Now Shadow of War is Out, Where Should the Middle-Earth Series Go Next?

Pop-culture’s short attention-span can be exasperating; it’s always on a hunt for the ‘Next Big Thing’. The Middle-Earth series finds itself in this situation now that Shadow of War is on shelves. Where will the franchise go after its undead hero stays six feet under?

Luckily for us, there’s an embarrassment of rich settings to choose from in Tolkien’s fantasy epic. And because I’m unabashedly part of the problem – hooray for speculation! – here are some ideas of where we could end up next.

The Misty Mountains

Despite a quaint, charming title, this is not the sort of place you want to wind up. Crawling with a rash of goblins who’ve long-since colonised its abandoned dwarven mines, this mountain-range is a honeycomb of eerie ruins and pitch-black tunnels. Unsurprisingly, it’s where Fellowship of the Ring’s Moria can be found.

Moria Gates Battle
The Misty Mountains are heaving with orcs for us to fight – concept art by Weta Workshop

Greater danger lies below, though; both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings reference unspeakable nasties oozing somewhere beneath the earth. As such, this provides us with a fantastic setting in which we can go on an ill-advised adventure/spelunking session. It could also inform gameplay with a mess of hidey-holes and shortcuts that allow us to bypass enemies or spring an ambush.

The Misty Mountains are home to most of Tolkien’s races, too. The elves chill out at Rivendell or Cate Blanchett’s Lothlorien, little human hamlets dot the southern edge, and dwarves wander its roads in an effort to reclaim their homeland. Better still, eagles live in the eyries far above. Flying across Middle-Earth, anyone?

The North

This is your sensible-yet-fairly-pedestrian answer. The area has already seen some action via older games like War in the North or Battle for Middle-Earth II, but that doesn’t mean the setting has been played out yet. Littered with iconic settlements such as Bilbo’s Hobbiton, Bree, and the elven port of the Grey Havens, there’s a lot of fan-service to be had here alongside gameplay opportunity. Why not step into the shoes of a Dunedain ranger, Aragorn’s noble allies who protect the Shire unbeknownst to hobbits? It’s a set-up that lends itself to the style of both Shadow games whilst adding an opportunity for alchemical crafting, tracking a la The Witcher, and the hunting of wild beasts. It’s basically The Witcher 3 with a Lord of the Rings coat of paint. I’m down with that.

Elven Home
There are many mysteries to explore in the north of Middle-Earth – concept art by George Rushing

However, it’s the unexplored regions of this kingdom that seal the deal. Just north of the Shire are ghost-infested wastelands known as Angmar, a place ruled by Sauron’s top enforcer. He doesn’t just have orcs by the hundred; he has a barrel-full of barrow-wights, too. These monsters will try to bury you alive unless you happen to have a weirdo such as Tom Bombadil on call to help you out. A character from the books that was dropped in Jackson’s movie-adaptation, this could be the chance to finally get him on our screens.

The South

Alright, so this is the wild-card of my deck. While there might not seem to be a lot south of Gondor beyond inhospitable desert and giant killer elephants, that’s what makes it ideal for a series like Middle-Earth. As a largely unexplored landscape, it offers creative freedom few other settings can. Surely the angry, Sauron-worshipping tribesmen we saw in Return of the King aren’t all that’s down there? Are civilisations living amongst the dunes that don’t bow to the Dark Lord? Presumably. Could there even be a splinter-group of elves we’ve not encountered who call these sands home? The sky’s the limit. If we can get a human form for Shelob the spider in Shadow of War (*shudders*), this isn’t much of a stretch.

Battle for Middle-Earth II
‘Tis but a scratch – concept art for Battle for Middle-Earth II by Michael Zimmerman

Meanwhile, Shadow of Mordor refers to two ‘blue’ wizards who famously went missing after travelling south. Where did they go and what did they find? Are they still alive? There’s a story in there somewhere, and it’s one that can potentially lean into full-scale magic for the player, e.g. Gandalf wish-fulfilment (for fellow Tolkien-nerds, I’m aware that this isn’t how LotR magic worksbut hey, we already have a zombie ranger so why not?).

Oh, and one last thing. The Return of the King’s extended cut gave us southern pirate-raiders. Fancy a Lord of the Rings-themed Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag? I’d be more than up for that.


Do you have a better idea? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @thewordyben.

Check back each Friday for more as I go into the weeds on pop-culture story, lore, and settings.


Becoming the Heroes We’re Supposed To Be, Just in Time for Destiny 2

Destiny’s story wasn’t what you’d call a runaway success when it hit in 2014. If anything, it was a muddle of techno-babble that often forgot to explain itself. With no distinct characters and a tendency to side-line talent (Nathan Fillion was reduced to spouting one-liners), it also felt as if we were skimming over the surface of something deeper. Luckily, those problems are old news. The Taken King added a ‘quest’ system that strung missions together in a more logical fashion, and these steps give in-game blurbs that provide us with more background (not to mention an idea of what’s actually going on). It’s almost worth going back if you felt lost the first time around.

Destiny 2
Become legend, even if you don’t have the foggiest idea what’s going on – concept art by Jamie Jones

I’ve been polishing off leftover missions recently in prep for Destiny 2, and this renewed focus stayed with me. When I originally booted up Bungie’s shooter three years ago, I hadn’t the slightest clue why I was jetting around the galaxy punching aliens in the face. What’s more, Peter Dinklage never failed to spout unintelligible nonsense whenever I thought I was getting the hang of it. Because of this, I focused on finding loot and shooting bad men instead. And not being pushed off cliffs by my Fireteam. Damn it, Shaun.

However, Destiny’s story is miles better than it was back then. Despite sounding like a case of ‘too little too late’, the plot is now much easier to follow. Why are we on the moon, for example? Because a dead Ghost we found up there reveals the Hive’s plan for an invasion of Earth. Each level has been given this kind of exposition.

What’s more, certain missions have been shunted into more appropriate storylines. For instance, the quest that asks you to destroy Crota’s sword has been slotted into The Dark Below. Considering its focus on Crota, that makes a ton more sense. These small touches lift the narrative out of incomprehension.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s still flat and unambitious. Nevertheless, today’s Destiny can at least be followed without the help of a Wiki or doctorate in sci-fi jargon. Considering the fact that Bungie could happily have left it alone, this retcon is something worth applauding.

If you want to take a look at these old missions, check your ‘Abandoned Quests’ board. That’s where I found mine!

Mass Effect: Andromeda – Are We Still Hung Up On Mass Effect 3’s Ending?

Sometimes people are just ready to be furious. There were those gunning for Mass Effect: Andromeda ever since it was in early access, and that sense of outrage only increased upon the game’s release. Judging by livid comments and videos documenting myriad glitches, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was an unmitigated car-crash. The user score on aggregate sites like Metacritic peg it at a wince-inducing 4.8 out of 10, for instance.

Yet the critical reception casts doubt over this conclusion. Based on average review scores from numerous outlets, the same site gave Andromeda a respectable 73%. It’s the kind of factoid that makes me ask whether it’s another case of fans with an axe to grind. More specifically, I can’t help wondering if they ever got over the infamous (and polarising) Mass Effect 3 ending.

It’s a bold new world, but some of us aren’t along for the ride – concept art by Ben Lo

That game’s finale caused uproar. Although fans voiced their anger in a way that beggars belief, I do understand some of the frustration that led to such insanity. Mass Effect 3’s continuity was baffling: characters travelled large distances with no explanation as to how they managed it. Moreover, certain events contradicted lore that’d been established in prior instalments. This led to theories about the main character being ‘indoctrinated’, wherein the enemy essentially brainwashes you. It also featured a disappointing end to the culmination of five years’ worth of choices. Indeed, we were left with a one-size-fits-all conclusion that didn’t take your prior adventures into account.

This angst forced Bioware to patch Mass Effect 3 with an alternate ending. While I enjoyed their solution to many of the problems detailed above, I appreciate that the original left a bitter taste in the mouth of many. As such, I suppose their hesitancy over Andromeda is logical even if I don’t agree with their wish to see it crash and burn.

Another critical factor was the climax’s bittersweet nature. This was not a happy conclusion. It was miserable, if anything: our hero probably died, their friends were scattered to the wind and beloved locations went up in flames before the credits rolled. We may have claimed victory, but it was won at a terrible cost. After three games and hundreds of hours spent in their company, I think most would want a more cheerful ending. The fact that we didn’t get it presumably ruffled a lot of feathers, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this contributed to any lingering resentment. Indeed, I still can’t hear the soundtrack to that final cinematic without wanting to wail.

As such, I think this has more to do with Andromeda’s mixed treatment than you’d think. It’s a shame, because I’m a firm believer that it plays host to a great idea: colonising a new galaxy (as is the case in Andromeda) is exactly the clean break Mass Effect needs. Furthermore, it’s a good basis on which to build a fresh series. I just wish some weren’t bringing so much baggage along for the ride.

Check back every Friday for a new blog celebrating the characters, worlds and craft of geeky pop-culture.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – Do We Really Need a Shared Zelda Universe?

We’re seized by a special kind of madness when new Legend of Zelda games come out. It’s a fever-dream of nostalgia and apprehension: fans whip themselves into a fury for products that break records over their knee with practiced ease. After finding out that the franchise is part of one massive story, they also spend a good deal of time puzzling out where the latest installment appears in its convoluted timeline. Predictably, this has caused a lot of head-scratching where The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is concerned. When exactly does it take place and which other games does it tie into?

Where (and when) we are in the Zelda timeline is something of a mystery – concept art for Breath of the Wild

It’s question that gets everywhere these days. After the success of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, everyone’s scrambling for a slice of the pie with their own connected worlds. DC is eternally playing catch-up to their rivals, Tom Cruise’s The Mummy reboot kicks off a ‘monster’ universe and Kong: Skull Island is gearing up for a crossover with Godzilla in 2020. While this is all well and good, it does make you wonder whether everything has to be connected.

The obvious answer is ‘no’. Bigger isn’t always better, and there’s strength in being able to do whatever you like in a narrative without fear of stepping on someone else’s toes. If another team wants to utilise a character or keep them around for future plots there’s only so much you can do with them. Things are therefore in danger of falling into a holding pattern while everyone waits for the next crossover. Although it’s fun to see how everything fits into a larger narrative (and this also provides opportunities you otherwise wouldn’t get via standalone franchises), there’s an elegance in keeping to yourself. For example, I question the sanity of not connecting Sony’s mooted Venom film with the new Spider-Man flicks but I respect their decision to avoid the story being dictated by team-ups.

As such, is it more hassle than it’s worth to try and connect every Legend of Zelda? Doing so is confusing enough as it is. Whilst the connective tissue between games is largely irrelevant and tangential, it boils down to alternate versions of reality based on whether the famously mute hero – Link – succeeded in his quest to save Hyrule during 1999’s Ocarina of Time. Confused? You’ve not seen anything yet.

Because this N64 classic dealt so heavily in time-travel, things become baffling rather quickly. In one timeline (known as the Adult Timeline) he succeeds, and the world Link leaves behind leads to the cell-shaded Wind Waker. Another has him going back in time, reliving his childhood and preventing Ocarina of Time from ever happening (the aptly-named Child Timeline). This results in Majora’s Mask and the gloomy Twilight Princess. A final possibility has him dying on his adventure (called the Fallen Hero Timeline), a failure that brings us to SNES favourite A Link to the Past and the very original games from the 1980s. In essence, the ‘game-over’ screen becomes canon. It’s all a bit longwinded, so you’d absolutely be excused for not keeping up.

Still, I’d like to think this tumultuous history adds to – instead of detracts from – the series. That may seem odd considering my hesitance about shared worlds, but it’s an idea which can be very powerful if used skilfully. Giving a definitive arc adds to that in-game folklore until it becomes a grand mythology spanning centuries. There was an elegance in the older idea that this is the same tale retold over and over, yet you can feel the weight of history on the shoulders of Breath of the Wild through seeing Hyrule’s ruined carcass. It means something because we’ve spent decades fighting to keep this place alive. It’s familiar to us. We’ve grown up there.

This feels broadly similar to the epic poems from Ancient Greece. Literature that details larger-than-life figures like Odysseus or Athena, these stories played out a grand narrative across heaven and Earth that was taught (and presumably added to) with each new generation. After 31 years of adventure, the Legend of Zelda franchise is genuinely living up to its name for the same reason. Each successive game adds to a rich tapestry of adventure.

It’s why I’m not against the sudden interest in connected universe on film. It’s somewhat exasperating because it stinks of jumping on the bandwagon, but combining stories into one mega-narrative gives you a great deal of context with which to tell your story. That shared history is what made Captain America: Civil War so successful.

It doesn’t need to be confusing or exclusionary, either. As The Legend of Zelda and Netflix’s Marvel shows demonstrate, you don’t have to hit your audiences over the head with a shared universe. Small hints for those paying attention are more than enough. In fact, your story should be front-and-centre rather than the setup for future sequels (I’m looking at you, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice). That’s something Zelda has always gotten very, very right.

Check back every Friday for a new blog celebrating the characters, worlds and craft of geeky pop-culture.

Halo Wars 2: If We Fought Aliens For Real, We’d Be Stuffed

Halo Wars 2 is the kind of game that stands out on consoles: rather than handing players a weapon and thrusting them headfirst into combat, it takes a step back and observes the action from afar. That’s unusual in and of itself. Real-time strategies like this (including Command and Conquer or Age of Empires) are a rarity anywhere other than the PC. Equally, its focus on the nitty-gritty of battlefield tactics is a departure for Halo. Microsoft’s biggest exclusive usually focuses on one man’s struggle, but this concerns itself with an army.

That approach brings to mind the nightmare it’d be to fight aliens in ‘real life’. As obvious as it sounds, anything from another world is going to be wildly unfamiliar: their culture, armaments, vehicles and tactics would feel unrecognisable in the most terrifying way. Consequently, neither side would know what they’re up against or how to respond. You can’t prepare for the unknown, so the result would probably be a blood-bath. While it had its share of flaws, Tom Cruise’s War of the Worlds handled this well.

The Covenant have been tearing humanity apart for years – concept art for Halo Wars 2

We often assume that extra-terrestrials will conform to our rules. Halo’s Covenant still use guns and tanks, for instance. Yet to do so is naïve. Even if they were humanoid as some experts suggest – thanks to a scientific theory called ‘convergent evolution’, wherein life develops similar traits because it’s just sensible – we’d still be out of our depth. There’s little to no common-ground if your enemy comes from another planet, especially when their cultural touchstones are entirely removed from our own. Who’s to say they’d even use ballistics or the equivalent of jet fighters? We might find our ability to respond rendered moot.

That sense of skating on thin ice is where Halo shines. It’s why Halo: Reach in particular was so effective: taking place early in the story and a short time after humanity makes first contact, the Covenant are a total enigma. We can’t even understand them at this point, never mind beat them. As a result, the heroes face a losing battle right from the start.

Halo 3: ODST had a similar vibe with its ground-level grunts muddling on as best they can against superior forces. The brilliant live-action trailer (which singlehandedly convinced me to buy the game, no less) showcases just what an uphill fight it’d be.

From a commander’s standpoint – as with Halo Wars 2 – this is a horrific situation to find yourself in. What do you do against an enemy who can’t be predicted? It’s a case of forgetting everything you know and working on instinct. That’s far from ideal when lives, not to mention your way of life itself, hang in the balance.

Because of this, I really wouldn’t envy those in charge during the Halo Wars spin-off. If the key to war is understanding your enemy, good luck to them with a foe who is literally from another damn world. We’d be stuffed.

Check back every Friday for a new blog celebrating the characters, worlds and craft of geeky pop-culture.


For Honor – What Is It We Love About Combat?

Great though video games may be, it’s awkward when someone accuses them of a borderline-fetishist interest in violence. That’s probably because it’s true. High scores are often dictated by the number of headshots you can pull off, whilst combat itself is one of the most common activities you’ll find within the medium. I’m not suggesting this causes the social issues you’ll read about in many tabloid newspapers (their scare-mongering can be painfully uneducated, frankly), but it does make me wonder why we gravitate so strongly toward fighting in media. It’s definitely a conversation worth having.

In the world of For Honor, combat's all there is - concept art by Ubisoft
In the world of For Honor, combat’s all there is – concept art by Ubisoft

This was brought to mind by For Honor, Ubisoft’s quasi-historical action-game released last month. Set in a fantastical kingdom populated with Vikings, medieval knights and Samurai, it focuses on the rigours of melee combat. In fact, the setting feels secondary to that adrenaline-rush you get from crossing blades with an opponent. It revels in the chaos of war.

Yet this I can understand: there’s an element of chivalry, skill and prestige associated with hand-to-hand combat. Mastering the sword takes years of practice, a truth I can verify due to of my own clumsy bumbling in a medieval swordplay class. I suppose it’s an ego-boost too, a desire to be dashingly heroic like Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones’ Jon Snow.

Not that this cool-factor is restricted to Dark Age weaponry. The same could be said of modern action movies where the hero must foil an evil plot or seek revenge. Although I’ve not yet seen it, I’d imagine John Wick 2 is a good example. We admire the lead’s talent, athleticism and casual nonchalance whilst putting the world to rights: they always know what to say or do. It’s wish-fulfilment in its rawest form, a representation of the hero we yearn to be.

This escapism also helps genres such as fantasy endure. The Lord of the Rings features a war against demonic forces, for example: the protagonist is their world’s only hope, an empowering scenario that (in the case of games, at least) makes us feel special. Moreover, there’s little grey-area to speak of here. We can blow off steam without worrying about the morality of doing so. Orcs and White Walkers don’t encourage much sympathy, after all.

Violence in the likes of horror is harder to justify, of course. Perhaps it operates in the same ball-park as crime fiction: besides upping the stakes, earning our revulsion is a good way of making your villain more intimidating. Additionally, it forces us to worry about consequences within the plot. Game of Thrones does this superbly. The unexpected – and often hideous – death of its characters leaves us on edge. Nothing is sacred, no-one is safe and anything could happen. The show is much more gripping as a result.

That’s the opinion amongst some professionals, anyway. Researchers from universities across the world (via Psychcentral) suggest that audiences might be “drawn to violent content because they anticipate other benefits, such as thrill and suspense”. As noted by Anne Bartsch from the University of Augsburg, it’s possible that “depictions of violence that are perceived as meaningful, moving and thought-provoking can foster empathy with victims, admiration for acts of courage and moral beauty in the face of violence, or self-reflection with regard to violent impulses”.

As such, it’s nice to know that our interest in violence (and violent video games) isn’t because we’re terrible people deep down. Well, for the most part – I’m quietly fond of the Star Wars prequels, so maybe I should retract that statement…

Check back every Friday for a new blog celebrating the characters, worlds and craft of geeky pop-culture.

Resident Evil 7: Biohazard – Which Kind of Zombie is Scarier?

Resident Evil is a franchise with something that borders on split-personality disorder. You’ve got the movies on one side, classic games on another, modern survival horror in-between and bombastic action romps for good measure. This is oddly appropriate. The living dead that make up its rogue’s gallery come in all shapes and sizes as well, veering wildly from shambling corpses to the zombie fun-runners who populate movies like World War Z. Resident Evil 7: Biohazard sees another version join their ranks – unstoppable and thoroughly disgusting cannibals. I can’t work out which is scarier.

Even some of the covers for the most recent game are creepy - artwork from Resident Evil 7: Biohazard
Even some covers for the most recent game are creepy – artwork from Resident Evil 7: Biohazard

If you’d asked me a few years ago (particularly when The Walking Dead had just launched on TV) I’d have gone for the traditional undead. Their complete lack of an ‘off-switch’ may be the worst thing about them. Although their rotting flesh makes them classic nightmare-fuel, the fact that they won’t get tired is worse. They’ll keep ambling after their next meal until they get it or they’re put out of their misery. They don’t feel pain either, so nothing short of a killing blow to the head will do. I’d imagine that’s harder to pull off than you’d think, particularly if they have you surrounded and you’re panicking. Which you would be, realistically.

There’s not a shred of morality left in your standard-issue zombie, either. They aren’t fussed about what’s fair and no amount of pleading will stop them.

It doesn’t help that the idea of being eaten alive is so horrific. Having your intestines pulled out like stuffing is an awful thought and things only get worse from there. I had trouble shaking the image of a survivor’s face being munched off during season two of The Walking Dead, for instance. There’s something primal and appalling about seeing a person, fictional or not, become fast food.

However, the upside is that they wouldn’t be much of a long-term threat. Despite having strength in numbers, they’ve also got the processing power of a 90s-era Tamagotchi. Then there’s the small matter of them decomposing over time. Hold out long-enough and I suppose they’ll fall to bits of their own accord.

The cannibal family in Resident Evil 7, though? They’re a very different kind of threat. Alongside monstrous strength and endurance, the Bakers are people like us. They should know better. In principle, anyway; why they don’t takes us into spoiler territory. That cognisance is infinitely more terrifying than hordes of the undead. Someone choosing to commit atrocities shows a disregard for human wellbeing that’s not simply chilling – it’s regrettably plausible. You could reason with them, but they still wouldn’t give a monkey’s. That’s true evil.

They make you suffer for fun, basically. While older models of zombie are pragmatic in their need to eat your brain, these nutcases hurt their victims because it gives them a perverse satisfaction. Your limbs are a rare delicacy, too. Why bother with standard carbs and veg when you can chow down on a person’s fleshy bits? That choice is what makes them frightening.

This brings us to our final strain of zombie, albeit in a round-about way: infected individuals. Smarter than their old-school cousins, they’re like the Bakers in that they remain alive. These unlucky souls were saddled with a disease that turned them feral, a waking nightmare that occurs in The Last of Us or 24 Hours Later. In some stories (namely the former) they’re self-aware yet unable to stop themselves nonetheless. I can’t think of anything worse.

Fast, strong and possessed of an animal cunning that – in Resident Evil at least – lets them concoct plans, these monsters use weaponry against us as well. Battling enemies who rely on their teeth is one thing, but baddies who prefer hatchets and chainsaws? That’s a very unwelcome change. It’s essentially an average zombie with none of the weaknesses.

This is why they’re scarier to me than any of the above. They’ll eat your brains en-masse, but that’s due to them outsmarting us first. It makes me glad they’re works of pure fiction. We’d be properly screwed if not. I don’t enjoy the notion of a super-powered zombie who’d score higher on an IQ test than me.

Check back every Friday for a new blog celebrating the characters, worlds and craft of geeky pop-culture.

We’d Probably Go Mental if Digimon was Real

Remember when Pokémon took over the world? The public lost its mind in the early 2000s. It became a black hole for our pocket-money, too; my classmate even paid a ten-year-old me to draw them Pokémon cards.

Its popularity led to knock-offs, of course. Digimon – frequently pegged as a cash-in – was among these pretenders to the throne. Yet appearances can be deceiving. Although it was a by-the-numbers rip-off at first glance, closer inspection reveals a smarter franchise than you’d expect. I guess that must still hold true; the latest entry (Digimon World: Next Order) came out on PS4 and Xbox One a few weeks ago.

A world where anything is possible - art for Digimon World: Next Order
A world where anything is possible – art for Digimon World: Next Order

On reflection it’s easy to see why the series has lasted so long, though. The premise is wonderfully evergreen; travelling to another world where you can start over is the ultimate escapist fantasy. It’s catnip for the imagination. Nobody knows you in Digimon’s universe so you’re free to become whoever you’d like, as with The Matrix or Narnia. Furthermore, this is a chance to remake yourself away from the humdrum slog of reality – you can leave behind expectations or opinions of your character that’ve developed over a lifetime. It’s an alluring prospect, especially when you throw in the appeal of a companion who cares for you unconditionally.

However, this raises a similar question to the one explored in Westworld via the Man in Black. What happens when you can do whatever you’d like and there’s nothing to stop you? We all like to imagine that we’d hold onto our moral compass under the threat of temptation, but the reality is somewhat trickier. When you’re made to feel powerful and there’s no limit on what you can do, your sense of right and wrong could easily be warped – especially when said world is digital and not strictly ‘real’. You’d have to possess a will of steel not to take some liberties here and there.

I suppose it’s similar to child stars who went off the rails. After being thrust into the limelight where nothing is off limits, your grasp of reality is unlikely to stay grounded. With sycophants surrounding you and few who’ll say ‘no’, it’s little wonder some lose their heads.

Not that Digimon should explore this; it’s a family-friendly series and there’s no reason it should become anything different. That said, there’s probably a good story somewhere in this idea…

Check back every Friday for a new blog celebrating the characters, worlds and craft of geeky pop-culture.

Assassin’s Creed is Best Kept in the Past… Literally

Of all the franchises that sprang up alongside the Xbox 360 and PS3, few have had so many ups and downs as Assassin’s Creed. That series has charted the full spectrum from astounding to a technical disaster and back again. The original left plenty of room for improvement, its sequel impressed on almost every front, the French-set Unity was hobbled by bugs and Black Flag charted a brave, unique trip out to sea. It even has a Hollywood movie to its name just ten years after the series launched.

The one area that’s consistently gotten better is its present-day story, however. Or the lack of it, more appropriately.

The further the series goes, the more it distances itself from its sci-fi sub-plot - concept art for Black Flag by Ubisoft
The further the series goes, the more it distances itself from its sci-fi sub-plot – concept art for Black Flag by Ubisoft

Revolving around a war between the shady Templars and their Assassin enemies, it’s a battle for the soul of mankind that’s raged on since the dawn of time. The fight continues here in the present, and this modern clash is a framing device around which every game hinges. Whilst it was an enjoyable way of anchoring the narrative between different time periods, the conflict became muddled by an often-daft plot involving mind-control and aliens. It also dragged the spotlight away from what Assassin’s Creed does best – letting players dive headfirst into a slice of painstakingly recreated history.

That’s changed in recent years, though. Assassin’s Creed IV plucked us out of the confusion in exchange for a streamlined tale that focused on the past, and everything which followed did so too. I’d be interested to see if the film sticks to that trend.

The series is arguably stronger for it. Black Flag zeroed in on the evocative mythology of the setting, opting for a swashbuckling fantasy instead of precursor races and the apocalypse. It says a lot that this was one of the most engaging entries for a long while.

I’m not sure the sci-fi angle is actually necessary beyond the Animus (this allows users to access their ‘genetic’ memories, essentially reliving an ancestor’s life). Indeed, I’d be happy with games that simply unearth times gone by. I don’t think I’m alone. I haven’t heard many praising the futuristic gubbins of Assassin’s Creed. Anecdotally at least, the consensus would be that it’s not an entirely welcome distraction.

I only wish the developers – of which there are now an absurd amount – had reached this conclusion sooner. The first installment would really have benefited from this. Rather than becoming bogged down with conspiracies and an artifact that was basically a cheat code, it missed an opportunity to explore the setting that inspired the game further. As an example, the Assassin’s order was based on a real sect of fanatics (known as Nizari Ismailis) who indoctrinated and murdered their way into the history books. I’d advise looking them up. They’re fascinating, if a little scary.

That said, we’ve come a long way from businesses trying to take our free will and aliens who were here before humanity. Assassin’s Creed has a wonderful selling point as it is without that, and I’m glad those behind it are doubling down on what makes the series great in the first place. I love the conspiracies that are its bread and butter, but taking a step back and casting us as players of the Animus technology is a more elegant tact that leaves all eyes on its biggest strength.

Check back every Friday for a new blog celebrating the characters, worlds and craft of geeky pop-culture.

We’re More Like Guardians of the Catwalk than Humanity in Destiny: Rise of Iron

Myths have an unhealthy obsession with larger-than-life heroes; they’re jammed full of legendary figures who crusade their way past gruelling odds and save the metaphorical princess while they’re at it. Destiny‘s Iron Lords are no different. When humanity was at its lowest, these impossibly noble warriors stepped forward to shield us from harm. Now we’re following in their footsteps and protecting what’s left of our species. It’s all very inspiring.

The Last City on Earth - a final bastion of hope, light and who knows what else. Concept art by Bungie.
The Last City on Earth – a final bastion of hope, light and who knows what else. Concept art by Bungie.

Yet Destiny never dwells on the people we’re supposed to be looking out for. We know next to nothing about those who live in Earth’s Last City. Don’t get me wrong: putting the spotlight on Guardians is beyond sensible. They’re where the action is. Brought back from the dead to protect what’s left of humanity, they can usually be found saving the world from a millennia-old threat or engaging in spaghetti western shootouts. I couldn’t tell you the first thing about those they’re fighting for, though. This takes the wind out of our sails somewhat. Mel Gibson could screech about freedom for his kin in Braveheart, but the best we can probably manage is ‘loot’.

I wonder what they – the average Joe – think about all this. It’s a rough deal. Aliens, demons and space wizards are a part of their everyday vocabulary. The planet isn’t ours anymore. Very little is. Capping things off is a godly orb (known as the Traveler) that hangs above after giving its life in their defence. I’d pay good money to see what can surprise them these days.

It’s not like we’re going to find out any time soon, however. The only bog-standard humans we meet can be seen mooching around our HQ, the blandly-named Tower. It’s a depressing thought. Humanity beat the odds to create wonders like reconstructive facial surgery and the Hobnob biscuit, but now they’re reduced to sweeping floors.

Their homes aren’t exactly glamorous either. Peering over the Tower’s edge reveals what I’d guess are slums stretching into the distance. Stacked atop one another like cardboard boxes, the conditions down there must be fairly naff. With tight, winding streets and no kind of order to speak of, it’s not dissimilar to the favelas of modern Brazil.

If it’s comparable in more than looks, Destiny’s equivalent probably has minimal sanitation despite running water and electricity. According to a BBC article from 2014, Rio de Janeiro’s biggest shanty town has sewage that ‘flows down a large channel in the middle of houses’.

It’s a stark contrast to the tower-blocks lying just a few miles down the road. A gaping class divide is obvious in Destiny as well. You simply need to look at the skyline. While the foreground is dominated by ugly shacks, the far distance features high rises and skyscrapers. It’s a marriage of insane wealth and crippling poverty.

Predictably, the richest districts lie slap-bang under the Traveler and the ‘shield’ it casts over the city. In a world where suicide and a walk in the countryside are synonymous, it’s easy to see why that’d be a very desirable position. I’d imagine those with power and influence strong-armed their way there. Everyone else had to make do.

Then there’s the infamous criminal element to contend with. Hiding out amongst back alleys and muddled neighbourhoods, gangs run many of those Brazilian streets. I wonder if the Last City is any different. You’d assume these drug lords couldn’t exist under the watch of practically immortal Guardians, but from what I can tell they rarely go down into the urban jungle anyway. There aren’t many reports of them interacting with the population unless civil war or a siege is looming.

As the defenders of a dying race with generations of knowledge at their disposal, you’d expect them to send aid or medical treatment at the very least. What about cobbling together more than a shack for the poorest in Destiny’s society? We’re informed that a subsect of Guardians built great walls surrounding the City, so I’m sure they could manage a four bed semi.

The fact they don’t suggests apathy on their part or a busted society. In Rio there are always stories about police who don’t dare enter certain favelas for fear of gang retribution, and it was only a few years ago that the government set up a ‘police pacification unit’ to force out the criminal element.

This is why visiting the City would be at the top of my Destiny wishlist instead of Neptune or Jupiter. It sounds fascinating (if absurdly dangerous). If nothing else, the game’s fascination with fantasy would make it particularly eye-catching. Beyond sci-fi tropes like neon advertising and glass tower-blocks, drawing on sword-and-sorcery lets you dabble in guilds and dingy inns with grottier patrons. Concept art has hinted at this via cloaked knights and flowing banners, but seeing it brought to life on-screen would add a very different flavour to the game’s already diverse environments.

Seeing it in person would help soothe my conscience, too. Come on: we’ve spent two years ignoring the man on the street in favour of searching for sassy space boots. We’re more like Guardians of the catwalk than humanity.

What do you think? Scribble your thoughts in the comments below and come back every Friday for more. In the meantime, follow me on Twitter @thewordyben