Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor (PS3, PS4 (Review system), Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC; Monolith; Warner Bros.)
I’m no big fan of the Lord of the Rings, or any of Tolkien’s work, or fantasy in general. It’s not my cup of tea. Swords and bows are cool and stuff, but I care very little for elves, orcs, dwarves and all the rest. So you might be saying to yourself, “Why has he played a game set in the Lord of the Rings universe through fully, and why the hell is he now writing about it afterwards?” Which you would be totally fair in thinking. Well, the answer to that question, at least the first part, is that this game looked like a mixture of Assassin’s Creed, the Arkham games and a fairly advanced AI-focussed version of the bounty system from Mercenaries.( And yes, it did take me a while to realise that third one was the case.) My love for the Assassin’s Creed and Arkham series pretty much knows no bounds, barring Assassin’s Creed 3 & 4, especially if you ever ask me about why Assassin’s Creed 2 is one of my favourite games of last generation or how much I adore every single Arkham game for separate reasons. But that’s not the point of this bit of writing, so back to that point; I decided to play Shadow of Mordor because it was reviewing real nicely and I had some moderate hype from how it appeared to be that combination I mentioned earlier and because I just about managed to swallow the fact that it was a Lord of the Rings game and I’d have to get over it, especially when I still think fondly of The Third Age (totally awesome RPG bee tee dubs).
And honestly, on the other side of the bulk of Shadow of Mordor, I don’t feel overly better off for having played it. Normally, when I play a game that I wasn’t 100% sure about, it can only go one of four ways; it will start well or it will start badly, and from there it will either get better or get worse, and it very rarely starts or ends in the middle. With Shadow of Mordor, it did the fairly uncommon thing of starting really strong, and just going down the more I thought about it as it went along. As anyone that saw my impressions on Twitter could tell you, I was totally enamoured with this game at first; as you first get exposed to the Nemesis system within the game and settle in quickly with the familiar combat style and such, and as you then start getting XP and levelling up Talion and doing cooler stuff, it is really satisfying. Then you realise, oh yeah, I need to do the story missions to progress as well, which is stumbling block numero uno.
Y’see, I have a long-running issue with linearity of story and of story missions in a sandbox, but this game does just rather take the biscuit on it, I’m afraid; not only do you have linear missions, which feel all the more out of place for being in this hugely emergent-gameplay-focussed sandbox, and not only are the missions a bit monotonous and not all that spectacular, and not only do the missions push forward a story that is boring to non-fans of Tolkien like myself and is heresy to fans of Tolkien, but they also try to pencil in how you play as well. Oh yes, how the stealth missions come into play. In this game where you are given the keys to the kingdom, a sword and a bow, and told to hunt Uruk 90% of the time, the story missions say to you, “No, fair ranger of Gondor, you must play exactly as I want you to play with no deviation”. Which is just insanely ridiculous, especially when it comes to mechanics that do not feel that sharp like stealth. I understand people are not fans of how stealth is handled in the Arkham games or in Assassin’s Creed, but both handle stealth and handle not-forcing-the-player-to-use-it far better than Shadow of Mordor.
Also, for all their other issues and flaws, both of those series also handle character progression a great deal better. Generally, every gadget Batman or Ezio ever got felt earned, and there was an element of that classic dungeon-style gameplay where you knew you were going to be using this new gadget or skill for some time, and those games use this far more in the face of a levelling system with progression. Also, while I understand the Arkham games have XP and levelling, generally it is just stat improvement or some unlockable moves, which by right, you could probably still struggle through without and never make you excessively strong. Shadow of Mordor seems to fail on both of these counts in managing progression; the unlockable skills or moves are shown to you from the beginning, but several abilities, some being the most useful (shadow strike, which allows you to do ranged melee to close distance) and some being the least useful (sodding grog poisoning is so pointless) are locked away to you until you complete whatever story mission unlocks them in an arbitrary fashion, even though you could go and get enough Power and XP to get the entire board of skills without ever touching a mission because of the constant nature of the Nemesis system. Though you wouldn’t want that, because by the time you have even one of those top level skills, you are just beyond reproach; I believe I managed to slaughter the entire Sauron’s Army board, warchiefs and captains, in Mordor post-game with very little effort or planning on my part, just by virtue of having the levels to do it. Say what you want about Arkham or Assassin’s Creed, but you never feel THAT overpowered in comparison to your enemies, especially the elite enemies who are supposed to be the be-all-and-end-all bad guy troops.
I should discuss the Nemesis system in the game though, and how being a violent insurgent against Sauron’s Army really is. The Nemesis system is the one bright spark in this whole game; it somehow manages to keep everything that is not as great about this game together, and make it worth playing alongside the upcoming Assassin’s Creed and Arkham releases. Somehow, the Nemesis system kept me running across the barren and incredibly boring world of the game just to go and hunt down some captain who was going to do one thing or another; it didn’t matter that there are only like 5 types of mission that the captains do, or that getting around between captains can be a pain, or that I could slaughter them with little trouble, or that for all their procedural generation, none of them feel completely and truly unique and interesting, because just taking a blade to their head or bleeding them for information is incredibly satisfying. It says something about how good the one shiny piece of ‘innovation’ (lets be honest, it’s an ever-updating Crackdown or Mercenaries, which isn’t that innovative really) in your game is, if it makes the combat somehow feel satisfying and the world somehow feel like a place that I want to spend time in and the story somehow feel like something I will at least grin and bear through just to get more ways and places to slaughter the military leadership. This is why I’m hoping the Trials of War mode becomes something more than it is now, because honestly, using the Nemesis system for score-attacking and murder for points sounds like exactly what this game could do with focussing on.
So yeah, I guess if I have anything to say about Shadow of Mordor, it is this; this is not the best game I have played this year, and it will probably only get pushed further down. This is not the revolutionary next step from the Arkham and Assassin’s Creed games. This is a game that is often generally not that well executed, but all the average systems are held together by the singular super-strong tent pole that is the Nemesis system; it is telling that I only started to really think about and realise the issues with the game when I wasn’t playing it, because when I was and am playing it, I am fuelled by bloodlust against the Uruks as some kind of insurgent vigilante. And honestly, that crazy and oh-so-satisfying bloodlust is what convinces me that I spent my money right on this game, no matter what my critical brain may say.
Joe Trail is the editor-in-chief of Don’t Be A Pixel. Mostly because he says he is, not because he has other writers to edit over. But such is the life of a busy editor-in-chief, obviously. He’s also an avid writer for the site. Of course.