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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

Players finally meet as HoYo FEST kicks off in SEA this November

It’s a grand meetup!

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hoyo fest

miHoYo, the global interactive entertainment developer and publisher behind hit multiplayer games such as Honkai Impact 3rd, Tears of Themis, and Genshin Impact, announced that HoYo FEST is coming to Southeast Asia this November.

The interactive festival shall be held in six countries: Singapore, Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam.

The annual celebration will allow for fellow players to finally convene and meet each other off their screens and in real life, allowing for an opportunity to relive memorable, happy, and touching moments in the game together.

Gaming world-themed cafés

All HoYo FEST-related events will be held at collaboration cafés themed after Honkai Impact 3rd, Tears of Themis, and Genshin Impact between November 5 and December 14.

These specific cafés will offer special set menus on dine-in, takeout, and delivery options. Ordering via takeout and delivery also gives customers an additional printed tote bag and cup sleeve.

The interiors will be furnished in the styles of Honkai Impact 3rd, Tears of Themis, and Genshin Impact in order, which is accompanied by photography zones.

That way, fans and players will be able to enjoy exquisite foods and immerse themselves in a real-life feel of the game worlds while bonding with new friends they’ve only previously met in-game.

Mystery gifts and exciting merchandise

Ordering collaboration combos or spending a certain amount of money at a café also entitles guests to an exciting mystery gift box.

The pop-up stores found only at specific cafés will also sell a variety of exclusive Honkai Impact 3rd, Tears of Themis, and Genshin Impact merchandise, to be distributed only by the staff of the collaboration cafés.

Preparations for the celebration are underway, so Captains, Travelers, and Attorneys should brace themselves for upcoming surprises.

Festival Schedule

  • Honkai Impact 3rd: November 5 to November 16
  • Tears of Themis: November 19 to November 30
  • Genshin Impact: December 3 to December 14

Collaboration Cafés

  • Singapore: Aniplus Cafe
  • Malaysia: my Burger Lab
  • Thailand: NANA Coffee Roasters Ari
  • Philippines: Moon Rabbit Café + Restaurant
  • Indonesia: Warung Koffie Batavia
  • Vietnam: To Be Announced

For more event details and pandemic precautions, please visit the miHoYo official website: https://mhy.link/686SLBA6.

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War journalists use Call of Duty Vanguard to capture life-like photos

A one-of-a-kind collaboration and experience

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For me, Photo Mode is a wonderful thing to have when doing game reviews every now and then. Honestly, I would prefer setting the mood for those insane game shots instead of just screenshoting them from the device. For Activision, however, they wanted to take this concept to the next level with Call of Duty: Vanguard. With this one, they enlisted some experts in the field of war photojournalism.

Activision revealed a collaboration with renowned war photojournalists Alex Potter and Sebastiano Tomada Piccolomini. As a refresher, these two photojournalists have vast experience in taking photos of some of the most gruesome battles in war-torn countries. In this special collaboration, Activision gave them access to the game’s engine through a virtual camera console.

As seen in the trailer, the two photojournalists were inside Activision’s motion capture studios as they grab images straight off the game engine. From the explosion of tanks to the banging gunfire during World War II, these two captured photos that depict the reality of war. In the end, they were at awe at the stunning details and the level of immersion the game brought.

Call of Duty: Vanguard will be available on November 5, 2021 for both current and next-generation consoles and PC.

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Hot Wheels Unleashed review: A childhood dream realized

It’s action-packed and rather nostalgic

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Hot Wheels Unleashed

As a kid, I wanted all kinds of toys whenever we went to toy stores in the city. One of the very first toys I had an obsession over was Hot Wheels. From collecting cars to building tracks in the living room, it became the quintessential set of toys that got me into racing games all this time.

When Hot Wheels Unleashed was released, I instantly knew that this was a game I didn’t want to miss. As someone who plays a ton of racing games, this one felt right at home next to Crash Team Racing: Nitro-Fueled. Unlike CTR:NF, the nostalgia I felt for this game was more on the side of “playing my toys on a virtual screen” type of thing.

However, if you’re looking for another game to help you pass the time, is this a game worth considering?

A racing game at its core

As with most games involving toy cars, Hot Wheels Unleashed feels right at home as a racing game. It even comes with some of the most standard game modes you can think of for any racing game, so you won’t necessarily miss out if you’re a racing game fan. Where this game sets itself apart is in its easy-to-grasp game mechanics.

Usually, all you have to do is drive around the course and win 1st Place by outspeeding and outsmarting (in some situations) your opponents. You still do that but with some key differences, particularly towards boosting. Honestly, I like the fact that boosts are activated by button pushes and accumulated by drifting. To me, it’s friendly even to new players getting into racing games.

Hot Wheels Unleashed

The other thing I like is the fact that each Hot Wheels toy car comes with its own cart stats, and not just a general one all throughout. This also gives you an incentive to try and get every available model in the game and try them out for yourself. Furthermore, you can even upgrade these stats using Gears, and customize their Livery to however you like.

Creativity and originality in track design

Every racing game needs some interesting tracks to race around, especially with something like Hot Wheels. In Hot Wheels Unleashed, you have access to 5 main backdrops, each with about 8-9 different tracks that come with their own surprises. From high-arching loops to acid pits, each track will have you doing things a bit differently each time you race.

In fact, the first thing I noticed was that the elements in the tracks are quite similar to the actual models in those track builder sets. The designers did an incredible job with maximizing the entire backdrop to produce tracks with enough twists and turns along the way. Also, I would even argue that these tracks let you play around with the driving mechanics.

Now, I have some good news and bad news for you on these tracks. The bad news is that when you start the game, most of the tracks are locked as in-game transactions. If you wanted to unlock them the easy way, just pay a few bucks to get in-game currency and buy them.

However, the good news is you can unlock them by completing the Hot Wheels City Rumble mode. Although it will be an immense grind on your part, but I honestly think it’s worth it!

Wait, you can make your own tracks?!

Yes, you read that right: Hot Wheels Unleashed also allows you to create your own tracks to race on with your friends online. See, one unique mode to the game is the Track Builder, and I guess the name is self-explanatory. To be honest, this game mode was the best and it actually brings me back to my childhood.

Once you start the game mode, you basically have a blank canvas to work with, depending on the main backdrop you choose. After choosing your desired backdrop, you have a variety of track builder pieces to choose from and customize. Also, it even comes with your set of obstacles and boost pads to add some flavor to your tracks.

I absolutely enjoyed going on Track Builder as someone who collected Hot Wheels track sets before. Basically, you can create some of the most death-defying tracks that your younger self could not afford to before. Seriously, Hot Wheels track builder sets are expensive, and this game basically lets you experience this without spending a hefty amount.

Some low points

Much like most racing games, this one doesn’t come with its own set of shortcomings. To no one’s surprise, this game comes with a Hot Pass that allows you to earn more cars, tracks, and track builder sets. The good thing about it is, well, it’s more content at your disposal. At the time of writing, they’re currently running one with Batman vehicles as the main rewards,

The thing I don’t like about it is that you have to pay for it. I genuinely feel that this is something that would have been better off as a Battle Pass-type of package instead of paid DLC. I mean, it’s additional content that people also want to try out but with a rather hefty price tag. Maybe if they did it this way, people would continue to grind out the game.

Another thing that felt lacking in my eyes was the Basement, particularly the customization aspect.

I get it, it’s another main backdrop for your tracks and you can work with a ton of elements when creating your own. However, I didn’t like that the customization was limited to just the exterior design. Honestly,  I was looking for more customization options like moving the furniture around.

A roaring good time

Hot Wheels Unleashed is a racing game that feels right at home with the best of them. From a vast selection of carts to creative and unique track design, it feels fresh to anybody trying to get into racing games. Also, if you grew up playing your Hot Wheels car collection, this takes you back to simpler times.

Again, it’s not perfect and hopefully with upcoming patches, the game does get better. However, they missed out on some opportunities to make it a worthwhile game to play for any occasion. Sure, if you had money to burn, this wouldn’t be an issue; for others, however, they want a lot more without spending too much.

Overall, this game will give you a roaring good time, especially when you just need some down time from all the stress. What made it even more special for me was that this game pretty much made one of my childhood dreams a reality!

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