Things I’d Like to See From Games in 2015

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It’s unlikely that 2014 will be remembered as one of gaming’s best years; it probably won’t even go down in history as being a particularly good one. It wasn’t all bad but- between the online culture wars, the games that were delayed, and those that simply didn’t work at launch – 2014 proved to be, at best, a mixed bag for gamers. The good news is that it’s 2015 now so all of that nastiness is practically ancient history and, since it’s a new year, I’ve been thinking about the gaming trends that I’d like to see emerge (or continue to grow) over the next twelve months.

Top of the list would have to be games that actually work at launch. Last year was undoubtedly, at least in my mind, the Year of the Glitch. From Halo: The Master Chief Collection requiring a seemingly endless stream of patches to have working multiplayer to Assassin’s Creed: Unity’s nightmarish glitching, a lot of broken games have been released over the past year and it has to stop. A certain amount of bugs rearing their ugly heads is unavoidable and making a fully-functioning game on the scale of many blockbuster titles is extremely difficult but it can be done. Destiny and Call of Duty both managed to launch with very few issues and, at £40-£50 a pop, we need more games that are playable from the minute they officially launch; not weeks or months down the line.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor – a game that actually did work at launch – proved to be one of the year’s biggest sleeper hits. While it could, perhaps, be criticised for being derivative of the Assassin’s Creed and Batman: Arkham franchises, it largely succeeded because the mechanics that it did lift from other games were extremely well-implemented. It all felt remarkably slick and satisfying and, most importantly of all, Shadow of Mordor featured the Nemesis system; an innovative new mechanic that created an army of randomly generated enemies that would learn and grow the more you fought them. There’s no end to the innovation that can be found on the indie scene but big budget games desperately need more originality. In the current era of annualised sequels where the same thing is repackaged, remarketed, and rereleased year after year, developers and publishers need to start taking risks or their big franchises are going to crater. Sales of the Call of Duty series are beginning to decline – despite this year’s entry being a vast improvement over its predecessor – and Shadow of Mordor was referred to by many as “the best Assassin’s Creed game of the year” which, given that there were two actual Assassin’s Creed games released in 2014, illustrates just how stale that particular franchise has become.

Speaking of originality, too many games feature the prototypical white-dude-with-a-big-gun (or some variation thereof) as their protagonist but games have been getting better at representing other groups of people in recent years. Last year, we got to play as an eleven-year-old girl in season two of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, as pretty much whoever we wanted in Dragon Age: Inquisition, and even as a piece of bread in I Am Toast. There’s nothing wrong with playing as a white dude with a big gun but, as is the case with gameplay mechanics, many big budget games run the risk of becoming stale and boring if they don’t start innovating in the storytelling department. Creating diverse and interesting characters that appeal to broad swathes of the population is, by no means, an easy task but it’s worth the effort.

So, those are the things I’d like to see from games in 2015 (or the top three at any rate) and I think that this year has a lot of potential. With a bit of luck, my optimism won’t turn out to have been misplaced. 2014 could have been so great, here’s hoping that 2015 truly is something special.

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Opinion: YouTubers, Journalistic Ethics, and the Murky Waters of Taking Money for Game Coverage

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Popular YouTuber and game critic John Bain, aka Totalbiscuit, recently revealed that YouTubers were being offered early PC review copies of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor and would be paid to promote it as long as they didn’t say anything negative about the game or expose any glitches they encountered. What’s more, some critics on YouTube (as well as some in the traditional press) tried to get review copies and couldn’t. This is a problem.

YouTubers straddle a fine line when it comes to games coverage as most do not consider themselves critics or reviewers. They are, instead, more like entertainers trading on their personalities or athletes being paid to promote a brand. Their role is to entertain, not evaluate. There is some merit to this argument but, whether they acknowledge it or not, YouTubers have a big influence on their audience.  They are often seen as gamer’s gamers, representative of ordinary people, and as such their opinions carry weight.

In countries like the UK and USA, there are governmental agencies that regulate trading standards and it is required that transactions like this are disclosed.  Unfortunately, this requirement is usually fulfilled with the inclusion of a footnote buried beneath the ‘show more’ button and the majority of viewers are none the wiser.

For better or worse, these types of deals are not particularly unusual and have been going on for years now but what do they typically involve? Well, in the case of Shadow of Mordor, The Escapist’s reviews editor Jim Sterling dug out a copy of the contract being offered to YouTubers and some of its clauses are more than a little worrying.

“Persuade viewers to purchase game”, the contract states. Videos must “promote positive sentiment about the game” and “must not show bugs or glitches that may exist”, it stipulates. This type of skewed coverage is a sticky issue given the pull that YouTube personalities have over their audience but, as long as it’s transparent, may not pose too much of a problem. In this particular case, however, it gets worse. Much worse.

The contract demands that: “The company has final approval on the YouTube video…at least 48 hours before any video goes live”. This vetting of content for approval equates to censorship and reeks of anti-consumerism in the worst possible way. Of course, YouTubers can always purchase a copy at launch and still create content saying whatever they want. By this time, however, many others will have already uploaded their videos and their more fickle viewers will have gone elsewhere. Additionally, any impressions offered after the game’s release date will be of no use to those that have pre-ordered it if it turns out to be a mediocre game.

Many gamers don’t have a problem with these deals as a way for their favourite YouTubers to make a living but withholding pre-release review copies of games from those that won’t sign a contract that would effectively order them to say positive things about the game while enforcing draconian rules against critique and open discourse is worrying. What’s more worrying is that these terms are occasionally enforced by company inspection. When a company maximises potential exposure while stifling criticism and free expression in this way, the consumer loses.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor review – Master of Puppets

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PC/ PS3/PS4 (reviewed)/Xbox 360/Xbox One

Death is an interesting prospect in Shadow of Mordor. The game begins with its protagonist, a ranger named Talion, watching as his family are murdered by the lieutenants of the evil Lord Sauron and then he dies. Sort of. Talion’s fate has been entwined with that of a mysterious wraith and he’s cursed to walk the world of Middle-earth until he can visit revenge upon his killers and learn more about the enigmatic phantom to whom he is bound.

This is how the game begins and, while it serves its purpose, the narrative isn’t particularly noteworthy. It’s a fairly typical revenge story that exists primarily as a hook to hang a game on.  Fortunately, that game is very, very good.

The core mechanics will be instantly familiar to any fans of the Assassin’s Creed or Batman: Arkham franchises. Talion can scale walls and towers with ease and the environment is a joy to explore; especially when sneaking up on an enemy.  The combat is fast and fluid; building up a huge and varied combination of moves is immensely satisfying and unleashing a killer finisher at the perfect moment feels fantastic. Even better, environmental hazards – like exploding kegs of grog and vicious caged beasts – can be used to create chaos in orc strongholds.

It's not you're day really, is it mate?

It’s not you’re day really, is it mate?

Eventually, Talion gains the ability to ‘brand’ enemies and make them fight for him. This allows the player to orchestrate Machiavellian assassination plots on powerful orc leaders by exploiting the Nemesis system; the game’s most compelling mechanic.

Each new game generates a plethora of enemies with names, hates, fears, ambitions, strengths, and weaknesses all trying to climb their way up the blood-spattered ladder from grunt to captain to warchief. These enemies roam the open-world map competing with each other through various types of power struggles. They hold feasts, execute rivals, and participate in deadly duels to build their strength and prestige amongst their fellow orcs. Those that emerge victorious gain new strengths and lose weaknesses making them considerably more formidable in battle. What’s more, they remember their encounters with the player and learn from them.

Orc power struggles allow the player to pull the strings from behind the scenes.

Orc power struggles allow the player to pull the strings from behind the scenes.

In Shadow of Mordor, death doesn’t always stick and, much like the player, many of the game’s enemies will keep coming back for more. Talion might be able to creep up on Lamlug Skull Bow once, but next time that strategy probably won’t work. He’ll have learned his lesson from their first encounter and will be on the lookout for sneaky rangers. Eventually, the physical scars of your battles will start to show too. If Lamlug gets run through with a sword, he’ll have scars, if he’s set on fire, he’ll have burns. In my game, poor old Lamlug took so much punishment that he eventually turned up with a bag on his head.

It isn't all barren wasteland; some parts of Mordor are strikingly verdant.

It isn’t all barren wasteland; some parts of Mordor are strikingly verdant.

While the plot isn’t particularly exciting, Shadow of Mordor is an exceptional open-world game that gives the player a vast set of tools for murdering a slew of unique enemies and gives them the freedom to deal with them in any way they see fit; manipulating power politics from the shadows and pulling the strings on a hit from behind the scenes is especially satisfying. With so many ways to go about it, it’s never been so much fun to hunt some orc.