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Review: Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor


Click to read the full written review

Though we wish it were otherwise, long running video game franchises often lose their way and forget just exactly why they’ve been so popular.  Pac Man used to be a simple maze-based collectathon navigator that has since turned into a third person 3D platformer.  Resident Evil used to be the go-to series for survival horror and now it’s simply an action-focused gore shooter.  And even The Lord of the Rings, best identified as a third person hack-n-slash series in video game form by anyone with a brain, became what they shouldn’t have been.

For The Lord of the Rings, it appears that its time may finally have come again.  After several years of Tolkien titles being a RTS after MMO after Lego game after MOBA and being anything but what they are meant to be, many have been left with ring fatigue.  Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor looks to finally provide some much needed course correction.  Developed by Monolith Productions, this title arrives at a time in which the developer could really use a strong release as its resume has been less than spectacular over the past six years.

With it having been over a decade since the last proper The Lord of the Rings romp, can Monolith both recapture the classic fun that was the early 2000s titles and restore the crushed faith fans of the developer had when they were making new IPs like FEAR and Condemned?

In the Land of Mordor…
For two and a half millennia, the Rangers of Gondor have stood watch at the Black Gate that separates their lands from the haunted realm of Mordor, the site of Dark Lord Sauron’s eventual resurrection.  Sometime prior to the events of The Lord of the Rings, the Rangers have grown complacent in the duties and it costs them one dark, stormy night as a horde of Orcs known as Uruks invade.  The Black Gate is lost and Talion, one of the Rangers, is executed along with his wife and son in a sacrificial ritual.  Talion awakens in another world where he meets a nameless wraith who informs him of his untimely fate.  Instead of being allowed to venture into the unknown alongside his family, Talion is instead “banished from death” and has become bound to the wraith, cursing him to walk Middle Earth forever.  With Sauron’s power growing and the fate of the world in the balance, Talion and the wraith set out to stop stop the Uruk forces and break the curse, allowing him to reunite with his family in death.

Talion’s journey to take revenge upon the forces of darkness and rid himself of his curse wants to be a great experience.  Thanks to the inclusion of the wraith (for whom will not be named due to spoilers), the game becomes an interesting buddy cop title with Talion the less-than-levelheaded swordsman teamed up with the wise, forward-thinking wraith.  The dynamic between the two characters is one of caution, tempered trust and determination as the two must join forces to achieve each of their own ends.  The characters themselves are well written, well-acted and are worthy of your attention.  If anything, they are the best part of the game’s story.

That being said, the narrative of Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor suffers from several distinct problems.  The first of these (and easily the most notable) is pacing.  Talion’s tale is one fraught with a mix of slow and fast pacing with nary a moment to be found in-between within the confines of the main storyline.  One minute you’re discovering clues to your companion’s background, the next you’re taking on the mid-game boss with little to no pomp or circumstance leading up to the fight.  Events in the game simply happen at times without prior warning or build up.  The game takes on a two act structure and ends well before it should and does not conclude with any significant resolution at all.  This production could have benefited greatly from having a third act but this is for naught.

Pacing is one issue but that can be tolerated but having underdeveloped characters is something that shouldn’t happen in a good story and it is here that Shadow of Mordor has another misstep.  Inside of the twenty mission story, our hero encounters new characters whose arcs are either short lived or significantly underdeveloped, making you wonder just exactly how much they contributed to the overall plot and whether they were even worth including along for the ride.  Extending the length of the supporting casts’ roles in the game or even simply having them all come together to play a significant part in the final moments of the story would have been a much better plan but sadly this never happens. 

Apart from just the length of the characters’ stories, the game is hurt by just how much it panders to the player.  At many turns, the game recycles plot elements or purposefully mentions or introduces some character that is significant to the events of The Lord of the Rings without really establishing why they really matter to the overall storyline, instead serving as gameplay vessels by which to further the plot along.  Nowhere is the more evident than in the game’s inclusion of Gollum early on.  Gollum only serves to give the wraith character more significance than is initially presented and appears only for a couple of missions before outright disappearing until the endgame sequence.  This feels very shoehorned in and unnecessary to the continued development of the story and is, in this reviewer’s opinion, only there because the developer wanted to lend credence to the plot.

Aside from these issues, Shadow of Mordor just isn’t a well told story.  While our wraith companion is fleshed out, Talion really isn’t and you are forced to visit the game’s appendices to learn more about the man he is, as is the case for many of the games characters and subplots.  The game concludes with a lackluster final battle the nature of which mirrors many of the less than stellar compromises many notorious games over the years have concluded on.  On top of that, Shadow of Mordor sequel-mongers like it is nobody’s business, all but outright demanding that a second game be created so that Talion’s story can receive a proper conclusion.  I sternly believe that Monolith is capable of building a compelling story but, at least for me, this one’s a little half-baked.

A Sidenote Consideration

Now, let’s be clear: the lore of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by masterful author J.R.R. Tolkien is celebrated by millions upon millions in all forms of entertainment, be it in book, movie or video game form.  It is also an exceptionally complicated beast to tackle as each book in the source material is loaded to the brim with mentions of conflicts, characters and events set throughout thousands of years of lore.  Heck, even Tolkien’s words said in interviews are taken as pure fact with an example of his claiming that our world exists in parity with Middle Earth and that we seem to be living in near the end of the 6th Age.  With all that said, it’s difficult to place how in-step Shadow of Mordor is with the rest of the continuity.  What’s curious is just how much Monolith Productions is trying to take a step back from that despite trying to be 1:1 in its visual, audio and design preparations, in coordination with Peter Jackson, Weta Workshop and Middle-earth Enterprises.  It is here that I have formed a hypothesis by which I could be 100% wrong and yelled at for.  Hear me out.

This begins to become clear once you take a look at the game’s full title and take in the meaning behind it; Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor.  In all its marketing attempts and brand deals with streamers and YouTubers, Warner Bros. has been very specific to establish this game far apart from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  It’s not The Hobbit: Shadow of Mordor or The Lord of the Rings: Shadow of Mordor.  It’s simply Middle Earth, meaning that it is set within the full continuity of the core franchise while, at the same time, having its own focus.

But why do that?  Well, to me, this seems like a blatant attempt to establish a third brand.  By abandoning The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings monikers and instead using Middle Earth, Monolith and Warner Bros. are afforded legal and story headroom by which they can create the game they want to make with whatever respect they wish to make to the two aforementioned properties inside of their own continuity.  This allows them to include the likes of Gollum and others within the confines of this new storyline without compromising the overall narrative of the Legendarium.  In other words, think of it this way: this is Monolith and Warner Bros. attempt to do exactly what LucasArts attempted to do with their ill-fated creation that was Star Wars: The Force Unleashed.  By introducing Talion and the events set in-between the two sets of novels/movies, Shadow of Mordor allows itself to mess with the core timeline of the Legendarium without facing any repercussions on the part of Tolkien’s estate, New Line Cinema or the fans of the series as a whole.  It’s a bold maneuver in my opinion and, if I am indeed correct in this regard, one that I look forward to seeing evolve over the years to come.

What does that mean for fans though?  You can expect new interpretations of the events of pretty much any material that Tolkien published as well as whatever the writers at Monolith can think up.  Perhaps an exiled Gondor noble by the name of Aragorn decides to take a jaunt through Mordor?  Maybe Gandalf the Grey’s eagles become the basis for a new fast travel system in a sequel?  Who knows?  What it could mean is that series fans will have the opportunity to explore new, interesting material for the first time since Tolkien’s son published some of his unfinished works in 1980.  This may, potentially, be the start of a whole new canon for the franchise… or it could all just end up fan fiction if the Tolkien estate or someone else decides to pull a Disney.

Where the Shadows Lie

From a narrative viewpoint, Middle Earth has some substantial problems that will hopefully be addressed.  From a gameplay standpoint, however, the production contains some rather enticing design elements.  Though there are some significant flaws to be found, the gameplay department is where Middle Earth finds its stride.

As has been the case for smart developers wanting to create a strong combat system, Shadow of Mordor borrows heavily from the brawler system created by Rocksteady Studios for the Batman: Arkham series.  As Talion, players will face off against anywhere between one to a couple dozen Uruk enemies that plague the land at any given time.  Players use their sword to engage the enemy and earn combos through timed strikes and careful dodges, the latter of which are telegraph to the player by way of a button prompt.  As your combo meter grows, the player is allowed the opportunity to execute finishers that instantly kill normal enemies as well as other abilities such as area of effect stuns.  The tools and powers that players can unlock for Talion further enhances the combat and, in the latter third of the game, results in a complicated but very engaging system that makes most encounters a breeze.  There is almost nothing to complain about here and should be regarded as the high point of Shadow of Mordor.

The world design featured here and its traversal once again derives itself from an already established franchise, this time coming from the Assassin’s Creed series.  Across the two distinctly different semi-large areas contained within, Talion has the ability to travel and maneuver using something very similar to Ubisoft’s parkour system initially introduced in 2007.  Players will travel up, down, on top of and around steep cliffs, hills, caves, ruins, slave camps and Uruk strongholds as they seek vengeance against the enemy.  Though the controller button arrangement is more Arkham than Assassin, the controls present do the job in making it rather easy to negotiate almost all environments presented.

Monolith also chose to include a stealth system derived from the aforementioned series that does well to compliment both the combat and open world structure of the game.  Players can enter a stealth state by pulling and holding the right trigger, causing Talion to crouch down and conceal himself significantly more.  Players can take cover from behind corners and within foliage and attract enemies to them for easy one-hit kills.  The system is also fairly forgiving as Uruks have a very limited field of vision and take several seconds to react to seeing the player, allowing you precious time to correct your mistake and take down the enemy.  Fans of either series will easily adapt to this new system and those who are not will only need minutes to really grasp the mechanics.

Thanks to the curse that binds Talion to his wraith companion, our hero is endowed with supernatural powers by which he can press the advantage against Sauron’s forces.  The player will progressively earn many of their skills through gated story missions that greatly increase their power both from a stealth and combat perspective.  One fantastically satisfying ability called Shadow Strike allows you to target an enemy from a distance and warp to their location in an instant similar to a Vanguard in the Mass Effect series, allowing you to potentially deliver a killing blow to it depending on how much you upgrade that ability.

At the heart of Talion’s wraith arsenal of powers though is the much publicized Branding ability, a key power that plays a pivotal role in the game’s story.  Players eventually earn the ability to brand an enemy, Orc or otherwise, and convert them to your side.  This mechanic, while taking more time than it would to deliver a typical death blow upon them, is tremendously satisfying and can be of great strategic help if you find yourself up against a boss or trapped in a particularly hairy situation.

Talions core powers are, as mentioned before, gated behind critical story missions but within his power resume you’ll find an assortment of skills and upgrades to froth over.  Skill points earned through experience can be spent on active abilities for both combat and world traversal which greatly enhance Talion’s tactical potential.  Passive abilities are applied directly to your arsenal of a sword, dagger and bow through runes that are dropped by minibosses found throughout the game (more on those in a moment).  Players can also earn a currency-esque points known as Mirian by completing side missions and bonus objectives.  Mirian, in turn, can be spent on unlocking rune slots on your weapons as well as enhancing your wraith abilities with additional health, elf arrow slots and lengthening your time-distortion Focus power.  All told, the player can spend hours upon hours completing tasks and earning experience and Mirian through combat to max out Talion’s potential it is very well designed.

No STARS in the Moon-Lit Sky

At the heart of the Shadow of Mordor experience is the Nemesis System, a detailed attempt at providing a command structure to provide depth to both Sauron’s army as well as Orc society.  At the top of the pyramid lie the warchiefs, the commanders and most powerful Orcs to be found in the land.  Descending the ranks, you will find a series of decreasingly powerful Orcs who are given the rank of captain.  All of the captains will vie for power by completing various actions that occur randomly over time as you continue on in the game, including but not limited to follower recruitment, duels with other captains, trials of ordeal and feasts to celebrate their prestige.  All of these events will appear dynamically with each respawn and can be interacted or invaded with to a degree of success or failure depending on the player’s skill.

Captains retain significant skills and abilities that separate them from typical members of Orc society.  Each will feature a randomized assortment of strengths and weakness the players must be wary or take advantage of respectfully if they wish to kill or manipulate their rank in the chain of command.  Success will result in them either fleeing and stunting their rise through the ranks or even outright eliminating them from pool of contenders.  Killed enemies will drop runes that passively enhance Talion’s ability but whose level and significance are determined by the victims’ power and status in Orc society.  Low level kills will thus result in less powerful runes while high powered enemies that fall before you will yield higher power or even epic runes that are much desired.

Succeeding in combat against an Uruk warchief or captain is a satisfying accomplishment at almost every turn but it is when you utilize branding upon them that you really begin to see the potential of the Nemesis system.  Trading out the rune reward for gaining an ally, you can command your newly acquired ranked minion to perform the feats listed previous as well as have them engage in power struggles with other Orcs, raising their power and thus making them a more potent ally.  These two systems, when used in conjunction with one another, are smartly done and will be one of the more common actions you’ll take in the late game.

On the flipside, failing to stop captains from achieving their goals will cause them to game power and thus make them harder to defeat.  Death at their hands will increase their power, making them more difficult to defeat in the future and potentially promoting them.  Dying at the hands of a standard enemy, which happens to even the best of players, will actually cause that enemy to rise to the status of a captain if a slot so happens to be available, making them a new target of yours.

The dynamics of the Nemesis system are thus widely varied and well thought out, making it a highlight of the Shadow of Mordor experience.  With a few small caveats, Monolith has something to be proud of here.  That being said, Middle Earth does contain a litany of questionable design choices and overlooked items that will need to be addressed when the game receives its inevitable sequel.

For me, the gameplay structure of earning abilities is a big problem.  As stated before, the most significant powers are gated behind story mission and cannot be earned beforehand.  This would not normally be a problem for me had Monolith decided to allow the player more time to use Talion’s full arsenal from a much earlier point in the game but as the current product stands, you only have access to all of the abilities once you’ve completed three quarters of the core storyline itself.  Branding, the most marketed ability featured in the game that paradigm shifts the combat and Nemesis systems, only comes into play over two thirds of the way through the story missions, which is very disappointing.  The developer would have been much better off had players been given at least branding several missions beforehand, preferably just after you move on to the second and final area of the game.

Many would try to argue that this has been done to strong success beforehand and the most prominent example that would be thrown around is, once again, the Batman: Arkham formula.  However, this argument is invalidated once you compare the nature of the unlocks in both games and their overall role in each game’s methodology.  The Arkham titles, thanks to the unlocks, serve as tools by which to facilitate a Metroidvania-style open world structure, allowing them to serve a purpose outside of combat and the game’s central storyline missions through elements such as Riddler trophies.  By contrast, Shadow of Mordor’s gated abilities serve little to no purpose outside of combat and don’t pertain to any unlocks or side activities.  Therefore, the current structure for gating these abilities so late into the game serves only to be a detriment to the player and diminishes the overall replay value.  Unless you really, really like the combat and Nemesis systems, you shouldn’t expect to continue playing all that much once the credits roll.

Combat in the last third of the game doesn’t seem to attend to the branding system either and it is here that I found myself becoming more than a little annoyed.  Since players have the ability to kill any of the branded Uruk companions at any time, the combat system doesn’t seem to make distinction between who is branded and who is not.  Therefore, in many skirmishes in which I have large numbers of both regular and converted Orcs engaged in combat alongside me, the combat system will not target enemy Orcs over branded ones, instead allowing me to strike my allies when I’m really trying to attack my enemies.  It can be incredibly frustrating to end up killing my allies instead of my foes mid-battle, especially when I am forced to content with captains or warchiefs.

Of all the open world games I’ve played over the last few years, Shadow of Mordor is easily the least rewarding for side quest content completion.  Despite featuring eight different side activities to engage in, none of them reward the player with any tangible gameplay rewards such as weapon enhancements or stat buffs.  Instead, all you get is an achievement or trophy, nothing more.  Collecting all 32 Ithildin icons, for example, yields only a small piece of lore and nothing else, making the hours you’ve spent collecting them feel wasted.  I find myself looking back fondly at what Ubisoft has been able to include in their Assassin’s Creed titles such as AC2’s The Truth and AC4’s Mayan Armor.  In that franchise, the player is rewarded considerably not just with enough lore to keep wiki editors busy for weeks but also palpable gameplay rewards.  Monolith dropped the ball in this regard to me.

Other smaller items eat at me as well, though none more than what I have thus far described.  Orc society seems very underdeveloped and seems fixated on the tropes of them wanting to gain power, enslave humans and serve Sauron when there simply must be more than that to their entire race.  There isn’t much to explore in either region.  There is no new game+ feature.

Overall, as great as the combat, stealth and Nemesis systems are, the game has quite a few flaws that can drag down the experience.

The Ascent of Gravewalker

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor spent four years in development behind the scenes at Monolith Productions and the effort clearly has paid off in terms of production value.  The developer has done a rather fantastic job of recreating and implementing the world and character design Peter Jackson and Weta Workshop have made over the past decade and a half.  No one element seems ill-designed or improperly introduced into the context of a video game and I must tip my hat to Monolith for that.

Nowhere is the depth of the production work made more apparent than when you take a look at the writing and voice work.  The writing team did a phenomenal job here creating dialogue that feels embedded in the universe for the main cast, supporting characters and even random enemies.  This was no doubt aided greatly by Monolith’s decision to have Christian Cantamessa, the lead writer on Red Dead Redemption, be in charge of writing the game.  Though I have aforementioned qualms about Shadow of Mordor’s story progression and character usage, I never got tired of learning more about the world, the events or the characters contained within.

Monolith’s casting choices exemplify the story presentation here.  Troy Baker continues his winning streak as Talion with a wide range of emotions to be found in the character’s arc.  Veteran actor Alastair Duncan does a great job as Talion’s wraith companion.  Even Gollum is well done as Liam O’Brien does a rather excellent job emulating Andy Serkis’ representation of the character.  Not a single character, be they main cast or random NPC, feels less than properly voiced in the game and this is something Monolith can be proud of.

In terms of production, you have to hand it to the developer: they did a rather fantastic job making the most authentic Tolkien video game to date.

The Road Goes On

When you get right down to it, there is no denying that Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is a great game.  Thanks to hard work on the part of a veteran developer willing to take an existing franchise in a new direction, we have been presented with the most successful reconsideration of a Tolkien product to date.  The characters feel authentic.  The gameplay is very well designed.  The player feels exceptionally empowered.  The world feels ripped straight out of the films.  It’s a great Tolkien experience.

Middle Earth is a very fun game to play though it does contain within it some distinct problems, both narratively and gameplay-wise, that should be addressed once Monolith begins work on a sequel.  Despite these flaws, it’s more than worth investing your time in and should definitely be on your must-play list in 2014 if you’re an action-adventure fan.



Review: Watch Dogs


Click to read the full written review

As it has always been, when one generation of consoles transitions into another we are presented with what appear to be fresh ideas underneath of sheen of unparalleled graphical fidelity.  Put into development at a time in which the old system’s potential has all but been tapped out, these titles are our first glimpses into the future of what a new console generation is capable of.  More often than not however, many of these concepts that serve as transitional titles fail to meet their target in both the eyes of their makers as well as the public itself, drawing ire from all sides regardless of how the final product presents itself.

Watch Dogs is one such victim of this rather unfortunately situation.  While its initial reveal at E3 2012 drew amazed looks from all around.  The diligent and steadfast among us however still remember what Killzone 2 was supposed to be though.  Ubisoft’s darling new IP has been the subject of great anticipation and yet, also great trepidation in the months leading up to release.  Could it really meet the expectations of a demanding gaming public that wishes to see their $400 consoles put to full use?  Can this new series capture the sweeping narrative potential Assassin’s Creed has tried to garner over the past seven years?  Does Watch Dogs mark the beginning of a bright future for this new generation or is it simply a last gen hack job?

Interconnected Lives, Re-Routed
Chicago is one of the most storied cities in the United States, though the most popular bits of its history do not come from something to be proud of.  The greatest of these stories hail from the 1920s in which mobsters like Al Capone ruled the streets through fear and intimidation.  Despite having wished otherwise, Chicago remains one of the most dangerous cities in North America to this day.  In Watch Dogs, Chicago’s government has a new weapon for a new age: the Central Operating System.  A city-scale network of mainframes, the CtOS controls most of the infrastructure of Chicago, from street lights to water pumps, electricity to emergency services, all built on a vast grid of surveillance cameras placed specifically to combat crime.  It’s a wet dream for the NSA but at its heart lies a dark secret: its true potential as a monitoring system that manipulates our lives and sees everything we do.

Thought impenetrable, the CtOS is a vulnerable system that has been long-since hacked.  An anonymous hacker collective known as DedSec tries to warn the public of the threat the system holds for its citizens while tech-savy gangsters access its weak points to further their own ends.  In the middle stand Fixers, mercenaries that can bend the CtOS to their will using advanced hacking tools at the behest of the highest bidder.  Aiden Pierce, our hero, is one such Fixer.

On a typical night in 2012, Aiden and his partner, Damien, infiltrate the Merlaut Hotel on a routine money-syphoning heist.  In the middle of the job another hacker appears and penetrates the same network, exposing the two.  Pierce is identified by an unknown group who put out a hit on him, resulting in the death of his niece, Lena, during the ensuing attempt on his life.  Grief-stricken, Aiden makes it his life’s mission to protect his remaining family and punish those responsible.

Watch Dogs has many expectations placed upon it, one of the most important being its story.  After being billed as the next great IP for a new generation, much like Assassin’s Creed was supposed to be last generation, one should expect something of a sweeping narrative that challenges your perception of an aspect of everyday life.  For Assassin’s Creed, it was the manipulation of history and the control of public perception built against the backdrop of a hidden war that has been waged for thousands of years.  Watch Dogs should then, ideally, be about information warfare and one man’s quest to be a guardian of the people.

What we get is only halfway to this narrative goal.  Aiden Pierce’s story aims to take a trip down the digital rabbit hole in a quest to get vengeance for his niece but it never really gets to that point with any flair or excitement.  While the story does come full circle and resolves almost all plot elements (some are left purposefully unresolved more than likely for DLC or sequel purposes), it doesn’t particularly do so in an enjoyable manner.

The problems with the overall plot is twofold: the characters themselves and the manner in which the story is presented.  Aiden Pierce’s unique character abilities (ie. the manipulation of the CtOS) as well as his plot situation has the potential to make him into a great vigilante hero but instead of fleshing him out he becomes all but one-dimensional.  Occasionally he will reminisce about his actions and whether he is morally justified in committing them but once that fifteen second moment passes, we’re back on the street being chased by the police, hacking into people’s lives and taking on hordes of gangsters.  Similarly, the rest of the Watch Dogs cast rarely show all that much emotion or character development to put them even in the vicinity of being memorable.  Considering the background for the overall conflict present in the game, it’s reasonable to expect at least some of the characters to take a ride on a moral rollercoaster but most of the deliveries are actually quite flat.

The other problem resides in just how Ubisoft chose to present the game’s story.  While the game does fairly well at linking consecutive events together, that’s mainly how the story as a whole plays out.  The game begins in media res, showing us a two minutes of cutscenes for the prologue before jumping forward nearly a year later without really addressing the consequences of what we just saw.  It’s unreasonable to expect the audience to establish a relationship with our main character if we’re thrown smack dab in the middle of a revenge story and while I appreciate some of Aiden’s motivation, there remains a significant disconnect.  In addition, Watch Dogs chooses to ignore characters once their arc has been completed, leaving some to unknown fates while at the same time never establishing more of Pierce’s personality outside of intro/outro mission cutscenes.  It’s very dry, making it clear that this is a game far more motivated by gameplay than story.  If Ubisoft intends to make this into a series, it would be in their best interest to rectify this.

Analog Warfare for the Digital Age
At its heart, Watch Dogs is very much a typical sandbox crime drama game focused on a uniquely powerful character of unquestionable tactical fortitude.  Players will explore a vast city environment filled to the brim with police, gangsters and everyone else caught in between.  The selling twist that attempts to separate his new title from being yet another Grand Theft Auto clone is Aiden Pierce’s Fixer abilities which allow him almost unprecedented control over his digitally-powered environment.

Throughout the Watch Dogs experience, Aiden is given the ability to manipulate many of the machine run elements throughout the environment.  Utilizing their access to the CtOS, players can control much of the infrastructure of Chicago such as traffic lights, bridge controls and various electrical utilities.  These tools, while usable at almost any given time in the game, are best utilized contextually in terms of what’s going on around you.  While sure, you can use the CtOS to terrorize the city by causing traffic jams, black outs and electrical explosions, they are far more useful when you use them against the gangs or cops that chase you throughout the Windy City’s streets.

The most common tool players will utilize during their time in Chicago is the Profiler, an app on Aiden’s phone that analyzes the NPCs in the environment and returns information about them.  As a human being, it’s only natural to want to delve into a person’s innermost secrets and this itch can be scratched very easily and frequently throughout the game by simply walking down the street with the Profiler activated.  At the same time, many of the NPCs in the environment have exploitable links that can be hacked into.  Many of them will allow you to hack into the bank accounts that you can withdraw cash from at any ATM, listen in on a private conversation or perhaps gain new information on criminal activities.  It’s a fun and simple mechanic that is all but required for many missions in the game but if you enjoyed using it as much as I have, you will not mind at all.

Outside of the core story missions that appear in the game, Watch Dogs offers a variety of side quests and standalone missions that become progressively more available as the game continues.  Fixer Contracts will task you to drive a car from one side of the city to the other while completing various objectives.  Gang Hideouts assign you to infiltrate a fortress and take down the head honcho, Criminal Convoys have you trying to stop a target vehicle from reaching its destination and so on and so forth.  Over time, new linked quests appear that have you taking on human trafficking rings and gun runners and, for the most part, these are fun little diversions.  That being said, Watch Dogs also has a huge amount of collectibles in the world that give you further insight into the game’s background characters in the form of everybody’s favorite exposition format, audio logs.  Honestly, most of the collectibles aren’t worth your time and unless you’ve been diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, they should be skipped.

Digital Trips are easily the best side-mission highlight to be found in Watch Dogs.  Much like the underutilized drugging sequences seen only a handful of times throughout Far Cry 3, these electronic-based trips serve as minigames that are a very enjoyable diversion from everything else found throughout the game.  One trip has you taking the controls of a giant mechanical spider tank has you climbing buildings and wreaking havoc on the streets to rack up as much points as possible.  Another features you sneaking through the dark, hiding from robots that kill you on sight while yet another has Aiden driving a Mad Max-esque armored muscle car through a Chicago hellscape running over demons and completing objective on a time limit.  Everything to be had here is quite fun and should definitely be one of the first things you experience during your time with the game.

One of the more anticipated aspects of the game is the random nature by which events can happen in the game, specifically how crimes can seemingly occur out of nowhere.  While these events can happen without notice, the CtOS will frequently identify pending crimes that occur proximate to Aiden’s location.  The player, should they choose, can visit the area and utilize the Profiler to identify the victim and his or her aggressor.  Strangely though, Watch Dogs forces you to actually wait until the crime is in progress rather than prevent it from happening entirely, eventually leading even the most prepared players into a foot chase if they choose to go in for the non-lethal takedown.  Unlike the rather slick presentation of such events we received in February of last year, these foot chases usually devolve into running down a sidewalk for a considerable amount of time as there are only occasional CtOS tools like junction boxes or circuit breakers that can impede the NPC’s movement.  Given this and the fact that Aiden cannot outpace any NPC in the world, the result is a chase that can last several minutes that is a drag rather than exhilarating, eventually making these missions something you want to avoid.

The random crime system is only the start of a variety of design choices that are either questionable or entirely missing.  Seemingly to emphasize the CtOS system, Watch Dogs does not allow the player to fire a weapon while driving a vehicle, a staple of almost every crime-based sandbox title on the market.  In addition, oddities begin to appear when you take a look at how the game’s background elements work.  Bus stops are littered throughout Chicago with people waiting patiently for their ride to arrive and yet there is not a single bus to be found in the game.  Motorcycles can be quite easily found in the environment and yet none of the NPCs in the game (other than in one of the opening cutscenes) ever actually drive one.  In addition, the game does not feature a proper melee combat system save for a one-press takedown maneuver, instead forcing you to rely on your weaponry and the CtOS during a firefight.  These and several more confusing or omitted design choices appear throughout the game and while they don’t necessarily detract from the overall experience, it certainly doesn’t add to it.

Watch Dogs certainly wants to keep you entertained with its content but it doesn’t seem competent in allowing the player to experience things as you want to.  In addition to hundreds of collectibles and things to find, the game insists on informing you about things that are happening throughout Chicago whether you like it or not.  Rarely will the game give you five minutes of peace without informing you about a new crime that is about to occur, new contracts that are available for the taking or news bulletins that either tell you about long outdated events that you were involved in or Aiden’s current status in the eyes of the public.   Sometimes I just want to explore the city, Ubisoft, give me a break.

As seems to be the growing trend for crime-based sandbox titles these days, Watch Dogs incorporates several different RPG elements such as a morality system in order to flesh out the main character beyond his bland story background.  Known as the Vigilante, Aiden has the ability to alter public perception of him based on his good or evil actions.  Rescuing civilians from crimes such as what I described above will earn you good karma while tear-assing down the streets and gunning down citizens will cause this to drop into the negatives quite fast.  Despite the possibilities that could come from having access to the CtOS and the constant reminders of public opinion polls regarding your status in Chicago, it’s disappointing to report that the only effect the morality system has is on how frequently the police will be called on you.

A morality system isn’t the only RPG element that Watch Dogs includes however.  Skill trees gate access to hacking upgrades and various parts of the CtOS infrastructure while other trees can enhance Aiden’s combat, driving and crafting abilities.  Players can also craft one-off tools that aid Aiden as you see fit.  Having trouble sneaking past a bunch of guards?  Cause a blackout to the area and sneak past them while in the dark.  Is the enemy calling for reinforcements after spotting you?  Use a communications jammer to prevent the call from going through.  These tools can be crafted on the fly from the game’s weapon wheel using components and chemicals found throughout the environment and they are exceptionally useful.

Apart from Watch Dogs’ core gameplay, Ubisoft has included online multiplayer that, in many instances, takes inspiration from Japanese developer From Software’s famous Souls series.  While the game does feature the standard allotment of sandbox multiplayer modes such as free roam, racing and objective-based team combat, the invasion mechanic from the Souls series makes an appearance to a delightful degree.  In Online Hacking, one player invades another’s world, appearing always as an NPC to the opponent but always as Aiden to themselves.  In this Turing Test mode, one player attempts to hack the other by hiding within a certain radius while the victim attempts to hunt them down using the Profiler.  If the aggressor is identified, they must retreat as they are not allowed to kill the target.  Online Hacking is incredible fun and, as it can happen at almost any time outside of a mission, players should always be on guard for an invading Fixer.  Sadly, the launch of Watch Dogs has been a bit tumultuous as excessive wait times for invasion attempts can quite often lead to failed connections.  This, coupled with it being quite hard to locate a lucrative contract, will try the player’s patience.  Interested players should take note, however, that while you can turn off the invasion mechanic, the game will reset your in-game notoriety, forcing you to build it back up once you turn it back on.  It becomes a decision then: play with it on and expect to engage in multiplayer or turn it off and never do so for as long as you play.

The Cyber Frontier
As one of the first confirmed next generation games presented in 2012, Watch Dogs bore the distinction of being one of the visual powerhouses that would lead us into a bright future of graphical fidelity.  As has been purported since late last year, the final product only contains a portion of the visual package that was presented to the public at E3 2012.  Aside the visual effects, everything from texture models to environmental detail, animations to in-game physics are nowhere near the quality that we saw two years ago.  While the package we have is still visually entertaining, the results are still disappointing by comparison.

One thing the game really has going for it is world depth though.  Exploring Chicago, the city seems far more alive than Grand Theft Auto or many of its counterparts have ever done before.  While not specifically a simulation experience nor having large numbers of NPCs on screen at any given time, almost every area in the game seems fleshed out and thoughtfully made.  While not on the same level of authenticity that LA Noire presented, Watch Dogs seems to have done a very nice job on recreating a gameified version of Chicago so I must tip them my hat for doing so.

Watch Dogs doesn’t just seem like a visual downgrade because of these elements though as it is riddled with bugs and inconsistencies.  Cutscene facial animations are par for the course but their appearance in-game is simply mouths moving opening and closing, nothing more.  Some cars feature real-time world reflections on their windows but many buildings reflect a static, non-existent road and none of the character, car or background models actually present.  Visual pop-in of spawning objects in the environment is very noticeable at times and can often get you killed for seemingly no reason at all.  Failed transitions between two player’s worlds result in almost all objects and NPCs local to you getting despawned, only respawning when you turn the camera away from them.  Some of these things may seem quite arbitrary but revealing only in the leadup to launch the actual visual content of the game is at the least being deceptive to your audience and, at most, false advertising.  Activision learned their lesson about this in 2006 with the marketing for Call of Duty 2.  Perhaps Ubisoft needs to take a look at what happened then and give The Division some more time in the oven.

In the audio department, what we get is once again a mixed bag.  The game’s voice acting certainly has potential (a performance by Christopher Jacot is quite nicely done) but Noam Jenkins, who plays Aiden Pierce, doesn’t even come close to the presentation Brian Bloom brought to BJ Blazkowicz.  Man, that’s a comparison I never thought I’d type.  It doesn’t help that most of the game’s script is missing a hefty amount of raw emotion or depth.  You can’t make an audience care about a character when only their words convey who they are and it seems that the core team that worked on Watch Dogs didn’t get that memo.  Perhaps they should go next door and take some notes from the Assassin’s Creed team.

The rest of the audio presentation is fairly well done though.  Sound effects can come across quite raw and visceral at times with traffic collisions providing a very suite of metal upon metal crunching and grating against one another.  Strangely though, the audio for certain effects such as the roar of an engine can suddenly be quietened or disappear altogether for some unknown reason.  Watch Dogs’ soundtrack features a mostly digital or synth presentation with occasional orchestra elements thrown into the mix.  However, the soundtrack is mostly subdued and doesn’t really build any momentum except at only a few key moments throughout the game.  It’s good when it really wants to be but when you find yourself roaming the streets of Chicago just for the sake of doing so, it all but abandons you.

Watching the Watchers
Watch Dogs is a game of many contradictions.  It wants to be a great story experience but it’s hampered by uninteresting characters and a disappointing presentation style.  It wants to be a great sandbox game but trades in staple design elements of the genre for player-controlled environment manipulation when they could all certainly live in harmony.  The online multiplayer can be rather fantastic to play but only when it wants to work.  The presentation is nice but is two steps down from the fidelity and presentation we got at E3 2012.

Watch Dogs as a series certainly has potential.  It introduces several interesting ideas to a genre that doesn’t see all that much innovation anymore.  However, it should also stand as a cautionary tale on overselling a product.  It’s certainly worth experiencing if you go into it with an open mind but if you’ve been following its development over the past two years, steel yourself for being left in the dark to howl at the moon.


Review: Wolfenstein: The New Order

Click to read the full written review

One of the most common things people will complain about in the film industry is that there is no originality left in Hollywood.  Though I wish I could argue otherwise, the same can often be said about video games.  Too often these days we see one semi-original game come out and, in the half decade following it, publishers release a slog of conformity hoping to recreate the greatness that was that single title.  In the ensuing aftermath, older ideas are tossed by the wayside, discarded as if doing otherwise would be an insult to the player’s intelligence.  It’s a shameful practice but it’s also a reality we have to face daily.  Such is the fate of the shoot ‘em up, the side scrolling beat ‘em up and the run-and-gun unrealistic shooter.

However, every now and then we get a throwback to that golden age when design decisions came more out of necessity than choice, when triple-A titles didn’t have to conform themselves to as common an audience as possible and when developers weren’t being pushed by publishers to make the next great cash cow of a game.  These titles are excellent time capsules that remind us of an age gone by but the truly impressive ones are those that manage to bridge the gap between old and new and do so well.  Wolfenstein: The New Order from freshman developer Machine Games want to be that rare blue moon of a title.

With five years having passed since the last title in the series and a triple-A industry devoted to creating the next Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto or the League of Legends killer, does The New Order have the strength to remind our games’ publishers that victory doesn’t have to be found by copying in the present but instead looking to the past?

When The War Was Lost
At the break of dawn on July 16th, 1946, more than a year after our Allies defeated the fascist Nazi army, the armed forces of the free world mount a desperate attack on the fortress of General Wilhelm "Deathshead" Strasse, one of the most powerful men in the Nazi army.  Where once the Allied powers pressed the advantage, the Germans have turned the tide and are driving their enemies back to the sea thanks to unprecedented advanced technologies of unknown origin.  General Deathshead is believed to be the mastermind behind the Nazi’s radical new weaponry and at the spearhead of this last-ditch assault stands Captain William “BJ” Blazkowicz, the Office of Secret Actions agent responsible for defeating him twice before.

Though the allies make a valiant effort, the mission is ultimately a failure.  Blazkowicz finds him blast out to sea, taking shrapnel to the head and leaving him in an almost vegetative state.  Trapped in his own body, BJ watches with flickering consciousness as the world goes on around him from inside an insane asylum in Poland.  What seems like minutes or days passing is, in reality, months and years and before he even knows it he finds himself finally waking up in 1960, fourteen years after his final mission.  The German empire, once on the ropes, now rules the world and the people under their thumb suffer for it.  Free of his comatic prison, Blazkowicz resolves to find the resistance and get back to doing the one thing he is remarkably gifted at: killing Nazis.

Any shooter fan out there with a reasonably decent head on their shoulders can tell you that the Wolfenstein series has never been known for its narrative capacities.  After all, as the granddaddy of the first person shooter, its origins are derived from a time in which the most common installation methods were either by three and a half inch floppy discs or via shareware.  Needless to say, when your game is meant to be a technology demonstrator with a focus on gunning down fascists, one shouldn’t exactly expect a focus on story development.  Though the series received a story-focused sequel in 2001 with Return to Castle Wolfenstein which reboot the series, the only entry to arrive after that was Raven Software’s singularly-named Wolfenstein in 2009.  That title suffered from a horrendously-developed multiplayer component and an extremely divisive sandbox hubworld design so, given that title’s poor sales figures, it’s reasonable to suggest that any new Wolfenstein game would ignore the previous entries and try to establish its own continuity.

The New Order is not such a game.  Rather, at many instances it scoffs at the notion of ignoring what has already been established.  The game, instead, readily acknowledges the events of Return to Castle Wolfenstein and its 2009 sequel.  Old friends and antagonists return, once fought enemies receive a fresh coat of paint and a new suit of armor while BJ and crew actively mention key moments from both previous titles.  I find it remarkable that a freshman developer would go the lengths to actively both establish continuity with an already obscurely-connected storyline while at the same time progressing it to a place that allows for a considerable amount of freedom so I must take my hat off to the folks at Machine Games.

Though this may be the first title for this developer, its aptitude for creating a story shouldn’t come as a surprise.  Machine Games, opened only in 2009, was founded by key employees of Starbreeze Studios, specifically the teams responsible for The Darkness and The Chronicles of Riddick.  These guys know how to make a story but, more importantly, they know how to tell one.

Wolfenstein: The New Order’s story is, admittedly, a decent one but what really makes it stand out is the format by which it is told.  Though mostly a traditional first person title, the game is interspersed with a fair amount of cutscenes that do well to compliment the action without taking the player out of the moment.  At several moments throughout the game the control is taken out of the player’s hands for an interactive moment, usually forcing the player to make a decision.  These scenes are fantastically told and acted, making them a strong narrative highlight.

The best part of the story, however, is the narration.  BJ Blazkowicz, or any id Software-originating character for that matter, have never been known for their storytelling prowess but Machine Games has channeled their pedigree and brought us narration in the same manner we got in The Chronicles of Riddick and The Darkness.  The results are simply wonderful as it turns out as BJ Blazkowicz is a remarkably introspective character.  As he continues on his vengeful stride against General Deathshead, his comments on the terrible crimes of the Nazi war machine while reflecting upon his own personal losses and hatred for the man are terrifically done thanks to a rather spectacular performance by a grumbly-voiced Brian Bloom.  Everything from a one-liner about cursing the moon for allowing Nazis to land on it to a rather emotional recitation of Emma Lazarus’ The New Colossus are wonderfully done.  Though one wouldn’t expect it, the game’s dialog easily stands shoulder to shoulder with many great recent titles such as The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite and even Half-Life 2.

Despite featuring a few plot holes here and there as well as forcing the player to discover most of the events that occurred during BJ’s fourteen year absence, Wolfenstein: The New Order is a very well done story to experience.

Return of the Tempest-Tost
If we’re honest with ourselves, the shooter formula of the past eight year has followed a singular model: shoot bad guys from cover, duck behind cover to heal for a time, rinse and repeat.  It seems that the days of the shooter being about mad dashes and precision aim with crazy weapons is gone but Wolfenstein: The New Order looks back on those days with a fond eye.  Rather than ditch one formula for another however, this title instead tries to meld two to a surprising amount of success.

At its heart, much of The New Order is built around a soft cover-based combat system similar to that of Killzone in which pressing up against cover and simply pulling the left trigger allows you to aim down sight over the edge of your cover.  Alternatively, players can press and hold the left bumper (L1) and contextually lean as they see fit, allowing for quite a bit of freedom in sticking to one spot.  It’s a very easy to use system and I hope that developers take notice of it and try to incorporate it into their own shooter franchises.

This new Wolfenstein, however, comes from a pedigree of classic run-and-gun shooters and it readily acknowledges this fact by making such a playstyle a very acceptable option.  Players have the ability to sprint, slide and blow away enemies with dual-wielded weapons such as assault rifles or even automatic shotguns because to hell with logic, it’s fun!  Most encounters you will find will facilitate using both playstyles but one would imagine that today’s laser-accurate enemies would quickly turn you into a pile of human mush but this is in fact not so thanks to the games abundance of support elements.

Once again taking notes from two different eras, The New Order features a rarely-used segmented regenerating health system to keep BJ in the fight.  Health regenerates in bunches of twenty and can be healed further by finding health pickups such as medkits and food that are littered throughout the world.  The interesting part of the health system players should take note of is that it automatically regenerates health to the next increment of twenty so, for example, if you happen to pick up five health when you are at 60, it automatically takes that and pushes you to 80.  Quite easily, one can regain most or all of their health bar by simply waiting for the regen segments to complete before picking up another health item.  In addition, players can overcharge their health in a similar manner to that of old school competitive shooters such as Quake, allowing you to boost it as much as you want through health items at the cost of it slowly degenerating until it returns to you max health limit.  Overall it’s a very smart and easy to use system that keen players will take advantage of if they think their actions through rather than just running and picking up items all willy-nilly.

Taking another page from today’s playbook, Wolfenstein incorporates a perk skill system.  Earned in the same manner as achievements are done nowadays, players can unlock these perks by doing certain actions such as getting five kills within ten seconds with a detached turret or overcharging their health to two hundred.  Dying in the middle of a firefight or restarting from a checkpoint does not take away the overall count you’ve been working toward so it is quite easy to actually grind toward earning these permanent character attributes.  Yes, you read that right: you’re grinding in a first person shooter.

One interesting element that Machine Games decided to incorporate is the Area Commander, a Nazi officer in charge of certain sections of maps.  These officers will radio for help upon seeing you, spawning waves of reinforcements and making a previously normal combat scenario significantly harder.  It is here that we are introduced to an element that has never really been a significant part of any Wolfenstein game: stealth.  As with these Area Commander sections, most of the levels in The New Order feature at least several points on a map in which the player is strongly encouraged to stealth the area.  Stealth can be easily accomplished thanks to the inclusion of throwing knives, silent yet violent takedowns as well as a silencer for your pistol.  Stalking enemies through hallways even atop the occasional rooftop feels quite satisfying, once again channeling Machine Games’ strong past when they worked at Starbreeze.  Heck, this might be the closest stealth fans may get to Dishonored 2 when/if it sees the light of day years from now.  It’s a rather simplistic system, to be sure, but it works quite well and doesn’t completely discourage the player from wanting to slaughter them all with hails of bullets.

Wolfenstein’s level design once again harkens back to more classic ideas of segmented level design, bookending each level with a cinematic that is player-triggered rather than timed or scripted.  The levels themselves are, for the most part, quite linear but stay true to the spirit of the classic id Software titles with a bunch of things to find and explore.  Hidden passageways, alternate routes and various other secrets abound throughout the game and really encourage exploration before moving on.  The levels themselves tend to be quite varied in their architecture with maps ranging from a London-based museum dedicated to Nazi space exploration, to a visually (and wisely) neutered concentration camp.  No two areas ever feel alike which I found to be quite enjoyable.

Replay value is quite strong for Wolfenstein: The New Order thanks to a series of collectibles as well as an interesting branching system.  Throughout each map you can find multiple different collectibles such as Enigma Codes (collecting all in a series will unlock a new gameplay mode), letters written by the inhabitants of the world, weapon upgrades and, of course, gold and jewels.  The true replay value for The New Order doesn’t come from these elements.  Rather, it is the aforementioned branching system known as Timelines.

In the first mission of the game, players are forced to make a decision that results in the death of one of two characters.  In turn, that shifts the game’s direction into a timeline.  Though the vast majority of the game remains the same between the two timelines, small yet quite noticeable differences appear throughout the experience.  You learn a different exploration skillset, certain areas of a map are in/accessible, cinematics are presented in a slightly different manner, side-story characters are replaced and levels even sometimes branch in different directions, though always toward the same inevitable outcome.  It’s a really interesting way to approach replayability beyond simply adding a new mode or difficulty level to the mix and the results are appreciated.  Machine Games seems intent on making your journey in the shoes of BJ Blazkowicz one that’s simply not over after a single playthrough and they make a strong argument for diving right back in after the credits roll.

Wolfenstein’s gameplay, as a whole, is a rather great experience with the only really prominent flaw being Machine Games’ world building.  Outside of the central plotline, most of the backstory about characters in the world as well as how the Nazis took over the planet during BJ’s fourteen year slumber is something the player has to actively search the environment for.  Even then, lots of questions remain completely unanswered.  What happened to the US?  Why is Hitler only mentioned once throughout the entire game?  What impact do your actions really have on the world and how are other resistance cells faring?  These and many other questions remain unanswered by the end of the game though we can probably expect many of them to be things the inevitable sequel should focus on.

The Teeming Shore of the New World
Let’s get this right out of the way: Wolfenstein: The New Order is simply gorgeous.  Running on id Software’s proprietary idTech 5 engine, the same one that powered Rage in 2010, the results are spectacular.  Unlike Rage, however, this version of the engine features almost no texture pop-in which is something I was previously worried about.  Character models look fantastic with only a handful of flat, uninflated textures to be found throughout the environment, but that’s understandable.  Terrain destruction is well done and will quickly force corner campers to reposition thanks to the variety of destructible cover available.  The cinematics themselves are quite nice thanks to smart framing, great model animations and strong pacing as they don’t beat around the bush in informing the player of what they want/need to know in order to further the plot.

In terms of audio, Machine Games’ has an equal amount of high and low points.  As previously stated, Brian Blooms narration of BJ Blazkowicz’s internal monologue is fantastically done as well as that of several of the games antagonists.  On the flip side, the actual musical score of the game is strangely downplayed with the exception of a handful of the cinematics.  Though the game featured some rather great marketing in the form of German versions of 1960s Americana songs as well as some original pieces, the soundtrack itself feels almost muffled by comparison and contains no real core theme for anybody except Deathshead himself.  I find it weird that Mick Gordon, creator of the stellar soundtrack to last November’s Killer Instinct, was unable or not allowed to craft a core theme for BJ, let alone one that reflects his inner anger and sorrow at the events that take place around him.  It’s pretty unclear just what happened here but the results are a tad disappointing.

The Torch of Imprisoned Lightning
Wolfenstein: The New Order is a game I would have never expected to play three years ago.  An interesting, story-based Wolfenstein game with great character development that felt just as great as its 1992 incarnation?  I would have declared that an improbable suggestion.  And yet, here we are.  The New Order doesn’t break any ground that hasn’t been tread before but instead mixes a lot of great ideas, both old and new, to form a very well-told story.  It has its flaws, to be sure, and faces some stiff competition in the coming months but it certainly seems to be the most delightful surprise of 2014.  The lesson here is that you don’t have to teach an old dog new tricks: instead, you should let it teach you some old ones.


Review: Titanfall

Click to read the full written review


I don’t think there is anyone in the world that can reasonably argue that Call of Duty isn’t the biggest shooter franchise on the market right now.  Its solid foundation of twitch-based combat, powerful killstreak rewards and variety of weapons makes a go-to series for competitive FPS players.  However, as the years have gone by, the annualized franchise has begun to show its age and challengers such as Battlefield have really begun to offer alternatives for those looking for a different experience.  Titanfall, the first product from the newly formed Respawn Entertainment, hopes to fit that bill.

Born from a dispute with publisher Activision over bonus payouts after the release of Modern Warfare 2, Respawn, created by Infinity Ward founders Jason West and Vince Zampalla alongside a quarter of the core IW team, has stuck to their roots in creating a twitch-based FPS while bringing combat out of the modern setting and into a scifi, almost Firefly-esque, future battlefield.  With Call of Duty behind them and, ironically, their biggest competitor, does Titanfall have what it takes to change the way we think about the competitive shooter?

You Can’t Take the Sky From Me
Centuries after humanity has spread to the stars, our species has found itself settling on two sets of planets: the Core systems, the first life-bearing bodies we found, and the Frontier, a newer set of systems full of untapped resources that we are still attempting to colonize.  Between the two lies a vast expanse of space for which nothing exists.  From the Core systems, the Interstellar Manufacturing Corporation, a commercial empire that controls the vast majority of the shipping lanes and planetary contracts, rules the Frontier, imposing their will as they see fit and legally backing up their claims with armed incursions.  Opposed to them are the Militia, a mishmash of homesteads, colonies, mercenaries and more that aim to kick the IMC out of the Frontier.

Titanfall stands as a multiplayer-only game from the outset though the setup for the game’s universe that you just read is still applicable thanks to the inclusion of Campaign Multiplayer.  As one of the primary gameplay settings, Campaign Multiplayer takes you on a narrative-focused playthrough of a series of nine maps from both the Militia and IMC perspectives.  Each map begins with a scripted intro sequence for which you are introduced to the battlefield you are about to engage the enemy in as well as multiple in-game events that occur at set moments as the match progresses.

Sadly, apart from the intro cutscenes, very little of the game makes an effort to draw you into the story, let alone make you feel for the characters on either side of the conflict.  We are not given a proper introduction to pretty much anyone nor do you receive any in-game information as to why this war is happening.  Respawn has clearly put a lot of time and effort into this game over its three year development stretch but it doesn’t seem as if they’ve made that strong an effort in making the universe one that the player should care about.  At no point throughout either side of the campaign did I feel any emotions for the game’s characters and that’s strange to me considering that Respawn clearly wants to build a franchise. 

What’s even stranger is just how the campaign for the game is formatted in terms of gameplay.  Apart from only playing two of the five different gameplay modes, the win/loss conditions of each match have almost no impact on the outcome of the narrative save for how the characters address the results of the battle.  Instead, the storyline never changes or adapts to what the player has accomplished with, spoiler alert, the good guys winning and the bad guys ending up on the run.  This could have been an excellent opportunity for Respawn to introduce gameplay elements such as branching narrative design, story-focused sub-mission objectives and progressively changing mission conditions.  Based on the outcome of a match, why couldn’t the follow-up match include bonus conditions for each team?  If the winning team earned a sizeable percentage of points over the losers, why can’t they, for example, receive an extra compliment of AI companions in the next match?  Or, for that matter, why not take a page out of Black Ops 2’s branching narrative design and craft us a custom-made story based on player actions?  All of this can, of course, be chalked up to a small development team with a finite amount of resources at their disposal but even so, this feels like a lost opportunity.

Despite the road not taken with the overall design of the narrative elements, Respawn has stayed true to their origins in creating setpiece moments throughout the match.  Both the skybox as well as various places on the map will show off in-game events that, for the most part, are out of the player’s control and demonstrate an almost living, breathing battlefield.  One such map can feature an aerial battle between several capital ships while another features “dragons” that can attack AI grunts.  Two memorable matches include a D-day-esque storming of the beaches moment as an AI Titan leads you and your troops into battle while yet another features gigantic, lumbering dinosaurs just outside the walls of your map.  Yes, you read that right: Titanfall has dinosaurs in it.  And that’s awesome.

All in all, though Titanfall lacks punch in the delivery of their core narrative and universe build-up, the campaign’s definitely fun to playthrough for at least the first time.  It should be noted however that the player does not gain access to two of the game’s three Titan models, the Strider and the Ogre, unless they complete the campaign as both the Militia and the IMC.  Don’t worry about it taking too long though since it only takes about an hour and a half to complete a campaign through to the end thanks to just how fast the game’s matches go.  It’s a fun romp while it lasts though one would hope that the game’s upcoming DLC will address the issues I’ve mentioned above.

Look Out Below
Though Titanfall’s attempt at introducing narrative into a multiplayer game ends up being about on par with what Splash Damage’s 2011 title Brink did, Titanfall succeeds in the gameplay department in strides.  Beyond just the story, the comparison I just mentioned is a necessity when one brings up the game’s parkour movement system and unlike the lackluster attempt Brink brought to the table, Respawn’s title is quite the feat.  Nay, I say, it’s one of the best parts of Titanfall.

Built on the same foundation as any other shooter, Titanfall harkens back to the olden days of yore when Quake and Unreal Tournament were the biggest names in competitive gaming by giving the player a jetpack for which the player, at any time during a jump, can induce a double jump that aids both vertically and horizontally.  This is combined with the ability to, while in the air, run along walls by simply pushing up against one.  Running along a wall yields a faster rate of movement than traveling on foot, encouraging this behavior.  This is all well and good but the real ticket comes when you take notice that the jetpack resets its boost every time your feet hit a surface.  This means that, if one is careful, they can chain wall runs almost infinitely so long as they can maintain the necessary momentum to initiate one.  The end result is tremendous fun and while it has some very negative consequences to your ability to aim your weapon, it will end up being the best Titanfall players’ method of choice for getting around the map.

The movement system wouldn’t be strong however unless Respawn emphasized complimentary map design and, for the most part, Titanfall’s initial offering of 15 maps makes parkour exceptionally satisfying to do.  Though not every single one of them does so, the selection at hand does a very nice job of both encouraging extended wall running and parkour thanks to corridors and well placed geometry while offering larges spaces by which titans can engage in mass combat.  One excellent example is Rise, a pit-esque map with tall, rising walls and interconnected hallways.  Rise seems to be the ultimate example of the game’s parkour possibilities as you can stream wall runs so long that you can actually climb high enough to get out of the map.

The omega to the wall running system’s alpha are the Titans, the titular object of both everyone’s desire and bane throughout the Titanfall experience.  These 20ft tall mechs are illustriously exciting to utilize at times and an essential tool for combat throughout the game.  Unlike the typical killstreak or power up you get in most other twitch-based shooters, players are all given a Titan after a certain amount of time as indicated on your HUD.  This timer can be cut down significantly if the player is able to damage or kill enemies with the most cut time rewarded for killing opposing players.  This system ensures that even the most novice of players will still earn a Titan at least once through the course of a match, something that players in games like Call of Duty may find trouble with especially later in the game’s lifecycle.  Skilled players will be able to earn upwards of four or five Titans during a match but it is a very fair system and is a most welcoming inclusion to the formula.

Titans come in one of three flavors though you only have access to one of them unless you complete the campaign as both the IMC and the Militia.  The Ogre is your heavy mech that is able to hold its own in most fights while the Strider is light weight and won’t though it is uniquely suited to Capture The Flag.  In the middle stands the Atlas, the standard Titan everyone has access to and an excellent balance to these two polar opposites.  Titanfall inclusion of only three models to choose from may be a tad disappointing to some but I find myself questioning what else Respawn could have included outside of support and defense-focused Titans.

What isn’t disappointing is how a Titan handles as they work almost exactly like a standard player in the game.  The weapon selection is fine and runs the gambit for what you would typically expect from a MechWarrior title, albeit no lasers are onboard.  Players can utilize melee attacks in addition to weapons fire to whittle a Titan down to its doomed state which will cause it to soon explode during which, if a player times a melee attack just right during this state, they can rip the pilot out of their Titan and laughably toss them across the map.  It’s quite a bit of fun and easily one of the most enjoyable things about piloting a Titan.  Should players decide to stay on foot rather than climb into their Titan, the unit will enter AI mode in which it will fight on your behalf and either guard one particular spot or follow you around on the map.  This is infinitely useful in Hardpoint Domination matches in which you have to capture select points on a map but the accuracy of the AI is nowhere near as strong as what the player can bring to the table.

Combat between Titans and engagements between pilots are fairly balanced but it is easy to suspect that Titan on pilot fights would be heavily one sided.  Not so, my good friend, as I’m happy to report that both sides have an equal chance of defeating the other.  Pilots can easily out maneuver a Titan thanks to both the map design as well as the parkour abilities mentioned earlier.  Pilots can also engage in the act of “rodeoing” in which they climb onto the back of the Titan, tear open a panel and can deal massive amounts of damage directly without having to take its shield down.  All pilots are also given a tertiary weapon slot devoted to anti-Titan weaponry which can really damage or even take down a Titan if the pilot gets the drop on it.

I’m also glad to report that Titanfall’s weapon variety, though lacking in number in comparison to most modern military shooters on the markey, each weapon handles great and feels unique.   Though you’ll mostly run into players utilizing the R-101C assault rifle, each and every weapon feels unique and interesting, not to mention powerful.  Each weapon is also designed to fit into a specific trope of firearm as well, whether it be an assault rifle, SMG, semi-automatic, three round burst, shotgun or sniper rifle so it can become quite easy to pick a favorite.  The EVA-8 shotgun is powerful but slow, the C.A.R. SMG fires rapidly but lacks accuracy and damage while the Longbow-DMR sniper rifle is tremendously deadly and fires as fast as you can pull the trigger but requires that lead time be calculated at anything over 30ft away and has a low magazine count.  One especially unique weapon, the Smart Pistol, can be a bit unwieldy but can lock onto and fire bullets accurately at multiple targets.   During my time with Titanfall I’ve enjoyed every single weapon the game has had to offer and have even overcome personal prejudices against certain types of rifles such as the three round burst Hemlock BF-R.  It seems that Respawn wants you to learn to appreciate all models of weapons in Titanfall rather than falling into a crutch and they’ve done a fine job of that.

Titanfall comes loaded with the standard allotment of gameplay modes without much of a twist but that’s just fine in my opinion.  Players can engage in Attrition, a point-based take on Team Deathmatch, the previously mentioned Hardpoint Domination and Capture The Flag, Last Titan Standing in which players fight each other until the last Titan on the opposing team is destroyed and, finally, Pilot Hunter which strictly specifies player-only kills.  Everything is fine across the board and the selection of maps that ship with Titanfall work just fine with all variants though I feel that the game could use a bit more variety.  Introduction of a King of the Hill mode focused on capturing Titans would be exciting and a race mode focused on utilizing the parkour capabilities of a pilot would be enticing but, sadly, they don’t exist.  Odds are that the majority of the Titanfall will end up playing Attrition as it helps to sell that map narrative focus Respawn is going with the game as well as the fact that it helps less skilled players contribute thanks to the ability to kills AI for points.  Still though, you probably won’t find yourself bored on any mode or map in the game.

One final element I feel must be mentioned is the game’s inclusion of an epilogue to each match.  Rather than have the match end once one side meets the victory conditions, instead the losing team calls in for extraction via drop ship.  The losing team must make it to their drop ship and either board or defend it before it evacuates while the winning team must attempt them from escaping.  During this sequence, each player is relegated to only one life so if they die they must watch on was a spectator as everything plays out.  It’s not a necessary part of any one match and is really only meant to give the player some point bonuses while fulfilling the map narrative aspect of the game, but it’s still fun for both sides, whether you board the drop ship just seconds before the hatch seals or you manage to get the final shot that destroys it before it can warp out.  It’s a nice addition though I would hope that future DLC will offer the losing team an alternate way out.

We’re Too Pretty to Die
Titanfall is a good looking game, to be sure.  While it doesn’t have the visual fidelity of a game like Killzone Shadow Fall or Infamous: Second Son, the game does have a fair amount of prettiness to it and that’s quite surprising considering what’s under the hood.  Rather than run on a contemporary beefy engine like Unreal 3 or Cry Engine or something particularly next gen, Respawn chose to build Titanfall on Source, Valve’s creation that stands a decade old at this point and built well prior to the start of the last generation of consoles.  Despite this, the game looks nice with a fine amount of detail put into texture work, character faces and particle effects, surprising for something that was arriving on the market when I was just entering college.  It seems that Respawn chose the Source engine from an ease-of-use as well as cost-effective standpoint as most new startups can barely afford to pay the licensing fees associated with the big engines they have to work with, let alone actually supplying their employees with a proper paycheck.  Not a bad choice there, Respawn, though I hope that you decide to switch to something else (Source 2, maybe?) once it’s time to start talking about the sequel.

While it looks good, Titanfall does suffer from some issues.  The Xbox One version can suffer from considerable screen-tearing at times unfortunately but, more importantly, the game has trouble with its framerate at times.  Though Titanfall is designed to run at the full 60fps most come to expect from a twitch-based shooter, the game struggles at times to maintain it depending on the context of what’s going on around the player.  Several times throughout my experience I noticed the game chug, dropping to almost single digits due in no small part to a fountain of particle effects going off.  Despite this, it doesn’t cripple the experience at all and usually picks back up fairly quickly.

Despite some issues with the visual design, Titanfall sports a rather top-notch sound suite.  The game sports a strong soundtrack by Stephen Barton though it seems that most of the pieces are variations on the core themes of the Militia and IMC.  Weapon sound design is very well done as all the weapons can clearly be identified by their fire signature.  The same can be said for Titans, both in terms of their weapons as well as just conveying the size, weight and strength of these walking one-man tanks.  The only part that is a bit weak is the voicework which for the most part is fine but lacks some significant punch, though this can easily be attributed to the game’s writing.

In terms of network performance, I’m glad I can report that the first third party title to test Microsoft’s dedicated server farms works very smoothly.  I personally have never been disconnected from a match and the game makes a strong effort to put you in lobbies, not in-progress matches.  I only ever experienced one soft crash of the game but I was back in and playing the game in seconds.  So far everything looks good for Titanfall’s networking future and if this is any indication of how the servers will work for all games that take advantage of them then we’re in for some good times online.

I’m Free, Freefallin’
Titanfall has the mixed pleasure of being one of the biggest releases on the new Xbox One as it has to both demonstrate the capabilities of Respawn Entertainment as well as the as well as mark a strong starting point for Microsoft’s 2014 lineup and beyond.  Though it does have some flaws to it in the narrative and visual departments, it’s an exceptionally fun shooter that stands as a bridge between the classic, fast-paced competitive shooters of yore while containing the solid action and visual presentations of today’s bulletfests.  Considering that this game was made by less than 100 people though and on aging resources though I’m more than willing to give them a pass.

Titanfall is a fantastic experience to be had and deserves the attention of everyone who enjoys playing the virtual soldier.  It’s rewarding action and unique gameplay makes it a challenger for one of the best shooters of 2014.



GOTY 2013 List

Here it is, my quite hard to produce top 10 list for 2013.  I left out over a dozen other great games I got to play as well but this is where my heart fell.