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Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor

Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor

Review in Brief Game: A third-person open-world beat-’em-up set in Mordor from Lord of the Rings. Good: Arguably the best gameplay of any game I’ve ever played; brilliant gameplay-plot symbiosis; three excellent new systems; faithful to the source material; excellent audio. Bad: Incredibly derivative; weak story, plot, and ending; a few frustrating gameplay moments; lazy upgrade system. Verdict: Excellent gameplay. No plot. Derivative, but incredibly fun. Rating: 8/10 – “Great – fun to play, some minor but no major flaws” Recommendation: A must-play. “Standing on the shoulders of giants. And Batman.” Let’s tackle the elephant in the room. Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor is unbelievably derivative. The battle system is blatantly copied from the more recent Batman: Arkham games, right down to having the exact same finishing moves unlocked after the exact same combinations and activated by the exact same button presses. Given that WB Games developed both Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor and the most recent Batman: Arkham game, and given that Batman: Arkham Origins was little more than a content pack for the Batman: Arkham City engine, I would predict that Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor actually shares a lot of code with the Arkham series. Others have pointed to the similarity to Assassin’s Creed, but to me, most of the shared features with Assassin’s Creed were also present in the Arkham series, so in my eyes it’s fair to point to Batman: Arkham as the source for most of the mechanics in Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor. However, that’s not automatically a bad thing. It’s good to be revolutionary, but it’s not bad to not be revolutionary. Accusations of mimicry and impersonation are not criticisms. No game exists in a vacuum. All games borrow features, ideas, and mechanics from other success games. Most don’t do so as liberally and directly as Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor, but they all do it. If you’re going to do mimic (or rip-off), though, we have to ask: is the game good in other ways? Did the game mimic a good franchise? Did the game improve on the franchise it mimicked? Did the game add new features beyond simply the elements it borrowed from an existing franchise? Fortunately, Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor does all three of these things. It borrows liberally from the Batman: Arkham and Assassin’s Creed, but those are two of the best video game franchises of the seventh console generation. If you’re going to rip someone off, at least rip off the best. Second, Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor executes the features that it borrows much better than even the games from which it borrows them. It doesn’t merely rip-off the features, but rather it improves them in...

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Watch Dogs

Watch Dogs

Review in Brief Game: A cover-based third-person open-world shooter set in a technologically advanced Chicago. Good: An interesting core mechanic; a surprisingly good morality system; some fun minigames. Bad: Barely uses its core mechanic; generally generic and overly derivative; often tedious and irritating; a major missed opportunity; an unbelievable main character; mandatory multiplayer modes. Verdict: The pre-release footage was legitimately awesome; the end-product, however, is incredibly disappointing. Rating: 5/10 Recommendation: Skip it. “Three parts Grand Theft Auto, two parts Assassin’s Creed, one part inFamous. Pour over cliches, stir until generic, garnish with a gimmick. Serve chilled.” If I could go back in time and tell myself that Watch Dogs was going to be 50% Grand Theft Auto, 35% Assassin’s Creed, and 15% inFamous, I probably would have gotten very excited for the game. A game that combined the best features of those solid franchises would have the potential to be something truly special, a transcendent and defining game for the eighth generation. Or, in other words, a game that bears at least some passing resemblance to the game we saw promoted for a couple years leading up to its release. That description would have been an accurate summary of the structure of Watch Dogs. Unfortunately, that description doesn’t paint the whole picture. Yes, it combines elements of those three games, but it doesn’t necessarily combine the good elements. It combines the generic, the prototypical, the expected, the overdone elements. It copies the mechanics without copying the appeal that those mechanics originally had. And most importantly, it copies elements of those games without actually bringing much new to the table on its own. Sure, there’s the hacking gimmick that formed the bulk of the promotion and marketing of the game. That gimmick strongly influences the game’s plot and motifs, but in terms of gameplay, it makes only a passing, gimmicky appearance. The vast majority of the game is directly ripped off from Grand Theft Auto, with third-person cover-based shooting, car chases, and the usual set of miscellaneous open-world tasks making up the bulk of gameplay. What elements weren’t in Grand Theft Auto can be relatively easily traced back to Assassin’s Creed, such as high points to reveal the map, free-running to catch enemies, and stealth missions to use distractions and hide from guards. A little bit of inFamous‘s vigilante-focus and morality system is thrown on top for good measure, leaving little room for the gimmick to really shine. And that’s quite a shame, too. The gimmick at the core of Watch Dogs had the potential to carry the game without getting bogged down in another generic open-world third-person shooter. What’s more, even those elements that...

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Thomas Was Alone

Thomas Was Alone

“Charming in narrative, but weak in gameplay.” Good: Beautifully consistent minimalism in every facet of design; a strikingly engaging narrative. Bad: Weak, uninteresting level design that keeps gameplay tedious; no pay-off to the narrative.

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Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation HD

Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation HD

“Why upgrade the graphics without fixing the bad, glitchy gameplay?” Good: Some interesting new ideas; a fantastic twist on the frame story; the series’ best music. Bad: Glitchy; disjointed gameplay and plot; incoherent story; frustrating game world; lazy sidequests.

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inFamous: Second Son

inFamous: Second Son

“Meet the new gen, same as the old gen.” Good: Beautiful; fair use of motion and touch controls; natural strategies; interesting sandbox tasks. Bad: Awful morality system; awful interfaces; awful characters; challenge by frustration; overly constrained ability system; checklist-reliant gameplay; nothing new to offer at all.

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The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

“Same strengths, same weaknesses, same Legend of Zelda.” Good: Open, player-driven structure; interesting ‘between worlds’ mechanic; decent minigames and sidequests. Bad: Little to no true innovation; underutilized 2D mechanic; poor presentation and use of weapons; reliance on “Eureka”-style puzzles; generic bosses; lazy dungeons; poor incentive for experimentation.

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XCOM: Enemy Unknown

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

“A fresh coat of paint to hide the faults in the foundation.” Good: Impressive genre-bending twist on the genre; the first technologically contemporary turn-based strategy game in a while; excellent long-game strategy. Bad: Unbalanced and mismanaged strategy; often tedious; excessive influence of random chance; no plot; clunky interface; glitchy graphics.

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Resogun

Resogun

“An average shmup, but a below-average game.” Good: Simple, intuitive, accessible controls; beautiful graphics; a few interesting gimmicks. Bad: Too little content; too much repetition without any customization or strategy; poor information visualization; flawed co-op mode; no clear objective.

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Contrast

Contrast

“A charming concept game that successfully strives to be more.” Good: An interesting core mechanic used in varied, interesting, and thoughtful ways; an impressive attention to explaining that mechanic in the plot; charming storytelling and visual appeal. Bad: Little replay value, a predictable plot, and other missed opportunities that I wouldn’t expect a $15 game to fulfill anyway.

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Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry

Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry

“With mere quantitative improvements, this could have been Assassin’s Creed V.” Good: An enormous amount of new gameplay and content, much of which surpasses the original game itself. Bad: Leaves you wanting more; the add-on pack is too short to really fully explore of the excellent new mechanics.

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