Tag: stealth

First Impressions: Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor

At first glance, the concept for Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor seems like something you’d find on a fan-fiction site, aching for the sort of opportunity that was afforded to 50 Shades of Gray. An Illithen Ranger, one of the fabled Dunedain, falls victim to an untimely death but is resurrected thanks to the intervention of a Wraith that is, apparently, unconnected to the Ring-wraiths that plague Frodo and the Fellowship later in the canon of Middle-Earth. So now he’s immortal, a skilled fighter, and has the grizzled, manly voice of Troy Baker. That certainly sounds like a self-insertion fantasy persona to me. Thankfully, there’s more than enough going on in this game to merit more than that somewhat dubious first glance.

Courtesy Monolith & WB

First and foremost, Shadow of Mordor (as I will call it going forward because I’m not a fan of colon cancer) is steeped in atmosphere. While Mordor is not yet a barren, blasted wasteland, as this tale takes place before Lord of the Rings, the darks are deeper and the land definitely feels corrupted. While Howard Shore did not compose the music, the score is definitely in tune with the themes and timbre of those famous strains from the six films. Despite the stick I gave the developers for putting Troy Baker’s voice behind our hero Talion, he sounds less like Booker DeWitt and more like someone who’s been living rough in the outskirts of Gondor right before the events that propel him into the adventures through which players guide him.

Seeing as this is a video game on major consoles, the primary means of that guidance will be through various forms of combat. Shadow of Mordor has looked on the success of both Assassin’s Creed and Rocksteady’s very successful Batman-based games (Arkham Asylum and Arkham City to be exact) and worked on a way to combine the two. The result is quite compelling: Talion moves from place to place to avoid detection, climbs to and leaps from ledges and tall places with grace, is limited in weapon choices, and uses prompts to avoid or block incoming blows which he redirects into deft ripostes. Movements are smooth, blows are powerful, and skills are satisfying – but the really interesting stuff doesn’t happen until someone dies.

Courtesy Monolith & WB
Things look pretty amazing, as well.

Rather than simply be a quest to slay endless, nameless orcs in a quest for vengeance and XP, the game takes pains to give its antagonists names and personalities. This is more than window-dressing, however; it is essential to what makes Shadow of Mordor stand apart. Each orc Talion kills brings him closer to his true goal: the Warchiefs who control the mighty armies of Mordor. The array of nasties seen when you check your progress tells who where they rank and how much closer you are to victory. This also has intriguing implications when it comes to failure. Shadow of Mordor is not the first game to boast an immortal protagonist, at least in terms of being considered that way in-universe, and making failure mean something when you cannot die has often challenged designers. Rather than lose experience or suffer an otherwise arbitrary setback like paying a toll to the underworld, when Talion is defeated and requires rescuing from his wraithly friend, the orc lieutenants and captains he was fighting grow stronger in the intervening time. There is also a system in which orcs squabble with one another for control, and if Talion does not sweep in to kill everyone involved, the victor of the squabble will gain power in a similar fashion. It’s one of the many things that contribute to giving the game a living, breathing world.

On top of innovative design and satisfying combat, Shadow of Mordor has not skimped on the Middle-Earth lore. Dipping deep into the history and culture of Middle-Earth, the story of Talion is far more than one of mere wish fulfillment. While the Ranger has a rather immediate need for vengeance, his benefactor has an even more seething bone to pick with Sauron: he was Celebrimbor, the elf-smith in the Second Age who forged the Rings of Power to begin with. Through his experience and vision, Talion (and by extension, the player) learn the tales of the items scattered throughout the land, unearth ancient runes that add to the ongoing story of the events at hand, and give all the more reason for us to fight our way through the diabolical forces of Sauron the Deciever.

Courtesy Monolith & WB
There are even some familiar faces around.

So yes: my very first, up-front impressions of this game were entirely wrong. A lot of care has gone into the game from all sorts of perspectives. The combat, stealth, and open world draw from a plethora of contemporary, quite successful sources. The story has threads that tie it deeply into the rich lore of the beloved tales of Tolkien. It looks and sounds pretty amazing, taking full advantage of modern rendering and development techniques. And if that weren’t enough, it both delivers satisfactory results for success and reasonable, compelling consequences for failure. In short: I must play it.

Game Review: Dishonored

Subtlety can be underrated in video games. A great deal of them rely on glitzy graphics or bombastic action to carry their experiences. Rock-solid gameplay that relies on things other than frenetic twitchy skills, a unique world with a lived-in feeling, and an interesting story with characters that have depth and complexity all contribute to a game rising above the average. In the case of Dishonored, two out of three ain’t bad.

Courtesy Bethesda Softworks

Corvo Attano had it all. From his birthplace on Serkonos in the Empire of the Isles, he rose from obscurity and a mysterious past to become Lord Protector of the Empress and her daughter. Unfortunately, he did not foresee assassins bestowed with a dark power storming Dunwall Tower and assassinating the Empress. Framed for the murder and on the run, Corvo is on the run with few options – until the same power approaches him with an offer to help him get his revenge. Even as a plague ravages the streets of Dunwall, Corvo finds his way to a Loyalist group willing to back him up, directing him where to point his deadly dagger.

As I mentioned in the intro, world-building goes a long way in making a game both worth your time to play and memorable after. Dishonored‘s Dunwall is one of its main draws. The city seems to have a very unique mix of Victorian-style architecture and dress while things like the Tallboys and Walls of Light have a somewhat dystopian electropunk feel to them. Graffiti, conversations, artwork, and the variety of items to pick up all work together to provide a sense of immersion in the world through which Corvo will be sneaking from target to target.

Courtesy Bethesda Softworks
From its canals to its adverts to its balustrades, Dunwall looks amazing.

Much like Deus Ex and Thief, the sneaking and the possibility of bypassing combat entirely instead of being shoved into it the way you are with other first-person games is what sets Dishonored apart. No enemy, from the standard street-walking mook to what would qualify as boss fights, needs to be confronted directly. You always get a clear indication of how aware guards are to your presence, you’re agile enough that running on rooftops is always an option, and you don’t dissolve in water so swimming can work, too – provided the vicious barracuda-like fish don’t have you for lunch. Your gadgets and powers are a big help, as well. Even the lowest level of the Dark Vision power lets you see guards through walls so you can better plan your routes, and Blink, a short-range teleport, lets you cross open areas and even lines of sight without raising the alarm. Couple these powers with the option to choke folks out and a sleep-dart crossbow, and you have the opportunity to prove that assassins don’t have to kill to be effective and feared.

This leads me into talking about some of the drawbacks to Dishonored. The number of dead bodies you create and the degree to which you use certain powers contribute to what’s called Chaos, a mechanic that functions a lot like morality systems in other games. A high Chaos rating alters the last mission of the game, and the game has multiple endings based on it, meaning that if you want the best ending, you need to be as non-lethal as possible, even if it’s more organic to silence a guard with a quick stab or you’re just fed up with a section and want to blast your way through. On top of that, the characters you encounter, especially your erstwhile Loyalist allies, are very flat and not terribly emotive, many of them having the creepy unblinking constant-eye-contact problem NPCs have had since Oblivion. I almost would have preferred text screens between missions or, even better, a voice-over from Corvo so our protagonist could have a little more personality of his own. Deus Ex (especially Human Revolution) and Thief games benefit greatly from their heroes not being silent.

Courtesy Bethesda Softworks
“Fly, my pretty ones! FLY!!”

Still, none of these problems can prevent me from recommending Dishonored. For all of its faults, the game plays extremely well and feels rewarding when you pull off the right combination of teleporting, sneaking, distracting guards, and finding your unique route to your target. The world is rich and well-realized even if it is populated with stiff characters lacking true depth, and the visual and sound design pull you into Dunwall every time it loads up. A little characterization here, a touch of personality for our hero there, and removing the Chaos issue would make the game damn near perfect. As it is, it’s simply a very good game that fans of stealth, assassination, and games with a stand-out look and feel are bound to enjoy.

Game Review: Mark of the Ninja

One of the reasons I thoroughly enjoyed games like Deus Ex and its sequel Human Revolution is due to the stealth elements. I’ve dipped my toe into Thief, and I also got a charge out of both of Rocksteady’s Batman games (Arkham Asylum and Arkham City). Stealth-based games need a few things to work well: clear indicators of how easily the enemy can detect you, multiple routes to your objective, and an atmosphere of tension generated by foes and situations that present you with puzzle-like ways to overcome their deadly obstacles. Klei Entertainment’s Mark of the Ninja has all of these things, with the added bonus of appealing to aficionados of the legendary spies and assassins of feudal Japan.

Courtesy Klei Entertainment

For centuries, the Hisomu clan has defended its secrets and maintained its traditions. Without warning, the diabolical company Hessian Services storms their dojo and makes off with those secrets. Our hero is awakened from his recovery from an extensive tattoo (the titular ‘Mark’) to rescue his master, and embarks on a path of revenge and assassination. However, the Mark that allows him to move undetected and leap superhuman distances comes with a price: before it drives him mad with power, he is expected to take his own life.

Klei Entertainment previously made the Shank games, somewhat over-the-top side-scrolling action games in the vein of Mad Max or some of the nastier, in-your-face encounters of Borderlands. The designers have traded frenetic, button-mashy action for a more quiet, measured approach. Like the good stealth games mentioned above, Mark of the Ninja is built around smooth motion and wide-open level design. Moving around the maps feels natural and intuitive, and you think less about button-presses and combos than you do about guard search patterns and the locations of fuse boxes and lights that ache to have darts thrown at them.

Courtesy Klei Entertainment
The cutscenes are like something out of Gargoyles.

Adding to the atmosphere is the art style, steeped in darkness and flowing like ink from a brush. While the faces of the characters may be a little cartoonish for the game’s occasionally violent content, it definitely works within the context of this game’s world. When the game plunges into darkness, be it due to the environment itself or your darts shattering lights above the heads of hapless mercenaries, it becomes clear the art style was more than just an aesthetic choice. Your character becomes a shadow of his former self, literally, with only the ink of his mark visible to us as we sneak from one hiding place to another. It lends the game incredible atmosphere and tension all on its own.

Sooner or later, though, you will encounter your enemy. The decision must be made if you will dispatch them or try to sneak past. Killing guards does make it easier to make it across the room, but at the end of each level, if you manage to avoid killing anyone you get a substantial bonus to your score. The game also rewards you with Honor, which can be used for upgrades. Paradoxically, your upgrades make it easier for you to kill people. It’s hard to say if the trade-off is substantial enough to prevent you from doing fun things like hanging bodies for other guards to find, or picking off a room full of enemies one by one just to see how scared the last one gets.

Courtesy Klei Entertainment
“Hmm. Where does one stab a laser?”

Let me draw your attention to the screenshot used above. Pretty dark, isn’t it? As much as I’m uncertain as to how well-balanced the game is in terms of sneaking versus killing, I want to reiterate how lovely the game is and how well its art style informs its gameplay. Being reduced to a dark silhouette against a dark background, especially when it happens just as a guard turns to face your direction, never stops producing a sadistic little grin and the desire to jump on the big dumbass to give him a wedgie. Unfortunately there is no “wedgie” option, and we’re back to deciding if we want to try and move on in spite of the challenge or if we take the quick and easy path of murder.

As much as I like Mark of the Ninja, I haven’t gotten too terribly far with it, which may make this more of a “First Impressions” write-up than an actual review, but the flow of gameplay is so smooth and the storytelling so organic I can’t help but recommend it. Scaling a tower to close in on an enemy feels like an achievement in and of itself, the challenges the game presents provide incentive to be even more inventive and careful, and there’s something inherently badass about a game featuring a ninja behaving in this way. When was the last time Ryu Hayabusa actually snuck up on someone? I think it’s been a while. Mark of the Ninja is available on Steam and XBLA, and it’s definitely worth checking out.

Game Review: Alpha Protocol

Courtesy Sega & Obsidian Entertainment

One of the things that made Wing Commander such a memorable series of video games for me, beyond the cool spaceships and neat character design, was the branching campaign. You could choose to defend a particular asset for the Confederation, or take the fight right into the Kilrathi’s furry faces; you could completely botch a mission and the game would not end; you could lose wingmen and shipmates and life would go on. It was storytelling that felt open-ended even if the plot was rattling along on rails towards the final destination. At least those rails had junction points.

Alpha Protocol brought back some of those memories, mixed in with liberal doses of Deus Ex and Mass Effect, to produce a gaming experience that, quite frankly, surprised the hell out of me.

Courtesy Sega & Obsidian Entertainment
It’s a balcony hot tub in Rome. Eat your heart out, Mr. Bond.

We’re introduced to Mike Thorton, an American international operative candidate with a shady background recruited by an organization called Alpha Protocol. The organization is a covert unit attached not to the government per se, but to one of its biggest private military contractors. Mike is dispatched on his first mission to Saudi Arabia, but before things can be properly concluded, he’s betrayed and abandoned. With few resources to begin with, Mike must travel around the world to build a case against his former employers, or at least collect enough explosive devices to make the PMC’s stockholders very nervous and very angry.

More often than not, when a game declares itself to be an “action/RPG”, what they mean is that you can customize a few of your weapons and maybe put a different hat on your self-insertion military fantasy persona. The games that continue the traditions of System Shock 2 and Deus Ex are few and far between, allowing you to make a character tailored to your particular gaming tastes not just in terms of weapon mods. Alpha Protocol may not be as deep as those others in terms of game engine, and I’m not sure shotguns needed their own category1, but at least an effort is made to allow a player to guide Mike down a particular path, and not just through the medium of the thumbstick.

Courtesy Sega & Obsidian Entertainment
Well, I could beat it out of him with own vodka bottle… hmm.

Indeed, between the action set pieces players have opportunities to determine how the story will unfold, and without the benefit of a color-coded morality meter. Instead, Mike interacts with people through one of three attitudes, chosen on the fly: professional, aggressive and suave. They’re three distinctive flavors of one overarching attitude, however. Mike’s a bit of a jerk. I mean, sure, he’s been backstabbed by his government and the company trying to buy them2, and that’s likely to make anybody a little cross. Some of his antics are excusable under that circumstance while others are inexplicable in their maliciousness or mischeviousness, outside of just being a troll. This doesn’t stop them from being hilarious, but how professional can one actually be if they’re sending emails about bovine weaponization conspiracies to trigger-happy nutcases just for a laugh?

I don’t want to give the impression that moral choices don’t exist. Most of your conversations, however, are more personal matters. The choices you makes in how you relate to certain people will raise or lower their respect for you, and consequently can either make them inclined to help you or eager to put a bullet in your skull. However, there are moments where you must make a decision, and you’re not given a lot of time to make up your mind. Brilliantly, you will not always know the full ramifications of the choice you make when you make it. Only at the very end as the news is relating stories from around the world do you realize exactly what you’ve done3. Amongst games where choices are almost always squeaky-clean white or dastardly black, Alpha Protocol paints its plotlines in shades of gray. And they’re really attractive shades.

Courtesy Sega & Obsidian Entertainment
I told him what I’d do if he crossed me. He thought I was bluffing.

When the words stop flying to make way for bullets, Alpha Protocol still does a few things quite well. Like any good game with emphasis on stealth and gathering intelligence, it gives you the option to sneak past opponents rather than shooting them in the face, even if the “takedown” option still induces wincing on the player’s part. While it’s possible to play through without making a single kill, I can’t imagine getting punched in the throat by a professional martial artist is particularly pleasant. And the mini-games you must play to hack computers, pick locks and bypass circuits do a great job balancing a limited time-frame with puzzle-solving skills, for the most part.

It’s not a game without flaws. The engine occasionally goes a bit berserk with its rag doll physics, and you’re never 100% sure the wall or prop you’ve chosen to take cover behind will (a) conceal you or (b) allow you a clear line of fire to your foes. Some of the boss fights can make life very difficult for particular character builds, and on a couple occasions I set off an alarm trying to pick a lock when I distinctly hit the button to quietly cancel the attempt. I hear there are also conversational bugs but I can’t recall running into any, so if I did they were somewhat insignificant, not unlike the others. None of the bugs or hiccups I encountered felt game-breaking, and more importantly, none of them got in the way of the story. Indeed, the story is what keeps the action moving, even when nobody’s getting shot at. Here’s a case where the strengths of the game outweigh its flaws, and while I can’t blame some hardcore shooter fans for letting those flaws keep them from checking out Alpha Protocol, enthusiasts for this style of game are sure to be pleased.

Stuff I Liked: Weapon customization is pretty cool, and having be only one aspect of character building rather than the extent of it is even better. Every safehouse is distinctive for its area which was a great touch, as were the little trophies and mementos Mike keeps. Options to decrease difficulty of missions through gathering additional intelligence felt smart. No hilariously stereotypical accents – “ZEY HAFF GIVEN ME LEMON-LIME” is a thing of the past.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: Could have consolidated SMGs, shotguns and assault rifles into one category and spread out lock-picking, hacking and electronics. Some obtuse boss fights. The occasional bug that will break a lockpick, your cover or that gas canister next to you, but thankfully not the entire game.
Stuff I Loved: Writing and voice acting well above average. A conversational system that makes sense and works well without being tied to rigid morality. A sense of purpose and weight to choices made. Satisfying stealth gameplay. More than a few laughs when Mike starts trollin’.

Bottom Line: It could be because I’m a fan of good storytelling that drives the action, or decently balanced stealth/shooting gameplay, but for me, Alpha Protocol shines. As shooter-RPGs go, it’s around the same level as the first BioShock in terms of action, definitely inspired by the aforementioned superstar shooter-RPG tagteam. And in terms of plot and character, the plot adaptability and solid writing has it swinging from the same monkey bars as Dragon Age: Origins while Halo and Gears of War participate in a game of gay chicken over in the nearby sandbox.


1 Deus Ex filed them under “Rifles” for a reason, after all.
2 Just swap “Halbech” with “Bank of America” or “Wells Fargo” or any oil company and you’ve got the right idea.
3 I’m giving Sega & Obsidian the benefit of the doubt and thinking this was meant to promote better storytelling, not just a way to get us to play the game more than once. Which I think I may have to, now. Bastards.

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