This was going to be a discussion of Cuphead but after an hour of play my arm hurt from constantly holding down the ‘fire’ button. I’m sure it’s a fine game, half the internet seems to think so, but I draw the line at games physically assaulting me. There’s no option to keep the button held down indefinitely and taping the button down on my controller seemed like cheating so off to Steam’s refund you go. It’s certainly challenging but I’ve found I don’t savour hard games as much as I used to. I suspect years of progaming have ruined the sense of satisfaction from defeating a game’s challenge; if I can’t tell me mum about my achievement with a deserved sense of pride then what’s the point? Anyway, instead I’ll talk about the sequel to ‘Middle-Earth™: Shadow of Mordor™’: ‘Middle-Earth™: Shadow of War™’. Too cool for 2’s, eh lads? Or is it that marketing decided that putting ‘of war’ in a game’s title vastly increases sales? (to the ire of critics of game titles, but alas) In any case a pretty good game from 2014 has a sequel, though in truth it’s more of a remastering. SoM’s 3rd act implied large scale battles and army management but since the budget ran out around this point what really happened was a perplexingly hurried series of boss fights. With SoW, developers Monolith Studios have set out to correct all this.
We start where we left off. Our hero Talion and his morally dubious ghost pal Celebrimbor have, in their quest to defeat the Dark Lord Sauron, fashioned their own Last Ring of Power. Since, you know, the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a Last Ring of Power is a good guy with a Last Ring of Power (that scraping sound you hear is JRR Tolkien’s bones centrifuging within his runed Elfgrave). It gets taken away from us early on by Shelob, seen here as a shapechanging prophetess who is only sometimes a spider (keep twirling Tolkien), but before too long we get it back to do what the first game promised; mind control a legion of disposable monster people and use them to fight other monster people. Themes of doing wicked things to wicked forces is a far cry from Lord of the Ring’s established remit of wholesome Good vs loathsome Evil, but hey I’m all for mucking around in canon, particularly if it can make a video game more interesting. Which kind of works and kind of doesn’t with these Shadow Of games.
What works is that Talion is fucking amazingly good at killing orks. You can run up and twat them to death with a sword, sneak about and slit them up with a knife all stealthy like, shoot them with arrows like a wuss, blow up their alcohol to burn them to death, set giant wolves and other monsters on them or just dominate their minds and turn them against each other. Orks are a lot like Nazis in that you can depict their brutal slaughter as an endless kaleidoscope of severed limbs and death, all set to anguished screams of intense pain, and the player still considers themselves the morally upright party. It gets a bit tricky when Ork officers start showing up but thanks to Talion’s extreme parkour ability you can always escape to heal up and plan the next move. Most of the game revolves around sorting out these officers and while it’s not exactly difficult per se I find myself thinking very quickly on my feet while cool things are happening. Diving into a horde of Orks and having to improvise your way out is all rather exhilarating, pretty much like it was in SoM.
What doesn’t work so much is the whole Championship Manager: Mordor Edition stuff. Once the game opens up proper an element of army management is introduced. There’s four regions guarded by Sauron’s forts and you gotta take ‘em over by dominating some Ork Captains and leading them in battle. For one thing there’s hardly any actual leadership involved, you just run around murdering while your lads figure it out for themselves. There’s a lot of sidequestery available to level up your crew but why would you bother upgrading the lads you currently have when it’s quicker and easier to just get the newer better model (clearly Sauron’s been taking lessons from Apple Computers, living up to the Dark Lord moniker I see)? Truth be told it’s a fairly minor embuggerence, I’m more just left confounded that a game that’s pretty good at focusing on the stabby murder element wants to do other things too. I guess we just have to accept a certain degree of bloat with big budget games.
There’s some other shit I’d like to bitch about, so please indulge me further. Talion desperately needs a ‘Shut the Fuck up’ button. Not for himself but for the orks. Every time you meet a Captain he’s called something like Andy Dickfucker and before you can kill him you gotta listen to his spiel about how he's gonna fuck your dick with his sword. For gameplay that revolves around rhythmic flow these constant disruptions (particularly in the siege battles where this can happen like 15 times) get really irritating. It’s actually kind of impressive just how many little Ork personalities and dialogues there are but I desperately wished for a button that tells them to just shut the fuck up. I’m going to chop off your arms and legs in a minute we can skip the introductions. I also feel sorry for the lead story writer who’s been told “write a fascinating fantasy tale about some dudes fighting Sauron in a Lord of the Rings prequel”, although I would add that’s no excuse for every character being a boring pile of paradoxically overwritten yet under characterised shit (if you removed every line of dialogue where someone comments a thing is beginning and/or ending I’m pretty sure you’ve trimmed about half the script).
I was looking forward to being all positive about SoW but then Act 4 began and, alas, everything turned to bullshit. Some major plot points have developed and the game’s lurching to a climactic finish but first we need to win what the game calls the Shadow Wars (I thought we were the Shadow of War but really it’s about the Shadow Wars, as fought by people who are not shadows. Yeah don’t think about it you’ll hurt yourself). Those forts we took over now need to be defended, and to do that an identical siege battle needs to be fought roughly, and this is not an exaggeration, thirty times. Thirty times do we arrange our defenders, thirty times I go through the same motions, thirty times does an identical group of warchiefs need to be sliced apart. Fuck. Right. Off. There’s no way the developers thought this was a good idea. Nobody could think this is a good idea. And the only reason I can imagine for why this is the way it is? To push Lootchests. How this works is that, if playing the game is too much work for you, you can toss the developers a fiver for a box of items and followers to save some time. You can use the ingame currency to do this (which you should since there’s nothing else to spend it on) or you can use actual money. On a videogame you’ve already paid like 60 USD for.
...What the fuck? For one thing, this is a tacit admission from the developers that you should pay them not to have to play their game. Moreover though, this recent trend of putting paid lootboxes in games really needs to fuck off. I can’t imagine anybody who bought some of these and didn’t feel ripped off (here, have some equipment that’ll be underlevelled in a few hours! Hahah!). Sure you can just ignore them, which I fully intended to do, but once their inclusion affected the game’s design in such a way as to artificially lengthen it beyond a reasonable amount, a line has been crossed. I’m a defender of games as a legitimate means of creative expression, art if you will, and atop those battlements I’ll fight ‘til from my bones my flesh be hacked, but bullshit like this stands as a most effective counter argument. The game turned from a jolly adventure to something akin to a fruit machine (or pokie, or whatever Americans call them). If a game wants to monetise itself around extra content or unobtrusive cosmetic features I can just ignore then that’s fine. That’s acceptable. Gaming has accepted these things. But dangling closure over our heads in this manner just in order to milk a few twenty’s from our money-teats is just not fucking on.
When I realised when was happening I put the controller down and refused to go on. I'll just assume Talion and Sauron settle their differences over a merry game of billiards. It is for this reason that not only would I not recommend ME: SoW, I actively wish for it to fail. I don’t usually wish for games to fail since that means innocent developers losing their jobs and that realisation sure does take the freude out of schadenfreude, but this sort of bullshit represents a truly abominable threshold that I would hate to see crossed. Don’t give Monolith/Warner Brothers money for this. Just play SoM, it’s fun for all the same reasons, and whilst I don’t condone piracy in this instance I’d judge it the lesser of two evils. This can’t be the future of big budget videogamery, or we’re all fucked. I almost wish I had a physical copy so I could convince eight friends to accompany me to a volcano to hurl it into. Or just smash it with a hammer, that’d work too.