Monday, January 19, 2015

Information Kills Exploration

I was recording a Let's Play of a favorite game from my child hood the other day ( Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time), and I got myself off on a tangent at one point in my commentary.  Back in 1998 N64 emulation wasn't really a thing, and games were nowhere near as advanced as they are now ,despite having come a very long ways since their inception.  The internet was certainly around in 1998 but most of us had dial-up and limited access compared to the always on state we find ourselves in today (DRM pun not intended lol amirite).   The convenience and power of the information we have on the information super highway has killed some of the magic in gaming. Particularly when it comes to exploration of the unknown.

Lets go back in time to 1998 and Ocarina of Time's release.  During the course of the game Link does all kinds of things in the 3D world that we considered ground breaking. The game gave you a living world, with a day/night cycle, and tons of secrets and hidden items to find.. Think back for a second to that feeling of stepping into Hyrule field for the very first time and realizing that you could set off in any direction almost unhindered. To be fair , you had areas you couldn't access without the right items but that was the fun of the game was it not?  I can still think of two or three side quest you can do as soon as you leave the forest. The point is that you didn't know.

Link did it all in Ocarina of Time and it was groundbreaking , but players wanted something more. That something in particular was the Triforce . Anyone who's played through a Zelda game knows about the Triforce. These 3 simple triangles are a source of unlimited power, especially when they are all three united.  Link never obtains the triforce in Ocarina of time (at least not as a menu item anyway), but players didn't accept that. For years after the game's release people plodded through the game. Trying all sorts of wild theories and outlandish actions to try to open the secret trigger that would lead us to Link getting the Triforce.

Enter the internet. Gamers my age with internet access will remember getting online and reading Triforce rumors. They also will remember rumors about Luigi in Mario 64, finding secret pokemon, and other games of the era.  You didn't know what was possible because we didn't know games like we do now.

With the rise of the internet and internet speed has come a way for people with very specific sets of skills, (skills that can be a nightmare for people like you)  to connect to tons of other people in an instant. To call into place what I mean,  before Resident Evil 5 was released there was a demo. People with the right know how managed to get into the game data, and discover tons of secrets about the full game. They predicted a boss fight with Wesker, driving levels, and other level areas, and it turned out  they were all true. Ocarina of Time is no different (well actually maybe it is. Have you seen all the crazy beta stuff left in that game?) Triforce rumors are dead now. No one would believe you if you posted one today. Why is that? The same data mining. Now we can dump a rom or ISO of a game on the internet on release day and data mine it to Oblivion (or Skyrim). When the next Zelda is released there won't be rumors about things just guides on how to make stuff happen.  Any high profile game like Zelda is going to have the ISO dumped and data mined within hours of release, so that no secret can stay. Imagine if there were still no way for your average Joe to open up an N64 game in a hex editor.  There might be triforce rumors still around today. Now that's not to say anyone would think it was true (someone would have found the thing by now!) but there would always be the possibility that Nintendo put in some crazy outlandish thing that no one would ever think to do that would set off a chain of events leading to the Triforce.  

People still do find things that have been hidden in games for many years, but these discoveries are becoming fewer and fewer.

I miss the way Ed Boon and the Mortal Kombat team used to create buzz around Mortal Kombat in the days of yesteryear by purposefully putting red herrings into the game, and rumors into the community. His team even made of a few of them true !  If a game like Mortal Kombat 1 was released today as it was then it would be mocked and forgotten. The original MK was groundbreaking at the time and Ed could keep people playing because of his rumors. It worked because we had no way to know what was hidden in those rom chips. Now if we claimed things like that someone would just dump the roms peruse the code and announce the truth to the world.

Perhaps all that to say, the rise of the information super highway and technology has taken some of that magic out of gaming. The illusion of endless possibilities. 

Of course we can't blame it all on the internet. Growing up out of the magic time of childhood has something to do with it. When you grow up gamer you start to learn how programming and gaming works. You understand there are limitations. You understand that there as things the programmers wouldn't do, you understand how certain things have to work.

Perhaps all that rambling to say that people often talk about how gaming has lost sight of itself, or is a shadow of the thing it was in the 90s, but perhaps what it has really lost is that element of surprise and mystery it used to have. Good games are a suspension of belief. You forget about even the fact its a game as you begin to consider the limitless potential you have to do and try new things.  Think about say stepping into Hyrule field, or hunting for "Poke Gods" or trying to unlock Luigi. When was the last time you felt that amazement in the latest Assassin's Creed or Call of Duty?  There will always be new people, and people like myself always sticking to gaming, but I think the industry's future success or failure for my generation of gamers and gamers who came before me will depend on their ability to create a world that leaves something to the imagination rather than something to the day one patch. We aren't children anymore its going to take more than the latest DLC or the same tired old game engine from the year before.

So what is it exactly? I couldn't say. Unfortunately  I am not a game designer.  Someone has to try something different and shake the boat. I look forward to the day we can find the potential again .


Monday, January 12, 2015

Middle Earth Shadow of Mordor

I was actually going to title this Shadow of Boredor but the joke was so obvious I'm sure someone has made it somewhere else on the web.

I've got more objectivity than the menu screen in Golden-eye 64 on this one. I've seen maybe two of the Lord of the Rings movies, and that's it. I've never read the books, seen the prequel trilogy, or anything else. The only other interaction I had with the whole Middle Earth phenomenon was I played Lord of The Rings online for like 3 days once, several years ago.
Shadow of Mordor was my introduction to the current gen of gaming, and everyone knows the first game they owned for a new system. Its like your Mario Brothers on the NES or your Mario 64 for N64, or Resident Evil 5 for Xbox 360 (for me).  You always want a good first game for a system to set the  tone. Unfortunately I'm sad to say Shadow of Mordor was a disappointment at best.

Shadow of Mordor has you playing as a wraith named Talion trying to avenge his family. Along the way he's assisted by another wraith that only he can see, who helps him get a grip on his powers.  To avenge your family you need to run around Mordor open world style, collecting arbitrary items and whozits , as well as taking on street races and assasination miss- I mean picking up flowers, and runes and completing weapon challenges.  Ezio can also climb up on towers to unlock fast travel for an area. Did I say Ezio I mean Jason , wait no I mean the guy from Watch_Dogs wait no Talion sorry.  Yes they did the Ubisoft thing and had you climb a tower to open up an area on the map. Come on gaming can we please leave this mechanic behind?

Talion can't seem to decide if he wants to be like Ezio or if he wants to be like Batman from the Arkham games. Most of the time he decides to be a moron, clinging to walls in combat, and refusing to drop down off waist high ledges. The combat works like your modern Batman game , but Talion also does parkour  stunts and climbs up the scenery and such. There's also a certain Dynasty Warriors type thing going on in Mordor, as hordes of enemies always seem to be only a stone's throw away from you at any given point, which brings me to the nemesis system.

Despite all the tomfoolery surrounding the game's marketing company and the nemesis system, in my own opinion its a great idea, but its limited by the medium, and it becomes droll and repetitive.  In short, enemies that kill you or you encounter often end up becoming your nemesis, and they grow stronger with each success they find against you or their fellow orcs.  You'll also have to use your wraith powers to interrogate other orcs to get information on the powerful ones. Like I said, great idea limited by the medium that grows stagnant in the end. Since the orc army has to be literally limitless (or otherwise you'd find the game world populated only tumbleweed and stuff after several hours) there's no real point to killing them other than to move along your powers and the story.  Some enemies tend to get insane combinations of strengths as they level that make them more of a chore to fight than a challenge. Often times you'll manage to whittle down a nemesis to low health only to be greeted by "enraged by x" (replace x with arbitrary reason to have your jimmies rustled) . When an enemy gets enraged they regenerate health at an insane amount, get stronger, and pretty much ruin your good time.  These strengths that generals pick up as they get stronger mean you have to go hunt down the one thing they're afraid of to have a chance of killing them. It actually gets rather silly. You'll have an enemy with a laundry list of immunities (immune to stealth, immune to range, can't be finished with melee , gets mad at losing etc ) and he'll have a weakness to flies so you'll have to drop a nest in the area and suddenly he can take damage. This looks like a classic example of one of my game design cardinal sins, which is making something a certain way to force you use a certain feature. With good game design all abilities are useful and you use them because they are so, but with Mordor it seems like they only make certain enemies become "enraged at losing" so that you're forced to go ask his neighbor about his traumatic house fly experience as a kid so you can deal damage to this guy aka you have to use this stupid contrived system we came up with. The developers had to know that beating an enemy to death with your sword is the more efficient way of doing it, and gamers always find the most efficient way, so they had to force you to use flys, or mounts , or arrows, or some other completely random thing that will magically let you kill someone who gets so mad about having his head cut off he becomes invincible.   Making things worse is that whole like Dynasty Warriors thing they threw in. As I said above you may run into your current rival on a lonely road at night but after engaging him its almost certain that at least 20 or 30 of his friends may show up. The reason this works so well with Dynasty warriors is that non general enemies tend to be dispatched in one or two hits, and they rarely all attack at once, which is unrealistic but it has to be that way otherwise you'd be swarmed and die all the time and the game wouldn't be fun. Mordor throws caution to the wind with what Dynasty Warriors figured out and gives all the other Orcs a substantial amount of health and ranged abilities, and the ability to attack you from behind and machine guns,  and bombs, and grenades and ok I'm getting out of hand, but you see my point. This is another reason the nemesis system falters. All the other enemies you're fighting have the ability to become a nemesis themselves if they kill you. The one you're currently tracking just happens to have a big list of things he's immune to /scared of tacked on to him.  Dynasty Warriors also has characters that use big wide sweeping attacks to help you mow down the hordes. Its not realistic but its fun. Shadow of Mordor remember, uses the Batman Arkham system of combat  and uses combos 'n' counters with a side heaping of finishes on downed enemies.  Batman's combat system is great, and for the most part it works well for Mordor too , at least mechancially. The problem Mordor has is that while Batman would fight about 4 or 5 or maybe even up to 10 goons Mordor will throw 20 or 30 plus enemies at you while you're trying to take on one guy. They will also re-spawn indefinitely. Can you see how this is a problem?  If I'm trying to take down old Grafawl Num Nuts (POW 15) over here who's immune to everything except cake made with soy milk during a full moon in January,  and I have at least 100 other enemies trying to get a piece of me, its going to be difficult to get it done. Especially when you get to the later parts when you start running into enemies with shields or without counter prompts. Even worse if you get killed by Grafawl Num Nuts he's going level up , be stronger, and probably pick up even more immunities. So now your soy milk cake you spent all that time baking is worthless, and had you managed to use it on him he'd probably be "enraged by losing" and get all of his health back anyway.

Now I will admit I did not finish the game.  So its very possible after enough hours you become so powerful you one shot everything. If so that would certainly levy some of the problems I had with the hordes, but at that point why not just go play Dynasty Warriors which has 100 Talions to play as rather than this one boring guy.  I did put in over 20 hours, completed over half the "story" missions and spent the rest of the time running around hunting certain orcs and collecting all the little runes, and weapon missions in hopes of getting strong enough to alleviate the problems I spoke about earlier.  The story seems to take somewhat of a backseat,  and unless the story mission counter in the menu is hiding something from me there's only about 20 story missions anyway. The ones I played through were all pretty boring , standard stuff involving tailing other characters, being stealthy and of course hunting certain orcs. The upgrades you get from doing all this stuff come from experience points and power levels. As your power increases the amount of abilities you can buy increases and you spend the aforementioned experience points to get them.

All in all Shadow of Mordor is disappointing and bland. I fell for a hype train and I regret it.  The nemesis system while an interesting concept, has to give up too much to work in a video  game , and it just gets repetitive, and it makes the enemies annoying to fight.  Mordor is also another game suffering from an identity crisis.  The combat wants to be Arkhamy, but the movement is more Assassin's Creed (with arms wide open) and the hordes look like Dynasty Warriors but all the trash mobs have just about as much health as the big guy.

Hardcore LOTR people will probably consider Shadow of Mordor worth checking out, and if you've got a hunkin' hankering for some more Arkham combat you may also want to pick this up used or on sale. Picky gamers like myself will want to avoid Mordor or at least try it before buying.

Shadow of Mordor earns a disappointing 4/10.

 It takes a lot to make a game
A pinch of orcs and murder, too
A scoop of bits to add the spice
 A dash of modern gaming to make it nice, and you’ve got
Too many orcs