The Talk – Sniper Elite 3

Sniper Elite 3 – (PS3, PS4 (Review system), 360, Xbox One, PC; Rebellion; 505 Games)


For saying there are plenty of people into stealth games and stealth games sell alright, there really don’t ever tend to be many of them. Whether its because people can already get their fix on the creme de la creme of Hitman, Splinter Cell or Metal Gear Solid already, or some other reason, we don’t seem to see too many new or different stealth games come out. But here we are, with Sniper Elite 3 as the first big stealth game for the new consoles. And its actually a total delight to play, and I generally loved my time with the campaign, and I’m going to have a tough time not recommending the game through all of this.

While previous Sniper Elite games seemingly put far more of a focus on linear sniping sections within urban environments, Sniper Elite 3 is set in large open non-linear environments off into the North African desert. And I feel that change does the game a great service. I couldn’t hugely get into Sniper Elite V2 because it felt very controlled and linear, and that often had an impact on how much it felt like I could experiment with my tactics, which is, to me, a huge part of a stealth game. No such problems with Sniper Elite 3 though. The open spaces allow for a lot more gameplay experimentation, and make the stealth feel so much better as you have an ability to evade and navigate around your prey as a desert predator. It also means that spots like the sniper nests become more of an optional bonus than a set piece, and that you can find your own neat little spots for more organic and less rigid sniper nests. It just really fits for a sniper-focussed stealth game to let you have that space and mobility.

The stealth gameplay is also really good in the game for pacing and such. While games like Splinter Cell can feel quite quick because its not that hard to maintain a ghostly presence, Sniper Elite really makes you work for those brief moments of pay-off and forces you to be patient. There is only one gun you can use that doesn’t make a noise, and you only have two clips for it when you enter an area, and its not a particularly long range gun. That means you’re either going to have to get up close and personal, which is very risky, or you’re going to have to play the sound-masking game, which can be very hard. By that, I mean, you have to wait until the right few seconds where a noise is happening that can cover up your sniper shot, so you can pop off a shot and watch a slow mo bullet fly through a man’s skeleton. And those seconds don’t come around often, which makes the brief moments of POW BANG WHIZZ in all the ambience and quiet all the more piercing and satisfying. Basically, the pacing on the game just feels spot on for a stealth game about being a sniper in the war; plenty of waiting but plenty of satisfaction in the brief payoffs.

That’s not to say the pacing of the stealth gameplay and being a sniper is constantly well-handled; for some reason, I assume to try and have some set-pieces or to give you satisfying and difficult endings to the campaign levels, they bring out armoured cars and tanks regularly at the end of levels for you to fight off. And obviously, as any military strategist will tell you, snipers are not equipped or meant to take out tanks, and tanks are not all that equipped or designed to take out snipers. Sure it’s cool popping the grates off a tank once or twice and blowing up their engine, but its a bit excessive if I’m killing more tanks as a sniper than most anti-tank soldiers would have been doing. Especially the mission where my compatriots with guns and a truck leave a base as 2 tanks and 2 armoured cars arrived, leaving me to fight all 4 off casually with my sniper rifle and some rockets left around the environment (the rockets are about as effective as normal, non armour-piercing bullets, which is another odd level of rubbish).

The pacing also suffers when you go outside the campaign; while games like Splinter Cell: Blacklist and Hitman: Absolution managed to maintain a somewhat diluted version of what made the main levels so good in their challenges and/or multiplayer modes, Sniper Elite 3 doesn’t quite achieve the same. The survival mode on Sniper Elite 3 feels more akin to a horde mode, which feels totally out of place in a stealth-oriented game where you’re going to have a hard time fighting off a regiment of soldiers, and the multiplayer feels more unfair than well-paced as you are simply looking for other people and if they spot you first, you’re basically dead. It kind of doesn’t really work as a balanced multiplayer game, and it certainly isn’t satisfying. So basically, when buying Sniper Elite 3, you’re paying for a fantastic singleplayer campaign and maybe some co-op fun that could be good in a totally different way.

Something I totally have to give kudos to the developers for though is how good the presentation of the whole game is. The game itself looks gorgeous, and as I was saying, I’m so very glad the developers have chosen to place the game in the North African desert as opposed to the ruins of urban Germany; the environments look fantastic, with the vibrant colours and beautiful views of desert towns and huge canyons, and it makes a fantastic change from grey dilapidated buildings. The whole graphical package, both because the environment design is better and because of the hardware jump, is just so sharp now, and this is probably one of the best looking games I’ve played this year. Also, its cool to see soldiers in short sleeves and shorts and fun explorer hats for once.

The sound design also helps contribute to the package; for once, the sound design in a game has ended up really standing out to me as noteworthy just because of how well it tied to the pace and feel of the game. Generally, the ambient sound effects are quite disparate and soft, there’s no music throughout the environment, the soldiers speak German or Italian and you don’t understand it (which is good because the thing where all enemies speak English in games is silly) and when there are active sound effects from cars or guns or feet on the floor, it pierces the quiet in this way that sits so perfectly for a stealthy sniper game. The whole thing is just immersive and satisfying in such a fundamental way because the sound design is just so damn good.

The campaign isn’t totally flawless though. As much as I may give the game a free ride for this because World War 2 is kind of a major conflict and soldiers can just be soldiers without needing huge amounts of justification and exposition to go and do missions because its their job, the story is basically non-existent around some German project about a super tank, and a sub-plot with a guy you rescue and how he dies very quickly afterwards and you take a bullet off his person and kill the big bad guy with it. I considered not ‘spoiling’ that, but I doubt the storyline is the thing that would make you keep playing the game, and its so very much of a bare-bones plot that there was not all that much way for me to dance around spoiling for anyone that hasn’t played it yet.


All in all, Sniper Elite 3 is an odd package for what you get; you get this near-perfectly done third person stealth & sniping game for like 6-9 hours, and it feels generally amazing for that time, and then if you don’t want to go back and play that on a higher difficulty for more realistic gameplay, then there’s not much more worth doing. Co-op might be cool if you get people to play it with though I think it’d ruin some of the immersion and pacing, but survival and multiplayer just aren’t at that same standard as the campaign. But if you want a great stealth game outside the old tried-and-true series, I highly recommend Sniper Elite 3.


 

Joe Trail is the editor-in-chief of Don’t Be A Pixel. Mostly because he says he is, not because he has other writers to edit over. But such is the life of a busy editor-in-chief, obviously. He’s also an avid writer for the site. Of course.

Why Haven’t You Played – Alpha Protocol

Alpha Protocol (PS3, Xbox 360, PC; Obsidian; Sega; 2010)


Alpha Protocol is a game that I think most people probably know about but they just haven’t really had a good play of. Which is fair. I know I waited a solid while before I even gave the game its first go, and that first time, I did what I always do when games ask me what kind of gameplay I want to have and picked wrong. And so I got pissed with the game very quickly for my own failings. But last year, when I was first starting out as a streamer (feels a lot longer back than that), I decided to give Alpha Protocol another go because it was there in my Steam library and hey, its not a game you see much of. And I fell in love with the game during that time. Absolutely fell in love with it.

Y’see, the whole reason Alpha Protocol sits with me so well is that it fills the gap that Bioware have left with their new-found approach to the Western RPG. With Dragon Age, they have ye olde fantasy setting, and with Mass Effect, they have yonder futuristic sci-fi setting; what that leaves out is the modern realist setting, and that’s where Alpha Protocol comes in. Here you have a globe-trotting Western RPG set in the world of modern espionage and political trickery, with a fantastic conversational system, but also taking from cover shooters and stealth games when you have to pull out your gun. A game that is to James Bond and Jason Bourne, as Dragon Age is to Conan and Mass Effect is to Star Trek; your gaming interpretation of what you’ve loved in the media. And trust me, as a kid who loved espionage fiction who grew up into a teenager and an adult who still loves espionage fiction, the game fits like a glove.

A big boon to the game is how well the conversation system fits being a spy. Unlike Mass Effect, with the good and evil bits on the circle being the leading split, Alpha Protocol works on a very different system where you simply choose the tone of what you’re going to say between 4 different choices. The choices are suave a la James Bond, professional a la James Bourne, aggressive a la Jack Bauer, and sometimes a fourth option in the situation; what this means is that you get a more ‘shades of grey’ system as opposed to the garish and obtuse ‘good and evil’ system most modern dialogue mechanics use, so its a far more optimal system for letting someone choose how to behave. It also means that your status in the world is far more defined by your interactions and relationships with all the characters and how they respond to everything you say, rather than just a few tickboxes every conversation. You have to be able to read what people will and will not respond well to, and you’re not even always trying to get someone to be your friend. Sometimes the point is that you want to infuriate someone so they slip up or something. Sometimes the point is you’re going for a romance and play it up as such. To me, its far better than “I’m the good guy, here is what a good guy would say” or “I’m the anti-hero, here is what the anti-hero would say”.

The story also does a pretty good job of fitting the game into the espionage world, and not really being all that bad. Its fairly tropey in that its a fairly normal story of your organisation being betrayed and double-crossed and you’re forced into being a rogue agent, but it does a nice job fitting into modern geopolitics, which is a lot more than can be said for a lot of games set in ‘modern times’. The game also does a nice job of avoiding falling onto the defaults of Russian or middle Eastern antagonists, unlike other games like that one with the 4 in its title that is about warfare in modern times. And the characters fill their roles quite neatly, and are all a varied bunch of individuals, wich is quite nice. My personal highlight is probably the security chief guy in Italy, as I like his gruff professional attitude as an old man, and the way that he don’t take no shit even as a boss.

Final bit to talk about the majesty of is the combat, I guess. Generally, the combat is pretty on point throughout and is quite satisfying; stealth is no Splinter Cell but its still pretty fun, third person cover-to-cover shooting isn’t exactly Gears of War but it still feels damn good. The combat holds up generally though no matter the approach you take, which is good though; the issue with a lot of these first entries into the world of combat-heavy Western RPGs normally is that combat balancing can be a bit poorly done. Mass Effect 1 certainly had issues in that certain skill sets were useless compared to others, and there’s always the infamous case of Deus Ex: Human Revolution and the bosses being undefeatable if you picked a certain set of skills. Now I’m not going to say that Alpha Protocol gets away from all of that, because it certainly doesn’t; the boss fights are often these very bizarre difficulty spikes for no apparent reason and I probably actually spend far more of my time with that game than I should have on those damn things. But, probably by virtue of the fact that its not a game based around lots of personal skills as well as weapon skills, you generally are fine in the boss fights, its just ensuring you have enough ammo and get used to their crazy difficulty. Unless you’re a melee / stealth scrub, then you’re just leaving yourself open to a coke-snorting Russian mobster obsessed with the 80s stabbing you to death. And its your own fault.

So yeah, here you have this game, taking a wonderful diversion from the Bioware model and creating a really cool espionage game (which you don’t get nearly often enough nowadays) in a solid believable world. Yet, there are some bugs with it and people had some issues with the launch, so it came out the gates with not fantastic review scores in a busy holiday season and everyone forgot about it. But take this as your notice to stop forgetting about it, get your hands on it if you haven’t already, and enjoy the hell out of that game, you dirty son of a guns.


Joe Trail is the editor-in-chief of Don’t Be A Pixel. Mostly because he says he is, not because he has other writers to edit over. But such is the life of a busy editor-in-chief, obviously. He’s also an avid writer for the site. Of course.


 

Peggle 2

The Talk – Peggle 2

Peggle 2 – (Xbox One, Xbox 360, PS4 (Review system); PopCap; EA)


 

Let’s just start this by saying what we’re all thinking; Peggle is the most perfectly designed game that currently exists and is the absolute peak of game design. Fuck your Dark Souls, and your Quake, and your Counterstrike, and your Minecraft and all that. Peggle is perfection. If it wasn’t perfection, why would it be so perversely and wonderfully addictive for any gamer? From mums and dads to professional FPS players, noone can resist the lure of the bouncing ball and the Ode to Joy it brings. And if they say they can, they probably just haven’t played Peggle yet. Even though there are no excuses for that when there is a free version of Steam, Origin have given it away and Blizzard have a free version too, and the original game is on just about every platform of note over the past few years. But to return to the point, Peggle 1 (and Nights, the expansion to the game) is an incredibly satisfying, incredibly well balanced and addictive game that straddles this perfect line between logical puzzle game and chaos theory. The game’s success can be attributed to the fact that that line straddling leaves it a fantastic place as a high score game; its an easy-to-learn, hard-to-master game, almost the epitome of one, and the colour of the pegs is randomised constantly, either each shot or each try, meaning there’s no way you can truly pick the perfect way to beat each level for the optimum score, helping to at least keep away the appearance of the elite few trouncing the common Pegglers (thats a word now, I’ve used it and everything).

Peggle 2 Extreme Fever

Imagine that as my censored butt to Peggle haters.

So, on to the topic of this here new Peggle game, that I’m sure everyone remembers the announcement of, when the PopCap CEO came out and was like “YEAH PEGGLE 2 BABY” and jumped on stage and made a new console generation’s giant enemy crabs. But barring that, up until May, it’d been exclusive to a console people didn’t want, and until November, it was Microsoft exclusive. And now its on PS4, so I finally got to get my hands on it. And as someone thats actually paid for Peggle on PC, and played it on DS pretty religiously too, I won’t deny I was hyped for some more Peggle. And this game kicks in pretty nicely by harkening back to some of the most memorable things about Peggle 1 like the use of Ode To Joy on the menu, and starting out with the unicorn Peggle Master guy. However, while the experience and the gameplay may remain its same tight self, the presentation has been hugely stepped up. While I appreciate it may not mean much to some people, its nice to see that PopCap have taken this opportunity with a sequel to really ramp up the presentation and aesthetics and such, as the original is fairly restrained in a style typical of pre-major-success-PopCap.

Now the game has a much more grand atmosphere to it. The graphics are all the more colourful and vibrant, the music and sound design all the more immersive, and most importantly, when you move on the main menu, it plays the intro Ode To Joy snippet note by note, which drove me to obsessively try and play the snippet perfectly in time by scrolling up and down the main menu. Which is truly the sign of addiction to a game. Even if this isn’t even a mini-mini-game, and its just me really wanting to beat a challenge I self-imposed. Also though, the different characters now each have their own classical piece for when you beat the level, meaning that you now get more of a variety of tunes to go with your varied characters and environments and all the rest. All in all, its nice to see PopCap really push the polish like that.

Peggle 2 Bjorn

Bjorn The Red-Horned Reindeer

There are also new characters, to further prove that PopCap weren’t just sitting around on their butts the whole time this game was being made. Barring Mr Unicorn himself, the other 5 base game characters are all new, and their powers are at least slightly different from those of the original game’s cast. Each character now gets 10 levels, rather than 5 as it was in Peggle 1, to strut their stuff and convince you they play well, and from there, there are also 10 challenge levels for each set (though you finish the first one as a kind of interlude in the main 10 levels). All the main levels also have a set of 3 optional objectives to go with the basic “Hit all the oranges within your 10 shots” goal. Its a lot of content and its nice to have more focus put on having challenge levels within the game, as I believe the original game had them but buried them away until you’d slogged through the ‘story’ mode.

However though, there has been some ‘stereotypical internet complaint version of EA’ slipped into this game, as there are now DLC unlocks for bonus characters, who get the same amount of levels and such as the main game’s characters. But honestly, as they’re only £1.69, i.e. less than two single songs on Rock Band, I’m not really going to complain; for the content you get back, and the fact that having more characters is not really a necessary feature of the game, that cost is pretty solid. Especially if you consider something like Peggle Nights was a full price expansion to the original game and only gave you one more character. So as I said, cost is pretty solid, nothing much to complain about on that one for me.


 

So yeah, Peggle 2 is plenty worthy of being the sequel to the original game. Its not a necessary upgrade or anything, as you’d expect with the world of casual puzzle games from PopCap, but it is more than worth it if you’ve played the original to death and want something more from the series (and you have a console that its on). More Peggle is nothing to stick the nose up at. Now if only EA would get on getting this onto the PC, so I’d have more reason to boot up Origin regularly.


Joe Trail is the editor-in-chief of Don’t Be A Pixel. Mostly because he says he is, not because he has other writers to edit over. But such is the life of a busy editor-in-chief, obviously. He’s also an avid writer for the site. Of course.

Watch_Dogs - Header

The Talk – Watch_Dogs

Watch_Dogs – (PS3, PS4 (Review system), 360, One, Wii U, PC; Ubisoft Montreal, Ubisoft)


I missed most of the uproar surrounding Watch_Dogs at release. I didn’t get it until a few months after release, when I first got my PS4, and so most of the issues that I think existed had been fixed by then. And so, it feels like I’ve had more of an insight into what Watch_Dogs was supposed to be, instead of what it was at launch when it was a good few patches away from where it probably should have been. Because that’s how AAA releases normally work now. But nonetheless, back to Watch_Dogs. I’ve really enjoyed Watch_Dogs. If it wasn’t for The Crew, this could actually quite possibly be my GOTY from what I’ve played this year (suck on that, Last of Us Remastered).

I’m sure I probably sound a tad delirious now, and many of you are probably looking at your imagined version of how I look with a full-blown People’s Eyebrow. But bear with me; Watch_Dogs is a really great crime sandbox game that doesn’t feel too much like its main competitor in the serious crime sandbox genre. And I lived through the post-San Andreas time where that was the game to copy, so I know what games feel like when they try to really emulate the old Big Steal Car series. Watch_Dogs doesn’t feel like that. It also doesn’t really feel that much like Assassin’s Creed. As much as people give Ubisoft Montreal flak for having a ‘consistent feel’ to their games, I don’t necessarily get it too much here.

If I was to compare Watch_Dogs to anything, it’d probably actually be the more recent Splinter Cell games. Yes, this is an open-world crime game, and yes, you drive around and you do your fancy hacks and things, but there’s a solid heft of the game centred on your ability to use stealth and guns, and it feels more like Sam Fisher than Altair or Ezio. And when you consider how damn good Conviction and Blacklist were, it’s a pretty solid compliment to this game. Certainly, once you get to have a decent armory, the gunplay truly becomes oh so satisfying, like when I blew through a scene in one of the final missions with my grenade launcher and machine gun like an action movie star, or when you use your [different-name-for-bullet-time] skill to pop off a load of silenced headshots. It makes the game a damn good third-person shooter, to start with.

Watch_Dogs - Alley Shot

Is there Crime in this Alley?

But obviously, shooting isn’t the only thing to the game. As much as I focussed on playing through as Aiden Pearce, the Shooty-Man Vigilante, and doing all the side missions that’d let me do that, there are plenty of cars and car side missions. The driving here is hardly up to a Burnout Paradise snuff, but it sits comfortably enough alongside Saints Row and Grand Theft Auto; it’s not bad, it has some realistic handling but you can still whip a car round with ease. It fits the bill basically. There’s also a decent variety of cars and bikes, if that’s what you’re into as well.

I don’t remember people really calling the gameplay into question too much though. It was more the aforementioned topic of Aiden Pearce, aka Shooty-Man Vigilante, and how the story of the game wasn’t really up to much. In real terms, the story isn’t that great; it’s a pretty trope-ridden vigilante revenge story that hits many of the usual revenge beats while also justifying you running round with a big gun shooting people and hacking things. But I’m happy with that in an open world crime game because hey, at least it’s not another story where a criminal starts from the bottom and climbs his way up or out of trouble. Aiden isn’t a particularly fantastic protagonist either, but he plods along quite fine and thankfully Ubisoft Montreal made it glaringly obvious that he’s not supposed to be likable, and I’m sure some of the other characters could have been good if they’d have the time to really develop who they were; Iraq, Maurice, Quinn, the antagonists and secondary characters are generally pretty solid, if majorly undeveloped.

Watch_Dogs - Iraq

Iraq, looking all cool

 

As cheesy as it is to say though, Chicago is the real stand-out character in the game though. The world is pretty packed with things to do, and as a lot of things don’t necessarily appear on your map but just pop up as you travel, it gives the city a feeling of being more alive than a lot of games achieve. Obviously, I’m aware the crimes are scripted and there are only so many of them, but it does help to give you some immersion, like the roadside events in Red Dead Redemption. There are also a huge number of more traditional side missions and collectible-missions (you travel and solve situations to collect an item, then eventually do a mission to finish the set), as I mentioned before, so its pretty easy to just get stuck into the world. Also, as cheap and gimmicky as the hacking may seem on the surface, there is something satisfying about being in a city where you can just pop a bridge to jump over, or flick the traffic lights to cause havoc, or walk around people-watching and peeking in further.

The city, and the game at large, also looks incredible. Sure, it ain’t no GTA V level of pretty, but few things in this world are, lets be honest. The atmosphere the game creates is very much a sort of modern urban noir setting, what with all the dark nights and rain and technology every where. I’d be lying if I didn’t kind of want a Blade Runner game that handled the atmosphere similarly. The audio design and the game’s own soundtrack work really nicely in that tech-noir style as well, though the music they chose for your free-roaming soundtrack leaves quite a lot to be desired there; I actually probably would have been fine throwing out the rule book on this one and not having that in my open world crime sandbox this time, and just getting more of that game soundtrack music.

Watch_Dogs - Street View

The streets are alive, with the sound of engines

As a balance to how glowing my review may sound, it is wholesale worth noting that this is a game that certainly still has problems, both with itself and with context. Aiden Pearce and the story, as I said above, aren’t that great; Aiden feels fairly generic and distinctly unlikable in almost all he does, and I quite happily replaced him in my head with “The Punisher but with a magic phone”, and particularly during the first three Acts (so a good 60% of the main missions), the story plods along at an awfully slow pace. Its not so much that gameplay is locked for all that time, thankfully, but the missions drag the story out and it does feel incredibly padded for the sake of gameplay time. More often than not, the hacking system also feels very superficial; while it may be satisfying to do things with hacks when you’re in the moment or farting about in the world, it is essentially a one-button trick that gives the game a small amount of seperation from other similar games. As such, this game feeling different to things like Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row is more because of small odd things, like how the gunplay feels more like something in a Tom Clancy game or how the world seems designed to make it harder for you to just outrun the cops on roads but also harder for you to face them (as you are penalised for killing or injuring police officers on foot, but can totally let them hit bollards at high speed with no problems).

There’s also all the contextual issues with the game. There was the justified controversy over some of the things the game shows about people on the street, almost like trivia about them, which had the potential to show up messages about sexuality and things; obviously, that is something a lot of people are justified in worrying about, as its something they are personally fearful of that is being used casually and frivolously with no real discussion or reason.

There’s the fact that Aiden Pearce is never shown to be a good man, as he kills fairly indiscrimanetly and tries to get revenge like a wrecking ball throughout the story, yet is still worshipped on some level by the people in the city and the story never really handles it any better than going “Well, he’s an anti-hero and he’s dealing with crime”; even that ignores the fact that you could quite happily do even worse to the people of Chicago in the open world if you wanted to, and the only thing stopping you is if you don’t feel like letting your totally unimportant status bar go into the red. I mean, I’ll take people hamfisting dialogue like “Aiden, YOU’RE the bad man really” over how Grand Theft Auto practically hero-worships people far worse, but nonetheless, its not a very good handling of the themes. If you’re going to try and do the techie Punisher, try and at least copy the good morality-questioning stuff from the Punisher too.


I guess if I’m going to compare this to anything, it’d be The Saboteur, but reverse it. Watch_Dogs is a game that has the basic stuff that makes an open world crime game work really well, but it lacks that spark to truly make it its own little classic, which is very much the opposite to how I felt about The Saboteur, a game that stumbled constantly but ever redeemed itself on the small things that it, and only it, did as they were so well done. Watch_Dogs could be my GOTY if only because the basic stuff works so well, and is so well-made, that I can’t say I’ve put the same time in with a game this year and gotten so much enjoyment and such back, but its no testament to this game being perfect or some outstanding masterpiece of games. 


 

Joe Trail is the editor-in-chief of Don’t Be A Pixel. Mostly because he says he is, not because he has other writers to edit over. But such is the life of a busy editor-in-chief, obviously. He’s also an avid writer for the site. Of course.

So You Don’t Have To – 50 Cent: Blood On The Sand

50 Cent: Blood On The Sand (PS3, Xbox 360; Swordfish Studios; THQ)


You know when we have discussions about the bizarre ways in which the games industry went about trying to make money in the 00s? You literally cannot ignore either 50 Cent game then. Because yes, THQ made two 50 Cent games. The original game, 50 Cent: Bulletproof on PS2 and Xbox, must have sold enough for THQ to think “You guys know what we need to do to keep making profit? We need to go back to 50 Cent, famed rapper, and ask him if he wants in on another game” and then to actually go through with that logic. Which is incredible. It is wonderful to remember a time when the games industry was that irreverent a place that a 50 Cent game was considered a good tactic to get sales and make money, as opposed to now where its just ‘put zombies in it’ or ‘make sure it has multiplayer modes’.

Back to the actual game at hand, I just want you to picture in your head what kind of game you would expect when the title character and main hero is 50 Cent, and where 50 Cent has likely had some involvement with game design and development. Just take a moment to really imagine that and build some personal expectations and all that. Now, I’m going to actually tell you, in as straightforward a way as I can, the actual opening premise of Blood On The Sand. 50 Cent and the assorted members of G-Unit (who star as co-op characters for a buddy to play as!) are performing a concert in an unnamed location within the Middle East, and following the most raucous and rocking of rap shows, Fiddy and his homies go to the show organiser to collect their payment. The organiser is in the unenviable position where he has to tell a group of rappers that he does not have the money to pay them, leading to a hand around his neck and guns in his direction, but he does have a diamond-encrusted skull to pay them with; literally a person’s skull, covered in diary like a bad piece of gaudy furniture in a goth’s house. Now that the plot has taken this odd Indiana Jones-esque swing, we follow our daring hero in a truck where he repeatedly says that the streets of Brooklyn are more gangsta, badass and dangerous than the criminal underworld of a country where it is explicitly stated that they sell weapons of mass destruction casually on the black market, because Mr Cent is very defensive of his turf; anyway, in an interruption to this, the group get ambushed by some femme fatale assassin-type woman working for some other person, and during Fiddy’s intense survival of the scene, she steals the diamond skull. And Mr Cent, as the perfect epitome of capitalism, decides that he can no longer leave this country until he has the skull back and he has his revenge on those damn dirty thieving criminal scumbags.

50 Cent: Blood On The Sand: RPG

What do you mean an RPG isn’t a casual sidearm?

And all this insanity has happened before you even get to play. And then you do get to play. And then it all becomes even more of a bizarre 50 Cent echo chamber. Because in true Xzibit style, not only do you play as 50 Cent when you’re going around shooting everyone in sight and hunting your diamond skull, but you get to play as 50 Cent while listening to 50 Cent tracks as the game’s soundtrack. Yep, this ain’t one of your namby pamby games where a celebrity picks the soundtrack and it’s a variety of musical pieces from a variety of artists that the celebrity finds interesting; no, Blood on the Sand is 100% 50, 100% of the time. If I remember the box bullet points correctly, there are even some tracks specifically made for the game, not that I cared because by the time I got the two 50 Cent songs I actually knew on the game’s soundtrack (P.I.M.P. and In Da Club, for you Fiddy fans out there), those were the only two I wanted to listen to, especially after hearing all the others so much. And yes, I am confirming here that the game rewards your progress by giving you more 50 Cent songs to add to your soundtrack. It’s almost like it wants you to stop so much that its going to throw 50 Cent rapping the kitchen sink at you in a moment’s notice.

The funny thing about the 50 Cent echo chamber effect though is that it all funnels itself perfectly into getting you into this weird gangsta flow state with regards to the gameplay. The game says that it’s a third person cover shooter, but the way I personally played it was more of a ‘run through areas with gun in hand blasting all the dudes in my way’. Because cover is boring. And the game promotes you playing like that anyway as there is a scoring system for all your kills and such, so you can show all your friends you are the best damn 50 Cent there ever was, and there are pretty constant challenges to do X thing in Y amount of time in order to get special pistol bullets with fire or explosions and stuff. The game is almost profusely being like “I know we have cover and regenerating health, but if you could play this like it was Devil May Cry with 50 Cent, that’d be for the best”, and I have to admit that it actually probably wouldn’t work if the game weren’t such a bizarre egotistical echo chamber of pure Fiddy. This game is to rap culture and mediocre games as Vanquish is to space marines and the Cold War and fantastic games; just this bizarre rush of action and scores and craziness and it never makes sense but it doesn’t have to because you’re just along for a rollercoaster ride. Though this might sound like I’m now recommending the game, don’t believe me on that; the game feels very long for a 6 hour game, and as weirdly novel as the whole thing is and as much as the gameplay gets you into a flow, you will also lose your sanity when embracing a pure hit of Fiddy and it isn’t worth a breakdown.

50 Cent: Blood On The Sand - Melee

Looks like the ‘Bass’ hit him pretty hard

So yeah, Blood On The Sand exists as this bizarre experience where 50 Cent shoots rocket launchers one-handed at helicopters at various times while listening to his own recorded music and hoping to kill the helicopter fast enough to earn 5 or 6 pistol bullets that set people on fire. That sentence probably says a lot about this game. The gameplay is a bizarre addiction in a weird world of mediocrity fuelled by capitalism, a game made because there’s money to it and everything else piled in because hey, it might get more money. That sentence probably says about the rest about the game. So there you go, I’ve played 50 Cent Blood On The Sand and you don’t have to; go team!


Joe Trail is the editor-in-chief of Don’t Be A Pixel. Mostly because he says he is, not because he has other writers to edit over. But such is the life of a busy editor-in-chief, obviously. He’s also an avid writer for the site. Of course.


 

Plants Vs Zombies: Garden Warfare

The Talk – Plants Vs Zombies: Garden Warfare

Plants Vs Zombies: Garden Warfare – (Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC, PS4 (Review system), PS3; PopCap; EA)


I remember when EA announced this game like a year or two ago that I was in this odd small grouping that thought this was a really cool idea. Here’s Popcap, perennial makers of super addictive puzzle games that steal your life, giving a third person shooter a go, and making it look damn good too in the process, as well as giving gamers a fairly family friendly and brand-recognisable alternative to all those gory grey gun games. I’m fairly sure this was also when the Popcap CEO got super excited and announced Peggle 2 and was jumping about and then a meme was started but that’s all besides the point. I remember there being a fair few detractors that day as well, which is fair enough; it’s not hard to see why the games community would not respond well to a team known for casual puzzle games going into a genre they have no experience with and creating a game that looks more like a joke than a serious game. Oh yeah, and also EA were publishing it and mentioning EA three times in a mirror has a gamer come to kill you so they had that against them too.

So now that the game has (finally) come to Sony consoles, so I get to have a chance to play it. It has spent the past year since release as a Microsoft exclusive (360, One and PC), but thankfully, EA made yet another of their preferred-platform swings and were all happy with Sony this year and here we are.

Plants Vs Zombies: Garden Warfare - Potted Plant

Pow, right in the kisser

When you first load up the game, I can’t say it necessarily does the best impressions for an introduction. At least for me, having gotten a new copy close to release with a code for what was the pre-order bonuses, I loaded up the game and the first thing I was directed to was the ‘Sticker Store’. The Sticker Store is so reminiscent of a free-to-play card game’s way of getting you to spend money that its beyond funny; no, as far as I’m aware, PvZ: Garden Warfare features no microtransactions, but giving me a menu that almost makes me think you’re waiting to nickel and dime me isn’t a good idea. Thankfully, as I discovered, the currency used to get new booster pack things is plentiful by just playing the game, with a good couple of missions getting you to a working amount of coins, but the whole thing is introduced with little explanation and just left me feeling a bit worried that this was going to be the straw that broke the camel’s back and I’d finally come to join the EA-hating masses.

Plants Vs Zombies: Garden Warfare - Combat

Only good zombie is a dead zombie

At the same time though, as much as my internal gamer cynicism was like “Urgh, this isn’t that great as the start of the game”, the part of me that loves Popcap and the original Plants Vs Zombies was screaming “Yeah, but look how cool everything looks and the cheeky chirpy music and the colours and the design and it’s all so FUUUUUUUUUUN!”. When in doubt, I normally defer to that voice, it has the most childlike wonder, so I just sat back and began to get ready to enjoy the ride. Even from the main menu, the game very much wants to lull you in and immerse you into this fantastical cartoon world; the whole vibe, as it did with the original strategy games, has that very cartoony, almost family friendly feel to it, and it suits this game quite well as a kind of antithesis to a lot of the most popular guns-go-pew games that have come out in the past few years.

And the gameplay, across the board, is on point. This game nails being a third person arena shooter pretty damn well, despite all the crazy bizarre aesthetics. The character classes all feel really nice to play, and between the Plants and Zombie classes, none of them feel cookie cutter from one another. All of it is really well balanced in that regard. Particularly with the Plants side, as they’re the team you have in both the Garden Ops and Multiplayer modes. On top of the fact that there are the different 4 classes, each class has a variety of sub-classes, if this makes sense, that each vary from one another in one regard or another; currently, I’ve got a Cactus subclass unlocked, called Citrus Cactus, which makes the Cactus look like a peeled orange, and has him shoot oranges in bursts of 3 rather than shooting a single spine, and while I’m still using the basic Cactus skills currently, I’m aware that you can change those if you get the unlocks, the unlocks themselves coming from the Sticker Shop.

Plants Vs Zombies: Garden Ops

What a prickly reception

In terms of the specifics of the game modes, Garden Ops is your basic horde mode gameplay with some really cool boss stuff thrown in each 5 waves, and the Multiplayer offers your basic Call of Duty package of game modes for your enjoyment, as well as a nice Welcome mode that is basically the normal game but its apparently there so you can just start to get used to things. There aren’t a huge number of maps from what I’m aware, but what maps there are work really well for all the classes, and with non-fixed respawn points in your deathmatch modes and few ‘sniper’ players, you don’t have to worry too much about everyone knowing a particular map too well or anything. The levels themselves also carry quite a lot of the cartoony vibrancy of the game over as well, and none of them feel too similar; even the few suburb levels don’t quite feel the same, meaning there’s a nice variety wherever the game ends up having you play.

Overall, as a game thats not charging full RRP but is mainly only giving you online play, I can’t fault Plants vs Zombies Garden Warfare. It does what it says on the tin, and does it really well; its not a game that pushes the boat out, but hey, this isn’t a shooting game from Epic or Bungie or Infinity Ward so thats not what its there for. I can see this being a game that I’ll keep dipping my toes back into for as long as the playerbase is here to support it honestly, because its a tight and gorgeous little game and it is the most fun I’ve had with a shooter since probably way back when I was really into Team Fortress 2. As crazy as it may sound for me to give an EA game such a glowing compliment (even though EA published The Orange Box).


Joe Trail is the editor-in-chief of Don’t Be A Pixel. Mostly because he says he is, not because he has other writers to edit over. But such is the life of a busy editor-in-chief, obviously. He’s also an avid writer for the site. Of course.


 

Lego Marvel - Stan Lee Hulk

Why Haven’t You Played – LEGO Marvel Super Heroes

LEGO Marvel Super Heroes (Pretty much all consoles that currently exist and have games being put on them currently, Traveller’s Tales, Warner Bros., 2013)


I can probably answer my own question quite briefly here with a few simple reasons; “I didn’t really know it existed”, “I don’t like Marvel/LEGO games/both”, “I think LEGO games got boring really fast” and “I’m not a kid, I’m a MATOOR gamer with my Dootar Deux and my Gerald’s Mod and my Counterstroke and my Collar Doody, I don’t play your kid games”. This article basically exists for me to tell you that you’re wrong/blind if you think either of the first three, and to publicly expose you to laughter if it’s the fourth one. Obviously it won’t exactly be the fourth one, that’s the point of me phrasing it in such a mocking way, but still, that realm of reasoning.

Needless to say, the first option shouldn’t really be a thing after I’ve written this. This is a very clear note to you that this fantastic game does very much exist. Oh man, it exists so hard, it’s not even funny, even though the game is really funny. But I guess just telling you it exists isn’t really good enough; I should give you actual reasons why you’d want to buy it if you didn’t know about it before now. Well, to put it basically, LEGO Marvel Super Heroes (I’m just going to call it LEGO Marvel from here on out to save time) is a third person action/adventure/platformer game where you play as LEGO figurine versions of Marvel characters, obviously. It’s not that much of a stone’s throw from LEGO Star Wars on most levels of its basic moment-to-moment gameplay, really. It’s still a collect-‘em-all style game, and now you can collect Stan Lee’s Gratitude™ by rescuing him from various odd situations. Thing is though, the game makes wonderful use of the fact that Traveller’s Tales started using actual voice work in cutscenes by having the voice actors from the animated shows (and other places obviously) do the voices of the characters, and it has a wonderful recreation of a slightly-Marvel-infused Manhattan. By slightly-Marvel-infused, I mean, Stark Tower is there in its full height, and there’s the Oscorp building (in the style of the new Spidey movies) and the Daily Bugle and the Roxxon headquarters and some others; it’s got those little bits that make it Marvel, not just New York.

Lego Marvel - Spider-Man

Does whatever a LEGO Spider can.

So yeah, it’s using those little innovations that the LEGO games have gotten recently, like better story-telling and far more open and expansive gameplay. But it’s not just that it has those innovations in it, but that it uses them so well; the story in LEGO Marvel is actually rather good (though that could be my inner fanboy influencing me there) and the world is one of my favourite sandboxes to play around in[linked to article about my favourite sandboxes]. There’s a reason why my first playthrough of the game, on PC, had me racing through the story because I constantly wanted to know what was going to happen next (certainly an advantage of when the games aren’t just regurgitating film/book stories (which is a definite issue with the Star Wars, Harry Potter and LOTR LEGO games)) and then spending a long time just playing around and enjoying Manhattan and trying to unlock everything I could and get even more with the game.

That should all mean that I’ve covered two of those reason categories I put at the top then; I’ve told you what LEGO Marvel is and what it’s about and such if you didn’t know about it, and I’ve told you why its fantastically different to pretty much all the other LEGO games. I suppose that leaves me with you not liking LEGO/Marvel or you being a ‘HORDKAR GAMYR’ and not enjoying ‘kid games’ (or ‘console games’ if you’re bigger into your PC than is probably healthy). If you don’t really like LEGO games or Marvel or both of them, then I guess that’s your bag and there’s probably not much I can tell you to make you change your mind on that. I will say though that is one of the most fun and satisfying games I’ve played in quite some time, and I did generally consider it my Game of the Year for 2013 for good reason. If you want a real damn good game and it goes up on sale or its cheap pre-owned or something like that, you’d be doing yourself a real disservice to ignore it. And if you’re a PC gamer, and have thrown aside the LEGO games for being half-assed ports, this one (barring some graphical options if I remember correctly) is fantastically well-done and probably feels more on par with the PS4 and Xbox One versions, than it does the current generation versions (note: I have only played the game on PC and PS3, so I can only definitely compare those two).

Lego Marvel

Squirrel Girl is the best. End of story.

So now I suppose the only group I haven’t really addressed are the people that see the LEGO games as games for kids, and feel above them. Well, let me say to you naysayers, don’t let the gritty Unreal and Frostbite engines cloud your ability to have some goddamn fun. The LEGO games are well made for anyone who wants to play them, and the fact that they have universal appeal and are able to be universally entertaining is a testament to the fact that the games are basically made of unbridled fun. You are genuinely restricting yourself from a hell of a good time if your basic response is to go “Yeah but it’s a game for kids, and I don’t play those, now let me get back to my shooting game that has brown and grey and nothing else”, and I do wish you’d see sense, pick up this fantastically colourful game and just kick back and have some colossal amounts of fun.

Alright then, I think this is tied up now. I expect to hear you all gushing the praises of LEGO Marvel by a month after the Steam Christmas Sale, because you should own it by then. ALL OF YOU. No excuses. Get playing it. I just told you why.


Joe Trail is the editor-in-chief of Don’t Be A Pixel. Mostly because he says he is, not because he has other writers to edit over. But such is the life of a busy editor-in-chief, obviously. He’s also an avid writer for the site. Of course.


 

Counterspy

The Talk – CounterSpy

CounterSpy (PS3, PS4, Vita (CrossBuy + CrossSave); Dynamighty)


I finished my first playthrough of CounterSpy early after its release, on Vita, after playing the game pretty much all the time I could within the day since I got my hands on it. I finished with the 542nd best score on the leaderboards, which I don’t think was too shabby, as impressive as the top scores are. What I’m trying to express here is how much this game has swallowed me up into its wonderful little world; I only really heard about it the day before I bought it, then quickly became obsessed with it. And if you’ve ever seen the game in action, or even in screenshots, you might understand why.

Of course, if you haven’t, I’m here to explain why I’ve suddenly fallen in love with this game so much. CounterSpy is a 2.5D stealth game, which means you’ll get obvious comparisons to Mark of the Ninja; those comparisons though don’t really suit here. Whereas, in my opinion, the true strength of Mark of the Ninja was not in its somewhat distinct styling but in its gameplay, the real strength of CounterSpy lies in its aesthetics and sound and setting. The actual gameplay of CounterSpy is largely quite shallow in honesty; while the difficulty curve is present and rewardingly steep, the core gameplay is primarily sneak through the military base taking out dudes with your guns or with your little CQC moves and getting the intel and bonuses before you turn off their launch computer and exit the level, while getting points for your overall campaign score along the way. It’s not overly complicated, and it never gets more complicated, as you unlock more weapons that primarily just allow you to fiddle with your playstyle rather than radically change the game.

CounterSpy - Cover

[Mission Impossible theme]

But don’t let that disparage you from playing the game. The gameplay is still generally tight and fun to play, considering how satisfying it is to just pop all the little officers with a headshot with your rinky dink silenced pistol. And ultimately, the gameplay is held up by everything else in the game. The whole aesthetic and sound and setting of the game come together to form this amazing experience that feels almost like if Pixar decided to try and make a James Bond film; it’s this Cold War spy dramatics, but with this incredibly stylised 3D animated style and with this quintessentially 60s-spy-movie soundtrack that comes and goes as it pleases in this sweet espionage way.

In fact, everything about the game is designed to serve this amazing Cold War espionage atmosphere. Your character is almost completely glossy black, with light reflecting off him and tiny details such as a red watch and his gun, and it gives you this wonderful notion of a faceless agent working in the shadows; you don’t need to know his name or anything about him, just that he’s being a cool spy guy and he’s saving the world. All the bases have this huge military bunker feel that just kind of reminds me of the Bond film where the bad guy has a base inside a volcano and it has the shuttles and everything. Basically, just this beautiful feeling of retro espionage media.

CounterSpy - Shooting

[James Bond theme]

The fact that you play against both sides of the field as well only serves to make it all the more interesting, and the use of colour as part of that is also great; the ‘Socialists’ have lots of red walls and Cyrillic writing on the walls and these huge Communist-styled propaganda posters, while the ‘Imperialists’ have lots of blue walls and all these posters telling you about FREEDOM and AMERICA BEING THE BEST. The guards all shout different things, though their style of uniform remains the same because good colourful game design, as a reflection of the fact that they represent their special nations. But in the grandest piece of satire, a lot of the stuff barring aesthetics remains the same across the two nations, including their part in the big plan that you have to stop as a CounterSpy.

The ‘story’ of the game is something I should probably discuss as well; its this fun little mix of the nuclear arms race and the space race, in a wonderful 60s mixture, as the ‘Imperialists’ and ‘Socialists’ want to see who can blow up the Moon with nuclear missiles first, and it is up to you to try and find out their plans and sabotage their plans, so, y’know, the Earth doesn’t suffer horrible cataclysms from the Moon being destroyed. It has this grounding in reality, but also a satirical vibe that something like the Onion uses now, which only helps to support the Pixar-Cold-War feel of the game as a whole.

CounterSpy - Plans

[Austin Powers theme]

I suppose I should talk on a bit more of a technical level now as well. The game has some pretty lengthy load times, which is not something that hugely phases me, but I know it can be an issue to others, and its certainly something worth mentioning. The game also has level design and controls that are made to fit the Vita and then the PS3 and 4, in my opinion; again, its not something that phases me as I enjoy the snappy gameplay and feel the controls work perfectly fine without using R2 and L2, but its another thing worth mentioning. Also, on the Vita version, I had a few brief moments of stutter when everything was going to hell in a hand basket, but its normally quickly resolved, so again no biggie to me. All in all, on a technical level, it has its small issues, but the game itself is so fun and well-designed that I can quite happily just get into the game and ignore the problems.


So at the end of this lengthy ramble of a review, I would hope you can tell that I’m kind of gushing over this game. CounterSpy is absolutely the kind of handheld game I love, and I also love that I can play it on my home console as well because it still remains as fun and entertaining and gorgeous. If you’re up for something with a snappy aesthetic and some interesting gameplay and a neat little way to challenge yourself to play more stealthily and like more of a badass, then go ahead and get this game, or go and get a Vita and get this game even though you should have a Vita already you dingbat.


Joe Trail is the editor-in-chief of Don’t Be A Pixel. Mostly because he says he is, not because he has other writers to edit over. But such is the life of a busy editor-in-chief, obviously. He’s also an avid writer for the site. Of course.


 

Remember Me Header

The Talk – Remember Me

Remember Me (PS3 (Review system), 360, PC; Dontnod Entertainment; Capcom)


Probably one of the few times in my life I’m ever going to say this but here we go; this game should have been made by David Cage and the Quantic Dreams crew. Considering the fact that a lot of people aren’t too big on Fahrenheit, Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls, I’m sure there’s at least a few people saying “Well, why the hell is this idiot saying he wants a game made by people that DON’T EVEN MAKE GAMES” (I hate that idea anyway, but not the point here). The thing is, the parts of Remember Me that work best are the same things that work best in Quantic Dreams games; it has some interesting ideas on how to incorporate new ideas on gameplay, it has a wonderful setting and concept for what makes the story unlike other games, and it’s linear as they come. And funnily enough, the parts of Remember Me that really drag and make the game worse are the things that would be taken out if it was more of an interactive movie kind of game, like what Quantic Dreams produce.

To elaborate, the game has pretty crappy combat, the linearity of the game is a bit of a chokehold, the balancing can be pretty rough, the platforming has smooth animations and can feel nice but is often unnecessarily bloated out and the game does far too much setup of Neoparis that it then can’t deliver because it needs to structure areas to fit its needs. Almost everything this game does that isn’t a fairly new idea from the developers is not done that well. It’s a game that succeeds in innovation, but fails in basic systems emulation. I’ve played my fair share of these action games that work on a simplified combat system, and this is not one of the better ones; same goes for the platforming, though as I said, it does have nice animations which is good to see at least. And the combat balancing, that’s a complete clusterfuck. One of the enemies you face does damage to you when you hit them, yet the game gives you no real way of beating them until the chapter after they’re introduced and then they come at you in such numbers that this one method is of little use; similarly there are a group of enemies that can only be seen and attacked in light or when stunned with a special move, but often the game just punishes you cruelly by throwing them at you en masse despite their poor design.

Remember Me - Combat

You wail on that guy, grrrlfriend!

Also like I said, the game sets up the idea of Neoparis far too much; across the 8 chapters, you’ll only see 4 different places in the city really, and the only one that has any real distinct cultural value is La Bastille, though you’ll only see its high-tech innards so it may as well not even have the name. Sure, Ward 404 has the Arc De Triumph, as far as I could tell, and you go to the Saint Michel district, which sounds like it could be a currently existing place, but let’s be honest here; you want to go to Neoparis to see the sights like the Eiffel Tower. In another game set in Paris, The Saboteur, a huge point was made of the fact that the player would obviously want to go to the Eiffel Tower and there’s a huge payoff at the end of the game as you climb up it; Remember Me just takes you to a generic futuristic building that doesn’t currently exist or mean much to the story up to that point for the final chapters.

Remember Me - Neo-Paris

Hmm, isn’t the view nice?

Which brings me to the story as well; why this game is quite as long as it is, I don’t know. Ignoring the fact that the combat and the platforming and the odd puzzles the game forces you to do all feel like filler between story beats and the sections worth playing, the story has some real odd pacing and is told in a very odd manner. I feel like the game was going for a Fight Club style system of “Oh shit, that’s the real truth about this all” but also the game never really gives you a consistent idea of who the people you’re going after are and the linear nature of the game as well as the forced focus on gameplay means that the game doesn’t get much time to focus on it; you are basically just told “Go find this person to do this thing with their head, they’re not very nice, it’ll help our revolution a load if you just get on with it” and because it’s a linear game, you just tank along. What this really means by the last quarter of the game though is that it has very little real momentum. The man you chase in one of those final chapters is just a guy who was introduced as a boss to beat earlier in the game; he is purely defined as “He’s that cop guy who had a helicopter and tried to kill you earlier, oh and now he’s going crazy”. And none of this touches on the completely inane M Night Shymalan level crap the game really tries to pull with the final two memory remix sequences, or with the final boss; it very much descends into twists that have no set up and exist just for the point of trying hard to be interesting.

Remember Me - Edge

Oh Edge, what misadventures we had…

And this is what bugs me really in the end; Remember Me has some interesting ideas. Like the game I often find myself comparing it to, Assassin’s Creed, it’s a game that could have led into a lot more. It had at least the beginnings of some interesting ideas all of its own, and those ideas already played well; the memory remixing is a really interesting process, even if it can become quite obvious what events are necessary to win or will make you fail, and I personally really enjoy the combo creation/mixing process as it allows you to put together combos to suit your purpose. I also enjoyed the little touch that each combo move has its own animation, so the animations on your combos also mix up as you change the combos. But the game only has 4 of those memory remix sequences, and one tiny aspect of the combat being original doesn’t make the whole thing all that much better. And as beautiful as Neoparis may look, and as smooth as the animations look, it all rings a bit hollow.


So it’s a weird position I find myself in with this game. My thoughts here clearly scream “DON’T BUY THIS, ITS A SLOG AND ITS NOT THAT WELL DESIGNED OR MADE AND YOU CAN DO BETTER” but really, I’d love to see the game do well enough that a new female-led action game IP could get time to flourish. Or at least, I’d love to see what more could be done with the high tech dystopia, and the memory remixing concept and the combo creation and the little bits that are really enjoyable within it all. So I don’t know, I guess pick it up cheap and see if you can get your way through it, but it’s at least worth experiencing in my opinion.


Joe Trail is the editor-in-chief of Don’t Be A Pixel. Mostly because he says he is, not because he has other writers to edit over. But such is the life of a busy editor-in-chief, obviously. He’s also an avid writer for the site. Of course.


 

Shadow of Mordor header

The Talk – Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor (PS3, PS4 (Review system), Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC; Monolith; Warner Bros.)


I’m no big fan of the Lord of the Rings, or any of Tolkien’s work, or fantasy in general. It’s not my cup of tea. Swords and bows are cool and stuff, but I care very little for elves, orcs, dwarves and all the rest. So you might be saying to yourself, “Why has he played a game set in the Lord of the Rings universe through fully, and why the hell is he now writing about it afterwards?” Which you would be totally fair in thinking. Well, the answer to that question, at least the first part, is that this game looked like a mixture of Assassin’s Creed, the Arkham games and a fairly advanced AI-focussed version of the bounty system from Mercenaries.( And yes, it did take me a while to realise that third one was the case.) My love for the Assassin’s Creed and Arkham series pretty much knows no bounds, barring Assassin’s Creed 3 & 4, especially if you ever ask me about why Assassin’s Creed 2 is one of my favourite games of last generation or how much I adore every single Arkham game for separate reasons. But that’s not the point of this bit of writing, so back to that point; I decided to play Shadow of Mordor because it was reviewing real nicely and I had some moderate hype from how it appeared to be that combination I mentioned earlier and because I just about managed to swallow the fact that it was a Lord of the Rings game and I’d have to get over it, especially when I still think fondly of The Third Age (totally awesome RPG bee tee dubs).

Shadow of Mordor Orc Nemesis Introduction

Why hello there, Mr Orc

And honestly, on the other side of the bulk of Shadow of Mordor, I don’t feel overly better off for having played it. Normally, when I play a game that I wasn’t 100% sure about, it can only go one of four ways; it will start well or it will start badly, and from there it will either get better or get worse, and it very rarely starts or ends in the middle. With Shadow of Mordor, it did the fairly uncommon thing of starting really strong, and just going down the more I thought about it as it went along. As anyone that saw my impressions on Twitter could tell you, I was totally enamoured with this game at first; as you first get exposed to the Nemesis system within the game and settle in quickly with the familiar combat style and such, and as you then start getting XP and levelling up Talion and doing cooler stuff, it is really satisfying. Then you realise, oh yeah, I need to do the story missions to progress as well, which is stumbling block numero uno.

Y’see, I have a long-running issue with linearity of story and of story missions in a sandbox, but this game does just rather take the biscuit on it, I’m afraid; not only do you have linear missions, which feel all the more out of place for being in this hugely emergent-gameplay-focussed sandbox, and not only are the missions a bit monotonous and not all that spectacular, and not only do the missions push forward a story that is boring to non-fans of Tolkien like myself and is heresy to fans of Tolkien, but they also try to pencil in how you play as well. Oh yes, how the stealth missions come into play. In this game where you are given the keys to the kingdom, a sword and a bow, and told to hunt Uruk 90% of the time, the story missions say to you, “No, fair ranger of Gondor, you must play exactly as I want you to play with no deviation”. Which is just insanely ridiculous, especially when it comes to mechanics that do not feel that sharp like stealth. I understand people are not fans of how stealth is handled in the Arkham games or in Assassin’s Creed, but both handle stealth and handle not-forcing-the-player-to-use-it far better than Shadow of Mordor.

Shadow of Mordor Ranged

Got your number there, greenie!

Also, for all their other issues and flaws, both of those series also handle character progression a great deal better. Generally, every gadget Batman or Ezio ever got felt earned, and there was an element of that classic dungeon-style gameplay where you knew you were going to be using this new gadget or skill for some time, and those games use this far more in the face of a levelling system with progression. Also, while I understand the Arkham games have XP and levelling, generally it is just stat improvement or some unlockable moves, which by right, you could probably still struggle through without and never make you excessively strong. Shadow of Mordor seems to fail on both of these counts in managing progression; the unlockable skills or moves are shown to you from the beginning, but several abilities, some being the most useful (shadow strike, which allows you to do ranged melee to close distance) and some being the least useful (sodding grog poisoning is so pointless) are locked away to you until you complete whatever story mission unlocks them in an arbitrary fashion, even though you could go and get enough Power and XP to get the entire board of skills without ever touching a mission because of the constant nature of the Nemesis system. Though you wouldn’t want that, because by the time you have even one of those top level skills, you are just beyond reproach; I believe I managed to slaughter the entire Sauron’s Army board, warchiefs and captains, in Mordor post-game with very little effort or planning on my part, just by virtue of having the levels to do it. Say what you want about Arkham or Assassin’s Creed, but you never feel THAT overpowered in comparison to your enemies, especially the elite enemies who are supposed to be the be-all-and-end-all bad guy troops.

Shadow of Mordor beheading

Take that, foul beastie!

I should discuss the Nemesis system in the game though, and how being a violent insurgent against Sauron’s Army really is. The Nemesis system is the one bright spark in this whole game; it somehow manages to keep everything that is not as great about this game together, and make it worth playing alongside the upcoming Assassin’s Creed and Arkham releases. Somehow, the Nemesis system kept me running across the barren and incredibly boring world of the game just to go and hunt down some captain who was going to do one thing or another; it didn’t matter that there are only like 5 types of mission that the captains do, or that getting around between captains can be a pain, or that I could slaughter them with little trouble, or that for all their procedural generation, none of them feel completely and truly unique and interesting, because just taking a blade to their head or bleeding them for information is incredibly satisfying. It says something about how good the one shiny piece of ‘innovation’ (lets be honest, it’s an ever-updating Crackdown or Mercenaries, which isn’t that innovative really) in your game is, if it makes the combat somehow feel satisfying and the world somehow feel like a place that I want to spend time in and the story somehow feel like something I will at least grin and bear through just to get more ways and places to slaughter the military leadership. This is why I’m hoping the Trials of War mode becomes something more than it is now, because honestly, using the Nemesis system for score-attacking and murder for points sounds like exactly what this game could do with focussing on.


So yeah, I guess if I have anything to say about Shadow of Mordor, it is this; this is not the best game I have played this year, and it will probably only get pushed further down. This is not the revolutionary next step from the Arkham and Assassin’s Creed games. This is a game that is often generally not that well executed, but all the average systems are held together by the singular super-strong tent pole that is the Nemesis system; it is telling that I only started to really think about and realise the issues with the game when I wasn’t playing it, because when I was and am playing it, I am fuelled by bloodlust against the Uruks as some kind of insurgent vigilante. And honestly, that crazy and oh-so-satisfying bloodlust is what convinces me that I spent my money right on this game, no matter what my critical brain may say.


Joe Trail is the editor-in-chief of Don’t Be A Pixel. Mostly because he says he is, not because he has other writers to edit over. But such is the life of a busy editor-in-chief, obviously. He’s also an avid writer for the site. Of course.