Middle-Earth Shadow of War: A review mainly in pictures (oh, and some words)

Bruz, you little beauty!!

Bruz the warmonger tank – that’s him above giving Shadow of War main character Talion some sage advice – is probably my favourite orc in Shadow of War.

Sure, he’s got an unmistakable Australian twang – I was half expecting him to be flopping around in a pair of jandals (thongs to my Aussie mates) and singing Waltzing Matilda as he walks along – but for the most part he’s got a likeable charm about him. He’s got a roguish edge about him as he smacks enemy orcs about the head.

Shadow of War continues the tale of slain Talion (and his ghostly passenger, slighted elven king Celebrimbor) as they fight through the plains, valleys and mountains of Middle Earth, intent on regaining the one true ring and defeating the dark lord Sauron (Celebrimbor is slightly bitter because he was betrayed by Sauron). It’s classic Lord of the Rings stuff with elves, rangers, nazgul, a spider-lady, orcs and magic.

What made the original game in the series so good was the nemesis system where if an orc defeats you in battle it moves up through the ranks, gaining a new title and status with the overlord of the fortress he’s aligned with. It’s back with Shadow of War and it’s a good system, with orcs taunting and goading Talion before they defeat him. New to Shadow of War are ambushes, which means that at any point during the game an orc that you’ve had a run in with previously may suddenly appear, trying to puncture you full of homes.

It’s a nice system but it got a little overwhelming at times when during one particular fight, three orcs decided to “ambush” me while I was trying to take out a high-level captain. It was chaotic and from memory, it didn’t end well for two of them or me.

There’s a bit of grind work with Shadow of War: The more I progressed the more I felt things were becoming a chore as I slew orc after orc after orc to earn the valuable XP which could be used to upgrade weapons and equipment. Sure, I could have plonked down real-money for in-game loot boxes but sorry, I’m not going to do that besides, I refused to agree to the online terms and conditions so I was automatically locked out from the market place anyway.

Look, Shadow of War is a good game but I don’t think it’s as good as the original was. The orcs are entertaining, though, with witty banter before they try to gut you and feed your innards to dragons and caragors and I took great delight in dominating orcs and turning them on their foes. It’s also great fun romping into a battle with an orc captain as a body guard that you’ve turned to your cause.

Although, I’m still convinced that moments after I killed an orc captain by decapitating him (he looked like a pirate with a comical moustache, actually) he ambushed me during a fight against another captain. I mean, I’ve heard of reincarnation but that’s taking things a little too far (although, again, one orc that I thought I killed re-appeared telling me his brothers had put him back together again. He did have a few scars, now that I think about it) …


Augmented Empire mini-documentary: Behind the voices

I enjoyed my time playing Augmented Empire, a Samsung Gear VR cyberpunk RPG game from British development studio Coatsink – the same company behind the Esper games. It’s a great game that showcases the company’s skill with VR.

Well, the company has released a mini-documentary called The Voices behind Augmented Empire, which, incidentally, features the voice talent of actors Kate Mulgrew (Orange is the New Black), Nick Frost (Hot Fuzz) and Doug Cockle (Geralt in The Witcher series).

At just a tad over 3 & a half minutes in length, it’s well worth a watch, especially if you’ve only got 5 minutes spare.

Cozmo: A toy aimed at children – and I’m captivated

Meet Cosmo.

He’s my new robot best friend.

He looks like a cross between Wall-E from Pixar’s animated movie of the same name and a digger. Cozmo’s creators are Anki founder, Cozmo’s founders Boris Sofman, Mark Palatucci and Hans Tappeiner, three Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute graduates wanting to make Artificial Intelligence accessible to everyone.

It’s just amazing how much emotion the designers have created from pixels on a screen: Cozmo has character and spirit and charm.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I unpacked Cozmo, downloaded the smart phone app and switched him on. He lifted his head, raised his arms and emitted a chirpy robotic voice. He stole my heart, straight away. Included in the box are three interactive cubes that light up in a variety of colours.

The amazing thing about Cozmo is – and this is no joke – he learns the more he plays and interacts with you.

At first, during games of pounce – where I pushed one of the cubes towards Cozmo and I had to pull it away before he pounced – I won easily. I was just too quick. Every time Cozmo lost he’d emit a “Ohhh. A week later, though: It was a different story: During games of pounce he would pretend to pounce on the cube – just like an adult would – throwing me off my stride, then “Bam”he pounced. After a week, I was losing 5 to nil.

As if to rub salt into the wounds, he would sing “Pop goes the weasel” or “Row, row, row, your boat”when he won games. As the days turned to weeks, Cozmo would sing “London Bridge is falling down” or chuckle and explore his surroundings. My dog, Drew, was fascinated by Cozmo, frequently sniffing him.

For Cozmo to learn, though, you have to feed him, keep his head, tracks and arms tuned and keep him amused. The well-put together smart phone app makes it easy to see when and when Cozmo needs attention. If he’s hungry, the blue bar in the main menu shows just how low he is. To feed Cozmo, you pick up a cube, shake it until it lights up then pop it down in front of Cozmo. Once he sees it, he’ll move up to it, raise his arms, rest them on the cube and “suck” the goodness from it. To adjust his head, lift arms and digger tracks, you follow a “Simple Simon” type game which is then beamed to Cozmo to repeat the sequence, tuning up the part.

After just a week, I was just fascinated with Cozmo. One afternoon, while he was exploring, he stopped in front of my face. His head ,would look up at me, sounding a little “Um” as his head moved up and down, then proudly proclaim “Gerard”. Cozmo learns the more you interact with him. I was just fascinated. Each day, he recognised me more easily, saying my name over and over again every time he saw me. Introduce him to more people, and he’ll recognise their faces. Flip him onto his side and he’ll throw a little tantrum!

At one point, Cozmo wanted to fist bump me but I didn’t notice: There was an audible “Owwwww …” as he rolled away, dejected. Other times he’ll indicate he wants to play a game: Simple Simon, Push the Cube or Keep Away. He’s adorable – and now we fist bump every time he wants! When we play Keep Away now, Cozmo teases me, moving slowly forward, bouncing his lifts arms up and down, trying to throw me off!

See the video below where Cozmo rolls a cube then picks up another cube, all the while chirping and making noise. I didn’t quite get it all in but when he reverses he makes a “beep, beep, beep” noise like a truck. Hillarious. When he sleeps, his eyes get all droopy and then he snores until he drops off to sleep (apologies for the voices at the end!)

I haven’t explored the Code Lab much, where you can easily program Cozmo to do other things (like driving in a square then sneezing) but it seems just the ticket for youngsters intrigued by coding and programming. Oh, you can also get Cozmo to speak: Just type in what you want him to say and he’ll say it, although he won’t say swear words: I tried and he just shakes his body from side to side!

There’s also a rather good SDK (software development kit) which means that there’s almost limitless possibilities with Cozmo – and again, perfect for people wanting to program robots and AI. There’s also a nifty explorer mode which lets you see the world through Cozmo’s eyes, steering him around guiding him with the smart phone app.

Cozmo isn’t cheap – he’ll set you back $360 – but for the tech involved and just how darn cute he is and how clever he is, I see that as not too bad a price.

Cozmo might be a toy aimed at children but seriously, he bought a smile to the face of this 40-something man with a full-time job and who has to adult all the time. For me, he was relief after a busy day – and caused me less hassle than our cat.

A big thanks to Anki’s Australasian PR company Sling & Stone for sending a Cozmo for review. Big thumbs up, guys! Cozmo is available in New Zealand now. 


Destiny 2 review: Better than the first time around

Our Destiny 2 review is late, so apologies for that but better late than never, right?

For this one I handed the writing duties across to my son, Mitchell, who has written for the site before: He wrote this between exam study, swim competitions and general teenage life.

I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t much care for the first Destiny game when it released back in 2014. I just never really understood all the hype around it. The massive grind associated with a lackluster campaign just didn’t seem worth my time. Bungie’s second installment of the series however, with a much improved single player campaign, attracted my attention right away. I never thought I’d enjoy a Destiny game, let alone become a Destiny fan.

In my experience, the first Destiny felt like a treadmill, in which Bungie was dangling a very insignificant reward in front of your nose, which is enough to make you work for it, but isn’t particularly rewarding once acquired. I remember spending hours roaming around near-lifeless environments collecting pointless materials and running the same activities numerous times, doing the same missions over and over in hopes of one specific item to dropping as a reward. It was a constant grind, one that I was never really fully into.

The grind is still ever-present in Destiny 2, don’t get me wrong. There is still a lot of repetition which can be rather boring. I do honestly feel like I’ve  run out of things to do now that I’ve completed the campaign and got my character to the max level but it’s more inviting than the first Destiny. I’ve played more of this than I ever did of the original.

I can’t be bothered with the massive hassle of doing raid after raid after raid. What I do like however is that the difference between a hardcore 20+ hour a week player and a casual player who spends no more than five hours a week playing, has never been smaller, largely because Bungie switched their focus and decided to stop wasting our time with pointless raids and repetitive missions with random chance drops.

Weapons no longer need to be upgraded using arcane materials too, and clear-cut quest lines which show potential completion rewards make earning the best stuff more accessible. This time around, it isn’t as hard to be a good Destiny player with a high level character. You don’t have to play for hours on end which is something that I have really come to appreciate.

Destiny 2 is a game that I played a lot, something that I didn’t find was the same with the original Destiny. Sure this isn’t perfect, but I’d easily recommend Destiny 2 to fans of the first game and those players that don’t mind grinding a little bit from time to time.

Thanks to Activision for the review copy of Destiny 2. Cheers.

Forza Motorsports 7: motor racing with a side order of loot crate

Forza Motorsports is without a doubt one of Microsoft’s flagship titles on the Xbox console.

It’s spawned several games, plus the spin-off Horizons series, so it’s a nice money earner for the company with a devout following. After playing Forza 7, though, I just wonder whether some of the new changes may turn some of those devout fans off.

From the outset, it seems there’s little difference between Forza 6 and Forza 7. It looks fantastic, but then developer Turn 10 Studios has always produced stunning visuals: The extensive car list features gorgeous models and there’s a dynamic weather cycle, although not a dynamic day night cycle, and with previous Forza games, you reach the heights of greatness by working your way through race cups and series to eventually the Forza Motorsports Cup. It can turn into a bit of a grind as you go lap after lap after lap in search of glory.

Now, I’m not a diehard Forza fan so I can’t go into things with minute detail but new to Forza 7 are mods, single-use cards that can be activated/selected and offer rewards/credit for achieving certain things such as good cornering, coming in third place in a race or using only the cockpit view. Also new to Forza 7 are something that I consider a blight on AAA games these days: The loot box. Called prize crates here, they cost anything between 20,000 and 300,000 currency and when unlocked may contain cars, outfits for your avatar, and mods.

You can earn more credits by turning off driving assists – something you used to be able to do manually – but now can only do by applying mods, which you can only get by buying crates. Frankly, I don’t like these crates – and they’re not cheap, especially those that likely contain the best rewards. The prize crates just feel out-of-place in a game where players should be focusing on the racing itself rather than having to purchase crates and hope they get mods that will earn them more credits to buy more cars.

Forza 7 is a lot of fun, looks stunning (I can only imagine how good it would look in 4K)  and it’s got a lot going for it but it’s disappointing that Turn 10 (actually, I suspect it was Microsoft that wanted the prize crates) went the way of the loot box in this game. It seems to be the way of the AAA game at the moment: Loot boxes must be part of the equation – and it’s a trend that I don’t like.

Part of me wonders just how much including loot boxes in Forza 7 – and in AAA games in general – is going to impact on fans of the series?

Cuphead impressions: This game is really hard – and I suck at it

Cuphead (Xbox One, PC)

Playing Cuphead, a game with a Steamboat Willie-esque art style that is just delightful to look at, has caused me to come to two conclusions: The game is really, really, really hard  and I suck at games like this.

Cuphead is hard, devastatingly so and I’ve come to the conclusion quite quickly that as a 40-something ageing gamer with failing eyesight and fingers that aren’t quite as responsive as they were in my 20s, this isn’t a game for me. I mean, I died several times while trying to beat one of the game’s very first bosses: A giant potato that pops out of the ground (I’m in awe of players who have completed the game without a single death. What type of sorcery are they using to do that?)

Another one of the early bosses is a bouncing blue ball.  I don’t know what the other 26 bosses are: I haven’t got past the giant potato or bouncing blue ball yet. Mark my words: Cuphead could well be a game that is responsible for an increase in Xbox One controller sales.

Inspired by cartoons of the 1930s, Cuphead is all about the boss battles and tells the tale of titular Cuphead and his brother Mugman after they make a pact with the devil to spare their souls (after their luck fails them in the devil’s casino) if they collect all the debtors on Inkwell Isle that owe their souls to the devil.

I handled the tutorial for Cuphead easily and it’s clear that the parry move is a crucial armament in Cuphead’s arsenal, as well as dashing and firing a variety of weapons at enemies. No matter how I tried during the game, though, I just couldn’t parry enemy projectiles, causing me to die again and again and again and again. I contemplated actually doing a livestream of some of the gameplay but then decided you wouldn’t want to see “You Died” constantly on the screen (You wouldn’t, right?).

I’ve put Cuphead to one side for the time being as every time I’ve picked it up I’ve got frustrated after dying numerous times fighting the giant potato then switched it off and returned to Yakuza Kiwami.

Maybe the developers will eventually release a patch that makes the game easier for old gamers like me with fingers that aren’t quite as responsive as they used to be. Surely, I’m not alone.