Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor – Review

Shadow of Mordor - Title Screen
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(Reviewed on PS4)

Absolutely Orcsome!

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor initially feels like the fantasy-themed lovechild of the Assassin’s Creed and Batman: Arkham franchises. That’s by no means a bad thing; it’s at once pleasantly familiar territory to find yourself in as a player, but also not exactly the freshest experience upon first glance either. Activities such as exploring, scouting and clambering up buildings all operate pretty much identically to the Assassin’s Creed games gameplay-wise. Whilst in combat, it’s remarkably easy to think that you’re wearing the famous cape and cowl of the Dark Knight himself, as the combat system is so similar to the counter-based brawling combat of the Arkham series. However, these rather liberal borrowings from other series are quickly forgiven, as they function as a great foundation for something truly unique to Shadow of Mordor, the Nemesis System – essentially a living, breathing and squabbling hierarchy of orcs, which influences and enriches every aspect of the game.

Shadow of Mordor‘s Nemesis System will almost certainly provide you with some of the most memorable, bitter and personal rivalries that you’ll have experienced yet in gaming, and it’s absolutely the strongest facet of the game. Although the system can get a bit fuzzy and strangely flawed as the game progresses, the Nemesis System still manages to feel like a wholly different and excitingly fresh take on how you engage as a protagonist with your enemies. It’s absolutely worth experiencing Shadow of Mordor for this unique mechanism alone.

Story Time

Shadow of Mordor - Talion and Celebrimbdor

Monolith Production’s Shadow of Mordor is a hack ‘n’ slash 3rd person action-adventure/role playing game set in Tolkien’s well-loved fantasy world. The story is set between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings; you play the role of Talion (voiced by the ever-omniscient Troy Baker), a returned from the dead Gondor Ranger, who is out to take his revenge on the Black Hand of Sauron and the Black Captains – the group responsible for killing his family (don’t worry about spoilers, it happens right at the start of the game) and…well, yourself actually. Well, technically, you’re not really dead – you’ve been cursed, and you are now in fact banished from death. Inconvenient, then, to say the least, but hey, it makes for a good starting point for a game.

Instead, at the moment of death, you’re inhabited by and bonded with the mysterious spirit of a dead elf Lord, Celebrimbor, who shares your physical body and comes complete with his own wraith powers (not to mention a tasty longbow). Together, your goal is to break the curse and get your revenge for your family’s slaughter, whilst simultaneously recovering the memories of your newfound ghostly elf acquaintance along the way.

Oh Uruk-Hai There

Shadow of Mordor - Orc

Okay, I’ve gone for two paragraphs without mentioning the word ‘orc’, so it’s time to rectify things. If that story synopsis waffled on a bit, let me cut right to the point. Shadow of Mordor is a game about orcs. Orcs, orcs, orcs. Over the course of your adventure, you will come to hate orcs, despise orcs, curse orcs at the top of your lungs and laugh mercilessly as you chop another down in victory; you’ll be disgusted by their filthy ways or hell, you might even grow somewhat fond of the revolting creatures in the end, but whatever happens on your adventure through Sauron’s domain, you’re going to be killing an awful lot of the grubby things.

The in-game map of Mordor is essentially just a great big muddy field for you to run around in. It’s a large wide-open area, dotted with huts, crumbling ruins, towers, caves and fortresses, and packed full of missions for you to do and things to find. It certainly looks good, but it’s also not exactly the most graphically interesting backdrop to play in either. However, once you’ve started to make your acquaintance with Mordor’s delightfully foul and cranky citizens, nothing else really matters.

As I’ve mentioned at the start, the really unique element of Shadow of Mordor is without a doubt the Nemesis System, and it’s such a fundamental part of the game that it needs explaining before we go any further. It’s the strong beating heart at the core of the game, and the orcs are the lifeblood pumping through it. Yes, there are bigger threats rumbling about in the world of Shadow of Mordor (as fans of the books and films will no doubt be aware), but your attention will almost entirely be taken up by these revolting foot soldiers (and their delightfully grating mockney accents) that you’ll feel like a David Attenborough-level expert on them in no time.

The system is simple but really, really effective. As I’ve said, the game is absolutely crammed full of orcs – for the most part, you’re going to be fighting almost nothing but hordes and hordes of these grotesque thugs. Whilst you are playing, the game will randomly generate a series of orc Captains for you to go up against. These are elite ‘Uruk’ orcs that command the various orc riff-raff on the map, and as you might imagine, these Captains are more powerful than your standard orc cannon fodder. Each has their own particular strengths and weaknesses, resistances and even fears – all of which can be cleverly exploited. The identities of the orc hierarchy are all an unknown line up at the start of your game (which can be checked at any time by bringing up the pause menu), but you’ll slowly discover their identities over time. Much like a good game of Cluedo, only with clubs and swords and repeated stabbings instead of leading yes/no questions.

Shadow of Mordor - Line-up

What’s really clever is that the chain of command isn’t a static, fixed thing. Nature abhors a vacuum as they say, so over time, orcs that you’ve previously killed will be replaced in the hierarchy by fresh new recruits. Orcs will fight amongst themselves for dominance, with the victor taking the ranking title. Crucially, being killed by an orc will lead to that orc being promoted, and usually challenging other higher ups in the chain as they feel a burst of confidence after giving you the killer blow. Any lowly orc in the game has the potential to reach the top of the hierarchy, so while dying doesn’t really affect your character per se, it certainly carries a heavy price, and directly affects the balance of orc power quite dramatically.

In a nutshell, this means that any orc you encounter could ultimately become the stuff of nightmares; the nemeses you’ll build up as you slash your way through Mordor can end up being some of the most epic and personal boss fights you can imagine in gaming. It’s truly some special stuff. The Nemesis System really managed to draw me into the game and absorb my full attention whilst playing.

Careful With That Axe Eugene!

Shadow of Mordor - Combat

So, we’ve talked a bit about orcs – let’s now talk about how you’re going to go about killing all these orcs. The game openly encourages you to experiment between the three main combat approaches – offensive, ranged or stealth – as certain Captains will be resistant or even immune to certain methods, whilst vulnerable to others. Additionally, you can use the xp you earn from offing orcs to upgrade Talion’s abilities further. You can choose how and largely in what order you want to move through the upgrades and abilities, though you will need to play through story missions and take part in specific types of side missions to unlock the full skill tree. The Ranger upgrades focus on Talion’s strength and offensive options, whilst the Wraith upgrades prioritise improving your stealth and ranged attacks.

As mentioned earlier, the combat feels very Batman-esque, which is great. Clashing with the orcs in direct combat with your sword is both thrilling and cinematic, and it’s the way you’ll be conducting a significant amount of your orc encounters.

The controls are straightforward and easy to pick up, even if you’ve never battled Gotham City’s abundance of hired goons before; you’ll soon be rolling, parrying and slashing your way through Sauron’s armies with ease. Like with Batman, timing is important, as you have to block the telegraphed orc attacks, meaning that you can’t just hope to run into a mob and mindlessly mash the attack button. As you progress through the game, you’ll unlock the ability to perform other swashbuckling skills, such as mid-combat executions, and to wraith-stun an enemy in order to land a series of rapid fire strikes from your dead elf pal – just two of the techniques which are vital to surviving large packs of angry orcs.

Shadow of Mordor - Archery

Outside of full-on combat, the dagger and bow weapons are the perfect tools for more stealthy players. Stealth attacks were my personal modus operandi, and due to some well-designed stealth mechanics, using my dagger to quietly take out orcs one by one was always highly satisfying. I found the bow (cool and ghostly as it is) to be the least used tool in my arsenal, but that’s partly because I was having too much fun gallivanting about with the sword and dagger. It’s mostly useful for silently taking out enemies at range, though you can use it offensively in combat with the slow motion focus ability, providing you’ve got a bit of distance from your target.

What…Is Your Quest? What…Is Your Favourite Colour?

Shadow of Mordor - Map

Okay, so to recap; we’ve got orcs – check. Weapons – check. But how does killing all these orcs fit in with the story and mission structure? Pretty well actually. You are free to choose whether you want to work through the main missions or tackle some side quests right from the off. Shadow of Mordor functions similarly to other open world role playing games in this respect, and games like Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption and the Grand Theft Auto series were no doubt inspiration for the way the map and missions are designed. Instead of safe houses, you can unlock new forge towers (found by using Celebrimbor’s wraith vision) to use as respawn/fast travel points to make navigation around Mordor quicker, which also has the added effect of opening up new nearby missions and side quests to tackle.

Quests and side missions tend to occur dynamically in response to on-going gameplay, rather than feeling like overwhelming and pestering distractions to the main story beats. For example, after happening to come across a withered bunch of human slaves on my way to a main mission, I decided to help them out by stealthily knifing their loutish orc master. This then prompted some dialogue from one of the freed captives, who begged me to go and rescue more of their enslaved chums who were in need of help elsewhere on the map, so off I went. If the game had simply said “Go here to free slaves”, I wouldn’t have felt half as compelled to go and help the poor guys out.

In fact, the side missions and activities weave so fluidly with the main story quests and your own desire to explore, that it’s actually a delight to be given a reason to go off and see something new. There’s also smaller survival and hunting challenges (again similar to Red Dead) which are very basic and provide quick little xp boosts to keep that experience bar filling up at a regular pace, whilst never feeling like too much of a chore.

Trash Tolkien

Shadow of Mordor - Power Struggle

What’s great is that the Nemesis System means that even a simple side quest can turn into the staging ground for another epic encounter with one of your orc rivalries. The most basic of fetch quests can suddenly change into a life and death struggle with one of your many nemeses at the drop of a hat…or an crude bone headdress if you’re an orc.

Different power struggle events and missions will occur relative to the progression and movements of the orc hierarchy in your game. Orcs that manage to kill you will then usually try and challenge those higher up in the ranks for their position, and they will naturally bicker and fight amongst themselves for dominance even without your dead body as a bargaining chip. These struggles can usually be intercepted and disrupted if you choose, or ignored at the risk of letting one of the two ruffians grow more powerful.

These situations are ripe opportunities for presenting some interesting challenges to your overall game plan and strategy, in comparison to the face-to-face clashes you’ll have with the orcs yourself. Do you sit back and let the quarrelling orcs battle it out amongst themselves, or do you get involved? Do you help the underdog orc battle the bigger bully, or do you help the superior one quickly wipe out the runt? The choice is up to you.

One problem that I did personally find with these power struggles (and fighting the more difficult orcs in general) is that it’s quite hard to tell just how you’ll stack up to an orc in combat before everything kicks off. Each of the Captains has a power level, giving you some assessment of how difficult they will be to defeat in battle; the higher the number, the harder they will be to put down. However, you don’t have such a number in your stats telling you what rank you are, letting you work out just how capable you are of taking down your target. However, it’s not a massive deal. With enough careful planning, you can tackle any orc, and the uber-powerful Warchiefs at the top of the hierarchy have to be specifically drawn out by completing certain missions, or by having a dominated (mind-controlled) orc challenge them directly, so you don’t have to worry about dealing with the cream of the Uruk crop right away so to speak.

However, it’s often on these power struggle/consolidation missions that your dreaded nemesis will decide to turn up and really throw a massive spanner in the works on what would have otherwise been a rather straightforward mission. There’s nothing more (delightfully) frustrating than fighting your way through a bunch of orc thugs to close in with the killing blow on that specific orc captain you’ve come to slay, only for that pesky rival of yours to come jumping out of the sidelines at you; locking swords with you and snarling all manner of jibes and insults your way before proceeding to attack you as well, usually allowing your original target to get to his feet and flee or continue attacking. It’s dynamic moments like these, where unwelcome surprise attacks from your nemeses suddenly shift the balance of power mid-combat that will teach you to both hate and respect the orcs in equal measure.

A Dish Best Served…Bloody

Shadow of Mordor - Grûblik

To give you some idea of how all these various systems work together in gameplay, I thought I’d tell you about the numerous clashes I had with my most bitter rival on my adventure through Mordor, and how I eventually bested him. Get comfortable, as it is an epic and bloody tale of woe, misery and, ultimately, gleeful success.

Upon starting the game, I leapt out of the starting tower, and cockily strolled up to a bunch of the local warty cockney fellows, eager to remove some orc limbs from their rather portly torsos.

Things were going well; blood was shed, limbs were indeed severed, and I was having a whale of a time…only to be swiftly challenged by the dastardly devil who would be one of my longest running rivals – Grûblik the Shaman.

Despite my best efforts (frantically mashing the attack button, completely forgetting to block) I was slain by the dastardly devil, which to my annoyance, resulted in Grûblik rising up the ranks and growing more powerful – the smug git. Several more times I would try and take down this growing thorn in my side, only for him to either best me again in combat, or flee when the battles weren’t going his way.

Why is this fun I hear you ask? Well, let me tell you, there’s nothing more satisfying than finally putting the kibosh on your most bitter rival. The day when Grûblik finally bit the dust was nothing short of glorious.

Shadow of Mordor - Grûblik Promoted

As a Shaman, one of Grûblik’s traits was that he could quickly summon minions to his aid in battle using a snazzy horn, and due to whatever black magic he was no doubt dabbling in, he could also regenerate health at a fast rate as well. What made him incredibly hard to kill was that he could summon such large groups of orcs to his aid that it would quickly become impossible to focus on Grûblik in a fight. You might get a couple of swift stabs in on him, only to have to instantly parry or dodge one of his minion’s attacks; by which time Grûblik would be able to scurry out of immediate reach and by the time you caught up to him again, he would be fully healed. Annoying to say the least.

So, having found out that running in screaming with my sword drawn wasn’t the way to go, I tried another method – a stealthy surprise attack with my dagger. Tracking down further intel on Grûblik let me discover he was vulnerable to a one-hit stealth attack if performed completely undetected. Needless to say, it worked like a charm. Discovering the magic man marching around a nearby courtyard, I climbed the surrounding crumbled ruins and performed a flashy airborne stealth kill from above, finishing the rotten devil off for good. Seeing my rival crumple to the floor and his minions scatter to the wind in fear felt incredibly satisfying after he’d absolutely battered me time and time again.

The fact that all these encounters were essentially random dynamic elements that were totally unscripted is some seriously impressive stuff. Grûblik will forever be in my mind as one of the most irritating and memorable mini-boss encounters that I’ve had the pleasure of battling in a game in quite some time.

Rise From Your Grave!

Shadow of Mordor - Grûblik Win

Unfortunately, there’s a catch. The Nemesis System is far from perfect. In fact, it can be downright baffling…so much so that I’m not entirely sure how it works even now. You see, what’s really odd (not to mention startling at times) is that the orc Captains don’t seem to actually stay dead, even once you’ve apparently killed them…brutally at times.

It makes sense story-wise for your character to keep resurrecting, being possessed by a dead elf and all that, because…you know, reasons, but it can be really bizarre to keep coming up against orcs that you know you’ve already put into the ground once already. As you can imagine in my case, being attacked by none other than Grûblik the (now presumably undead) Shaman out of nowhere was frightening and confusing in equal measure, especially as I thought I’d previously slain him hours ago. Although, on the plus side, I have to say, part of me was quite pleased to see him again, only if it was just so that I could stick my knife back into his warty neck once more.

The game doesn’t really explain this anywhere from what I’ve seen, so instead I’ve had to look up what on earth was going on in my game online. Even now, it’s still hard to understand how and why this works. Apparently, if you aren’t decapitating your orc rivals using a combat execution, then they can come back again and again like common or garden zombies. They might look slightly different, but it’ll be them – they’ll usually have different characteristics and appearances, but they’ll retain their name, and despite whatever the bizarre resurrection process has entailed, they will remember you and what you’ve done to them.

This unfortunately means that unless you’re usually favouring rushing aggressively into battle with your sword aloft, then you’re going to struggle a bit if you want to use stealth or ranged weapons. I personally really enjoyed playing stealthily – being able to stealth run made sneaking up behind orcs extremely good fun, and using guerrilla tactics to whittle down the unaware enemy forces one by one felt great. Unfortunately then, as I wasn’t executing a lot of my orc rivals face-to-face with the sword, they had a nasty habit of apparently resurrecting and coming back even angrier (not to mention uglier) than before. This really detracts from the impressive things that the Nemesis System absolutely nails, and repeatedly bumping into these supposedly ‘dead’ orcs time and time again can be both frustrating and immersion breaking.

Orcs Well That Ends Well

Shadow of Mordor - Sunset

Normally, a game will make the basic foot soldiers you run across feel almost like part of the backdrop; you just blast/stab/shoot your way through them and carry on with the rest of the game. Shadow of Mordor flips all that round, and instead celebrates the writhing and vulgar underbelly of Tolkien’s world as the absolute star of the show.

By simultaneously allowing both you and your enemies the ability to level up and learn from each encounter, the game cleverly manages to make you feel ever more powerful and capable, yet still give great deal of significance and consequence to your deaths. While mysteriously resurrecting orcs will somewhat confuse and muddy your understanding of the Nemesis System when they turn up, the spontaneity and dynamic nature of the enemy orc hierarchy still makes it a ridiculously refreshing experience as a gamer. It’ll likely have you cursing the name of that one orc who constantly has it in for you, and will leave you with a big grin on your face once you finally get your own back.

The Nemesis System is a feature that I’m sure plenty of games going forward will draw inspiration from, as it managed to turn the land of Mordor from, what you’d think from reading the books, would be a dead and lifeless pit of despair, into a thriving and eclectic mix of thugs, rapscallions and scum bags; it’s a pleasure to meet them all…before stabbing them, repeatedly, of course.

Pros

Cons

+ The Nemesis System is genuinely unique, and really brings the orcs to life. – The story missions aren’t particularly captivating – it’s more fun to just go off hunting orcs.
+ Combat is satisfying, yet simple. – Mordor isn’t the most interesting location to explore as an open world.
+ Easy to get distracted from the story with plenty of enjoyable side missions to complete. – The Nemesis System is muddled, and can bring dead orcs back to life – yikes!

Alien: From Film to Game – Leeds College of Art, 14/11/2014

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Sigourney and CA

Xenomorphs and Leeds. The two words don’t often go together in the same sentence…which is probably a good thing, as even though I’m a big fan of both of these things in their own right, seeing H.R. Geiger’s nightmarish organism scuttling up and down Briggate impaling passing shoppers and punching holes in people’s foreheads willy-nilly would probably reduce me to a quivering pile of jelly faster than you could say “Jonesy the Cat”.

This evening however, Alien and Leeds did go together rather well indeed; as part of the 2014 Leeds International Film Festival, Creative Assembly’s Alistair Hope (Creative Lead), Dion Lay (Writer) and Will Porter (Writer) gave a talk about their beloved game, the brilliant Alien: Isolation, at Leeds College of Art.

The hour-long talk was hosted by Game Republic’s Jamie Sefton, who guided the panel of devs with interesting finely-tuned questions through topics covering all aspects of the games production.

The talk was absolutely fascinating, and hearing directly from the developers themselves about subjects such as the game’s design process, art direction, the AI design, the importance of keeping authentic to the original 1979 film, not to mention the challenges and creative/technical restrictions that the Creative Assembly team had to work with was absolutely incredible.

In short, it was great to get a peek under the black slimy vertebrae of this fantastic horror game, and really see what made it tick. Seeing how Creative Assembly were able to translate that authentic Alien experience from the big screen to home consoles was both enlightening and inspiring, and personally gave me an even greater appreciation of their survival horror masterpiece.

I was snapping away with my camera, so of course have a gander at the pictures below. Now if you’ll excuse me, all that camera flashing may have given away my position to the Xeno – time to find a locker and weep…

Video Games Live Review – Manchester Apollo, 1/11/14

Earthworm Jim Bird Table
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Howdy doody! I thought I’d have a go at penning my first live music review on the thematically blog-appropriate topic of the Video Games Live concert, held on the 1st November at the small but mighty Manchester Apollo venue in Stockport.

I’d been to the venue for the first time about ten years ago. It was first ever gig actually; me and my best friend from school (who was also named Tom funnily enough) went to go and see our favourite band, The Offspring, play a fantastic set two years after their 2003 album Splinter had come out. Naturally then, I’ve got rather fond memories of that raucous gig; the bright strobing lights, the ear-splitting buzzsaw guitars and the strong reeking smells of sweat, weed, alcohol and gleeful teenage pop-punk abandon, all percolating together in the smoky air like a tangy and bitter miasmatic ghost of my generation’s youthful nihilistic counterculture.

Whimsical poetic aside over, the Apollo had seemed like such a massive venue to me at the time, as a dumb fifteen year-old with too much hair gel smeared into my greasy mop, but today, as a twenty-four year-old with no hair gel in my naturally greasy mop, the isolated, jaunty venue now appeals to me because of its small size – it combines the intimacy of a small dingy club gig with the grandeur of an old music hall; there’s a sense of busyness and bustle to the atmosphere without it feeling too claustrophobic.

Inside, the venue had several large TV screens set up above the orchestra’s seats, which showed a variety of daft video game-themed clips and an amusing yet ultimately tragic Ms. Pac-Man film (the ghosts always get you in the end) before the lights dimmed and the show started, or perhaps more appropriately, booted up.

The Hungarian Virtuosi Orchestra stroll out onstage (complete with a full choir) and tune up, followed by the principal violinist, and the conductor. Suddenly, Tommy Tallarico, Video Games Live Head-honcho and guitarist, races out of the side of stage, fancy Les Paul guitar in hand yelling “GIVE IT UP FOR CASTLEVANIA!” The show was well and truly underway with an ecstatic roar from the crowd.

The orchestra blasted through a medley of the classic Castlevania game themes whilst Tommy ripped out some fast neo-classical lead passages on his axe (sorry, I had to get that in there as it’s Castlevania). Up above all the fast bowing and plucking action onstage, corresponding footage from the games was displayed on the aforementioned big screens; it was definitely an exciting and in-your-face start to the concert.

The evening (the very first video games concert to be held in Manchester apparently yet also unsurprisingly) was this juxtaposition of an all-out rock concert meets quiet reserved symphony orchestra, and the result was for the most part a successful one. The pieces where the orchestra were the sole or main focus, usually with minimal percussive instrumentation, were particularly great. However, the attempt to blend orchestral-led arrangements with the attitude of a rock concert, minus a rock band, quickly began to wear pretty thin after the strong pseudo-metal Castlevania opening. I’ll get to these qualms shortly, but let’s talk about what was great about Video Games Live first.

The first half of the evening was, in my opinion, by far the strongest; the choice of pieces and the varied pacing of the set really allowed the orchestra to shine in their own right. Barely dropping the pace from the opening number, a brief pre-recorded video clip from Hideo Kojima himself kicked things right into gear with a fantastic rendition of the Metal Gear Solid overture, which in my opinion was the highlight of the set. Throughout the medley, Tommy sneaked around the stage in a cardboard box, Solid Snake style, a small but enjoyable touch that got some decent chuckles from the crowd, and the use of the series classic “!” alert sound, complete with bright searchlights sweeping the stage added some daft amusing game-like immersion for the audience.

In between his duties as lead guitarist, Tommy acted as the evening’s compare, and encouraged people to yell, whoop, shout aloud and let loose throughout the evening, which he described as a celebration of music, art, games and their status as a central pillar of contemporary popular culture. While I managed to restrain the urge to yell things like “PLAY THE KILLER INSTINCT THEME! NOW!”, others did not, which lent the proceedings a raucous rock gig atmosphere as opposed to the stereotypically fussily quiet of a classical music concert.

Hot on the heels of Metal Gear, much like everyone’s favourite fast blue rodent himself, was an arrangement of the Sonic the Hedgehog themes – another strong highlight. This orchestral-led medley was a joyful delight, and it was nice to hear the quirky melodies of the series played on the organic timbres of the orchestra as opposed to the crunchy metallic timbres of the Sega Mega Drive.

An unexpected surprise was a performance of the title theme of The Secret of Monkey Island; the jaunty reggae-inspired pirate theme which translated surprisingly well to the orchestral sound palate, and helped to provide a bit of variety between some of the more cinematic pieces. One of those more cinematic arrangements, the Uncharted series Nate’s Theme was an absolutely sublime highlight, featuring some fine brass and string playing, giving the piece the understated majesty it deserves.

However, towards the tail end of the first half, things started to slide back into rock show territory, and that’s where I felt the show was at its weakest. To be fair, sometimes things worked well in this rocked-up mode – seeing Tommy blast through his pride and joy Earthworm Jim tunes New Junk City/Anything But Tangerines with a big shit-eating grin across his face was a massive highlight, don’t get me wrong. But at other times, the set tended to fall down somewhat in places where the pace was shifted into rock/metal gig territory. As much as it was entertaining to see Tommy running about the stage and yelling like a young 1980’s era James Hetfield, it kind of clashed a bit with the more refined less-is-more approach of the symphony orchestra.

In fact, speaking of Metallica’s lead singer, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between tonight’s Video Games Live concert and Metallica’s critically acclaimed 1999 collaboration with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, the provocatively titled S&M concerts and album. Video Games Live has obviously taken great inspiration from this previous blending of two usually entirely separate musical genres, and for good reason – Metallica’s S&M concerts were absolutely fantastic; a perfect pairing of classical chalk and metal cheese.

Crucially, Metallica’s blend of metal and classical was successful because it was absolutely full-on from both sides – alongside the full sonic spectrum of the San Francisco Symphony, you had the four horsemen of the metalpocalypse all fully set up with their massive PA systems and speakers, the well-worn rock cliché of walls of Mesa-Boogie amps and cabs, and, crucially, Lars Ulrich’s sprawling drum kit fully mic’d up. It was this epic, no holds-barred clash of the titans of two typically non-combined genres going full-throttle at each other with everything they’ve got that made the performances so compelling.

Unfortunately, the same couldn’t really be said of tonight’s setup with Video Games Live. The audio equivalent of an Achilles’s heel for the entire performance was the lack of a live drum kit. Instead, all the drums, beats, percussive loops of the evening were piped through the PA as processed, pre-mixed samples to which Tommy and the orchestra would play along to like a backing track. Whilst this worked adequately enough, it seemed a strange workaround to have built the entire live show around – why hire an entire orchestra to play live music, and yet neglect the percussion section which provides the core foundation of pretty much all video game music?

The samples, beats and textures being played through the speakers were fine, but they would have worked so much better with a more powerful live foundation backing them up. Processed beats can sound incredibly heavy and awesome in a lot of contexts – i.e. the studio album – but when you’re going for a live rock show, you can’t really substitute them in place of a live mic’d up kit without them sounding weak.

Yes, there were several timpani drums present, to be nit-picky, but the decision to not include a drum kit is definitely a puzzling choice, as it’s such a key component of nearly all the music and songs that were in the set list. Of course, playing processed beats and samples through the venue’s PA works well enough, and is in some cases, more authentic and appropriate for the more lo-fi soundtracks in the set list, but the lack of a significant ‘live’ percussion section was very noticeable when the ensemble were playing the larger orchestrated pieces of the big blockbuster titles. With no drum kit, as well as no bass or additional rhythm guitars, the bottom end completely falls apart when Tommy isn’t riffing away with power chords, meaning that many of the rocked-up numbers simply fall flat after their build-up when the main melody kicks in.

The lack of a live kit could really be felt in Silent Hill 2‘s Theme of Laura, a fantastic piece and a personal favourite of mine, which, thanks to the tinny sampled percussion backing, felt less a melancholic and moody ’90s garage band rock out and more of a woolly fuzzy dirge, the likes of which would probably cause Pyramid Head himself to droop his gigantic iron-clad head in disappointment.

The same could be said for the ensemble’s performance of the Halo medley; what I thought would be a key highlight of the Video Games Live set, and an integral part of me buying the ticket for the concert in the first place. Unfortunately, despite a promising start, it really wasn’t much to listen to. Starting with the choir performing the game’s iconic Gregorian monk chant and building the excitement to critical levels, Tommy unleashes a roaring wall of distortion that marks the start of the One Final Effort theme (the music to the big Warthog escape sequence at the end of Halo 3). Strafing around the stage with his Zemaitis Les Paul copy like a guitar-wielding Master Chief, Tommy blasts out the ascending power chord chugs of the climactic theme, everything building to a delightfully heady rush, and then…he stops playing chords and swaps to the melody. At which point, the entire bottom end of this wall of sound just completely drops out, and you have to strain your ears to just about catch the rhythm and pulse of the sampled drums over the trebly lead melodies of the guitar and strings.

It’s a shame, as Tommy clearly is a red-hot guitarist with some mean licks up his musically gifted sleeves, and it’s exciting hearing him knock out a high-energy solo; it’s just that when he goes into this Van Halen/Steve Vai shredding mode, there’s no layers there underneath what he’s playing to back him up. I couldn’t help but feel that having a live drum kit and an electric bass player would massively help the overall sound, and provide some much-needed low end. Additionally, having some more electric guitar players on-stage performing Malcolm Young-style rhythm duties to help Tommy out with the multi-layered parts would massively help with the louder pieces and sections I’m sure.

As the set list for each gig is largely determined by fans voting for their favourite songs via social media platforms, it’s safe to say that Manchester is home to an incredibly large number of Final Fantasy fans. This fact in itself certainly isn’t a problem; in fact, quite the opposite I think it’s something to be celebrated. However, their heavy-handed influence on tonight’s set list was certainly a case of too many feathery-haired Final Fantasy cooks spoiling the broth (and probably breaking many SALSA food hygiene health regulations too).

Every other franchise was sensibly limited to one song/medley, to keep things moving along and fresh, but there were at least four or five segments of Final Fantasy songs, which no doubt took up valuable set list time for other franchises. Admittedly, this is a series that I’ve not played much of, nor has it ever really appealed to me, so I’m aware that I’m no doubt in the minority here, but there were just simply too many songs from the beloved Final Fantasy series in the set list I felt, which gave the second set a particularly stale feeling.

Just to be fair, as much as I’m a big fan of the Halo soundtracks, if we’d had a set list that went through not only Halo 3‘s One Final Effort but also Halo 4‘s Never Forget, Halo 2‘s Peril, Halo Reach‘s Ghosts of Reach and Halo 3: ODST‘s We Are The Desperate Measures etc., then I’m sure I would have felt the same way – absolutely way WAY too much of a good thing!

Having to hear the theme from practically every other Final Fantasy game in existence, and to not get a single rendition of the universally appealing Mario theme (we were instead encouraged to sing it aloud in unison as some sort of audience-led encore instead, which felt a bit cheap to be quite honest), was disappointing to say the least.

However, the second half did pick up towards the end, featuring a fantastic Street Fighter II medley, which featured some strong and inspired interpretations of the classic character themes of Guile, Ken and Ryu. This really helped to give the proceedings a much-needed shot in the arm after the audio avalanche of Final Fantasy arrangements, not to mention the repeated misfires of the guest band Random Encounter.

The young teenage-looking band, brought over from the States as friends of Tommy, were just simply not up to scratch for tonight’s concert, and were ill suited to playing a venue of this size. The accordion-led four-piece rock band were unfortunately brought out far too frequently throughout the evening and proceeded to mangle their way through some fan-favourite Zelda themes; themes which would have certainly been much better suited to the full orchestral treatment. I wouldn’t have minded their amateurish performance had it been just a one off, but unfortunately they were brought out again and again, each uncharismatic and ‘heads down’ reappearance bringing forth a louder and louder collective groan from the audience.

Again, having played in a number of amateur bands myself over the years, I felt particularly sympathetic to their cause at first; it looked as though they had to plug straight into the sound desk, and perhaps might not have had a pre-performance soundcheck or decent onstage monitoring. Technical problems aside however, no matter how much I mentally willed them on, their playing was just too sloppy to forgive, and it just felt that they were generally unprepared and under rehearsed for the gig. They would have been much better suited to a single pre-show support band slot, rather than being repeatedly foisted onto us again and again as part of the main programme. Having paid Metallica prices for the tickets, it was irritating and genuinely quite hilarious the sheer number of times we had to listen to what sounded like a sub-par pub jam night band mangle another beloved game tune.

On top of this, frequent appeals from Tommy to back the ongoing Kickstarter for the next album started to feel really tired by the end of the night as, particularly when there were clearly cost-cutting measures going on in the current show – i.e. NO DRUM KIT! It just leant the show a generally amateurish vibe, which was detrimental to the really good performances of the first half. It’s a shame, as I’m exactly the sort of person who would have otherwise happily contributed a few quid to their cause initially, but by this point I was starting to feel like I’d paid a bit too much for the night’s entertainment already. I’d still be up for backing a Kickstarter for them to purchase an actual drum kit, or hire a backing band however, but sadly, no such plans have been announced.

The concert closed with an acoustic sing-a-long performance of the much-loved Still Alive from Valve’s Portal. Which whilst I would have liked to have gone out with something more epic, it was a nice touch, and a nice happy note to leave things on.

Overall, I really enjoyed the evening’s entertainment an awful lot. Really, I did. Reading this piece back to myself though, it sounds like I didn’t, but I can assure you that’s not true – it’s just that I was expecting an awful lot more than what we got.

I know I’ve been beating the same old (ironically in this case, non-existent) drum about the lack of live percussion and bass etc. throughout this piece, but it was such a fundamental misstep/omission in my opinion that it’s actually quite difficult to over-emphasise. It was like (clumsy metaphor incoming) looking at a fantastic sculpture or prized piece of art balanced on a flimsy base entirely of wet, soggy cardboard. No matter how nice the art/sculpture/valuable McGuffin is, you can’t help but be incredibly aware of the inadequate support holding it up, cringing at the thought of it all coming crashing down at any second. Or something…hey, look, I did warn you it was a clumsy metaphor.

It seems exceptionally surprising and disappointing that the neglect of the drums, beats and bass has happened under Tommy’s watch too – this is a talented and creative dude who’s been a massive personal inspiration to me as both a gamer and a guitar player.

Earthworm Jim is one of my absolute favourite games, due largely in part to the fantastic soundtrack; a soundtrack which features exceptionally funky drum and bass work. Songs like Down the Tubes, Anything But Tangerines, Falling/Buttville have such a focus on rhythm, power and a really strong emphasis on the low end, all wrapped up with fantastically humorous phrasing and melody that I still listen to these songs nearly twenty years after the game’s release. In my eyes, the soundtrack to Earthworm Jim is an absolute masterpiece, and a fundamental part of the game’s success and popularity.

So yes, I did enjoy Video Games Live. I thought it was great. But I also think the concert could have been so much more. If only Tommy had looked to the pink slimy protagonist of his favourite game as inspiration, and got some of his signature “GROOVY!” rhythm back, then I think this holy trifecta of rock, classical music and video games could have been something truly special.

Falling Skies: The Game – Review

CC14 - Falling Skies Title
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Heroes will rise…sort of

(Reviewed on Xbox 360)

XCOM. Get used to that word if you’re not familiar with it, as it’s going to come up a fair bit in this review. It’s the name of the classic alien-fighting turn-based strategy game series that first made shockwaves on the PC with UFO: Enemy Unknown in 1994, and later inspired the critically acclaimed 2012 remake for PC and consoles, XCOM: Enemy Unknown. It features tense and methodical combat, permadeath, careful base management and crushing difficulty, as you struggle to fend off a hostile invading alien force. Struggling at first as their technology far outpaces your own, eventually, you start to turn the tide of war through reverse-engineering their own weapons and tech against them. In short, it’s one of the most challenging and rewarding games in the strategy genre; it’s an absolute classic.

XCOM is basically the game that Falling Skies: The Game is modelled on…or, perhaps more accurately, it’s the game that Falling Skies desperately wants itself to be. Despite functional and enjoyable gameplay, the game tries to ape one of the kings of the genre, albeit not all that well unfortunately. Although it’s an admirable attempt as an XCOM clone, with some concessions made to players entirely new to the turn-based genre, Falling Skies‘ overall lack of originality and questionable design choices will leave you unsatisfied, and you’ll most likely be left with a craving, not to mention a much greater level of respect, for its muse.

Because…Aliens

Falling Skies - Combat

In a similar manner to another recent game that features guns, shooting and hostile invading alien forces (Cough, cough *Destiny* cough), Falling Skies kicks off with a rather hefty exposition dump when you start a new game. Eponymously titled after the sci-fi TV series of the same name, the game places you in control of a team of rag-tag human survivors who must fight back against an evil race of aliens known as the ‘Espheni’. These guys have invaded the Earth, defeated our forces and have now effectively got full control of the planet. Not good.

While this ungainly info-dump of narrative at the start of the game is enough to give you an awareness of the TV show’s style and themes, it’s a pretty unsatisfying starting point for someone who’s completely new to the franchise…like me. Thankfully, all you really need to know is this; it’s your job to guide these human survivors through the game’s missions as the base commander, having your troops kill aliens, collect resources and fight back as part of the human resistance.

Check and Mate

Falling Skies - Cursor

The gameplay and combat in Falling Skies takes the form of a turn-based strategy cover shooter. For those unfamiliar with the genre, it’s essentially Chess…only with hostile alien forces as your cunning multi-eyed opponents. You have a set number of moves to make each turn, where you can position your troops, get them into cover, have them fire on enemies, hunker down defensively or move further into the map. Once your turn is over, then the alien Espheni race have a turn where they can attack you. The missions usually require you to recover valuable supplies vital to the human resistance, destroy alien communication devices and systems, and, of course, kill plenty of the spidery alien fiends along the way.

The catch is that you can only see as far as your troops have moved into the level – the rest of the map is dark, so there’s a need to be cautious and progress slowly but surely using the environment as cover. Enemy aliens can be lurking just out of sight in the darkness, waiting to attack. Leave your troops too exposed, or allow them to get flanked, and you can quickly find yourself in a world of pain – too much pain leads to death, or more specifically, ‘permadeath’. Much like in real life, unfortunately, this means that once a soldier is dead, that’s it – they’re gone for good. Caution, patience and a careful awareness of your surroundings, troop placement and equipment are all vital components to success.

The game has a good combat tutorial right from the off; you’re gently guided through the opening level/tutorial mission fairly well. It’s easy to pick up for a beginner, and it teaches more experienced players that “Oh – it’s an XCOM copy, I know what I’m doing”. Having said that, I did notice that the tutorial does skimp a bit on some small but important points that could confuse a new player. Things like damage-over-time combat effects, such as bleeding (bleeding wounds need to be bandaged, otherwise your character slowly but continuously leaks claret and dies) aren’t directly communicated or explained to the player. It wasn’t a major problem – the frequent damage indicators popping up every turn let an experienced strategy gamer clock what’s happening – but it’s the sort of small detail that, if not explained in a timely and appropriate manner early on, could potentially prove confusing and frustrating for a naive player unfamiliar with the genre’s conventions.

 Copy-Cat

Falling Skies - Forest

Speaking of those conventions, Falling Skies is an XCOM clone in pretty much every way possible. It’s so similar, that the game even uses the same in-game cover indicators, movement boundary colours, combat animations, in-game close-ups etc. as XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Having said that, despite the wholesale copying of XCOM‘s design, for a TV-licenced game, this is pretty good stuff. Unlike some of the dire movie to game cash-ins that have been spewed out over the years, Falling Skies is a solid and functional game – hell, it’s even enjoyable to play as well. The decision to go with a turn-based strategy style of game for Fallen Skies, as opposed to the typical third person shooter route that movie/TV tie-in games tend to opt for, is a considered choice, and it’s the perfect vehicle for the series’ depiction of a desperate human struggle against superior extra-terrestrials.

The game was clearly a labour of love for Torus Games, who were particularly smitten by the 2012 XCOM reboot; so much so, that they decided to emulate the winning formula of that game for their own project – I can’t blame them, it’s a fantastic game to draw inspiration from. The problem is, while a lot of things are pretty much identical to Firaxis’ game, there’s nothing particularly original brought to the table either, and the few deviations from XCOM that Falling Skies makes tend to be the source of it’s most significant problems.

For example, a significant number of the enemies you’re fighting are melee based – which seems a bit of an odd design choice for a game that’s supposed to be about tactical turn-based cover shooting. Additionally, when you are fighting the alien-possessed human enemies who can shoot at you, moving into said cover is often a lot more trouble than it needs to be. Floor textures sometimes block grid icons, making it very hard to see where exactly your cursor is on the map, and also incredibly easy to accidentally place troops out in the open far too frequently.

When you actually can see the cursor, it’s a fiddly thing to control. Both the left and right analog sticks control the cursor – the left stick is for general navigation, whilst the right stick offers slightly more fine-tuned grid-to-grid movement, but it feels a bit unnecessary. Greater camera control on the right stick (just like in, you guessed it, XCOM) would have been far more useful an option to have, as just looking around the levels can feel like a particularly clunky task. As it stands, the camera can only be controlled using the left and right bumpers, which snaps your view around in an awkward 90-degree jerk. Placing your troops accurately requires a great deal more guess work and working round the lunging camera controls than it should.

(Un)balancing Act

Falling Skies - Aiming

The combat system, and in particular the way that the soldier classes work together can feel a bit problematic at times. With the exception of the snipers, the different classes can feel largely indistinguishable from each other. You’ll tend to identify your troops by their annoying and immersion-breaking dialogue choices, and not by their combat specialisations or previous heroics in past battles.

A particularly boisterous soldier I had early on would regularly yell “ENROU-TAY!” whenever ordered to a new spot, promptly causing me to remove them from active duty just so I didn’t have to hear their annoying yaps anymore. Having not watched the TV series, I thought that this out of place dialogue might be a specific writing choice to make this soldier’s dialogue match that of a particularly boisterous and cock-sure character from the TV series. However, as your troops are just randomly generated character models and drab clones/variations of each other, this seems unlikely, and the effect is just irritating for the player.

More importantly, the balancing of the different classes can feel a bit off. For example, snipers are allowed to carry shotguns as an alternative to a pistol, which essentially makes them overpowered. As the rest of the classes are pretty indistinguishable from each other, you’ll find that you can easily do without certain ones, and you’ll overuse others. My teams were usually populated with at least a few of these shotty-sniper hybrids, allowing me to deal with the majority of encounters from multiple ranges with relative ease.

There’s also some strange moments where your soldiers can exhibit rather glitchy behaviour too. On one memorable occasion, my best sniper (Snipey McGoodshot, to give you her full name) couldn’t see, and therefore couldn’t attack an enemy marksman hidden in a burnt out school bus, who was positioned relatively close her current spot on the map – a target that should have been easily visible to my long-range specialist. However, my Berserker/Heavy solider (I CAN HAZ BIG GUNZ), positioned even further away from the enemy than my sniper, could clearly see the enemy in the bus, and proceeded to deal out some pretty accurate shots with her beefy machine gun. Confusing, huh?

Overall though, despite a few hiccups here and there, the gameplay in the missions is solid; it’s a little rough around the edges and baffling at times, but it’s still enjoyable. However, it’s upon returning to your base post-mission success where I feel that the game really stumbles.

All your base are…well, pretty basic

Falling Skies - Base

For a start, there’s no base tutorial. You’re totally left on your own after the first tutorial mission – this is quite a crucial point in the game when you’re still pretty much learning the systems. A beginner could easily be put off with the more fiddly base operations here if they don’t know what they are supposed to be doing. However, in a way though, it doesn’t really matter, as you quickly realise that the base sections don’t really offer you much in the way of interesting gameplay…or well, interesting anything really. Unlike XCOM, there’s no alien UFOs to worry about in the sky, no Interceptors you’ve got to desperately repair and outfit in time for the next attack, no base invasions – you’ve got nothing much to worry about. Which is a problem. The base is essentially just a glorified mission select menu.

In my opinion, this is one of the game’s fundamental shortcomings; the lack of any meaningful base resource management system. In the XCOM games, a large part of their winning formula is that alongside calling the moment-to-moment shots in your high-risk clashes with the alien ground forces, you’ve also got to focus on the day-to-day operations and general management of your bases as well. Carefully managing your limited resources in this meta-game was of great importance; ordering in new weapons and equipment, hiring new staff, starting research projects and constructing new workshops and laboratories for your base were tasks crucial to your success. At times, juggling all these could be as delightfully stressful and agonising as your combat operations; you had to be both a quick-thinking tactician in the heat of combat, yet also a calm and collected long-term organiser to succeed.

Falling Skies does away with all but the most basic of these base management functions, which is pretty disappointing. Your choices are mainly limited to buying upgrades to expand the size of your team, or to buy bigger and better guns for your soldiers. However, by stripping out a lot of the higher-level long-term strategy of a turn-based game, I imagine it must make things a bit more palatable for a new player to get to grips with everything. For example, the game glosses over some of the smaller micro-management tasks for the sake of ease; buying a new piece of body armour the once unlocks it for all members of your team forever, as opposed to XCOM, where you have to more realistically buy separate equipment and munitions for each of your troops.

Whilst this does make things easier for a new player, it effectively lobotomises the player’s resource management abilities. Being able to control the minutia of your base’s operations and carefully manage a limited pool of resources is one of the greatest joys of a good strategy game, and it’s a shame that it’s received such a surface-level treatment here.

That’s the central problem with Falling Skies – there’s no real consequence to any of your choices, little responsibility in managing your operations and there’s no sense of urgency, no feeling of imminent failure or impending doom breathing down your neck. This is particularly apparent when you send soldiers on optional solo resource-gathering dispatch missions – you can send fresh-faced recruits, who have absolutely no combat experience, out on a ‘dangerous’ mission with zero risk of them being killed off.

There’s little risk and therefore not much reward either. It absolutely saps the game of the vast majority of its challenge or satisfaction. With no significant threat of failure or randomisation to the missions and gameplay, the experience quickly feels rather lacking and weak. Yes, losing your troops in mission can be disastrous, but your performance in one mission doesn’t massively affect your overall progress, and if things are really going down the drain, you can just abort missions that aren’t going well with no penalty at all. All your choices, actions and progress within Falling Skies feel unimportant and meaningless as a result.

Summary

Falling Skies - Dark title

If you’re a big fan of the Falling Skies TV show, and you’re also looking for a ‘lite’ turn-based strategy game to find your feet with the genre, then this is certainly a decent place to start. Fallen Skies combat, though fiddly at times, is pretty solid, and you’ll get to experience tactical turn-based gameplay at a basic, albeit unchallenging pace.

In it’s own right, it’s probably one of the best TV to game tie-ins that I’ve ever played. Ultimately in context though, it’s a poor man’s XCOM – if you’re after a rewarding challenge, with meaningful and tough choices, dynamic events, intense combat and intricate base management, all wrapped up in a friendly and accessible user interface, then I’d recommend picking up a copy of XCOM: Enemy Unknown/Within instead. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed. In the meantime, if you’d kindly take me to your leader…please?

Pros Cons
+ Solid turn-based action. – Poor XCOM clone.
+ Stripped down features make things more accessible to a beginner. – Awkward camera controls.
+ Gameplay suits the TV show’s style. – Superficial base management.