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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Features

What does the GPU Turbo do to your phone?

Is it more than just a marketing gimmick?

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It’s been two months since Huawei rolled out the GPU Turbo update to its smartphones. Promised with a 60 percent increase in performance and reducing 30 percent on power consumption, a lot of fans and users were excited after the announcement.

Back then, everyone (including me) was hyped about lag-free games and longer battery life while playing. However, upon receiving the update, I began to wonder: Has GPU Turbo delivered what it promised?

What’s inside the update?

GPU Turbo was originally marketed as an improved gameplay experience, available only to PUBG and Mobile Legends: Bang Bang.

The Game Suite app, which comes with the update, offers an uninterrupted gaming feature, hiding all notifications when enabled (except for calls, alarms, and low-battery alerts).

Mistouch prevention is another feature to avert users from clicking the back and home button while playing — perfect for when you want to focus on your game.

Screenshots by Miguel Pineda, Huawei Mate 10 user

To some older smartphones like the Huawei Mate 10, the Game Suite App offers three performance modes: Gaming mode, which improves game performance but increases power consumption; Smart mode, which balances performance and power consumption; and Power saving mode, which saves power but reduces game performance.

For the newer Huawei P20 Pro (which I’ve been using) and Honor Play, it only has a gaming acceleration mode to toggle on or off.

Thoughts on the reduced power consumption

Because I used the Mate 10 before and recently transitioned to the P20 Pro, I’ve experienced the GPU Turbo update in both phones and I can guarantee that they’ve delivered on lowered power consumption.

With Game Suite, I can put my phone on power saving mode to further save battery. For instance, I was only able to drain the Mate 10 down to 15 percent during a 12-hour road trip despite switching between the games I play and other apps, such as Messenger, Netflix, Spotify, and taking photos and videos every once in a while. The same goes for the P20 Pro.

As a power user, I already get a lot of things done with these highly efficient smartphones and GPU Turbo; these allowed me to do more on a single charge. However, it’s a different case for gaming.

Improved gaming experience, but there’s a catch…

When I started playing games on gaming mode (or game acceleration mode on the P20 Pro), I could run Mobile Legends: Bang Bang on a high frame rate with the highest graphics setting available. Compared to how the game stuttered and lagged during 5v5 clashes, with GPU Turbo, it now runs smoothly, as if I have a smartphone made for gaming.

System notice when enabling the high frame rate on Mobile Legends: Bang Bang and the effects it may have on your gameplay

As shown above, most mobile games will notify their users about the possible repercussions of higher frame rates and using the best settings available. To prove that a smartphone with GPU Turbo can handle this, I sought out to confirm my suspicions.

After asking fellow Huawei users, I found out that after installing GPU Turbo, energy consumption is a lot faster than before. Their smartphones also heat up more easily, especially when playing games with the game acceleration mode on. This isn’t part of what was promised, and it’s pretty disappointing.

It’s not yet perfect

In my experience, GPU Turbo tries to boost performance above a smartphone’s limit hoping that users can experience better gameplay.

GPU Turbo can’t choose when to perform its best. It’s an update that is constantly running in our smartphones without any way to switch it off. We can only hope that Huawei will address these issues for the next batch of updates.

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ASUS ROG Phone receives US pricing

Last piece of the puzzle

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ASUS is certainly taking its time with the release of its one and only gaming phone. First announced at Computex 2018, the ROG Phone finally has an official price to go with its US release.

For the model with 128GB of storage, you’d have to shell out US$ 899. For the larger 512GB storage variant, the cost goes up to US$ 1,099. Both come with a high-end Snapdragon 845 processor and 8GB of memory.

Of course, there are accessories to go with it. First is the ROG Mobile Desktop Dock, which costs US$ 229; the ROG Phone Case retails for US$ 59; the ROG Professional Dock is valued at US$ 119; you can buy the ROG TwinView Dock for US$ 399; the ROG Gamevice Controller is at US$ 89; and lastly, the ROG WiGig Dock goes for US$ 329.

Those are a lot of accessories for one phone, but that’s what makes the ROG Phone a truly gamer-centric device.

As stated last week, the ROG Phone will hit US shores starting October 18, with other regions to follow soon after.

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Gaming

PlayStation’s PSN Online ID change coming soon

Full rollout coming early 2019!

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You’ll soon be able to retire your DarkWarrior1214 PlayStation ID. In a blog post, Sony PlayStation said they will soon begin testing the PSN Online ID change feature as part of their preview program.

Beta testers part of the preview program will be able to change their PSN ID as much as they want. However, once the feature rolls out to everyone, only the first name change will be free. Succeeding name changes will cost US$ 9.99 for regular users.

PS Plus users will be charged a smaller fee of US$ 4.99. The online ID can be changed through the profile page on your PS4 or at the Settings menu. There’s also an option to display your old PSN ID alongside your new one so your friends can recognize you right away.

Not for all games

The feature isn’t available for all games, though. Only PS4 games published after April 1, 2018 along with other most-played titles that were published before that date will have the feature. PlayStation also warns that changing the ID might cause some issues with some games that can be fixed by reverting to the old ID. Here’s to hoping PlayStation finds a way to address those issues some time down the line.

The planned full rollout of the feature is in early 2019. What will be your new PSN Online ID?

SEE ALSO: Sony unveils PlayStation Classic, comes pre-loaded with 20 games

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