Saturday, October 25, 2014

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor - Thoughts

I'm not a really big fan of Tolkein's Lord of the Rings. This is partly due to how invasive his brand of lore has become in the fantasy setting, essentially establishing the archetypes of dwarves, elves and orcs. I didn't feel like exploring this universe in an action game, but with the glowing reviews Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor kept getting with regards to its Nemesis system (an AI ecosystem where enemies vie for power in their military caste), my interest was definitely piqued. Even if the lore has no pull on you, there's a really fun game in here that gives the player a lot of power.

I'm not going to spend any time discussing the story, since it barely registers as anything more than background noise during the majority of the journey (a Tolkienite would likely have more to say on Monolith's implementation of the lore). Playing past the tutorial, you'll find yourself in an open world with a lot of UI and mechanics similar to that of the Assassin's Creed series, with a splash of Arkham Asylum's combat thrown in. If you were to look at this under a critical lens you may find the design uninspired and lacking ingenuity, solely implemented to cash in on the brand name and success of its progenitors. But Shadow of Mordor only retains this stigma in its early hours.

Once the Nemesis system becomes available to you—along with a wealth of abilities and unique runes—the game really comes into its own. The ways in which you can conquer a stronghold or engage in side missions only keep increasing as you progress, and due to the myriad of skills each orc leader can possess, you'll often find yourself in some really entertaining situations. However, Shadow of Mordor's most significant failing is that it eventually propels you into a godhood-like status where almost no encounter can deter you from victory. The optimal solution once you're fully leveled is to vault over an opponent and strike at them a few times, allowing you to build your combo quickly (which is cinch if you're timing your hits) and spam execution or branding attacks against those around you. The gap in difficulty between the first set of warchiefs and the second set is astounding, and by the end of the game it becomes a bit inconceivable how you could possibly lose.

But as long as you don't care about trampling over the endgame, Shadow of Mordor is a blast. It's pleasing visually (especially the second area), sounds great, and the combat never gets stale. The orc leaders are especially fun to interact with; thanks to their character models and the pugnacious quips they spout, many of them feel like their own unique characters (despite being a combination of randomly chosen attributes). There's also a gritty glee to be had in how outlandishly violent the game is, avoiding any kind of genocidal guilt since all your opponents are monsters anyway (well, without reading deeply into any subtext). Sometimes it can be annoying to run into a dozen captains when you're just trying to kill a single one (especially if he's fleeing), but otherwise the Nemesis system is an invigorating and worthwhile addition. Sure, it becomes trivialized when you get so strong that no one can stop you, but it doesn't stop it from being the best part of the game.

I'm going to close this entry out by regaling the short-lived tale of Grublik the Stout:

During the initial hours of the game, I undertook a mission to interrupt an orc captain's festivities. He yelled at me about how he was gonna drink grog after he gutted me, but I didn't care, striking at him swiftly with my blade as soon as he shut his yap. Unfortunately another captain stumbled upon the struggle, and the amount of troops he brought into the battle meant that I had no option other than to retreat. As I was turning to leave, Grublik—a tall, shield-weilding uruk—gave me the fatal blow. After I died he was promoted for slaying me, and I was eager to seek revenge on this audacious amateur. I took a side mission to engage him while he was battling a fellow captain, but the big blue doofus was hopelessly outmatched. I took pity on him and vowed to alter his destiny—I would help Grublik to become a warchief, and then take his life.

Grublik's ascension through the ranks wasn't hard to fulfill. Besides intentionally avoiding him whenever he'd pop up at various missions and strongholds, the dopey orc quickly rose through the ranks due to his oafish charm. That, and his competition had been cut into pieces. Despite a small detour I took to finish the campaign, I returned post-game to the Black Gate to check up on my old pal. I decided to congratulate Grublik on becoming warchief by paying him a visit. Drawing him out was simple (20 kills without being detected), but what was difficult was trying to decide how I wanted this to go down. Stab him stealthily from behind? Draw some caragors in to wreak havoc on his forces? Brand his captains and have him betrayed? I decided finally upon fighting him like a man one-on-one, though he was annoyingly persistent on calling more nameless soldiers in during our duel. It didn't matter though—vengeance was mine in the end. The first monster to kill me was the last one to die in my game (well, one of the last).

This is just a single example of the wild yarns that can be spun solely through the game mechanics alone. People can't stop talking about how good Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is for good reason. It joins Wolfenstein: The New Order as an unexpectedly competent and brilliant entry in 2014 for me, and I'm curious what Monolith will work on next.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Iridion 3D - Thoughts

I have a strange soft spot in my heart for the somewhat janky Iridion 3D. It was one of my earliest GBA games and the first handheld title to really awe me with it's visuals—the pre-rendered backgrounds are still the most striking feature of the game today (especially in motion). Shin'en's shooter aimed to blend Star Fox's 3D perspective with more shmup/STG influences, but it ultimately mutated into an awkward combination of both, serving to showcase how unsuccessful 3D rail shooters can be if handled poorly.

Besides the visuals, the first thing you're likely to notice is how wonky the collision is. Star Fox wisely allows objects and enemies to traverse the foreground (behind the Arwing), giving the player a good handle on the game's perspective, but here you're pretty much a sprite slapped onto the front of the screen. Though your ship appears to take up a small amount of space, it acts more like an interstellar rectangle, as you're likely to notice bullets colliding against your lean wings (or the empty space above them). This can make dodging projectiles quite tricky, as your bulky size negates any mobility you might have (the stage 2 midboss and stage 6 enemies are astoundingly difficult to defeat unscathed). Luckily you'll only suffer one pellet of damage if a purple bullet touches your hitbox, but crash into any solid object and you'll lose five. With only twelve points of health and limited lives for the entire journey, you'll find that an enemy veering into your ship at the start of a level can pretty much end the entire run—it's a frustrating thing that happens a bit too often.

The game thankfully has passwords so it's easy to restart a stage, although the passwords keep your lives and power-ups intact (meaning you can screw yourself over if you're careless). The power-ups are also a little haphazardly implemented, reducing your power when you die and when you switch abilities. This pushes the player to sit on a single power-up and be potentially punished for their choice if the stage doesn't feature their specific weapon. Conflated by the fact that certain power-ups (green, purple) don't fire in a straight line—making it hard to hit certain enemies—I think it's demonstrably clear that the gameplay of Iridion 3D is too imprecise to be considered a good shmup.

Yet despite those detrimental factors, I still contend that the game can be an enjoyable experience. If you strap yourself in knowing that the shooter has its share of gameplay issues, I think the variety and atmosphere it offers overcomes a lot of its failings. Each stage is beautiful and distinct from the one before, containing a series of quirky little challenges. There are some frustrating parts here and there (the entirety of stage 4 is a collision nightmare), but the experience is a cohesive one with a good difficulty curve.

I've said that the visuals are the premier aspect of Iridion 3D, but I would be remiss not to boast that the music is the most phenomenal part of the game. Out of the entire soundtrack there's only one dud (stage 6 boss), the other compositions being extremely catchy and atmospheric. I think this accomplishment is made all the more impressive considering how utterly lackluster the GBA soundchip is, as many good games were a bit stifled by the garbled audio. Shin'en's custom GAX sound engine went a long way in achieving this, although I'd argue that Manfred Linzner is a competent composer as well. Seriously, some songs are pretty amazing.

I tend to visit the clumsy shooter title biennially, tapping into feelings that have long since been overwritten by a multitude of mundane etchings. From the large bosses to the captivating music, I still hold a lot of admiration for Iridion 3D. I can't excuse how poor and repetitive the gameplay can get at times, and I must confess that nostalgia is a significant factor in my enjoyment. Yet I don't think much will change me from looking back on Iridion 3D as a flawed game with a lot of heart.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Rygar - Thoughts

It may be a bit weird that I'm an ardent fan of the Ninja Gaiden trilogy on NES, yet have sparse experience with other Tecmo titles. To be frank, their non-sports games are few and far between, and not much else seemed to hook me like Fire n' Ice upon initial play (though I'm still determined to one day complete Solomon's Key). So picking up Rygar for the first time felt like a fun experiment—I wanted to see how the developers handled platforming before they mastered it with Ninja Gaiden two years later.

The journey begins immediately, thrusting the player into a wasteland crawling with critters. Here you'll come to learn Rygar's modus operandi—spawning enemies with an incessant annoyance a la Kung Fu. Combined with the fact that you have only a single method of attack, combat distills into a pretty basic formula of determining whether your closest foe is to your right or your left. Thankfully the gameplay often switches between top-down and left-right perspectives for some variety (though the top-down view is fraught with strange issues like how jump-attacking means you have more mobility PLUS a longer attack range), and there are a few spells you have available (though the energy pickups for them have an abysmal drop rate). The game is also slightly nonlinear with handful of upgrades, fleshing out its sense of adventure.

What I thought was most revolutionary about Rygar was that it incorporates character stats that persist through death. Every enemy you slay can add to your strength or vitality (which are denoted by TONE and LAST for some peculiar reason) and at unstated intervals you'll gain an increase to your damage or health bar. This means that you'll rarely be stuck fighting a boss, as a bit of grinding can lead you to wipe the floor with monstrosity in a minute or two, even if you die repeatedly while farming. The final boss in particular is especially subject to this consequence, as I had spent so long exploring his palace that I was able to kill him in roughly ten hits, closing out my journey with an uneventful climax. Finally, the game is also not nearly as archaic or cryptic as Adventure of Link or Castlevania II, so even if you haven't played before it's not too hard to figure out where to go.

I really can't say I adore Rygar but I certainly wasn't put off by it; the Argoolian journey is a simplistic romp that would have enhanced had I any nostalgia for it. The gameplay fits somewhere between the questionable design of Mighty Bomb Jack and the flawless artistry of Ninja Gaiden, incorporating some interesting mechanics that are surprisingly subversive in modern games nowadays. I think the infinite continues, stat carry-over and relative brevity of the entry all help to make it an entertaining title, but it's hardly one I'd suggest to those that aren't NES fanatics. In a way, the 2002 sequel Rygar: The Legendary Adventure echoes the essence of the original very well—an interesting game unfortunately outclassed by everything that came after it.