Shadow of Mordor -PS4, PS3, XBox One, XBox 360, PC

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Shadow of Mordor is, quite simply, an Assassin’s Creed clone. Forgive me for going straight for the punchline like I could only afford five minutes with a prostitute, but the fact that Monolith Productions spent ten minutes alone with the Xerox machine in Ubisoft’s office is actually more of a starting point than a final judgment. See, creating a clone of a well-known game tends to present a problem when that game already has a nasty habit of cloning itself. What exactly can you do when trying to emulate a game known for glitches, repetitive meaningless tasks, combat that ramps up the difficulty so slightly that old men race their wheelchairs across it, and a story that aspires to be the novelization of it’s own movie adaptation? Turns out, you can make a halfway decent game.

I say halfway, though because that’s about as far as they got. Monolith cleaned up a lot of the trash lying around Ubisoft’s apartment, but one can only do so much after the carpet has developed a healthy substrate of mycelium and the mushrooms just keep growing back. The story, for example, reads as eloquently as a Trump tweet and contains about as much Tolkien lore as one can glean from finding a copy of the Silmarillion during an especially problematic bowel movement. It opens on Talion, a ranger of Gondor (a job description about as endemic to Middle Earth as “LGBT Bible Salesman of Kansas”) who suffers the obligatory wife-and-child-murder scenario in the opening scene, thus absolving him of any pesky responsibility that would prevent him from romping through the Mordor countryside murdering orcs (because let’s be honest, the one thing we took from the Star Wars Holiday Special is that Chewie is a deadbeat dad who neglects his family as long as it’s not Life Day). He then gets himself possessed by an elven wraith whose true identity will both momentarily amaze die-hard Tolkien fans and confuse anyone who didn’t feel like reading the Bible of Middle Earth. Together they romp through the Mordor countryside, shoving Talion’s sword into so many Uruk-hai that if his blade doesn’t kill them, they’ll probably contract Uruk-HIV and die of Uruk-aids anyway. Rinse and repeat for thirty hours, then kill Sauron in a climactic boss battle that makes Inglorious Basterds look like an introduction to European History course.

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Just a scratch.

Gameplay closely resembles Assassin’s Creed, except Shadow of Mordor doesn’t need to dig up a steady supply of Borgias to assassinate—instead you declare genocidal war on all things green and smelly and you have no end to the supply of Uruks to break your falls from high places. Literally. There’s no end. Many of the monsters you kill come back to life, which gets frustrating when you’re trying to whittle Sauron’s army down to nothing, but to be fair, you come back when they kill you, so I’ll allow them the handicap. Shadow of Mordor also trashes the combat from Assassin’s Creed, so gone is the feeling of trying to beat your way out of a refrigerator with a tire iron, and instead you get more of a feel for how Batman would get on in Middle Earth—both combat and stealth seems to have been lifted straight out of Arkham Asylum. It skews the stealth unrealistically, to the vein of assuming Sauron’s entire army is recovering from Lasik surgery over the same two-day period. At times, Talion would run full-bent towards them, stab them in the face, and then sneak around behind the orc who just witnessed the death, only to hear that orc say, “What was that? Did something move over there?” Absurdly unrealistic as this may be, I wholeheartedly approve of the change. Assassin’s Creed went the route of realistic, which broke the mechanics—sitting on a bench or pushing your way into a gaggle of whores sounded like a really cool assassin stealth technique, but most guards were still smart enough to figure out that there weren’t too many giant hulking men in huge white cloaks carrying more cutlery than a Ginsu commercial through Renaissance Italy.

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The Force has a strong influence on the weak mind.

When you’re not punching holes in the Uruks like you expect to find a prize inside, you travel around the Mordor countryside picking up trash and cleaning up graffiti. These mini-quests do nothing other than give you minute amounts of experience points and, of course, to clean up the place a bit and make Mordor great again. While it sounds useless, again, it’s an improvement over Assassin’s creed where you chase after boxes of useless cash. At least the XP gives you access to new abilities, and while many games grant you abilities that end up being longer, more complicated ways of accomplishing what is easier gained by punching enemies in the face, I actually found myself using almost all of the skills I unlocked by the end.

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This is lame. Why am I not riding a fucking direwolf?

Mordor apparently isn’t big on diversity, and you only really fight four different monsters throughout the game. But that’s fine, right? After all, Tolkien used excruciating detail—sometimes so excruciating that his readers actually felt right there, suffering Gollum’s torture—but he didn’t invent more than a handful of species of monsters. So it’s okay if we only get to fight orcs and uruks, wargs, spiders, trolls, dragons and balrogs. Except we never fight anything nearly as interesting as a dragon or a balrog…the swarming, skittering monsters are zombie-like ghuls instead of spiders, the giant hulking monsters are called graugs, not trolls, the bipedal wolf-like monsters are carragors, not wargs, and the game doesn’t mention orcs other than to say, “these ain’t them.” But don’t worry…there’s literally no end to the supply of Uruk-hai willing to fight you, and each one of them has a nice little speech to deliver before you get to start the battle.

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Man-swine! Let me go into extended detail on my displeasure with our previous encounter, be it for my demise or your return from yours.

Apparently the version of the game I played is not the one I was supposed to. The PS3 and the Xbox 360 editions are, from what I read online, the PS4 edition after being dragged through a mud puddle and then stored for a week in the rotting carcass of a sperm whale. But what it lacks in aesthetic value, it more than makes up for in loading and saving times, making Shadow of Mordor a great game to play when you have a few dozen small chores around the house, but you’re only willing to use the time going in and out of menus to do them. When you account for menu transitions, listening to each uruk tell you its life story, reloading after it kills you, and watching the WWE of Mordor as the uruks kill each other and level-up during death transitions, a 40-hour game quickly turns into about eight or nine hours of gameplay.

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Tinder profiles in Mordor.

The game touts its Nemesis system, which as far as I can tell is a fancy way of saying “we randomly generate enemies, then assign them a name.” Although this feels to me like Monolith’s main selling point is something I did with Lego guys when I was six, the enemies do feel like they have a little more personality than the goons in other games, and the names sound Tolkien-esque (One notable uruk goes by “Ratbag,” clearly inspired by the orcs from the book, Shagrat and Gorbag), even if I have to ride whatever the hell a caragor is in order to kill them. Supposedly, the PS3 version’s Nemesis system functions about as well as a cassette tape in an MRI machine, but I suspect the nearly three-hour update required when I first booted the game fixed some of that. Just add that to the game’s non-play-time counter.

Shovel Knight – Computer, 3DS, PS Vita, PS3, PS4, XBox One, WiiU

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Shortly, all games will legally require artwork wherein all the game’s characters stampede outwards from the box in dramatic recreation of either the Big Bang or a Kool Aid commercial.

Shovel Knight? Meh. Might as well see what all the fuss is about.

If you haven’t heard of Shovel Knight by now, then congratulations for having successfully avoided the wave of fan-made, kickstarted indie games that constantly threaten to take the game industry by storm and put an end to the soulless vacuum of triple-A games developed by people who know what they’re doing. Okay, so that’s a bit harsh, and I’ve said before I’m convinced that Shigeru Miyamoto is the only one who actually knows how to make a game, and anyone else with a modicum of success has just blundered upon it accidentally, enabling them to go on to make other games that have a chance of being good. Sort of a video game evolution, like a dolphin who manages to survive global warming because some random mutation made it enjoy swimming around in boiling Coke. While the indie movement is praised as revolutionary, I suspect it’s simply spreading out funds, talent and attention and it won’t stop until every game out there is as bland as Call of Duty, Madden and Rock Band. (At that point, no doubt, developers will want to capitalize on the craze of blandness and come up with games that creatively put instruments in the hands of football teams and make them go out and fight brown people.) Don’t believe me? Ask yourself why we have a thousand TV channels that all show reality TV, or why we have hundreds of musical genres that all suck.

Still, in spite of the musical smegma and TV programming that will shortly be replaced by high-definition mirrors, every so often we get something good. Likewise, in the world where everyone with a “Unity for Dummies” book is trying to publish a reinvigorated spiritual successor to what they view as the under-appreciated adaptation of Where’s Waldo for the NES, sometimes a game comes along that shines so brightly in the sunrise that the world stops and turns in unison to gaze on the wonders that private developers have wrought into being.

Shovel Knight is not that game.

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Honestly, I’m not even sure if this is a screenshot from the game or if there’s been some expansion released.

Let’s start with the formalities. Shovel Knight takes place in a world where brutal violence by an elite aristocracy is looked on as cute and quirky, so long as the knights are paired up with mundane objects or themed personae rejected by the worst of indie comic book villains. Fresh off a marathon of indie horror movies, Shovel Knight fights with a sharp wit and an undeserved feeling of righteousness and indignation for those who lead a morally inferior lifestyle. Just kidding! He bludgeons his enemies on the head with a shovel. Having shoveled on my own once or twice, I can say those things don’t like to cut through grass roots without the weight of an obese manatee pushing down on them. A knight fighting with a shovel may sound cute, but we’re talking about a painful and slow death here. At least with a razor-sharp broadsword, your enemies will suffer clean deaths, bleeding out in moments. Anyway, Shovel Knight has a friend named Shield Knight. Shield Knight, presumably pissed off that she got saddled with the same character class as Goofy from Kingdom hearts, ditches the loser who would swagger onto the battlefield with a paintbrush after watching The Karate Kid. Then a bunch of other knights appear and…something. I guess Shovel Knight feels the need to prove the tactical superiority of yard work.

Okay, on the surface, I’ll give it this much; Shovel Knight is brilliantly conceived, well-executed, and hits on most of the right retro qualities to potentially make it a fun game. The game feels like Capcom’s Duck Tales more than anything else, although the stage layouts feel more like Mega Man, the overworld map is in the style of Mario 3, and there’s a town with simple quests Shovel Knight can accept, kind of like…Wikipedia goes with The Adventure of Link. Why not? Sounds good. I admit that during the first stage, I had a lot of fun learning the ropes, digging crap out of the ground, and hopping around on my pogo-shovel without questioning it any more than I did the fact that Scrooge McDuck apparently uses a pogo-stick as a cane. After the tutorial stage, I moved onto the town, thinking it could be really fun trying to collect special items in each stage and trade them for equipment and upgrades. Brilliant! Finding a way to expand on retro games without losing the 8-bit feel!

Then I spent an hour and a half trying to get through the next stage without snapping my 3DS in half.

The other trend spreading like gonorrhea through the fan-rom-hack and indie-game community is to make games hard. Really hard. Like, hard enough that when you beat them you feel a wave of remorse for working on the game with a dedicated passion that you could have used to cure cancer or reverse climate change. After all, the harder the game, the better, right? Why can’t every game be Kaizo Mario?

Let’s talk. Hard games aren’t inherently good games. Some good games are hard. Some hard games are good. The reason people make hard games isn’t because they’re more fun to play, it’s because they’re easier to make. I always questioned why Bowser didn’t knock down some of the platforms over his lava pits, or why he didn’t just build a wall around the first level to prevent Mario from reaching the flagpole. (Although, economic experts in the Mushroom Kingdom suggest the wall would cost billions of dollars to build, staff and maintain, and it wouldn’t stop Mario from entering level 1-2 on a legal visa and overstaying his visit) These things would have been really easy to do and they would have made the game impossible—which means best game ever, right?

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This looks exciting. Too bad I couldn’t make it that far.

No. See, it takes nothing to hack Castlevania to put a boss rush in level one. But does the player have the skill right off the bat (heh, heh) to deal with five bosses at once? Do they have the equipment and power-ups necessary? How many paths can the player take to avoid damage—too many and the game is boring, too few and they won’t be able to progress, get frustrated, and stop playing the game. Making a game hard is easy. Making a game difficult and playable takes skill and effort. Shovel Knight? It’s fun, has game play about as challenging as Duck Tales, and seems well-designed. And if you die, there are no checkpoints. If you spend ten minutes on a level and fail, you have to spend another ten minutes just to get another chance to practice what you screwed up. And this breaks the game, raising it to frustration-level hard. I’ve had this complaint before. After proving to the game that you can accomplish something, you shouldn’t have to keep doing it. If Shovel Knight were math, you could get a problem on your differential calculus homework wrong and it would send you back to Kindergarten to teach you how to count to ten.

If you want a good example of a game that is so hard it is literally impossible, but done so well that people can’t get enough of it, I’m sure whatever device you’re reading this article on has some version of Tetris.

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Gladly.

South Park: The Stick of Truth – PS3, PS4, XBox 360, XBox One

Kupa Keep
The world of RPGs is in dire peril. The once-noble Square-Enix has abandoned its loyal subjects and now appeals to the lowest common denominator. Sacrificing gameplay, story and style, they have heaped enough muscles onto their protagonists that each one qualifies as its own Olympic wrestling team and armed them with enough firepower to give the NRA spontaneous orgasms. Meanwhile, Nippon-Ichi floods the market with games written as though someone had copy-pasted a bunch of fan fiction pdf files and didn’t notice that the formatting fucked up. These games consist of one bombardment of verbal diarrhea after another that connect repetitive and clunky battle systems that work as well as an NES with broken connector pins…after someone threw it into the Grand Canyon. Bethesda offers us reprieves with an occasional Fallout or Elder Scrolls title, but these come only slightly more frequently than a nun and have so many bugs that the games require heavy fumigation. But in our hour of need, two warriors emerge from the darkness, standing tall over everything we’ve lost. Armed with nothing but their wits, a love for RPGs, and a virtually unlimited amount of financial support based on the success of a major TV series running for nearly two decades, Trey Parker and Matt Stone stepped forward to give us their role-playing masterpiece, South Park: The Stick of Truth.

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Beat up the homeless so they leave town. If South Park doesn’t have homeless people, they’ll look more compassionate.

The game gives you control of The New Kid, also known as Douchebag, who arrives in South Park just in time to be swept up in a long-term game between Stan, Kyle, Kenny and Cartman, that more resembles a minor gang war than a 4th grade playtime. Cartman leads the humans as the Grand Wizard of the Kingdom of Kupa Keep (KKK), who possess the Stick of Truth, the most macguffiny macguffin ever conceived for fiction. Whoever controls the Stick, they say, controls the universe. You’d think that control of the universe would include the power to keep the KKK’s rival faction, the Drow Elves, from stealing the Stick. But of course that’s the first thing that happens, giving Douchebag the impetus to begin his quest.

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The Grand Wizard of the KKK, using fire to smite his foes.

It’s sad for me to say this, but a game that lets you fart into your hand and throw it at enemies is better than anything that Square-Enix has put out in at least ten years. But it happens. Frequently, actually. Because parodies have to be so tuned into the tropes, characteristics, and weaknesses of their genre, they often become paragons of what they’re mocking. When I first saw the Venture Bros., I felt like re-watching Johnny Quest, only to find out the series developed plot less than an episode of Scooby Doo and oozed enough racial superiority to bleach the Klan’s linens. I’ve read that Parker and Stone are huge fans of classic RPGs, which goes a long way to explaining why so many elements that frustrate players don’t appear in Stick of Truth. Random battles happen only enough to stay interesting, and the type of enemies vary enough that you don’t get into the standard RPG pattern of taping down the X button and going outside to mow the lawn. Many games use backtracking like a bra—the padding makes it look bigger and better, but once you strip if off you’re left with a deep-seated disappointment. Stick of Truth, on the other hand, has a fast travel service, but I found myself opting to walk across the map because it had enough interesting things going on in the background. But this begs the question, if the South Park creators know what players want because they are fans of RPGs, what exactly do full-time game developers do for fun?

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The game focuses heavily on story and plays like an extended episode of South Park. Playing to their strengths as writers, Parker and Stone have found new and interesting ways to incorporate their brand of humor that should have gone stale in 1998. They do avoid their usual satirical style, most likely so that the game has a shelf life longer than grocery store sushi, but do rely heavily on social media trends like Facebook and Twitter. They also center a quest around Al Gore’s search for Manbearpig, their rather embarrassing comment on climate change denial, but I can forgive this. Like drunken antics at a college party, we can look back and admit something might not have been a good idea, but was still funny as hell.

Butters

If there’s one complaint I have about the game—and I can’t believe I’m saying this—it’s the overly complicated fart mechanics. Trying to pass its gas off as a magic system, farting works more akin to Skyrim’s dragon shouts. Each of the four flatulent skills you learn requires a specific combination of inputs with the right and left control sticks. Holding the right stick in the down or up position allows you to change direction, tune a frequency, or steer with the left control stick, and you can let rip your attack, unleashing chemical warfare in the form of deadly gases, by changing direction with the right stick at the right moment. Farting in the Stick of Truth demands precision, the type you need to throw a hadouken fireball while tuning radio dials, adjusting rabbit ear antennas, and filing your taxes all at the same time. Fortunately, the game only requires you to fart in one or two battles, and it’s a lot easier to do it on the map, so I didn’t have to worry.

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Yup. This is happening. And it’s a GOOD game, remember.

There are other problems, to be sure. The game feels too short, and a little sparse on available quests. You have companion characters to use in battle, the four main stars, Butters and Jimmy, but halfway through the game, they kind of peter out and don’t help much in battle other than to use items. But that problem corrects itself by making the game progressively easier as you learn how to use the battle system, eliminating most of the challenge even on the highest difficulty setting. But still, I can’t praise this game highly enough. It shows us what PS3 era RPGs could have been, if only game developers weren’t sitting around like corporate monkeys, throwing their feces at traditional players in hopes of selling something to any moron with an xBox and a copy of FIFA 2013. The industry’s behavior almost sounds like an episode of South Park…

Summons

Lego Jurassic World – 3DS, PS3, PS4, XBox 360, XBox One, PC

Clever meme...

Clever meme…

We here at RetroCookie pride ourselves in our preservation of vintage games, which compels us to give credit to game makers who do the same (although don’t ask us what compels us to speak in the Royal We, as we still have much evidence to support the idea that we only have one body and very little control over household pets, let alone entire nations). To that end, I’ve covered modern 3DS games such as the Majora’s Mask remake, the Ulitmate NES remix, and even newer games based around the charm of the classics, such as the Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds. With that spirit at heart, I’d like to introduce a new 3DS game to the notches on my belt, Lego Jurassic World, which falls under the retro gaming category for reasons I will expound upon now.

A needlessly huge cast of characters in which more than one person will routinely dive up to their ankles in shit deeper than Spielberg's first plan for Jurassic Park 4!

A needlessly huge cast of characters in which more than one person will routinely dive up to their ankles in shit deeper than Spielberg’s first plan for Jurassic Park 4!

(Don’t rush me! I’m still thinking!)

Okay, you caught me. I just don’t have a PS4 or a WiiU. But with games like Bravely Default and Link Between Worlds on the horizon, and all my other NDSs worn almost to the breaking point, I figured a 3DS would be a wise purchase. Plus it doesn’t have creepy, voyeuristic tendencies like the XBox One. So to tell the truth, I own that one modern game system, and I do occasionally play it, and I struggle to get through games quickly enough to write a weekly entry with enough time left over that I don’t have to give my students lessons on metaphor and character development in Bubble Bobble. So this week, I give you Lego Jurassic Park, a coincidentally perfect game for playing in the ten minute breaks between classes.

...whassaaaa!!

…whassaaaa!!

If you read my review on the Lego Star Wars games, you’ll know the series has one or two issues with originality in game play. Inevitably, the games degrade into a process of collecting studs to purchase unlockable characters which help you collect more studs, and I strain to think of anything that such a cyclical experience might augment other than a walk down a moebius strip or a finely tuned, professional relationship with a prostitute. However, like the prostitute, Lego games may need to offer something other than a sense of humor and playing fast and easy if they want to keep my interest and coax me out of 20 bucks for cab fare. (Ah, comparing Legos to professional sex workers. It’s times like this that I wish anyone actually read this blog.)

I want a good clean fight. No bites below the...uh...belt?

I want a good clean fight. No bites below the…uh…belt?

Don’t get me wrong, though, there is something very zen about the act of romping through tropical environments, smashing everything into a zillion tiny lego bricks at the slightest touch, especially considering that realistically your characters would spend five minutes prying each piece loose with a butter knife that won’t fit into the crack and walking away with sore hands. Lego Jurassic World takes this stud collection (and as I say that I resist the urge to continue making sex worker jokes) very seriously. Traveller’s Tales games has always treated combat in their Lego series as more of an irritating formality, like renewing your driver’s license, waiting for a waiter before eating at Old Country Buffet, or telling your friends that their newborn babies don’t look at all like someone dipped George W. Bush in a bathtub full of Nair. In Lego Jurassic World, though, they have almost eliminated combat entirely, save for a few levels in Jurassic Park II and III where you punch a few compies and trample a few InGen workers with a stegosaurus.

Goin' down to Nublar, gonna eat a lot of people.

Goin’ down to Nublar, gonna eat a lot of people.

That last bit, though, adds a much needed touch of originality to the series. In addition to wandering around as your choice of any of a million worthless characters (When the novelty of playing as Dino Handler Bob loses its lustre, spice it up by having an affair with Dino Handler Vic!) , the game also lets you control most of the movies’ animals. Furthermore, you can unlock access to the Hammond Creation Lab, where you can play with genetic coding to mix and match different features into custom dinosaurs, thus proving that Traveller’s Tales missed the point of all four movies about as much as those people who think Harry Potter promotes devil worship. Certain secrets actually require this genetic Frankensteinery, as do two bonus areas that allow players to take full control of hungry dinosaurs as they eat, trample, gore, or hawk poisonous loogies at unsuspecting park staff.

Must drive faster...must escape terrible addition to poorly adapted Michael Crichton novel...

Must drive faster…must escape terrible addition to poorly adapted Michael Crichton novel…

Lego Jurassic World has more of a puzzle-oriented design than other Lego games. Normally, puzzles would earn the game a black mark by its name, followed by a swift hammer blow to the cartridge and, if I feel especially generous that day, a steady stream of urine. However, puzzles in this game simply means picking the right character to activate whatever interactive element might block your path at any moment, more of a formality than a puzzle: “Hello, there, Jake. Do you have a character willing to dive head first into this steaming pile of triceratops shit? Oh, I’m sorry. Here, fill out these forms and pay a small fee to unlock a character with a severe hygiene deficiency, then come back on a later playthrough.” Now, my regular readers (almost typed that with a straight face) might remember my Twilight Princess review where I described such mechanics as needlessly enforcing a developer mandated sequence of events without actually giving the player anything fun to do. Well…okay, so I have a point, and that point still stands here.

LEGO-JURASSIC-WORLDHowever, I played this game through to completion, so it must have some strong points. Earlier, though, I mentioned that Traveller’s Tales previously treated (and other companies still do) combat as a requirement for games, as though making a game without some type of fighting would create a vacuum that would implode, sucking the console, player, and northern hemisphere into oblivion. And since there’s no combat in oblivion, they’d like to avoid that. But as it turns out, games don’t need violence (I know…crushing news to all those bloodthirsty Tetris fans.), and Lego Jurassic World seems to have figured out how to replace that. Stud collecting, for one–simple, yet fun, and for whatever reason human beings have brain signals that light up on hearing a pleasing sound and watching dozens of small objects transmogrify into a score total ratcheting ever upwards. The humor, of course, makes us wait for the next cheeky thing the game will do–I’d recommend the game entirely based on the talking raptor scene from JP3. Also, did I mention you get to rampage as dinosaurs? Those segments might feel short and underdeveloped, but it does include a minigame that lets you target-spit at Newman from Seinfeld.

Hello, Newman!

Hello, Newman!