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

The ASUS ROG Zephyrus S GX701 is now available

The first laptop with a whopping 300Hz refresh rate

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ASUS ROG continues to roll out more premium gaming devices, with the latest one coming from the Zephyrus lineup. The two new Zephyrus laptops now come with the highest refresh rate on any device along with powerful hardware.

Starting today, you can get your hands on the new ASUS ROG Zephyrus S GX701. The new  Zephyrus S comes with a 17.3-inch IPS FHD display with a whopping 300Hz refresh rate. To complement this high of a refresh rate, ASUS ROG even slapped in either an NVIDIA RTX 2070 or NVIDIA RTX 2080 inside. Along with the latest Intel Core i7 processor inside, the ROG Zephyrus S GX701 looks to be the ideal gaming laptop for the pros.

Depending on the unit you get, you also get up to 32 GB of RAM and 1TB of SSD storage. All of these contribute to unparalleled performance for any task you throw at it, or any game you throw at it. Both units also come with Gigabit WiFi adapters for better wireless connectivity and Bluetooth 5.0. When you purchase the whole package, you also get a free ROG Backpack, Cerberus Gaming Headset, teh ROG Gladius II, and an ROG Eye webcam.

The ASUS ROG Zephyrus S GX701 is available in all ASUS and ASUS ROG Concept Stores. The 32GB RAM, RTX 2080 unit is priced at PhP 209,995, while the 16GB RAM, RTX 2070 unit comes in at PhP 169,995.

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Gaming

FFVII remake teasers now comes with behind the scenes footage

A look into the iconic theme song and squad

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A delay in release did not stop Square Enix from teasing Final Fantasy fans even more. This time, however, the company is  just giving us two things to prepare our minds and hearts for the remake.

The first one, as you’ve seen from the header image, an HD recreation of Cloud Strife and his trusty motorcycle. An entire cast literally joins him in the picture, including Aerith, Tifa, Barret, and even Red XIII. Looks like this is just feeding more details on character art, more than anything else.

The second one is actually a behind-the-scenes look into the end theme of the whole remake. Nobuo Uematsu guides us through the creative process behind the end theme, including the recording sessions for it. To see more of it, here’s the entire behind-the-scenes footage:

Square Enix’ remake of Final Fantasy VII will be released on April 10, 2020. It will only be available for the PlayStation 4, and pre-orders are still being accepted.

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Apps

NVIDIA’s GeForce Now is ready for gamers

Another cloud gaming competitor

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NVIDIA’s game streaming service, GeForce NOW, is ready for gamers looking for alternatives to Google’s Stadia and Microsoft XCloud. NVIDIA is looking at its support for more devices and compatibility with existing game stores as its edge against competitors.

Luring in gamers

NVIDIA GeForce NOW is now available for general audience after it entered beta last year. Starting today, gamers can opt for either of the two tiers: Free and Founders.

Gamers on Free tier have to contend with a one-hour gameplay limit. Plus, they maybe put on a wait list for a certain game if there is too much demand. Meanwhile, gamers on Founders tier have priority access to games, a six-hour gameplay limit, and support for RTX.

Unlike its competitors, NVIDIA’s game streaming service supports more devices. It is available now in Windows, macOS, Android and SHIELD TV platform, with Chromebook support coming in the future.

This game streaming service also works differently than Google’s Stadia and Microsoft’s XCloud. It streams supported games from the Steam library, Epic Games Store, Battle.net, and Uplay.

There is no need to purchase a game as gamers can simply stream it if the service supports it. Smooth gameplay is guaranteed with support of up to 1080 at 60FPS.

Pricing and availability

GeForce NOW is available on all 30 countries across North America and Europe. Beta users are migrated automatically. For those planning to pay for the Founders tier, they will only have to shell out US$ 4.99 per month.

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