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

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

#Watch_Dogs

This is the very first game in Ubisoft’s Watchdogs franchise. The games are a Grand Theft Auto style fully open world spin off from their hit Assassins Creed series set in an alternative modern world where a major new big tech, Blume, has sold it’s revolutionary ctOS city control system to big cities around the globe.

Over the years I’ve played all three Watchdogs games and this was my third complete playthrough of the very first game. And I must say despite unjust bad press at the time, they got it right first time. On release Ubisoft where promising a fully interactive open world environment in which you could quickly hack various aspects of the city and the phones of passing NPC’s with your in game mobile phone.

Many expected too much from the pre-release hype and on release the game was rubbished for not offering that fully hackable experience promised. Gamers and reviewers alike where quick to complain. Having played all three games though my opinion today very much matches that on release. They nailed it. This game is far more enjoyable and lives up to the city hacker promise far better than either of the sequels did.

The first game follows the exploits of hacker Aiden Pierce and his quest for vengeance following the death of his niece following a botched hit attempt on his life after a failed robbery. The game starts in the lobby of the Merlot Hotel with Aiden hacking the cameras with his trusty hacker phone and attempting to steal some cash. This sets up the cutscene with his niece’s death and the start of the quest for revenge.

Watchdogs plays much like GTA V and Sleeping Dogs with you travelling, usually driving, around a representation of a modern US city (Chigaco) getting to the next waypoint that starts the next story mission which is the same general mix of camera hacking and cover shooting. As with any good open world games you have the ubiquous tower location to unlock map detail and plenty of optional side missions to extend game time and distract you from the task in hand.

Chigaco is a fantastic city to explore. I’ve never been there but there’s something about the high tower blocks, transit system, surrounding suburbs, and road network that just lends itself to this type of open world experience. Much like the multitude of games centred around New York. It’s certainly a far better location than San Francisco in the next game.

As you progress through the game just about everything is hackable. Every passer by has a unique bio and it’s fairly simple to steal money from their bank accounts, which you can withdraw from conveniently placed ATM’s. You can switch traffic lights, raise bridges, and explode under road steampipes. One of the best aspects is the L-Train. Chigaco’s overhead light rail system. You can catch a train and ride the L. You could use it for fast travel, you can control the trains themselves, or you can just hop on board and enjoy the ride.

This is also the only Watchdogs game with a truly engaging story. Many complained of Aiden’s character being bland or miserable. And there was the long standing disconnect in all open world games between the story narrative and player agency which results in running over civilians and firing grenade rockets at police going against the overall hacker good guy story narrative. But it’s in trying to fix these things in later games that led to the series loosing its soul and ultimately highlights how good the first game really was.

There’s a lot in the way hacking and profiling works in this game that got lost in the two sequels. The push to use non lethal weapons and over promote the toy boys – either drone or spiders. And all the locations felt different. Unlike the third game which lost its London feel to a lot of cloned cut’n’paste environments.

I’d love to see a future game set in New York, centred around a good story driven central character, and a return of many of the core game mechanics that made experiencing this hacker world so enjoyable for the first time.

5/5

Watchdogs: Legion

A flawed game full of interesting ideas and missed opportunities. Legions is the third game in Ubisoft’s modern day Assassin’s Creed spin-off franchise – Watchdogs. The first game was set in Chicago, the second in San Francisco, and this entry leaves the US for the first time and arrives in post-Brexit London. The games centre around an hacker/activist group called Ded-Sec and a capitalist shadowery tech company called Blume modelled after the likes of Facebook, Google and Capita.

The first game was sold on the ability to use your (virtual) mobile phone to hack everybody and everything. Raise barriers, disable cars, steal money from passers buy, etc. The story centred around a masked vigilanty, Aidan Pierce, going after those responsible for the death of his niece. I found the game lived up to it’s promise and was very enjoyable, but most critics thought Pierce’s character was a little flat and criticised the disconnect between Pierces character in the story and many of the antics a player would engage with in any GTA-like openworld.

Game two tried to answer the criticisms by going for a more youthful protagonist and shunning the guns. Introducing a snooker-ball laidened sock as the main weapon of choice and drones. For me this game fell flat as it seemed to quickly devolve into driving a lifeless city between two mission locations and then doing the exact same drone actions before driving off to the next. Of particular annoyance was the loss of being able to CCTV camera surf your way to a solution. You’d get so far and reach a dead end as the game required the drone to proceed.

For the third game the big gimmick is being able to build your own Mission Impossible-like Ded Sec team from absolutely any NPC you encounter within the game. And, once recruited, they all become playable characters that you can easily switch between at will. It works surprisingly well but unfortunately is the root of pretty much all the games ills.

The lack of central character to bring the story together around (other than the disembodied AI voice of Bagley) is the first hole you’d notice after you’ve picked up two or three new Ded Sec operatives. And this then extends to each and every character being very cut and paste generic. It really, for the most part, doesn’t matter which character you use. The ability differences are fairly minor and if you really need something you can get it as any character. Everyone’s an A-grade hacker.

This then brings us to recruitment and the first thing you’d notice is the casual racism and stereotypes. Black characters must have a Caribbean accent, Asians are bad impressionists idea of Indian, and then there’s the army of Polish and Irish accents for white characters. I know London is multicultural and multi-ethnical but this games procedure based character generation system somehow completely misses the mark on this and descends into something rather embarrassing.

And, just like the second game, all the recruitment missions where very cut and paste. I’m sure I did the exact same missions three of four times while building my team. And again camera surfing was only good for a quick look around. Everything set up specifically for the spiderbot, or getting in up close to push buttons. Indeed this criticism did follow for the wider game. Many a time I found myself at a carbon copy location, exact same are layout, with another mix of stealth takedowns and spiderbot to hack some central computer.

London itself is very superficial. All the major buildings are there in roughly the right locations and essentially correct major street plan. But the surrounding buildings and side street filler is all rather generic and doesn’t really feel of the London I know. It’s as if they wanted to invoke the essence of London without capturing the spirit. Like the last game it quickly descended into fast travel between carbon copy mission objectives. One issue even more noticeable than previously, highlighted by NPC actions, contributes to this feeling and that’s the lack of buildings you can randomly enter. NPC’s come out of buildings but unless its required and one of the very few carbon copy environments it’s incredibly rare to see the insides. No shops, tube stations, etc.

A lot of this can be put down to the fact this is very much a last generation, PS4 era game, and given how much they are trying to achieve the limits of those systems do ultimately come in to play. This is in stark contrast to the beginning of the that era when Assassin’s Creed Black Flag felt like you were getting a new experience over what the previous PS3 version could offer. There’s just nothing on offer here that doesn’t feel possible on the PS4Pro, and indeed games like Red Dead Redemption 2 have done better.

Don’t get me wrong, it is a fun enough game to play. It is worthy of the experience, if only once. It just lacks any real soul.

3/5

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

The game to buy (I bought) a PS4 for! Often wonder about peoples eye-sights when they talk about “diminishing returns” when talking about video game graphics. Coming from The Last Of Us and Grand Theft Auto V on the PlayStation 3 this was amazing, the cost of a brand new generation games console and a suitable plasma 1080p television to go with being more than worth entry fee for experiencing this Assassin’s Creed in name only in it’s best available rendition.

It’s possibly the least “Assassin’s Creed” of the franchise and widely regarded as the pinnacle entry. You play Edward Kenway, a pirate and accidental assassin roaming the waters of the Caribbean Sea. It’s the full on pirate life of plunder and the whole sailing experience marks the cornerstone the rest of the game is built around. So much could have gone wrong, especially with the combat, but Ubisoft truly aced it here.

Navel combat is a treat. Simple enough to grasp and get the hang of, but complex enough for skill, options and strategy to come to the fore. Circle your quarry trading cannon fire until you have them by the gang plank. Once you’ve hammered them to submission it’s time to swing over and board their vessel taking for your fleet or repairs to your own Jackdaw (name of your pirate ship).

On land this is pretty much regular Assassin’s Creed fare with the standard range of targets, synchronisation towers, loot boxes, and tailing missions. What’s cool is the seamless transitions from ship to shore. For the size of the map and the number of islands to discover it’s a wonder how you are almost never barred by artificial barriers (only used for current mission ringfencing reasons) and won’t see any obvious loading screens or transitions.

Black Flag is a huge open world experience that is just plain fun to play. This is the game where you want to go off story and just bum about with the side stuff, and there’s plenty of it. The variety of island locations really helps keep the necessary cookie cutter nature of the activities fresh. It’s fun to sail between islands, pick off a few ships, and then disembark to liberate another plantation or solve a Mayan puzzle before jumping aboard ship and setting off for the next dot on a map.

I last played this game about a year or so back. On that playthrough I was mostly running fast through the story missions. This left me with a somewhat underpowered ship at the start of the final mission. I quit the game there rather than grind out the necessary upgrades. This time I loaded up that old game save and had a whale of a time grinding through a few fortress take overs, assassination missions and general pirating to gain the money needed to refit the Jackdaw and finally complete the game (again).

On a side not this does show the importance of reliable game save backup’s availability. I’d switched from my old PlayStation 4 (where I was playing the last story run) to a new PlayStation 4 Pro (where I enjoyably grinded to the ending). This, for me, vindicates my choice of XBox Series X over PlayStation 5 for the next generation. While both consoles now force you to use their own cloud servers for backing up game saves, at least on XBox it’s a free service (PS5 requiring a Plus subscription).

5/5

Ghost Of Tsushima

Tsushima is a game of three halves – the good, the mediocre, and… the not so good. It’s in no way a bad game, but it does struggle for greatness once you scratch below the surface. At its heart it’s a fairly generic open world set in one of the best open world locations. For years Assassin’s Creed fans have been shouting for medieval Japan and now if it ever happened it would face stiff comparison with what we have here, as this does with Ubisoft’s franchise.

The good starts with the graphics. Possibly the best seen on PlayStation 4 and likely the crowning achievement of this generation. A true high to go out on. Like The Last Of Us, Sucker Punch weren’t aiming for photorealism, choosing instead a slight cartoon feel to the art direction that always keeps the right side of the uncanny valley and allows the rest to shine. In this case it is entirely about physics and lighting which never, ever ceases to impress.

Particle physics and wind is what it’s all about. Everything in constant beautiful motion. Grass, hair, leaves, fire embers. The amount of small onscreen items moving independently is jaw dropping. You can spend hours just watching cherry blossom falling from the trees. Especially during some of the magical sun sets. Colour plays a huge part of this game and is often times nothing short of stunning.

All this visual splendour is crowned by lack of onscreen UI. A odd choice that having experienced you wished more games would attempt. The use of the wind to guide you to waypoints not only fits aesthetically with the overall styling of the game, but works. It’s absolutely brilliant in its implementation.

Moving to the passable we come to the combat system. It’s a good combat system that does work surprisingly well. Change stance, block, sweeping attack and jabbing. In some ways it reminds me of what Bushido Blade was trying back on the original PlayStation. The fighting feels more involved and realistic. More focus on defence and parrying. A refreshing change from the Arkham style combat systems that have become popular in recent years.

One thing I did find, early on, was taking the hit and finally accepting “easy mode” greatly improved the gameplay experience. Sure in this mode combat is just that little bit too easy, but it gives the time needed for the combat mechanics to shine and allows the player some breathing space from faffing with the controls.

The story is interesting but nothing special. A generic tale of reclaiming your land following a Mongol invasion. And the gameplay itself is pretty standard stuff. Bordering on the bad you pretty much move from one cut and paste enemy encounter to the next. The open world serving to do little more than add a little travel between each encounter that is only ever a slight variation on the last.

As the first act progressed and the game, slowly, started to reveal itself I started to find the silver coloured (on the game map) side story waypoints to be a little more interesting as, while the encounters remained very cut n’ paste, their stories give the island and game world the depth and colour the main game craves.

Combat is a lot of fun, with different stances to deal with different enemies.

Which brings us to the not so good. I found myself constantly fighting the controls. Button allocation felt wrong. Certain actions have long held button memory. Pressing ‘X’ as the main action button for instance, moved to ‘R2’ here. Instead of getting on my horse I found myself taking swipes at it. Want to go faster? hold down ‘L3’. Even tapping the touchpad for listening mode instead of bring up the main map. Everything always feels counterintuitive. I see it’s all for the combat system but I can’t help thinking the combat could have worked just as well while keeping certain generic functions where the game expects to see them.

Assassin’s Creed wants the player to be stealthy and then goes out of its way to push the player in to head on combat. Tsushima is the exact opposite. Honour, as the game explains at the start, demands facing your enemy head on. The rest of the game then pushes you in to being stealthy. Trying to maintain honour just lead to being quickly outnumbered and overrun as 5 or 6 enemies would pile into me at once. Dodge, attack, defend becoming incredibly difficult very quickly. Especially when arrow rain down while a couple of spears are prodding in your direction.

Putting the game in its easy difficulty mode and focusing on side story missions completely turned the play experience around. Suddenly we have a living, breathing, world ripe for exploration. It also allowed better time to understand gameplay mechanics that perhaps weren’t fully embedded early on. A future replay on medium difficulty shouldn’t be so challenging with a clear idea on where and when to focus your efforts.

4/5

Ancestors: A Humankind Odyssey

I do like to back an underdog. Many of the best and most interesting games available come not from your big AAA publishers but from the smaller, low scale development teams. Those free to do something different, like TheUltraUltra’s Echo or Tequila Work’s The Sexy Brutale. Ancestors is a download only game from Panache Digital Games of similar ilk. Ancestors is the brain child of the man behind the first Prince of Persia reboot, Sands of Time, and the first three Assassin’s Creed games.

On paper the idea for Ancestors is incredibly intriguing. Exactly the type of low key game I try going out my way to experience. We start 10,000,000 years ago when a group of Ape ancestors have descended from the tree’s in sub-Saharan Africa. Our task is to guide the species through millions of years of evolution and set them on the path to Manhood. The process necessarily slow going as new skills are learned, genetic memory is implanted, and birth mutations alter our eventual fate.

Straight out the gate the games initial problem is one of explanation. With all tutorial options dialled up to the max the game seems highly reluctant to give up its secrets. The entire first hour of gameplay spent head scratching not working out what is going on. My very first Ape-Ancestor fell to his death from a great height. The game moved immediately to the nearby Baby-Ape-Ancestor whose task it became to complete the mission back to the Ape-Ancestor tribe. Alas every movement of Baby-Ape-Ancestor flashed up an annoying HUD warning screaming at me to “get back on task”!?! Nothing for it but to delete the game save and restart from scratch.

Indeed I did end up restarting a few times as I slowly got to grips with the games mechanics and what is going on. And somehow that wasn’t totally a bad thing. The biggest lesson being to take things slowly. Don’t expect evolution to happen in a day. I found myself worrying more about the size and members of my clan than exploring the wider world were too many things wanted to kill them. And stock pilling. Foraging and stock pilling become the early order of the day.

In one early game I got in to trouble when all male members were killed. No problem I thought. Lets go for some evolution. The babies will grow up, the troupe will grow, I’ll have a new base to progress from. Alas evolution winds the clock forward without altering the group. I returned to the action with the exact same members we’d left off with a few thousand years earlier, and still no adult males. Similarly a pregnancy allows you to jump forward 15 months. But somehow I was still on year 1 and even after two such pregnancies none of the other babies had matured.

It took some searching and reading of Internet guides before things started making some semblance of sense and started settling down. In broad strokes there are four ways of progressing time. Sleeping for hourly/daily progression. Pregnancy to jump forward 15 months. Generation switch moves forward 15 years. And, finally, Evolution takes the clan forward by an indeterminate thousands of years. General gameplay is exploration and survival based with a given current goal (eg. befriend outsider, scare off animals, find landmark, etc). The game should be played as one of the grey tribe elders with a baby clinging to your back at all times. When you have killed of all the elders it is time to progress the game to the next generation – adults becoming elders, babies becoming adults. The first task in each new generation, before continuing the general survival/exploration gameplay, is to create a whole new generation of babies.

One thing that is constantly (consistently) frustrating is the controls. You keep trying to convince yourself that things will get better by design as you unlock and fix more neurons but despite increased motor control it never seems the case. The game is centred around a sub-Saharan forest with lots of necessary tree climbing. Why then does it seem utterly impossible to judge depth/direction and leap between branches? This is were more polished games add in those often unseen player aids by having you make jumps so long as you are generally close enough. Not so here, leaps to your 100ft deaths are far too common. Also basic direction control is broken. Climbing up and not being able to climb down, or move across. Lots of fighting with the camera before movement registers correctly in some instances.

This is a game that just wants to fight the player at ever turn. Which is a shame because barely scratch beneath the surface and you find something that could be very special indeed, a game just trying to get out despite itself. The whole thing just lacks that little extra polish. That last 6 months of development. It feels like time or money (or both) left the developers in a position of just not being able to cross the line. Ultimately if feels like they dumped what they had on the world and couldn’t wait to run away.

3/5