"NBA 2K15," "Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor" and More [GAMES ROUNDUP]

Games based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings universe have consistently disappointed, but that trend finally changes with the release of the excellent action RPG Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. A gripping, lavishly told revenge tale, the writing and cinematic presentation meshes well with Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of Tolkien’s work. It’s also a big week for basketball fans, with the always-stunning Visual Concepts release of NBA 2K15. A pair of oddball Japanese releases round out the new offerings on the table, with the interactive novel-fighting game hybrid Persona 4 Arena Ultimax and the fantasy RPG Natural Doctrine.
Reviews by Phil Villarreal. Phil is an authorblogger and Twitterer. Publishers provided review copies.

Middle-earth; Shadow of Mordor

(PS4, Xbox One, $60, Mature)

Developer Monolith Productions, the studio behind the Condemned and F.E.A.R. franchises, shatters the curse of Sauron by finally making the first decent non-Lego Tolkien adaptation. Set at the point in which the dark lord Sauron returns to the realm to rebuild his empire. One of his first tasks is to massacre the rangers and their families. One of his victims is Talion, who returns from death thanks to help from a spirit of vengeance who wants to take down the dark forces of Mordor. You start from nothing and work to amass forces and win power struggles over land and resources, building up Talion’s campaign to get back at the evil forces that robbed him of everything.

The main innovation is the Nemesis system, which lets you capture and interrogate enemies, shaking them down for information. Humiliated foes may hold grudges against you like yours against Sauron, tracking you down to exact retribution. The feature turns what could be a solid but unspectacular hack-and-slash into something with considerably more depth. If you interrogate an enemy you learn his name and gain the ability to track him, using him as something like a double agent to help you infiltrate the enemy. The storytelling may be somewhat slow, but the combat and strategy are rich enough to keep things gripping. Customization, leveling and attribute distribution are all there to tinker with, letting you customize Talion to your style. The ability to tweak everything and screw around with your enemies ups the replayability to Diablo-style levels, making Shadows of Mordor a game to buy rather than rent.

Natural Doctrine

(PS4, PS3, Vita, $60, Mature)
A high fantasy tactical RPG, Natural Doctrine is a throwback to the mid-90s, when overly complicated controls and cumbersome character movement were not only accepted but expected features in the genre. As you line up your party of troops for turn-based, XCOM-style attacks, you need to tap through a needlessly elaborate control commands. Once you finally set up your maneuvers, you sit back and watch as blocky animations reveal the results of the battles. It’s easy to lose track of entire sections of the map as you shift from point to point, part of a frustrating process in which some characters are too far out of range of the enemy to do any damage.
There are some upsides. One purchase gets you the game on the PS4, PS3 and Vita, and you can transfer your save among all three platforms. The ability to keep your game going on the Vita when you’re on the go and keep your progress going on your TV when you make it back home is one that more Sony-system games should take advantage of. To actually take advantage of all that, though, you’ll need to have a sizable appetite for this brand of archaic strategy. Natural Doctrine wore out my patience too quickly to care about moving my saves around.

NBA 2K15

(PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360, $60, Everyone)

Last year’s NBA 2K14 was a showcase for current-gen hardware, depicting the game with lifelike visuals and smooth gameplay. With a year to settle in with the new hardware, developer Visual Concepts sprints off to yet another rim-rocking fast break, remaining neck-and-neck with the FIFA series at the razor’s edge of the sports genre. The most impressive alteration comes to the MyCareer mode, which eschews the lottery pick protagonists to have you follow an undrafted free agent as he scraps his way through a series of tryouts, tries to hang on at the end of a roster, then work his way into the starting lineup.

There are a few changes to the gameplay, but nothing that stands out. Last year’s product was such and impressive leap forward that treading water is understandable. Visual Concepts has added a ton of new animations to the mix, and the fact that they flow so seamlessly into the gameplay without drawing attention to themselves is a credit to the game’s naturalism. The MyTeam feature echoes the Ultimate Team mode from EA Sports games, letting you piece together a fantasy squad based on blind packaages of cards you earn and buy. Online modes are numerous and comprehensive, and there’s a colossal community of players to give you some action at any hour of the day. Whether you feel like throwing down with a preset roster, over the length of a season as a GM or in one-on-one streetball, NBA 2K15 has your game. I missed the Jordan and LeBron-centered historical modes from recent years, but there is more than enough to play here for any hoops junkie.

Persona 4 Arena Ultimax

(PS3, $60, Teen)

A comprehensive update/semisequel to Atlus’s bizarre yet strangely satisfying 2012 offshoot of the social RPG, Persona 4 Arena Ultimax asserts itself as the definitive version of the game. You can guide one of the dark, mysterious, monster-conjuring teens from the series in arcade-style 2D arena battles, or just sit back and appreciate the lore by reading through animated chapters of the story. The fighting itself is surprisingly refined, balanced and exciting, managing to hang with the Street Fighters and Mortal Kombats of the world.
Downloadable content from the original game transfers over to Ultimax, letting you pick up in the remake where you left off. There is also a score attack mode, as well as Golden Arena, a training setup that lets you accumulate experience and unlocks before you risk your neck in online battles. The new material is welcome, but is less appealing as a $60 purchase than it would have been as a $15 or $30 add-on in the mode of what Capcom has done with its umpteen Street Fighter updates ad rehashes. Persona RPG fans, as well as fighter obsessives, who were intrigued with the original but didn’t make the jump will find plenty to relish here. Veterans of the first game will probably want to hang back until a discount comes along.
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