificent the original was in 720p on the PlayStation 3. We’ve come a long way – much can be scene in character models and animations in particular, especially the faces, but you certainly see why we keep hearing about “the law of diminishing returns”. Well that is until you arrive at the start of the Seattle, Day 1 chapter. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything so jaw dropping gorgeous from a video game on my TV screen.

The Last of Us, Part 2, is a good game worth playing. However it does live in the shadow of the first game, a masterpiece, and is mostly more of the same but not quite as memorable. The reason is the game is more focused on its story telling. Naughty Dog had a story to tell and telling that story was the top priority over all other elements.

It is game that doesn’t know how to end however. It reaches a natural, if somewhat damp squib, conclusion and then just keeps going. You think you’ve seen an unnecessary prologue then it keeps going again. And keeps going. Making the final ending (spoiler: same damp squib; sorry) have even less impact.

4/5