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

Alien: Isolation

There seems to be some unwritten law that when I review a First Person game I have to mention how much I generally dislike the view point and how rare it is for me to play such a title. I then go on to explain how this game is an exception to the rule and a welcome surprise.

Alien: Isolation is one of those games. And a very welcome surprise it was too. The draw is obviously the Alien franchise and the love of the first two Sigourney Weaver movies. I’m pleased to say Creative Assembly, the makers of this masterpiece, have treated this source material with nothing but the upmost respect.

The game is set upon a space station that has come in to possession of the flight recorder for Ripley’s ill-fated ship from the first movie. You play Riply’s daughter, Amanda, in search of answers to what happened to mum. You arrive on the space station only to discover a world in disarray and the possibility that more than the flight recorder has survived the Nostromo.

In moment to moment gameplay it is very, very reminiscent of Dead Space just with an Alien franchise skin applied and a switch in perspective. This of course is no bad thing.

The primary gameloop is built around stealth and crafting. Getting in to any kind of fight and/or running out of essential supplies is often very, very deadly. Each level gives you a series of puzzles to complete while you desperately avoid just about every other inhabitant of Sevastapol Station.

5/5

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

Hidden And Dangerous

This has to be one of the most frustrating gaming experiences I’ve ever had. There’s a core game here that is really, really good and interesting and you want to play and experience. And yet what you have to work with is a nigh on unplayable mess.

The idea is simple, guide your four man SAS team in a mixture or strategy and stealth 3rd person gameplay to complete each given mission. The general style is of that of a classic 3rd person cover shooter but you also get some RTS and 1st person shooter elements thrown in. And here in lays the first issue. The game doesn’t know what it wants to be.

The RTS ideas are the most interesting, and remind me of an old 8-bit (CPC/Spectrum) game called Laser Squad. However it’s very much half baked and it doesn’t take long to realise that when not under your direct control the player characters AI are incredibly dense. Happy to commit suicide, ignore enemies, and do anything other than work as a team. In a three vs one fire fight your three men will die.

Which brings us to the enemy AI which is just plan brutal. Draw distance is of the era crap anyway, but the enemy NPC’s can be less than a pixel high in the distance and be happy to see your guys laying flat and single shot kill them with very high precision accuracy. A game quickly looses it’s charm when your troops can’t shoot for toffee with a high powered machine gun but the enemy can dispatch you at 200m with a single shot from a handgun.

The first mission was to merely cross a guarded bridge. That was it. Kill some guards and cross a bridge. I did it first try on medium difficulty with two of my four man team surviving. However the second level looked a little more complex involving rescuing prisoners and blowing up a depot. Let’s start again on easy, think I, give myself a fighting chance…

Just couldn’t complete level one on easy. Couldn’t cross the bridge without my men diving in to the river, diving under a train, or throwing themselves at enemy bullets without bothering to return fire. Three hours of move, save, move, die, load, move, die, load, move, save, die, load, move, save, etc. And I’ve two surviving men at the end of the bridge. One man dies, god knows how, the other throws himself under a passing train.

2/5

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

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

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

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