As a Game Pass subscriber, I’m always excited to see which new games are added each month for me to sink my teeth in. Over the past few months, there were several games added that I always wanted to try, but never really intrigued me enough to take the monetary plunge on them; whether that was because of initial technical problems, an underwhelming critical reception, a lackluster fan response, controversial changes to the franchise’s formula, or personal preferences, I never played Middle Earth: Shadow of War, Batman Arkham Knight, or Dead Rising 4. Now that I have, I honestly was hoping that one of them would engage or intrigue me enough to explore it on its own; what happened though was that all three together made me want to explore the term “mediocre”, because by most standards these games are not mediocre. They are visually stunning, stimulating games; some with stellar game design, others with fascinating technological achievements, some use tried and tested mechanics to create a fun sandbox, others attempt to take their franchise in a new direction. Regardless of what they have done right, none of these games kept me interested or hooked enough to make me finish them, so hopefully this will be an exploration of what they did right, what they did wrong, and whether they are worth exploring/experiencing even after the financial, critical reception, and “fan of the series” variables are taken out of the equation.
Unfortunately, these questions are not going to be given any really interesting answers for the first game covered, Middle Earth: Shadow of War. It’s a sequel to Shadow of Mordor (a game I don’t like), whose main objective is to give more of what fans liked—mainly expanding the Nemesis system and not much else. The reasons why I don’t like Shadow of Mordor are still present here, but also weirdly elevated by the sequel; I didn’t like controlling the main character in SoM and I don’t like controlling him in SoW either. The traversal system always led me doing things I didn’t want to do (like scaling a tower with the intention of stopping before the top, but rarely doing so) and the combat system is almost like for like with the Arkham series yet this one feels less responsive and fun. That reason alone was what kept me from liking SoM, because the Nemesis system relies on you wanting to hunt down and engage with the Orcs, essentially poking at the systems and getting a reaction; SoW tries to add more variety, strategy, and purpose to it, but makes it less memorable in the process. Of what little I played of SoM all those years back, I still remember that one time I was stealthily taking out a camp so I can attack one of the Nemesis Orcs, but I was ambushed by another dickweed orc and completely annihilated; he not only erased my progress, he killed me and then proceeded to mock me! In SoW though, despite all of the new scenarios and added context (like relationships and tribes), they also added loot to the game and gave each Nemesis orc a piece of loot, essentially making the choice of whether to interact with the Nemesis system, a question of efficiency and of numbers rather than player-driven like before; thus, in SoW I wasn’t looking at orcs or their location and rank on the Nemesis system, I was looking at what loot they had, at their level. The result is, after spending more time with SoW, being ambushed more, having killed more orcs, was zero memorable encounters; each ambush was either a chance at more loot or an annoyance. It was never interesting, despite the added content and context, and it never left me thirsty for revenge; it only left me with more loot or no loot. One of the major issues I’ve had with SoM was its inadequate story and uninteresting characters that drove the boring narrative forward, meandering into a blurry memory. I’m sorry to say that SoW tries even less with the narrative and the characters, which is bewildering to me because this is the Lord of the Rings IP, one of the most comprehensive, lore-filled IPs out there, with clear themes and underlying messages that could be explored with a narrative driven by the medium. Thus without any interest in the mechanics, and a bad narrative that was not given the effort the IP deserves, I was not interested enough to go beyond the 6 hour mark with my playthrough and I don’t think I’ll return to SoW ever again.
As a complete contrast to SoW’s disinterest in narrative, the next ‘mediocre’ sequel is one that completely relies on its narrative structure and competence to keep you interested and engaged. Batman Arkham Knight is a weird game; it’s the end of the Rocksteady “Arkham Trilogy” (which excludes Origins because it was developed by a different studio), which has become known by its instantly recognizable combat system and mechanics, the passion and love the studio had for the caped crusader and his universe, and nailing the look and feel of a good Batman game, with a game that has only a few subtle tweaks in those core features, introduces a completely unnecessary and janky rendition of the Batmobile, but frames everything in a high-art concept that is as flawed as it is brave and novel. The game revolves around a night where Batman and Gotham is under attack by Scarecrow, a new villain named Arkham Knight, and almost every known villain in Batman’s history takes advantage of the chaos created and try to become the head hancho of Gotham’s criminal underworld; besides the interesting, high-brow framing of a single, continuous night where Batman’s worst nightmares are slowly becoming a reality, the game also offers up some compelling mechanics and side plots (all framed within the setting) to keep you hooked. Arkham Knight is not only one of the most dangerous villains Batman has ever faced, his goons are also well-trained and equipped to deal with you; they have guns, devices to detect your detective mode and track your position, mines to throw at vantage points used to take down their comrades, flamethrowers used to fry Batman in the vents, medics who revive fallen allies. While these subtle changes where enough for me to enjoy the combat and predator changes, the game also frames and contextualizes these changes and all other activities within their narrative, intertwining them with the atmosphere of Batman’s worst fears coming true; the last firemen getting abducted by goons, which leads to Firefly attempting to burn every fire station. Not all of these side quests are good or framed interestingly, but at least there is an attempt to delve deeper in Batman’s personality and explore all of it (good and bad), alongside the necessary side content in open-world games. So, where’s the catch? For all the interesting things Batman goes through, the interesting events of the story, and the novel framing of it all, Rocksteady simply does not commit to any of it in a meaningful way; while the events are supposed to be taking place over a hellish night, in practice they could be taking place months apart for all I know. Each time an ally is in danger or a mission concludes with the flow leading immediately to the next one, I just fly over to the next closest point of interest—whether that’s a firefighter, a character seeking to become the heir to Batman, a Riddler puzzle, a riot, etc. Any sense of urgency is gone within the hour (just like with most open-world game stories), but this story is so reliant on that urgency to set the mood and stakes of the game that without it, it simply stops being interesting; also despite the neat evolution of the mechanics, they are still largely incremental changes that don’t really change the gameplay all that much (besides the finicky and unnecessary Batmobile). This is one of those games that would heavily benefit from a timer of sorts, to sell and set the scene for what is supposed to be happening—even if it meant I would never play it.
One of the games that benefited a lot from having a timer is Dead Rising; an over-the-top zombie game was not, and is not, the most novel thing, but an over-the-top zombie game featuring a timer that prevents you from completing the whole game in one go and forces you to prioritize doing one quest over the other, while also making progress on your overall goal? That has “cult classic” written all over it and Dead Rising is a perfect example of a cult classic game; Dead Rising 4 is also the perfect example of a mediocre sequel that kills its franchise. It is controversial, generic, buggy, takes all of the unique elements the franchise is known for and removes them completely or makes them generic in search of a wider audience, takes a fan favorite character and treats him like a generic “cool action guy” which destroys his “lovable goof” status; it is also the game from these three that I have played the most, have had the most fun with, and am actively still playing and enjoying! In the process of generalizing Dead Rising and opening it up to a wider audience, by removing most of the features and quirks that made the franchise ‘niche’, they have made a AA, by the numbers, over-the-top, Dynasty Warriors-esque action game that is completely unique and ‘niche’ in this modern landscape; there’s simply not a lot of games out there with the budget and polish that Dead Rising 4 has, that try to do the same thing, and even though that thing has been done to death (and done better), it was a throwback to bygone era that pleasantly surprised me. Even if you look at it through that lens, Dead Rising 4 is not a great game; the inventory system feels restrictive, Frank’s basically un-killable and the combat is button-mashing to a fault, the crafting system does not force you to use it and actively makes the game a hustle in order to build one of the cooler/fun weapons, the world lacks any definitive or likeable attributes, side missions are repetitive and boring, main missions are annoying and boring. Add to these the fact that Dead Rising 4 is sacrilege to what made Dead Rising fans love about the series, and you don’t have to be a mathematician to understand that at the end of this equation, the end of Dead Rising is the only result that’s valid. Despite this, I can’t help but relate Dead Rising 4 to the Fast and Furious reboot (which coincidently was the 4th one), in that both were attempts to revitalize a ‘niche’ franchise and open it up to a new audience without completely discarding what came before—they were even both largely unsuccessful at it as the Fast and Furious reboot was a self-serious, crime-thriller wannabe mess, that made its characters into generic action movie protagonists and treated its unique elements shamefully, but you could still sense what they were going for and had not found the right way to convey it, and thankfully they got another go at it with Fast Five, and knocked it out of the park!
What have I learned then after spending dozens of hours with these games? The simplest lesson is that “wherever there’s smoke, there’s fire”; all three games underperformed in the eyes of fans and/or critics, because they were not as good/inventive/faithful to what came before them, and were rightfully labeled as ‘mediocre’. The surprising one was that, despite all the legitimate criticisms thrown at them, they all are still worthwhile to a lot of people: If you liked Shadow of Mordor and want more, then Shadow of War is exactly that; If you enjoyed Rocksteady’s take on Batman (whether that’s combat, narrative, or general mood and design) and want more or to simply experience the conclusion of their take on Batman, then Arkham Knight is exactly that, even if the unnecessarily ambitious structure and transition to open-world is what killed interest for me; Finally, despite all of the controversial changes that lead Dead Rising 4 losing its identity and becoming a generic action game that isn’t even that good at being what it wants to be, I still enjoyed its cheap thrills and easy fills more than any of the other two.
Point being, next time you see a game panned or given a slightly less favorable review than what you expected, don’t write it off; add it to your wishlist, keep an eye on it, and give it chance with reduced expectations and an open mind. I was certainly surprised that out of the sequel to one of the most novel additions in open-world design of the 2010s, and the conclusion to one of the best Batman adaptations, it was the controversial, deeply hated, and franchise-killing game that I liked the most! Who knows, maybe next time the surprise could hit you!