Post Script

Why Lords Of Shadow 2 fails to live up to its in­spi­ra­tions


The first Lords Of Shadow wore its in­flu­ences on its gauntleted sleeve. There were the ob­vi­ously Shadow Of The Colos­sus- in­spired boss fights in which you clam­bered up a ti­tan’s arm, held on for dear life as it tried to shake you off, and then stabbed a dag­ger into a se­ries of glow­ing runes dot­ted about its body. The lin­ear plat­form­ing was clearly in debt to Un­charted, with tele­graphed hand­holds and ac­ro­batic shim­my­ing around crum­bling ledges. But the big­gest in­flu­ence was God Of War. Lords Of Shadow’s com­bat sys­tem bor­rowed Sony Santa Mon­ica’s tem­plate, the whip-like Com­bat Cross a Gothic fac­sim­ile of Kratos’ Blades Of Chaos. You had an at­tack that aimed at the en­emy in front of you and an­other that swept around to cater for mul­ti­ple foes at once. Tap jump af­ter a hit and Bel­mont, like Kratos, would leap off the ground and take his tar­get with him, the combo con­tin­u­ing ten feet in the air. Mer­curySteam, how­ever, failed to spot some of the el­e­ments that make the God Of War se­ries’ of­ten woolly, im­pre­cise com­bat so sat­is­fy­ing, and it has failed to fix those short­com­ings in a se­quel that falls short not only of its in­spi­ra­tions, but also its pre­de­ces­sor.

The first is the cam­era. God Of War is the work of a de­vel­oper firmly in cin­ema’s thrall, but its use of a fixed cam­era is about more than a de­sire for di­rec­to­rial con­trol over the ac­tion. That two-but­ton setup – one for di­rect at­tacks, the other for man­age­ment of wide ar­eas – dic­tates a de­sign where en­e­mies at­tack in num­bers and from mul­ti­ple an­gles. For play­ers to feel in con­trol against these odds, as a hero of Kratos’s power should, it’s vi­tal that they can see what’s go­ing on at all times. If you take a hit from be­hind in God Of War, it’s your own fault for not see­ing it com­ing and re­act­ing ac­cord­ingly. Here, it’s of­ten be­cause the clumsy fol­low cam­era has got stuck in a cor­ner or spun around in a limp at­tempt to bet­ter present the ac­tion.

The pop­u­lar so­lu­tion to dodgy third­per­son cam­eras – some­thing with which even the masters of the genre have tra­di­tion­ally strug­gled – is the au­dio cue, an en­emy-spe­cific tell that’s played loudly in the mix to let you know what’s about to hap­pen, whether it’s on­screen or not. To its credit, Mer­curySteam ac­knowl­edges this, but its ver­sion is ev­ery bit as botched as its other sys­tems. Ev­ery en­emy in the game has an un­block­able at­tack or two, but ev­ery sin­gle one is ad­ver­tised by the same sound ef­fect. When you’ve got half a dozen en­e­mies around you, and only two of them are on­screen, you’ve no idea which of the re­main­ing four is about to at­tack, or from where. All you can do is dodge and hope.

The dodge, too, is a failed sys­tem, given its lack of in­vin­ci­bil­ity. Kratos’ roll, Bay­o­netta’s trade­mark cartwheel and even Dark Souls’ for­ward roll have those crit­i­cal few frames to help you avoid an in­com­ing at­tack. As far as their en­gines are con­cerned, all that mat­ters is that you saw an at­tack com­ing and re­acted – whether you re­ally man­aged to evade the tip of an op­po­nent’s sword or fist is im­ma­te­rial. A lit­tle bit of in­vin­ci­bil­ity goes an aw­fully long way, and its in­clu­sion here would have pa­pered over some of the cracks in Lords Of Shadow 2’ s com­bat sys­tem. In­stead, mis­takes – and not those of your own mak­ing, but caused by poor au­dio de­sign and a wonky cam­era – are heav­ily pun­ished. Even more heav­ily than usual, in fact, given that tak­ing dam­age re­sets the Fo­cus me­ter, which is vi­tal for keep­ing your Void and Chaos magic me­ters topped up. Even when you do stay out of trou­ble and get a combo go­ing, Lords Of Shadow 2 man­ages to dis­ap­point. There’s lit­tle sense of weight to your at­tacks, and again it’s that two-but­ton con­trol setup at fault. Ham­mer the DualShock’s Tri­an­gle but­ton for a string of area at­tacks and you’re not land­ing blows on an en­emy, just deal­ing weight­less dam­age to any­thing in range. Di­rect at­tacks fare bet­ter, but even here there’s lit­tle sense that your blows are truly con­nect­ing. There’s an an­i­ma­tion, a sound ef­fect and a Cap­com-style hit pause, but it’s next to im­pos­si­ble to stag­ger even the small­est of en­e­mies. Even when struck by the hard-hit­ting Chaos Claws, your foes go about their usual busi­ness. This re­moves any sense of re­ward for open­ing up a foe’s de­fences, and com­bined with the odds of tak­ing an un­wanted hit from off­screen, kills the com­bat sys­tem’s flow. The only way of in­ter­rupt­ing an op­po­nent’s at­tack is to take them up into the air with you, but that still leaves you vul­ner­a­ble to foes on the ground. Aerial combos are brief, too: you’ll soon be back on terra firma and back in trou­ble.

The genre’s most vi­tal el­e­ment of game­feel is mak­ing your blows truly feel like they’re con­nect­ing, and there are few finer ways of con­vey­ing that than by hav­ing your at­tack in­ter­rupt an op­po­nent’s. One of the rea­sons that boss fights make for some of Lords Of Shad­ows 2’ s very few high points is that the on­screen health bars show that your blows are, in fact, hav­ing an ef­fect. But the bulk of the game’s com­bat is a one-way street, with en­e­mies of all shapes and sizes in­ter­rupt­ing your full-flow combos even as you’re smack­ing them about the place with a pair of flam­ing claws.

There is no shame in hav­ing ob­vi­ous in­flu­ences. Videogames have a rich his­tory of build­ing on what came be­fore. But in do­ing so, it’s vi­tal to ex­am­ine your in­spi­ra­tion’s ev­ery facet – find­ing out what works and, cru­cially, what doesn’t. With a few frames of dodge in­vin­ci­bil­ity, a few more sound sam­ples for au­dio cues, and hav­ing en­e­mies re­act prop­erly to your at­tacks, at least one of Lords Of Shad­ows 2’ s many flawed sys­tems would have been far more sat­is­fy­ing.

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