Sunday 25 August 2019

Middle-earth Shadow of War review: Falling in love with filthy orcs

Middle-earth: Shadow of War (XO/PS4/PC) ★★★★★ Age: 18+

Middle-earth: Shadow of War
Middle-earth: Shadow of War
Ronan Price

Ronan Price

SLAYING orcs by the hundred never costs a thought. As cannon fodder goes in videogames, these nasty, filthy creatures with their slobbering jaws and twisted faces practically invite a sword to the gut.

However, their masters are different – repulsive, yes, but cunning, dangerous and even funny. That was developer Monolith’s great achievement in 2014’s Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, which introduced the Nemesis system that made superior enemies of the elite Uruk-hai orcs. The studio built a substantial game around lone ranger Tallion’s quest for revenge against Sauron’s minions in Mordor. But it’s the voluble personality of the elite orcs that proved most unforgettable, each one spewing hate and taunts as you encountered them.

Shadow of War repeats that trick, developing the Uruk-hai leaders – overlords, captains and commanders – into a diverse cast of viciously amusing caricatures with regional British accents. It almost seems a pity to slay them, so now Monolith enables you to build an army of enslaved elites to bring into battle against Mordor’s fortresses.

It sets up some genuinely thrilling massed melees as you work your way through the lower ranks of Uruk-hai to the confrontations with the truly intimidating overlords.

Inevitably, given the sleeper success of the original, this sequel doubles down on the game world, throwing everything into the cauldron and setting up an enormous challenge that will consume dozens of hours of your time. The surprises are few, though, in contrast to the delightful originality of Shadow of Mordor and the introduction of paid-for loot boxes just seems gratuitous.

Shadow of War takes some unlikely liberties with the Tolkien lore but Monolith has created a rich, dense landscape (particularly ugly-beautiful in the buffed-up Xbox One X version) populated by a memorable band of notorious orcs for Tallion to explore, admire and conquer.

Assassin's Creed Origins.jpg
Assassin's Creed Origins

Assassin’s Creed Origins

(XO/PS4/PC) ★★★★ Age: 18+

THE AC franchise took a year off in 2016 because of fatigue (perhaps ours, perhaps owner Ubisoft’s) but with Origins you’d hardly notice. Obviously, this type of enormous game takes up to four years to construct and so the enforced holiday of just 12 months was hardly likely to produce a massive shift in direction.

But it returns with just some mild tweaks to the formula, albeit wrapped in an utterly dazzling rendition of Egypt in 50BC. Ubisoft’s world designers can justifiably take a year off now, such is the captivating vision of the reign of Ptolomy XIII and its views of the likes of the Pyramids and Alexandria.

The gameplay team should stay behind for detention, nonetheless, because fundamentally these are the same old, same old loops we’ve come to know and resent – explore, fetch, track, etc.

Not everything has been frozen in time. Ubi introduces new loot and levelling systems that expand AC’s horizons. Personally, though, it felt like the latter just created additional busywork and grind, forcing you to keep track of more stats.

On the plus side, combat has been fiddled with to make it more lively and dynamic and, in fairness, the loot system feeds well into your options in terms of weaponry. Yet for a game that majors on stealth (or at least used to), you can’t avoid the feeling you’re being pushed into conflict more often than you should be.

It all adds up to a game that feels naggingly overfamiliar, an open-world game that resembles many other Ubi efforts such as Far Cry and Watch Dogs. However, the stunning artistry and breadth in Origins almost makes everything forgivable. Perhaps two years off next time, eh?

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