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.