Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

AC4‘s big innovation is free-roaming naval gameplay, especially in how this is seamlessly incorporated into the existing mechanics of the series. It’s a little simple in some ways — you could definitely do more with the player’s fleets and cargo without turning it into a space trading game, which might alienate players with shorter attention spans. But even as it is now, you can step away from the wheel, leap off your own ship, climb onto a Spanish man’o’war, kill everyone on deck with a hidden blade, and then return to your own vessel, taking the enemy ship and its cargo without exchanging a single broadside. And I think that’s miles ahead of what AC3 was doing. Imagine if the first couple Grand Theft Auto games didn’t have vehicles at all and you just ran around doing crimes on foot and shooting people from behind cover. And then the third one introduced the car, but you’d only enter one by starting a mission that moved you to a distinct “street map” where you couldn’t leave the car. And finally a real GTA game came out and everything clicked together.

It’s a little silly, but sort of what it feels like to have ships in the mix here. At the same time, I don’t mean to say that future Assassin’s Creed games would never work again without sticking to the naval theme. But as I said in talking about AC3, I can see why they stuck with it for a while longer: the core gameplay of the series has been too thin. I criticized AC3 for making you do a bunch of miscellaneous pseudo-participation in a checklist of historical events that didn’t map to the gameplay mechanics at all. AC4 thankfully does none of that, and yet, 85% of the missions that take place on land seem to involve some variation on tailing somebody, which I now remember getting completely sick of during the AC2 trilogy. Let’s just say I took some comfort in the new feature where I could “rate” missions individually after completing them. Not that Ubisoft would still be looking at feedback from four games ago, but it’s the thought that counts, you know? Another tailing mission; two stars.

It’s not quite enough to sell a game on. But what else is there? For the most part, the series sticks to its underwhelming guns. There’s often more than one way to climb a thing, but it’s mostly fake. And combat is too simple. I’m not saying I’ve never screwed up fights in AC4, but for the most part it doesn’t matter if there’s one guy coming at you, or twenty. Sure, the big bruiser enemies don’t always cooperate with your kill streak, but throw them aside and hit them in the back once and they’re dead just the same; throw in a smoke bomb or something when you run out of room. And I don’t think this is in the game’s best interests, given the ludonarrative dissonance that pops up whenever some guy points a gun at Kenway in a cutscene and he’s expected to care again because there’s no player controlling him anymore. And let’s not forget that it’s ostensibly a stealth game. When I got one objective, “Sabotage all alarm bells,” I thought, “Oh, good. It doesn’t say I can’t let them ring the alarm.” And so I bodychecked a few guards so hard that even Mr. Magoo would have seen me, allowed them to ring it, quickly comboed together like thirty kills in the resulting hullabaloo, and only then cut the alarms. Complete success. I think this is ridiculous: they don’t seem to know what kind of game they want to make.

So, not really knowing anything about the subsequent AC games that have already come out, how might they fix this? Assuming they care in the first place, they could either turn up the threat so some fights become infeasible to win, or play right into it, and make every villain a simpering coward who shouts (from behind the equivalent of six NFL teams’ defensive lines), “Kill him, you imbeciles! He’s only one man!” At this point I think the latter makes more sense. Give enemies some more variations on how they attack, such as with horizontal and vertical swings that have to be dealt with differently.

The series could play around with time more, too. Who says you have to be the same ancestor the whole game? Visit the same city as three of them, swap around like it’s Ocarina of Time or Day of the Tentacle, and pick up an item with one character after burying it with another. Even if you’re cornering the market on the distant past, and as a consequence, your gameplay can’t benefit from the tried-and-true complex but satisfying mechanics of an aircraft or a car in traffic, there’s a lot more open to you than just listening in on people’s conversations and then stabbing them.

So far the position I’ve taken is that the gameplay isn’t deep enough, but to elaborate on that, I often think it’s not deep enough relative to the time a player is expected to put in. This is a common gripe I have with high-profile open-world games, but it’s no less true for that. Even if you make the wise mental health decision that there’s no way in hell you’re going to sail to every meaningless collectible gewgaw on every Far Side Island on your world map — I actually did follow through on that bullshit, but only after muting the game and putting on an hour or two of a podcast — if you’re going for the optional sync objectives, treasure maps, and contracts, I think the lack of respect the game shows for your time is clear. First there are sync objectives which, on rare occasions, won’t show up the first time through a mission, which is great when paired with unskippable end-mission cutscenes. But what really galls me is having to make two or three runs on the same deep-sea dive that was tedious the first time through, because I’ve found a map revealing buried treasure back where I’ve already been, or some assassination target took up residence in a little cave there. Swimming is really unsatisfying too, with Kenway refusing to dive in any reasonable timeframe, or turning poorly, or swimming on ahead past the reef I put him in to hide from a shark. And while taking away your equipment is intended to add to the challenge, I think even more importantly, it gives me fewer ways to have fun. I can’t stab a shark? I can’t get my blow darts wet?

There are also the Mayan stelae things, a bit of busywork which if forced to be called “puzzles” would be an insult to even a chimpanzee’s problem-solving abilities. And while they’ve streamlined the hunting from the last game, throwing harpoons at whales gets dull fast — at least in that Resident Evil 4 boss fight on the lake, you got to control a speedboat while you were at it.

Chests should be far rarer and more memorable, highly guarded or difficult to reach. Collectibles should always be unique; a point I’ve been hammering on about since Deadly Premonition — the only thing that satisfies the requirement here are the ship upgrade plans and the sea shanties, which are amazing, but probably make up about 1% of collectibles. I learned a lot of good sea shanties while playing the game, like Fish in the Sea, Hi-Ho Come Roll Me Over, Leave Her Johnny, Lowlands Away (my favorite), Padstow’s Farewell, Randy Dandy-Oh, Stormalong John… these are clearly the most substantive thing I’ve come away with for all the time I sunk in over the course of about five days straight playing.

There are little improvements; the map and UI for instance. I also like that there are alarm bells for guards to ring now — maybe I should have said that upfront — and I like the way they’ll try to tackle you to let their friends catch up during a chase. But they’re still far too dumb for any kind of system that involves meaningfully interacting with them outside of combat. They forget you instantly, and don’t react to gunshots that are well within hearing range, among other things.

There are a few proper sidequest chains with little stories this time, and that’s cool, but for the most part they’re just more tailing missions. I guess it’s about on par with what you did for the homestead villagers in AC3. While there’s probably a greater variety of side content when looking at the bigger picture, there’s nothing as good as AC3’s base building, which was one of the very few things I really liked about it, flawed as it was.

As for the story itself, I found it immediately more engaging than AC3’s. Connor wasn’t a bad protagonist — he had a great shouting voice on the seas — but Edward Kenway’s “I killed an assassin and took his hoodie thing, and I have no idea why people are talking about templars but I’m going to bilk these jerks for as much money as I can” plot is fucking good right of the gate. Even the Abstergo stuff outside of the Animus had me invested, giving me loads of questions right away. Was I still Desmond? Catching sight of Rebecca on the first floor was a great touch. Who was to say if she was undercover or if Juno pulled some Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure shenanigans on the whole universe? Having no idea what was going on (and for once it not being because I forgot who the characters were or how they got there) felt pretty good.

But the whole “fake assassin” thing came to an end I think sooner than it should have, because once the game settled into petty conflicts between pirates and templars, I felt that it was dragging its feet. A number of characters took a little too long to be dealt with. Apart from liking James Kidd and the Sage stuff, I didn’t much care about the sequence-to-sequence chain of events. Doing more with pretending to work for the templars would have been a better direction. At least the writing was generally snappier; Kenway had less patience for debating morality with dead guys than even I do, and the conflict was far more interpersonal than the usual philosophical, self-righteous drivel the series had offered. I enjoyed the Abstergo audio tapes too.

The main thing AC4 has is its open-world sailing and piracy, and while I’ve found a kind of mellow enjoyment in Windward, and played a few space games like Escape Velocity when I was younger — boarding ships and stealing cargo — I’ve never quite had this experience. And yet it’s disappointing to learn that’s all there is setting it above AC3. It’s a little less glitchy, but still glitchy. It has a more captivating story, but it doesn’t retain its momentum. Meanwhile, the climbing and fighting systems aren’t getting any younger.

Oh, and there’s a companion app, but it sucks.

The reviewer finds this game hard to get excited about, but still has a positive opinion of it. It may be somewhat fun, having good features or ideas counterbalanced by a few boring parts, bad design or other fundamentally irritating qualities that can’t easily be overlooked. Alternatively, it could be pleasant, but with nothing new to offer. Worth a little money if you’ve got the time for it.

 

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Assassin’s Creed III

I’ve put this one off long enough that Assassin’s Creed IV has been given away for free, but I’m still a little interested in seeing how the franchise has developed, so here we are.

AC3 does have a few good ideas. Namely the naval combat. Just about everything else has been executed sloppily. The bugs are endless. I had to limit my framerate in Rivatuner just to interact with horse wagons. I’ve rocketed up into the sky to die from a fall. I’ve been stuck in rocks and other objects until I reloaded from a checkpoint. I’ve crashed on loads, and in one case, had to finish a cutscene on youtube after it autosaved past it. Icons have randomly disappeared from my map, including the ones I needed to quick travel to. Geddan.

Screenshot (1)

hello darkness my old friend

Even putting aside the overt bugs, the game is a full quality pass short of where it should be. Goals are sometimes unclear and mechanics are poorly explained, especially returning AC2 features I’ve long forgotten about. Objectives can be failed before you’ve been told about them. Sometimes, when imploring you to take a straight linear route to an objective, the devs failed to properly fence off the rest of the world, and you end up instantly failing because you stepped on the wrong wooden beam.

The interface feels sluggish, although I remember simple things like opening the map taking even longer in AC2. It takes a couple seconds to switch weapons. Coming from Breath of the Wild, where Link’s weapons pop up instantly on clean white tiles without first wasting a second on small flourishes, AC3 felt rather intolerable. And this is only by the standards of BotW, which was hardly unwilling to waste the player’s time. I can’t list every little thing or I’d be here all day, but one clear example of shoddy interface design would be custom map markers vanishing after quick-travel. It doubles the number of times you need to open your map.

The elaborate parkour animations feel underwhelming after some no-frills free-climbing in more recent games, too. Honestly, I don’t think it’s so bad in Boston or New York when you’re making the choice to get on top of a house, but when you’re asked to leap between a linear path of stalactites in some cave, what’s the point? You’re just looking for a crack on the wall and pushing one direction on a stick. It’s sad, and it makes me feel sad.

Although I’ve generally appreciated the Assassin’s Creed control system for delineating high- and low-profile actions with the right trigger button as a control modifier, the fact is that it’s a bit absurd that I spend 90% of the game holding it down. An analog run is a bit interesting, but probably unnecessary. I’m sure every Assassin’s Creed player has experienced the goofy jumps onto stair railings when they’re just trying to climb down some stairs, or failed-scrambles up a featureless wall when trying to turn a corner during a chase, but rather than hoping players will learn not to be pressing the right trigger in those instances, they should really be dedicating a button to those climbing actions.

Guns are a thing now, and looking for human shields does keep the combat from being too mindless. There’s really nothing to it other than learning which guards have to be disarmed, and fighting proactively enough to get a good kill-streak going (another unexplained feature I forgot about from AC2). Animal hunting diversifies the experience a little, but it’s not much worth talking about. You can whistle to lure guards, something I don’t remember from before, but there’s weird gaming logic that arbitrarily determines when Connor is capable of whistling, which is irritating, because a lure would be useful anywhere.

The homestead development was a nice improvement over what Ezio was doing in Monteriggioni. I appreciated the cast of characters and the effort that went into giving them jobs, places to be, and conversations with each other. But it’s another example of sloppy execution, too: your only real interaction with this system is the clumsy sidequest task of documenting them at work, and it seems to be based as much in RNG as time of day.

Mission quality varies; the good ones are still a little open, and, when they get difficult, you can still puzzle it out. Swimming out to a couple of ships and blowing them up is tough without being seen, but you can find your moment to isolate one guard and start opening up greater gaps in the patrols. Lesser missions are interactive cutscenes. Or they’re just chaos, like when you’re chasing after Thomas Hickey, and every NPC in the crowd chooses to leave Hickey alone and do their best to shove you to the floor. The next time you do the mission, maybe you get lucky, and Hickey takes twice as long.

And while I mentioned how I liked the cast of the homestead, the story was mostly vague morality talk without managing to sell or explain much of any position on what the assassins or templars really do or stand for, which is tiresome enough even without the long-winded death speech every jerk in the series gets. The only real takeaway the game tries to provide is that the founding fathers of America got up to some reprehensible stuff and weren’t pure heroes of good, having owned slaves and the like. I’m no history buff, but this is rather obvious. They barely even begin to cover the full extent of the Native American genocide — Andrew Jackson was a ways off, but there’s nary a word of what’s to come from the guy who puts all the cringingly unfunny diatribes in your database entries. He’d rather go on about how British colonialism wasn’t so bad. Gross.

(Personally I can’t wait to see the series clumsily address the French Revolution, maybe with a concurrent reading of the Eighteenth Brumaire. Unfortunately, I’m still like three games behind that one.)

Politics aside, the character arc wasn’t much better: young native child playing hide-and-seek and coming back to a burning hometown felt like the most cliched thing in video game plot history. Nobody could have thought that was a good idea: it was just one of those things writers force themselves through to get to the parts they actually care about. I mean, I get it: writing is hard, and filling in those bothersome gaps between your good ideas is like eighty percent of the job, but come on. When it’s this lifeless, you have to try something new, or have the guts to skip past it and find some other way to have the narrator tell you his mom died in a fire later.

Let’s get to the crux of it. After Breath of the Wild, with the insane open toolset potential (magnetic control, octorok balloons, korok leaves and all that) — and with Metal Gear Solid V still relatively fresh in my mind too, with its ridiculously polished and robust mechanics (see: cardboard box, D-Walker mech) — what does Assassin’s Creed, as an open world stealth combat series, really have going for it? Purely as a game, and not just as a historical odyssey? Here in Assassin’s Creed III, we do QTE fights with bears. We push two control sticks to try and keep two irate villagers from punching each other. We get a checklist of period events and look on in disbelief as these are crammed awkwardly into missions, with little care as to whether these events might be mechanically suitable… such as tagging along on Paul Revere’s ride, or that joke of a mission where you trot between groups of soldiers and command them to shoot their guns (as if they couldn’t possibly have figured that out for themselves). I’m not at all surprised to see from a cursory glimpse at Wikipedia that both subsequent Assassin’s Creeds — Black Flag & Rogue — stuck with the naval combat theme. After all, it was their only good idea.

The reviewer believes this game stands above total mediocrity. It has something going for it, but ultimately few real merits. Most of the time, it isn’t fun, and doesn’t otherwise provide any sort of emotional payoff. Even though it does some cool things, you should play something else instead.

 

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

MGSV has the best mechanics I’ve seen in any game to come out in the past couple years. They’re so robust and varied that I don’t even really mind invading the same outposts several dozen times each — which I am expected to do — given that I can have an entirely new experience by changing a few items in my loadout, or by bringing a different buddy along. Still, this is a big part of the game’s weakness: its failure at times to build a larger package around its better qualities. It particularly falls short when these core mechanics aren’t in play at all, such as when you’re forced to fight a gunship or a giant robot, when suddenly there’s no stealth, no fulton extraction; just a rocket launcher and a demand.

Those annoying parts aside, it’s staggering how much work this game puts into your toolkit. I suspect the cardboard box is more sophisticated than the mechanics of certain other stealth games in their entirety. You can slip out of the box and leave it behind as a decoy, you can pop out like a jack-in-the-box, slide down hills, add camo patterns to match your environment. You can slap posters on it, some of which are oriented for when you’re standing vertically, while others are horizontal, meaning they continue to work after you leave the box behind. These can also change the behaviors of guards, who can actually try to open the box instead of shooting it once they’re a couple meters away, or stop and turn around because they hilariously mistake the poster on the box for another guard. The results might change based on the time of day and the distance you attempt this from. The box has durability, and might lose one of its cover flaps, compromising the camouflage from some angles. There are waterproof boxes and ones that release smoke. Depending on the level of alertness in the base, the Command Post might laugh off reports of a moving cardboard box, or you might be shot on sight. It’s a complex system.

Again: that’s just the cardboard box! Something you can play the whole game without using! This is to say nothing about D-Walker’s drift mechanics or how you can pair him with a shield on your back slot. I could talk about the crazy stuff you can do with decoys or fulton devices, too, but frankly, it’s unnecessary.

As ridiculously deep as the mechanics can be, the game is not commensurately good at explaining itself, leaving players perhaps never finding out that they can ride a shipping container back to base, or keep a guard on the ground with their hands behind their head indefinitely, or add your own MP3s to Snake’s cassette tape collection and set them to be blasted from your helicopter’s loudspeakers, so all your foes know that the Vengabus is coming when the chopper arrives to extract you.

Not only is MGSV so open as to allow you to break it — which any diehard Morrowind fan will tell you is your divine right in gaming — but it even sometimes anticipates this breakage and gives you a nod for it. In missions where you’re told to tail somebody until they lead you to some commanding officer or prisoner, there’s really nothing stopping you from going off-road at the start of the level and taking a straight line to their ultimate destination. The adviser talking to Snake on comms will say something like “How did you know he’d be there? Do you have psychic powers or something?” but the game does absolutely nothing to stop you and even rewards you with an S-rank for beating the level so fast. (It’s rare to see Japanese devs tackle this kind of Assassin’s Creed sandbox gameplay, and here it’s exactly the opposite of what I remember being forced to do in Assassin’s Creed 2, the last one I played.) S-ranks tend to always be pretty easy to get: apart from cloaking devices and other things that always automatically disqualify you from an S-rank, missions do not restrict you by the level of gear available to the player at the time, which means you can rescue prisoners with wormholes and insta-kill bosses with the upgraded rocket launcher. I wouldn’t have thought it unfair if they had limited you further by gear level — and the fact that all items come with a numerical rank in the first place might mean this was originally intended — but I quite like just being able to do what I want, and letting hardcore players self-police themselves if they want a greater challenge.

I’m not a fan of the checkpoint system. The game doesn’t restrict you from walking back out to the outskirts of an enemy outpost to give yourself a checkpoint after silently taking out five or ten of the twenty guards posted there, and it doesn’t keep you from screwing yourself if you cross that threshold a split-second before a mission-critical target leaves the area or before a prisoner is executed, either. And if you had to use a toilet or something for a checkpoint, it’d be one thing, but the weird way checkpoints occur at a semi-random radius around outposts incentivizes weird player behaviors. If you’re not near a guard post and you’ve just extracted some S-rank guard you really like, you might run around for five minutes looking for a checkpoint, all the while hoping you don’t walk over a landmine or fall to your death or something, losing him.

And there are too many arbitrary rules involved with when things are saved, whether it’s events at Mother Base (which exists in a sort of non-linear time), mission tasks (which can be saved without a checkpoint by opening certain menus and then aborting the mission, but aren’t if you die without a checkpoint), or your ammunition (D-Walker gets its equipment refreshed, but the state of your own equipment is preserved). Extracted guards are sent to your base at a checkpoint, but reloading the checkpoint respawns the guards if (and only if) they’re mission-critical, which means that every player learns how to clone tanks and reroll the stats of human beings, once they grasp the weird logic of the game. It’s quite strange already that if you take out 8/9 side-op targets and go hit a checkpoint, all 9 targets will be back on the field again, forcing you to take them all out in one stretch, which doesn’t seem to happen in main missions. But it’s even stranger that you can repeatedly extract 8 of them, as long as you never turn in the last one and finish. Some of this feels like oversights that there wasn’t enough development time to straighten out, especially D-Walker, which can also be deployed at the start of a mission for 5,000 GMP and then swapped on the field to its 50,000 GMP loadout for free.

The game’s story has a lot of interesting ideas that are executed a bit poorly. Everything’s insanely convoluted, and while there tends to be an explanation hammered out for why every situation has to be so outlandish, the explanations themselves are unconvincing or silly. I thought that the game’s convoluted central twist was entirely pointless and unnecessary in terms of what it actually accomplishes for people who reexamine the entire narrative through that lens. You find out that Bruce Willis is a ghost in The Sixth Sense, and while maybe this forces some contrivances along the way, these are justified because the payoff is big, and changes the viewer’s perception of everything else that happened in the movie, right? Now, I’m not saying Snake is a ghost, but I am saying I saw no payoff, and nothing really changed.

I have to note: I since talked to a friend of mine who knows more about the series, and he told me that the twist explains something that happened in the original NES game. So as it turns out, there is a payoff, but it’s like having to watch five other Shyamalan movies to appreciate The Sixth Sense. Isn’t that something?

The character called Quiet, a woman who reveals a lot of skin and doesn’t talk, got a ton of pushback, and most of it was deserved. Quiet was unmistakably an object, whose primary character trait and motive was loving Snake, but her storyline was probably one of the more effective parts of the narrative — she doesn’t entirely need to speak when she can communicate with her actions, which is refreshing in an otherwise-overwritten (read: Japanese) game where everyone else talks in cutscenes and on audio tapes for ten hours about Weapons To Surpass Metal Gear. But there’s also very little justification for some of Quiet’s plot points, like her not getting the Wolbachia treatment, or even being forced into it back at Mother Base. It mainly serves to keep the gimmick going.

Quiet also has one of the most memorable parts of the game: the boss fight against her. It’s not good in the Dark Souls sense of what makes a good boss fight, where everything is really tight and you gradually gain intimate knowledge of what can and can’t be done in your situation. In fact, the cover system is kind of shit, and I constantly had trouble attaching myself to walls and looking over them to scope out Quiet’s location. But it comes as such a surprise and is so different even from the other forced boss fights. My first time doing it, I was nervously belly-crawling large distances and taking forever; the sun went down and came up again before I finally took her down. But that adds to the drama of it; no music playing in the background, just two snipers playing out this long-range duel, patching up wounds behind cover and trying to find the other by the sounds they make. I thought it was brilliant… although I also never thought to just air-drop an armored personnel carrier on her head.

What probably worked best about the story was a more ludonarrative performance involving the training of soldiers back at Mother Base and their expendability. When my soldiers were being made to die off, I felt a real anguish and discomfort that was successfully tied into the story the game was intending to tell. But this is all tied into a base management mechanic that plays a huge role in your ability to research new gear, quickly request supplies on the field, gain intel about unseen enemies on your map, make money, and several other things. I’ve seen other sandbox games do base and resource management, but never to such good effect.

A game like The Witcher 3 tells a profoundly better story overall, in a much cleaner package; the ending of Blood & Wine still has its hooks in me. But that was also an incredibly by-the-book sandbox by many other respects, to the point of sometimes feeling boring. And remarkably, the point-of-interest checklist stuff that I found tedious in The Witcher 3 actually tended to feel rewarding in MGSV. For one thing, you always want fifty times more money and resources than you have. You incur so many operating costs just getting around on your helicopter, keeping weapons stocked and maintained, presumably feeding your dog, and so on. You don’t get your grenade budget refunded if you don’t use up the ones you bring, which is the perfect incentive design both when it’s time to decide whether to bring those grenades, and when you feel like being thrifty about actually throwing them.

On the other hand, there’s not a lot of incentive to ever use more than a couple of the guns you have, even after spending 800 billion dollars researching hundreds of them. Some of this research leads to good weaponsmithing parts for the gun you will use, but most doesn’t.

Many ideas were cooler in theory than in execution, like the way 90% of your cash is stored online, where it’s vulnerable to theft by other players. But it doesn’t sync nearly often enough, and you can find yourself running your offline reserves into the red while still having millions online, risking morale drops and not being able to buy anything else. The servers or netcode or both are terrible, as you can get locked in menus for minutes just waiting for some online communication.

Despite so many systems being executed well, the package is unfinished. The story isn’t fully resolved — there are bits on youtube of cut content from Mission 51 — and it goes on long enough to have justified a third sandbox region, but instead you’re asked to endlessly repeat the same rescue and elimination side-ops in only slightly different configurations. And while the game is fun broken, there are some areas where the game feels so crude that even a bastard like me felt a need to police myself, like when driving tanks around in side-ops and finding that guards had no idea what to do when I drove right into the middle of their base and started opening fire on everything. I don’t mean that they weren’t equipped to fight a tank. I mean they literally could not conceive of the tank. They ran around in circles, wondering how their radar dishes were being destroyed, as if I’d planted C4 on each of them earlier, and was blowing them up from far away.

The game needed a deeper system for replaying missions with imposed restrictions and rewards, but instead, it just tacked on new instances of a handful of missions. As a consequence, if you’re trying to do all the mission tasks, you have to senselessly repeat even ones like listening to guard conversations again. It can take a few minutes just to skip through all the cutscenes at the end of a mission you were only replaying to knock off that one last task. One repeat mission even has you redo the shitty prologue, where you basically just limp around on the floor for twenty minutes while Kiefer Sutherland makes Moby Dick references, all for the reward of an extra cutscene at the end. Because I have no life, I played through this three times. It would’ve been four if I hadn’t looked up what the hidden tasks were in advance of playing the “Truth” version.

Naturally, spreading the objectives over more outposts or a third sandbox region would have made it feel less repetitive. Side-ops should have been at least as diverse as some of the objectives provided in bonus mission tasks, if not more so. And the animal-collection system should not have relied on RNG or had players waste time catching creatures that didn’t even have an in-game model. But these are useless criticisms, all solved with “more time” and “more money”. Maybe if they had tried to build a robust PC modding scene instead of creating Metal Gear Online, fans might have filled in the gaps. But most mods never go very far, and it’s not something I propose with any real conviction.

Apart from the need to have made Kojima subordinate to a no-nonsense editor who could also keep the game focused on its strengths, and maybe putting more thought into the checkpoint system and a couple other little things, there’s really very little that might have been done better with the resources they had. As it stands, it’s still pretty amazing.

This game was thoroughly enjoyed by the reviewer. It is an excellent game that may be too simple or not ambitious enough to be a 5, or there are design flaws meaningful enough to prevent it from enduring as something truly beloved. Highly recommended.

Dishonored

I’m really fond of Dishonored, even though, as a stealth game, it does a lot of the same things wrong that DXHR & DXMD did. Apparently I was fond enough to play it again in 2017, setting silly rules for myself, and picking up all the achievements I missed last time.

You can screw up a Dishonored no-kills run in the most baffling circumstances; maybe the physics engine decided to get creative, and an unconscious guard you left on a rooftop jittered off the edge and fell to his death when you had your back turned. Or maybe a swarm of rats came by and ate that guy you left in an alley. (From a rules-of-stealth point of view, rats are the most bullshit thing in the game.) Sometimes NPCs kill each other, or die in scripted events. These shouldn’t count, but do they? I can’t say I know for sure, because I had no way of figuring out where I went wrong. It would be incredible if the game could do a simple thing like flashing the words “FIRST KILL” on the screen, so you’d know when the time came to hit the quickload key.

A run in which you’re never fully detected by an enemy is harder to do, but usually comes with fewer uncertainties, given the loud musical sting that plays, and the red alert marks above a guard’s head. Usually. I still managed to surprise myself with failure by the end of a couple missions. I don’t think it’s a problem if bodies are spotted, but in one of the missions in the first expansion, if you linger around too long, enemies spawn in around a corpse and start talking about how they need to find whoever did it. Only thing is, I never left a corpse there. The corpse had been spawned in too, as part of the same event. There should be an understanding between the game and I, but if it narratively pretends I slipped up when I obviously didn’t? That’s the kind of thing people would replace their dungeon master over.

The painted art style is real cool, and I remember thinking at the time that we’d reached a point with video game graphics where we finally had enough power and could start to boldly experiment instead of just pushing for deeper, boring photorealism. After five years, though, the game does show its age: the visual style is still notable, but the character models aren’t the best. And after taking down around six guards, some of the bodies start to vanish. This limitation is probably a bigger setback than the shallow issue of Good Graphix. After all, half the fun I had in DXMD was putting 25 unconscious men in a big pile.

Most of the time, the game is delightful. The blink power–short range teleportation–was a revolution for stealth games. (I’m grateful that DXMD stole it.) There are only about 9 missions, and 6 more from the two expansions combined, and none of it is a drag to replay. You can do each mission in maybe five minutes each while blinking around like a maniac, even without exploiting glitches or being a speedrunning god. Or you can spend an hour choking out each guard from behind and dragging each of them to a big dumpster. Apart from the occasional unskippable bit of dialogue, the game doesn’t waste your time; you only elect to waste it yourself, as a part of your preferred play style.

Some of my favorite missions include infiltrating Lady Boyle’s masked ball and figuring out which of the masked sisters is your target, or the one in the first expansion where you target the City Barrister and can pop in and out of his four-story manor from various balcony doors. Partly I think the estates of nobles are more appealing locales for stealth and robbery than sewers and prisons and magical mazes–something that also really worked to Thief 2’s advantage–but these missions also have some interesting options and variations. The non-lethal approach to taking out Lady Boyle is quite creepy, insinuating that while you might be able to keep the blood literally off your hands, there’s no way to achieve your goals with purely moral behavior. And with the barrister pacing around between the floors of his house, one approach is to find a way to get close and swap the items in his pockets without him even figuring out that you exist. This is fun stuff; it’s more pure and (I think) to the point of why you’re playing than some of the pretentious nonsense you get up to in the Deus Ex games.

As with other games that give you the option of being non-lethal, or the option of remaining silent and undetected, a lot of the tools you’re given will never be used. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I suppose it would be better if you were given a mine casing and got to decide whether to make a lethal or nonlethal tool out of it, which is something DXMD handled pretty well, apart from the tradeoff of its irritating inventory management. Nonlethal mines and grenades didn’t even exist until Dishonored’s expansions, though, sort of like how DXMD revisited DXHR’s Typhoon augment by adding a nonlethal version. The expansions also add numerous passive runes that would have allowed for some cool gimmick play styles if not for the fact that you were basically done with the game by the time you obtained them. Without the ability to do a New Game Plus where you can play the original campaign again with the expansions’ choke grenades, or with the runes that took away your mana recovery but let you gain mana by drinking water and made you invisible while standing still, it’s really a lost opportunity.

Dishonored’s guards aren’t terribly bright, but at least they aren’t easily lured away into a dark corner, away from the eyes of the other guards. In truth, most of Dishonored’s guard innovations are in making them speak like magic 8-balls to each other. But they will sometimes wonder why another guard you’ve already dragged away isn’t patrolling where they’re supposed to be. At most they change their patrol route slightly when this happens, but in a more perfect game I think this should make them become a lot more panicky, especially when they finally notice that they seem to have become the only human being left in the entire complex. As always, I want to see stealth games become more difficult, but only in the fairest ways. (And I’d like to see the return of a Thief-style UI that communicates how well hidden I am, instead of dealing mostly in direct lines of sight.) I still haven’t played Dishonored 2 yet, and I have no reason to expect AI miracles from it. But I have heard that you can see how many people you’ve killed so far from the pause menu. For that alone, I’m itching to play it.

This game was thoroughly enjoyed by the reviewer. It is an excellent game that may be too simple or not ambitious enough to be a 5, or there are design flaws meaningful enough to prevent it from enduring as something truly beloved. Highly recommended.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

The gameplay of DXHR didn’t see a whole lot of change in DXMD. The XP system still incentivizes nonsense like hacking doors you have the codes for–if it were up to me, I’d only award XP for reaching new areas and finishing quests–and hacking is still the same RNG-heavy minigame that falls far short of its potential. I wanted more: a system where you give yourself wireless access to a building’s network after physically interacting with machines once, and gradually increase your privileges with a combination of both digital and physical intrusions. Maybe you knock out the security personnel to steal a phone, because there’s two-factor authentication on the turret system. Or maybe you can hack the phone itself from a few meters away, without touching anybody. I liked some of the new stuff where you used someone’s instant messenger app to try and casually ask their coworkers for a password, and I think that’s a start as far as digital intrusions go, but I still want to see more in the manner of Uplink.

The energy system is slightly different now, but I would argue it needed a deeper overhaul. Previously, any energy consumed above your minimum charge would not be returned at all; you’d always be refunded just enough to execute a melee takedown, and wouldn’t get any more energy than that until you used a consumable. In the sequel, your maximum charge is only lowered to a new slightly lower cap each time a skill is activated, which has the same result after several skills have been used, but before then it allows you to do things like keeping a cloak active until all your energy is drained, because you already paid the true cost as soon as you turned the cloak on.

But if anything really makes it less annoying than the older version of the system, it’s that you can lug around an absurd number of biocells, you can earn more money than you know what to do with in the first act, and you can always craft more biocells (or other consumables) on the fly with scrap metal. This makes the game far too easy, really, as you can completely cheese your way through any encounter if you’re willing to eat a few biocells and silent-cloak-sprint past literally anything, but assuming you still have an instinct to hoard those resources, you’ll still usually tend to scrimp on energy costs by sticking with the minimum bar. It’s still the most cost effect strategy to just throw a crate at the wall and then take out anybody who comes to investigate the sound, because the guards are still dumber than shit and will never notice that their friend who went to investigate a noise never came back. It feels patronizing when you’re this well-equipped and they’re unwilling to even send guards at you in pairs.

There are all kinds of things they might have dabbled with: individual skill cooldowns, for instance, or the reworking of skills. What if instead of having a silent-running aug you can turn on or off at will, it always only activates for 4 seconds, and then cannot be reactivated for another 10? What if you can’t cloak and move at the same time, unless you get a mod for the Icarus Dash, and only move with it? And while I couldn’t say for sure what would and wouldn’t work, I think there are possibilities with dynamic energy recharge rates, where you have to make do with a non-recharging bar until the player shuts down some kind of emitter or whatever. And it would be nice to have full energy with fast recharges when you aren’t trespassing and have no real reason to be delayed by a recharge.

The game still commits a cardinal stealth sin in not really being too clear about alarm levels. I pulled off no-kills without screwing up, but the dialogue sometimes made it sound like I killed some people when I put everyone in the level to sleep, and I always considered the terrible possibility that I had dropped a crate on some guard a little too hard and didn’t notice. And I did fail my no-alarms challenge without being too clear on where I went astray. Was it okay to be seen by those guys in the prologue? Otherwise, I was pretty sure I reloaded any time someone so much as fired their weapon. Was it when a camera saw a broken wall in a store, while I wasn’t in a story mission, and the store’s bodyguard came to investigate? It’s far too nebulous for my liking. I badly wanted a stats page in the pause menu to tell me how many times I’d been spotted in my current run, but there was nothing, and it sucked.

The game’s underlying systems felt too crude for stealth in a sandbox world where I’m not already plainly in a mission at all times. If you stand next to some civilian and throw a case of beer at the wall beside his head, he’ll do nothing, but if you slip through the door across from him into a restricted area, and throw the same beer case at the same spot, he’ll suddenly think the noise is something that needs to be investigated. Is this the best we can do in a 2016 game? Prague is a well-built city, not too big and with lots of stuff to meander around and climb over, but the shallow mechanics work against it. When you can build a Foolproof Mobile Stealth Unit by surrounding a cop with vending machines and kicking his ass five meters away from his partner without him finding out, the world feels emptier for it, although to be fair it’s also funny as hell.

I was satisfied with the length of the game, but I felt that too much of that time was misspent in the sandbox parts, which felt padded. I mean, I dug through a lot of trash in vacant buildings in the hopes of finding a praxis kit, and buildings without people tend to be boring. Of course, guards who are dumber than cameras are a little boring, too. Their sandbox focus here reminds me of some of Thief 3’s missteps, but then I also remember the time a Thief 3 guard said “Maybe he’s hiding behind that chair,” before actually checking the chair out. In the intervening dozen years, we may have regressed, if anything.

Like most AAA games, the design is sloppy, but the things that can be made better just by throwing a lot of labor at them are very impressive: the people at Eidos who designed the architecture and decorated the apartments clearly weren’t phoning it in, and I’m sure that every time I walked past a cluttered office bulletin board without reading it, I was walking past a day’s work for somebody on the development team. But advanced decorating skills aren’t going to save a mediocre experience. I also gave up on reading all the ebooks and emails: it just wasn’t rewarding.

I think the game definitely made some strides over its predecessor when it comes to lethal firearms, ammunition types, modifications et cetera, and I suppose I’ll play with those some more if I ever convince myself to do another full playthrough, seeing as I already got the no-kills run out of the way. There were also a handful of new non-lethal options, which is always great to see, but I never really bothered with “loud” non-lethal options like the Typhoon or PEPS. I think the best thing for non-lethal variety is just that I think you now get as much XP by tranqing a guy in the head as you do with a melee takedown, which I don’t think was the case in DXHR. I didn’t watch nearly as many long, canned kung-fu moves this time around. But it would’ve been so much better to not have to deal with XP micromanagement at all.

The debate showdowns are still cool, but still stubbornly refuse to let you skip lines of text for people replaying the game, or just reloading to see what the other outcomes were. Luckily, I tended to get the result I wanted the first time around, although the CASIE aug felt a bit like one might when predicting the weather by tossing animal bones around. I have no idea if there’s still an element of RNG in terms of people accepting or rejecting your arguments. I totally missed out on Otar’s conversation though, ostensibly because I didn’t enter the room through the door I was supposed to, so I just hit him with a stun gun and missed out on his sidequests. This might be why, throughout the game, Radich Nikoladze never really seemed to amount to anything, but I don’t know.

The story was… well, once again I found the overall premise hamfisted and requiring frequent suspension of disbelief. People look at the Six Million Dollar Man with contempt, because augmentation is associated with a poor lower class–and when you consider that migrant worker slaves and prostitutes are sometimes forcibly augmented and then made to spend what little they earn on neuropozyne, this doesn’t come completely out of left field, but looking at the bigger picture, it’s still insane. People are also afraid that these cyborgs are vulnerable to security risks and might go on a killing spree at any given moment, which is justifiable, but strangely they don’t extend this same fear to the militarized police officers who walk around in powered exoskeletons. Nevermind that there’s no need for a robotic leg to be connected to the internet, or to otherwise have any component vulnerable to malware.

I don’t want to get carried away writing about the themes, but as with DXHR, I found its dystopian messaging and by extension its politics to be shallow and uninformed. It touched upon adversarial journalism and activist hacking in a very gormless, middle-of-the-road way, and portrayed collective action as inherently cultish or unpalatable. None of this is terribly surprising for a $70 million spectacle game.

I did come away appreciating a lot of people in the cast, and women stole the show in particular, including Alex Vega, Delara, and Daria, who would’ve felt right at home in an Ace Attorney game. I did find it unfortunate that Malik didn’t make a return appearance, as she was a favorite from the last game–we get Chikane shuttling us around instead, who can go fuck himself–but Eliza does return, which is cool.

Apart from the encore of some of DXHR’s most irritating design choices, my biggest problem was with gameplay bugs. On the DirectX 12 version, objects were constantly godtrashing, but when I switched to DirectX 11, I had my controls frequently locking up for 2 to 5 seconds at a time, a problem I learned to live with instead of actually fixing.

The game has eye-tracking support, and it went largely the way my experience with it in Watch Dogs 2 did. I enjoyed messing with it, although it was gimmicky and didn’t make me a better player. Getting the Icarus Dash to send you to the ledge or cover you were aiming at is hard enough when you do it with a mouse you have no trouble keeping still, so that particular functionality was quickly turned off in the eye-tracking menu. I left Aim At Gaze on, which probably would’ve frustrated me if I ever allowed myself to get into a firefight, and I also used it for the Tesla aug, which pretty much always had me starting my aim in the wrong place. That said, considering that you have to hold down the F4 key to aim the Tesla while still moving about with WASD and mouse controls, I think the game’s default control scheme was a bigger impediment than my eye-tracker ever was. Having UI elements go transparent when I wasn’t looking at them was probably the coolest trick the game had, and also probably the simplest one.

I haven’t played the expansions. I might pick them up down the road, at a discount, but to sell DLC without fixing some pretty rough bugs in your game doesn’t please me at all. Also, the way the DLC item packs are handled is staggeringly greedy: it pulls them off a server when you claim them, so you can never claim them again–if you erase your save file or start a fresh game, you’ll have to make do without them, unless you buy the damned things again with microtransactions. Frankly, this disgusts me, so it’s a good thing it has no bearing on the expansions, and their actual new mission content.

I haven’t messed around all that much with the Breach mode, and I didn’t download the useless-seeming mobile companion app. Breach might be an interesting way to expand the game with more pure challenge for those who want it, but with the game stripped of many of its assets–the characters and story and beautiful city environments–I doubt I could stay interested in sneaking around polygonal Tron-looking platforms for long. I wish they had invested the Breach development time into the main campaign instead.

The reviewer finds this game hard to get excited about, but still has a positive opinion of it. It may be somewhat fun, having good features or ideas counterbalanced by a few boring parts, bad design or other fundamentally irritating qualities that can’t easily be overlooked. Alternatively, it could be pleasant, but with nothing new to offer. Worth a little money if you’ve got the time for it.

Invisible, Inc.

Invisible is unique; an FTL-styled roguelike stealth game that’s more XCOM than Thief. It’s an inventive combination, but to me it’s not one that proves to be more satisfying than a more traditional stealth game. That’s up to a person’s tastes, but I like to take my time and completely ghost a place. In Invisible, that’s off the table from turn one: your break-in is immediately detected and your alarm level is steadily rising, no matter what you do (or don’t do). The distinction isn’t simply about taking it easy; in many stealth games I often wish the guards had smarter behavior, responding more appropriately when losing sight of an intruder in the building. But Invisible’s approach is certainly often harder, too, and if you’re more interested in a challenge than in a state of mind, this might be for you.

Communication
Invisible might not be designed specifically for me, and I wouldn’t hold that against it, except that I also think it’s not a perfect execution of what it tries to be. One of my bigger contentions is with the lack of crucial information conveyed. “But Zack,” you might say, “you gave Dark Souls a 5/5 and it doesn’t explain shit.” True, but Dark Souls isn’t a tactical stealth game. Is the challenge supposed to come from putting together a cohesive set of character skills, items, and programs from what you’re able to find in the seven or eight corporate buildings you have time to plunder before the campaign’s end, and flitting through guards and managing your power with the right timing? Or is the challenge supposed to come from not understanding where you’re allowed to stand, or what the rules are?

I would have liked to see movement ranges of guards when hovering over them, like in Advance Wars or other combat-focused tactical RPGs. I never really picked up on what would cause a guard to shoot me if I stopped on or passed through a specific tile in his vision, and this is something that could be put in a tooltip when you hover over a tile. I often had no idea how an item or program worked before I bought and tried it, because the description wasn’t self-explanatory, or it didn’t list the cooldown time in the store. I didn’t understand that guns weren’t reloadable without consumable items, even between missions. I once carried an augment around in my inventory between several missions, thinking I needed to hit up a grafter in a cybernetics lab to install it, when it was actually usable out of the inventory. I didn’t know if the alarm level would rise if I stepped directly in front of a guard and then knocked him out while it was still my turn. I didn’t know how guards would communicate or what would set them off. I didn’t know how many turns a daemon would last, even if I had it identified, and that’s the sort of thing a person might want to plan around.

Communication is basically the most important thing in a stealth game. What’s the level of light where you’re standing? How much noise will you make with a certain action? Are guards globally alerted to the presence of an intruder in the building, or is the alert still restricted to the guards in the room? Invisible communicates some of these elements well, but still fails to explain a lot of its mechanics. Does hacking a drone make the drone alert when the hack ends? If I move a hacked drone through a door with a shock trap on it, will it be destroyed? Will a shock trap shock me if I open the door myself? What if a guard opens it while I’m in range? Do EMPs take out a guard’s shields? Does Net Downlink cap at 6 AP per turn, or per mission? If I step directly onto a sound bug, does it alert guards? When I have 8 hours left on the clock, what happens when I fly directly to a mission that’s 12 hours away instead of picking the 5-hour one? If this were a board game, every player would have to come up with their own unique way to resolve the guards’ turns, because the explanation is never prepared.

Randomization
Good use of RNG is about being able to adapt meaningfully to what you’re given. “Let’s find out which threat you’ll have to experience today” is much better than “Let’s see if you something good happens to you, or something bad happens.” Invisible is a mixed bag here. I thought item-shopping and map generation were decent mix-ups: they didn’t always conform to what I needed, but didn’t really screw me, either. There’s good and bad for sure; I’ve seen some breezy, linear levels and some where I had to double back. I’ve also done levels where I had to let a camera see me before I could hack it, which kind of sucks. But these are manageable and don’t have terrible long term consequences; there will be other shop terminals, and even if items don’t really mesh with your overall team strategy, they always seem to have a use somewhere; here, one man’s trash is definitely another’s treasure.

But chance plays a role in too many things, including awfully major stuff, and I’m not into that Snakes and Ladders shit. It absolutely sucks when you break into a detention center and find the guy with a slight bonus to ranged weapons (unarmed in his cell, of course) when you could have been given the guy who opens safes for free–especially when your program setup hasn’t left you with much spare power to get safes open. There was also a time when I hit a cybernetics lab only to find two augmentations that both did nothing for me; they had a chance to give spare power per turn or something, but at the time I was swimming in power, and I would’ve killed for extra actions or melee armor piercing or whatever. It would hardly be crazy to give me a few choices at the grafters.

Daemons can also absolutely screw you, especially if you’re foolish enough to run Faust and Brimstone. When you do that, there’s really nothing to keep the game from just spawning extra guards or locking your hacking down each turn. I’m seriously thankful I don’t have to deal with some 25% chance to miss on a sleeping dart or whatever, because it would’ve just kept me from using one more thing in my arsenal.

The game seems to generate its seeds early enough that there’s no chance of save-scumming around this stuff. I’m actually grateful for this, because I’d hate to feel incentivized to tediously use my rewind actions to avoid bad luck. I think the logic is that you’re supposed to be alright with getting dealt a terrible hand for an entire campaign sometimes, because campaigns are short and you gain experience toward unlocks even on failure. But I found this grindy and would’ve vastly preferred creative challenge-based unlocks like the ones in FTL, like unlocking a non-violent specialist by playing without knocking any guards out.

Suggestions
The geoscape felt a bit sparse, especially when 12 of the 72 hours of your campaign can vanish in a single click. I’m not necessarily trying to say that because it resembles XCOM, you should have to spend a full third of the game managing bases on the world map. But you could certainly have some more options. Maybe all the cloaking device manufacturers are in Asia, but the companies in North America have a monopoly on ranged weapons, and you can choose to do all your work in one place instead of flying around, but you still have to wait 8 hours for nightfall or whatever. When a detention center mission pops up, show me three of them simultaneously, tell me who’s in each of them, and only give me enough time to hit one, so the other two agents die. This could even be how agents are unlocked.

I was really fond of the cooldown-based items, but I almost never used ammo-based weapons or consumables. Even if guns gave you a limited number of shots per mission, they could still be freely reloaded when missions are over. Ammo packs could give you one mid-mission reload, but still be replenished between missions, too. My problem is that, strategically speaking, unless I’m absolutely screwed unless I throw that grenade, my instinct will be to hold onto it, because I’m afraid of getting screwed more for not having it in the future, as the difficulty increases. Your goal is to gain resources, not to consume them. Essentially, I ended up selling everything, because money that can be put toward levelling up my character’s speed always looks better in the long-term. But that’s boring.

I mentioned challenges or achievements as a means of unlocking new characters or starting programs, but I’d also have been more motivated to attempt some extreme challenges if I earned some extreme characters for pulling it off. If the hardest challenges specified which characters you could use to accomplish them, it would be kind of fun to get some people with really overpowered abilities to use when just messing around. I can’t say what would be too overpowered off the top of my head, but rather than just an extra point of armor piercing here or there, I would like to see more dramatic variety. What about someone who could sprint soundlessly, or turn sprint on and off at will?

I got a few enjoyable campaigns out of Invisible, but I burned out before trying Expert Plus, Endless Mode, Time Attack, Iron Man or any of that. Once I saw the various threats and used a good chunk of the playable characters, and felt like I had a good handle on the limitations of the game, I was more or less done. There is a DLC expansion that adds more of everything, including new enemies, which would might shake things up for another couple runs. But as long as the primary formula is unchanged, I think I’ve had my fill.

In short, some more goals and choices would have gone far, particularly choices on the world map and those reducing the impact of the RNG. Info could be conveyed better, especially when it comes to guards noticing and firing upon you, which tiles they can hear you sprinting from, etc. I’m still not describing a game I would score a 5/5, but there’s untapped potential here.

The reviewer finds this game hard to get excited about, but still has a positive opinion of it. It may be somewhat fun, having good features or ideas counterbalanced by a few boring parts, bad design or other fundamentally irritating qualities that can’t easily be overlooked. Alternatively, it could be pleasant, but with nothing new to offer. Worth a little money if you’ve got the time for it.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

This is a really unusual game, but only in that you wouldn’t expect to find a really dynamic mechanic in what is otherwise such a publisher-safe, Triple-A standard-fare, Assassin’s Creed knockoff. The idea of having the foes in the game act within this semi-permanent Orc hierarchy that you can totally stop at the source lends itself more to a kind of shorter game that you replay indefinitely, which is probably why it feels like something out of an indie roguelike instead of what it is. It’s also probably why you’re made to conquer the ranks twice, and then twice more in the DLC, padded out with tedious collectible hunting and the occasional bad escort mission.

For whatever publisher-friendly reason, they couldn’t just completely focus on the good stuff they had and build some kind of FTL-like replayable challenge game out of it. Something where you’d ramp up the difficulty across multiple runs as you also gathered higher-tier runes by trying to accomplish objectives with the runes you unlocked last time.

Instead there’s a secondary “Trials of War” challenge mode, which is better than nothing, but only insofar as you get to do the good part of the game some more, assuming your patience for it hasn’t totally worn thin. It’s like skipping the story and other bad stuff, like the cheesy boss battle against a giant troll, where you roll sideways as it idiotically charges forward and then hit it while it’s stunned. You know the one I’m talking about: you’ve already beat that boss eight million times. Even if you’ve never heard of Shadow of Mordor.

But the challenges are largely pointless as they are. Try to kill some guys within 40 minutes. What does that mean? Maybe a lot of luck; running around in circles in an Orc captain’s designated zone until you can finally see his red ass in Wraith mode. Then you either get a pathetically easy kill (which might be fun), or the enemy has resistances to everything and no fears, so you just gotta do a terrorize move to make his underlings flee, and then do the one sword combo that damages everybody, over and over, until he’s weak enough to be grabbed, or he dies. That’s not so terrible by the expectations of the story campaign, but it isn’t interesting enough to draw people back to the captain-hunting parts in Trials of War. I don’t need the captain fights to be Dark Souls boss battles, but dropping the QTEs and making combat a little less all-or-nothing would be a good start. Do some more stuff with strategic troop deployment. I occasionally got intel that certain captains would be rattled by the appearance of a specific rival Orc they hated, but I never really got to see that stuff. That could be another direction to take things in: taking people out in an order that lets you strategically exploit them more along the way. Or getting them to help you in very limited circumstances without mind control, because of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” type stuff, like with Ratbag in the story missions, but more dynamically.

Plus, even in the Trials of War section, you still have to start “missions” to attack certain targets, which clean the map of anything already on there. Logistically it makes things pretty simple, but it limits your ability to really try to break the game in the sort of way great games always allow, like luring a giant monster into the enemy camp before the fight breaks out. If you can fail a mission because you tried to walk over to something you wanted to interact with, and the game scolds you for going off the path, someone’s made a sequence of terrible design decisions.

There’s still a lot that’s appealing about the Orc captain mechanics. Enemies have names and personalities, even if you haven’t had the chance to learn them yet. A grunt kills you and suddenly you find out he has a name; he’s been promoted. He mocks you for having lost to him the last time around, which is an incredibly interesting thing to do with player death. Rewinding time whenever you fail something just isn’t fun. Shadow of Mordor shouldn’t have even had story missions.

The stakes could’ve been higher, though. It’s an easy game. You can advance time through death as much as you want. It’s not XCOM. The enemies aren’t going to get trolls with laser cannons mounted on top just because you died so much that you ended up in the month of Girithron. Thing is, you probably won’t die that much anyway. The game threw some captain at me at the end of the campaign and told me to fight my “nemesis”. I wasn’t sure if I remembered the guy. If he’d really foiled me all across the game, it would’ve meant more to see him there. I will say that it was oddly satisfying to nurture and protect my enemies until they were at max level so I could get better runes from killing them. If the sequel wanted to go all-out in a Harvest Moon: Orc Farmer direction, I think I’d be decently happy with that game, too.

There’s always more to complain about. The controls were awkward. Mashing two of the controller’s face buttons to do a special attack was awkward and unreliable. You’d be lucky to get the right guy with an auto-targeted grab. Getting up or down from a ledge could be frustrating. And the “going into the Wraith world” thing could have been a lot more than just a batman detective mode. It should have been your stealth, in place of your weirdly effective crouching.

But I can come away somewhat positive about the experience: after so many games where you can honestly feel a kind of malaise in dealing with an enemy who can hold you up for a while but isn’t worth killing at all, because you know they’ll automatically respawn when you turn the corner–Batman: Arkham City to name one clear offender–it feels nice to simply look at a list of 25 ugly dudes, mind-control them, and keep them from being easily replaced.

Plus you’re a ghost who can warp behind a sentry and suck the life out of him like a vampire, so that’s kind of neat too, I guess.

The reviewer finds this game hard to get excited about, but still has a positive opinion of it. It may be somewhat fun, having good features or ideas counterbalanced by a few boring parts, bad design or other fundamentally irritating qualities that can’t easily be overlooked. Alternatively, it could be pleasant, but with nothing new to offer. Worth a little money if you’ve got the time for it.