Gaming

Middle-earth: Shadow of War review — System overload

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Three years after Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor broke ground with how video game systems can tell stories, its sequel Middle-earth: Shadow of War builds on that foundation and more. Do these new layers elevate or encumber the experience?

With a twist of his hunky wrists, Ur-Hakon Brawlmaster extinguished Bugu Flame Monger’s ambitions of becoming warchief. The 15-foot Olog berserker separated the fiery terror’s head from his body, showing every orc in the ice cavern Fight Pit of Seregost what he’d do to challengers. It was an impressive audition for a spot in my army that would face Sauron’s siege. Ur-Hakon just didn’t know it yet.

Prestigious legacy

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor was a revelation for video games in 2014. On the surface, it looked like a cash-grab mash-up of The Lord of the Rings, Assassin’s Creed, and the Batman: Arkham series. Technically, it was, as it used the LOTR universe as well as the combat and stealth mechanics of the two aforementioned video game franchises.

What made it special though was the Nemesis system. Basically, it generated enemy orcs with randomized sets of various strengths and weaknesses that would grow stronger if they killed the player or survived the encounter. They would remember how the encounter with the player ended, commenting on it through voiced dialogue if they’d meet the player again. These orcs would also fight with one another, with or without the player’s input, and the winner would also become stronger.

This system facilitated all sorts of unique stories, and was the number one driving force for all the accolades the game received.

The sequel, Middle-earth: Shadow of War, expands on the Nemesis system with a lot more traits assigned to orcs, novel ways they can react to the player’s actions, loot drops, and a whole new fortress capture-and-defend element.

Despite winning with relative ease, Ur-Hakon sustained enough damage in his duel with Bugu that it would not have taken long for me to Dominate him. Just a few more strikes from my sword, and he would’ve been ready to submit and join my legion of mind-controlled orcs. So I leapt into the pit, eager to replace my now headless captain with this hulking behemoth, right into an ambush by Horza, Feral Tracker.

More mechanics

There are four areas to conquer, each with its own host of orcs that have different attributes and equipment they can drop. The gear you can pick up is sorted in a separate menu, listing their statistics along with bonuses you can access by completing small goals and wearing a matching set. Runes can be slotted into your equipment for buffs, and runes of the same kind can be upgraded by combining three similarly leveled runes to form one stronger rune. You have more skills to unlock compared to Shadow of Mordor.

The game introduces these mechanics over time so that it’s not overwhelming. It’s pretty easy to get immersed in exploring how they interlock. Does this polished vitality rune go better with the rare longbow that restores health with every headshot over the regular chest piece that gives a flat increase to your life bar? Would this ability to freeze multiple baddies at once be effective against this orc captain that always has a pack of caragor-riding hunters with him? Perhaps pairing this sickly warchief with an orc bodyguard that gets stronger when poisoned would do well against an enemy orc that can summon venomous spiders for this one fortress siege.

And it’s in those fortress sieges that Shadow of War shines.

Ur-Hakon’s might should have been mine. Complications by way of several blades to my back courtesy of Horza led to this death. Well, deaths, as I did get rid of the meddling party after chopping off the Feral Tracker’s limbs. Ur-Hakon, taking advantage of the distraction, pummeled me into the ground. “I’ll get him on the next life,” assuring myself upon seeing the Brawlmaster’s power grow for ending me.

Compelling complexity in chaos

Opposing orc forces smash into each other on screen by the dozens. Siege beasts hurl explosives over spiked metal walls. Gigantic Graugs and club-wielding Olog-hai batter the gates as toxic fumes blow out of spouts, choking would-be invaders trying to scale the perimeter. Fire rains from a drake circling the skies. Warchiefs face assault leaders in strategic areas, their powers and weakpoints laid bare in pitched combat.

And there’s you, right in the middle of everything, the one X-factor that can change the tide of battle.

Depending on how much you planned prior to engaging, these sieges can be quick, calculated affairs under 15 minutes or wild and protracted struggles that have you teetering on the edge of defeat for 30 minutes or longer. Whether you’re seeing a sound strategy swiftly executed or barely surviving a slog of a brawl, it can be exhilarating.

Up to a point.

It didn’t take long finding Ur-Hakon at the edges of Seregost’s snow-capped mountains. He was fresh this time, unburdened from the tolls of a pit fight. Before I could get close though, a snarl behind me snapped my attention to Tuka the Machine. I burned him to death once. Half of his face was steel now, and he had a gang to back him up. We fought, unfortunately, in front of Ur-Hakon. The Brawlmaster killed us both.

The weight of war

Beating the game requires you to do about 30 fortress sieges, 20 of which come back-to-back at the end, and that’s if you don’t lose. Of course, each one gets harder than the last, as the orcs you face have progressively higher levels. The higher their levels, the fewer weaknesses they have and the more immunities they possess. By the last 10 sieges, most orc bosses you have to defeat are invulnerable to a lot of techniques and can also kill you in a couple of hits, even when you’ve reached the max level of 60 and have powerful gear.

The orcs you’ve put in charge of the fortresses from naturally playing the game get outpaced in level by the enemy orcs when you reach this point, too. How do you keep up?

You either slowly level up your army through the Fight Pits, or you buy loot boxes that contain more appropriately leveled orcs. The former takes forever as you can only do it for one orc at a time, while the latter just feels icky with how blatantly it takes you out of the experience and pressures you to pay up.

Granted, you can buy a basic loot box with in-game currency that you’ll have probably amassed enough of by this time from completing quests.

Did I mention there are quests?

This was it. I tracked Ur-Hakon to a nearby cavern. There was no one else around to interfere. I would best him in one-on-one combat and have him under my command. I attacked. My sword was but a needle poking at his tough leathery hide. He would not succumb. His brute strength humiliated me. I fell to my knees one last time, his fist raised and ready to crush my skull. It fell past my head, as Stakuga the Knife came to my side at the last second, his blade catching Ur-Hakon’s blow, severing the arm from the elbow down. Stakuga saved me. He demanded a promotion, which I was more than glad to give.

Leaden narrative

I almost forgot about the quests because of how utterly unremarkable they are. They’re short, plain, and repetitive, asking you to accomplish one or two goals in the most straightforward manner. The Nemesis system doesn’t apply at all. No orcs can wander into the missions you’re on to surprise you. You die, you’re treated to a game over screen. Talion AKA Bargain Bin Boromir is as boring as video game protagonists come, and the rest of the cast is dour and unlikable, save for the handful of orcs that have way too minor roles.

The only notable thing about the narrative is the complete disregard of the canon and tone of the original Lord of the Rings stories. The first game certainly wasn’t the most respectful use of the LOTR license, but Shadow of War straight up retcons the lore to a ridiculous degree. Its attempt at commenting on the nature of evil clashes with how it rewards the player literally enslaving others.

By tying the completion of this forgettable story into the fortress sieges in the final act, Shadow of War burdens the one clearly enjoyable thing about it and turns it into a chore.

There’s fun to be had in Middle-earth: Shadow of War, for sure, but it’s all in the dynamic mechanics divorced from the plot. Feel free to drop it when finishing it starts fatiguing you. That release is worth more than enduring the nigh endless endgame for a predictable ending.

I tasted steel, and then dirt. I got up. Again. I assembled what was left of my troops. That fort in Gorgoroth had to be retaken. I had lain waste to that invading force before that stray arrow caught me in the melee. I only needed to storm the throne room. Stakuga died defending the courtyard. Some nameless goblin cut him down as he ran, afraid for his life. I envied his escape from this mortal coil. I reclaimed the fortress. Four more to go. 

SEE ALSO: Indygo: A game that talks about depression

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Gaming

Epic Games just destroyed Fortnite with a literal black hole

There’s an in-game reason, though (maybe)

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Are you currently wondering if (and why) Fortnite is down? If you’re trying to play the world’s biggest battle royale game, you’ll drop in on a strange sight — a black hole. To answer your first question, the game is currently down. However, Fortnite’s curious status is not because of server maintenance or a glitch. Instead, Epic Games has purposely shut its most profitable game down for the day.

Hours ago, Fortnite ended its tenth competitive season. Like most online multiplayer games today, Fortnite creates months-long periods — called Seasons — wherein gamers can rank up and subsequently gain prizes at the end of the period. However, unlike most games, Fortnite holds in-game events that significantly change the gameplay experience. For example, one of the earliest in-game events was a meteor that destroyed part of Fortnite’s map.

That said, Fortnite’s tenth season ended in a literal black hole that sucked up the entire map. Currently, the game will not start in the same lobby or map. Instead, the game only drops gamers into a front-seat view of the black hole. Fortnite is down. (Epic Games has also shut down the game’s official channels.)

For what it’s worth, the game is still churning out “some” content for viewers. Throughout its existence, the black hole has been broadcasting strange numbers for people patient enough to watch. The first set of numbers — 11, 146, 15, 62 — led viewers to a beach full of crabs when put into Google Maps. It’s a direct reference to crab raves, a meme popularized by the game’s popular Twitch streamers. Since then, the black hole released more numbers — 87, 14, 106, 2, 150. Currently, the new set doesn’t mean anything.

Further, gamers can also input the infamous Konami Code — Up, Up, Down, Down, B/O, A/X, Start/Enter — to access a Galaga minigame featuring a pizza and enemy burgers.

For now, Fortnite fans are stuck with this until Epic Games releases a more definitive conclusion. Most likely, the black hole will usher in a new era for the popular game. This might include an entirely new map or new gameplay elements.

Regardless, Fornite’s black hole is a huge gamble on Epic Games’ part. The developer has purposely shut down its biggest revenue stream for an event. It’s currently unheard of for an industry that values maximum efficiency.

SEE ALSO: Sony finally opens cross-play for Fortnite for the PS4

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Blizzard in deep trouble for supporting China

Update: Blizzard eases sanctions against Blitzchung

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Image source: Overwatch

The American corporate world is in a state of crisis caused by the tension between China and America. In the middle of this heightened Sino-American corporate war, Hong Kong lies in the middle, eagerly awaiting its democratic victory against Chinese authoritarianism. Because of the immensity of the geopolitical issue, individuals have inevitably expressed their opinions on the matter through public avenues.

Recently, individual opinions are getting in the way of corporate profits, especially for the companies that these individuals represent. From slaps on the wrist to outlandish punitive measures, American companies are putting a clamp on anti-China sentiments. The US is discovering where their favorite companies’ loyalties really lie — with the American people or with the Chinese government.

Blizzard: too cool for Hong Kong

Among these controversial companies, Blizzard Entertainment is fueling a significant portion of the dispute. Last weekend, the company held a Hearthstone tournament in Taiwan. The winner, Blitzchung (real name: Chung Ng Wai), expressed pro-HK opinions during his victory speech: “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our age.”

Days later, Blizzard Entertainment issued steep punishments against Blitzchung: stripping him of his prize money and banning him from competitive play for a year. The company has also fired the two broadcasters involved in the interview. Blizzard has deleted the official interview from their accounts.

“I don’t regret saying that stuff. And even now, I don’t regret it at all.” In defense of his actions, Blitzchung has expressed the necessity of his opinions. “I shouldn’t be scared. I hope my act can inspire other gamers like me, to continue to support the movement in Hong Kong,” he told AFP.

According to Blizzard, Blitzchung’s voiced opinion “offends a portion or group of the public, or otherwise damages [Blizzard’s] images,” warranting the fine and the ban. Curiously, the company did not say if the ban results from any Chinese intervention.

#BoycottBlizzard

Since then, Blizzard’s actions have sparked global outrage, accusing the company of political favoritism rather than supporting its customers or representatives. Many individual personalities have boycotted the company’s products including the highly popular MMORPG World of Warcraft and the competitive shooter Overwatch.

Some Overwatch players have even started using the game’s Chinese character, Mei, as a pro-HK icon. In the game, Mei — and the other characters — are largely apolitical regarding real-world politics. The game is set in a futuristic world with anthropomorphic gorillas and conscious robots. In creating a pro-HK icon, players hope to cause a larger boycott of Blizzard’s products.

Notably, Blizzard’s employees have also expressed dismay over their company’s actions. After the incident, several employees have walked out of their offices in protest. Also, an employee has supposedly taped over Blizzard’s forward-thing motto displayed on the company’s campus: “Think Globally” and “Every Voice Matters.”

The global outrage has already earned the attention of American lawmakers. Floridian Senator Marco Rubio has tweeted his support against Blizzard. “China using access to market as leverage to crush free speech globally,” he said.

Another senator, Ron Wyden from Oregon, has expressed the same sentiments. “Blizzard shows it is willing to humiliate itself to please the Chinese Communist Party. No American company should censor calls for freedom to make a quick buck,” he said.

Meanwhile, rivaling game companies have shown support for Blitzchung. Gods Unchained, a card game similar to Hearthstone, has promised to pay the tournament winner the full winnings stripped by Blizzard. Fortnite’s Epic Games has proclaimed that it will never penalize players for expressing their right to free speech.

Companies for China

Besides Blizzard, the NBA is also embroiled in a similar controversy. China has recently blacklisted the Houston Rockets because of a tweet from general manager Daryl Morey. Apple is also in trouble for supporting a pro-HK app and censoring the Taiwanese flag.

Slowly, the world is unraveling the curtain draping over the biggest companies today. Underneath, people are discovering a cruel truth: the persistence of money versus integral values.

Update [10/11/19]: At the end of the day on Friday (US time), Blizzard issued a statement in response to the recent controversies. In the lengthy post, the company has decided to ease up on the penalties issued to both Blitzchung and the shoutcasters. For one, Blitzchung will finally receive his full winnings. Further, Blizzard has reduced the bans to only six months.

Explaining their side, Blizzard has reiterated that the decision was made without Chinese intervention. According to the statement, Blizzard acted to ensure the tournament’s status as an inclusive environment for all gamers.

SEE ALSO: Blizzard is taking their other titles to your mobile

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Gaming

PlayStation 5 will launch on Holiday 2020

Featuring a new controller

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The next generation console PlayStation 5 will launch on Holiday 2020.

Sony PlayStation published a statement today announcing the time of the launch. Another major announcement is that it will come with a new controller – one that has haptic technology and adaptive triggers.

The haptic feedback will replace the “rumble” tech found in earlier versions of the the DualShock controller. PlayStation says haptic should provide a broader range of feedback. This means a different feeling when you crash a race car to the wall, tackle on the football field, or even ” sense for a variety of textures when running through fields of grass or plodding through mud.”

There’s also the new adaptive triggers which Sony says they incorporated into the L2 and R2 trigger buttons. The new tech will allow developers to “program the resistance of the triggers.” This means having a tactile sensation depending on the action you’re executing.

Game creators have already been given and early version of the new controller so they can incorporate it in upcoming titles.

SEE MORE: PlayStation 5: Everything we know so far

 

 

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