Well, push some ecstasy up me bum and call me Molly, Shadow of Mordor got a sequel. This was something of a surprise to me because honestly while I knew Shadow of Mordor received a decent amount of critical praise and sales, I also got the impression this was mostly because it was just a bad year. I never realised it reached the levels worthy of it starting a franchise! I’ll also admit that while I was moderately hyped for Shadow of War, a lot of the early media reports (particularly the loot box controversy) killed it for me. Even with all those insistences that it was bigger and badder! In the meantime, I was still rather happily trucking through Shadow of Mordor and so I guess now is the ideal time to be a look at what started off this new, slightly odd, series.
Shadow of Mordor, by Monolith Productions, is set in Middle Earth (as if the name didn’t give it away) in the intervening period between The Hoppit and Lord of the Rings. It follows the adventures of a Gondorian Ranger named Talion stationed in some castle in Mordor which is overrun by orcs as Sauron consolidates his power, building his army for the war on the world which is visualised in the GREATEST film trilogy OF ALL TIME. Oh, yes, I’m a fan. How could you tell?
An initial note is that the game does an admirable effort of standing on its own two feet instead of entirely relying on the franchise behind the name. Sure it doesn’t explain who they are, but almost all the characters are new and one gets the impression they could just have easily have set the game 500 years before The Hobbit for the same effect. They weren’t able to completely restrain themselves from trying to make the fans squee with excitement, and so they felt the need to include Gollum who insists on helping “the bright Master” recover his memories. It’s the weakest part of an already not particularly strong plot and comes across as utterly contrived just to say “look guys, remember those films you really liked? Look, it’s a character from those films you really liked!” Overall though, as a video game adapted from popular films it really does a good job of not being completely reliant on the source material.
Of course… I also understand that when it came to the sequel the studio started taking some real liberties with the source material. Now listen, skirting canon is fine! Boldly going out and changing the canon is where I draw a big red line in felt tip. Shelob is NOT a sexy lady for fucks sake!
When the castle where Talion is stationed is overrun, both his family and (oddly) the man himself are murdered by a group of weirdos in black armour in an attempt to summon a powerful wraith. They succeed in doing so and the wraith (the ghost of an elf named Celebrimbor) bonds with Talion, bringing him back to life and setting him on his course for vengeance.
So, immediately off the bat the game has a couple of fairly significant problems. First of all, other than the fact that he is suffering a fairly severe case of not being alive, Talion is about as generic as a plank of wood, and with less personality. Incidentally, despite all the possibilities for being interesting, even the wraith keeping him alive comes across as boring because he has the exact same motivations as Talion. Albeit the wraith’s family were murdered 2000 years ago (elves apparently hold grudges who knew?) and also you need to help him recover his memories and identity, so this was actually a bit of a spoiler… My bad…
The other issue the game has is an apparent refusal to tell you anything whatsoever. It was only after reading some of the in-game glossary that I confirmed that the weirdos in armour were not the Ringwraiths but some other new characters. Also, despite not really seeming bothered about summoning an extremely powerful wraith into Talion, this was apparently not the intention behind their actions… This is a pattern which repeats itself across the game, for example an early ally you meet is obviously well known to Talion, but the game makes absolutely no effort to try and explain how they know each other. They just dislike each other and that’s that. God… It’s like people like context and reasons for things rather just being told it “just is”.
And I say this coming from the position of someone who was at least somewhat familiar with the setting and lore of Lord of the Rings; I can’t even imagine how much of a difficult time someone new to the series would have (implying any gamer isn’t familiar with the series).
These early story issues were so glaring that they ruined the immersion so badly I almost felt unable to continue. Not helping this is that the opening sequence of Talion’s death, told as a confusing mixture of flashback and gameplay, is brutally short. There is no time to get used to the character, the gameplay, no time to accept what is going on before BANG you are spunked out in the open-world and nothing much changes from then until you finish the game.
The above also follows a regular pattern where when you meet new characters in the game, important characters too, nobody ever seems to introduce themselves. There’s never a need for introductions or an explanation of why they might work together or know each other. It just happens!
It’s so violently jarring that I felt for a significant period of the early game that I was continuously missing cut-scenes or other bits and pieces of information before I came to terms with the game’s refusal to tell the story in any sort of coherent manner.
I feel a lesson could be learned here from Assassin’s Creed 2 where you are given time to learn about who your character is and what the gameplay will be like before actually “starting” the game. You have to ease in guys, don’t just push all the way in without warming us up first…
If you are able to get past the frustratingly confusing plot then you are all set to be thrown into the open world. It combines the running, jumping, climbing trees of Assassin’s Creed with the absolutely stellar combat of Arkham Asylum. In fact the combat really succeeds in feeling flowing, visceral and challenging enough and might be one of the best examples of this combat system out.
While the combat is fantastic, the climbing feels a little more irritating. Often it feels like Talion will not grab ledges and handholds and also climbing in any other direction other than straight up can be an exercise in frustration as you hammer the “drop” button to try and make the bastard climb down. There also really needed to be a way to make Talion jump off smaller heights without making a massive fucking leap off in the direction you don’t want him to go.
Another thing which took a little getting used to is that upon death you do not reload an old save but instead are straight-up resurrected by Celebrimbor, pushing you right back into what you were doing. Not that this is a problem especially as it actually plays into another game mechanic (while I will go into shortly), it actually makes things quicker in terms of getting back to playing. It just takes a while to come to terms with the fact that death doesn’t mean reloading a save.
The “RPG” elements (hahaha! “RPG”…) that all open world games have are there of course. The map is strewn with side-quests and objectives which provide experience for improving Talion, making you more deadly, more adept at being stealthy and in combat. Despite the constant buffs of Talion, the game never really becomes too easy. It is still always possible to be overwhelmed by the orcs. Equally when in the zone and with a bit of preplanning, one really can utterly destroy whole cohorts of enemies, slicing and dicing your way through them. Thankfully the game did not take the Arkham Knight route and provide so many different types of orcs that you are constantly being interrupted mid-flow, but there is enough variation to keep it interesting.
The two open world maps honestly feels kind of small, in a weird way, and one can sprint all the way across both in about a minute. At the same time though, there is quite a lot of content spread over these maps without feeling too tightly packed, so there is the feeling that actually had the map been any bigger it might’ve made travel frustrating. On the other hand though it also feels like you can’t take two steps with stumbling over something you could be doing.
Part of that probably stems from the fact that the game follows the Ubisoft method of open world design. I.e. you climb a tower and activate it to reveal the map and all the numerous side-quests in the surrounding area which are strewn over your map to make it look untidy, thus setting off that tiny alarm in my brain which screeches constantly when everything IST NICHT NEAT UND TIDY!
While the combat is great fun and hits the right mix of challenging and fun, plus I personally have always been a fan of the Assassin’s Creed-y climbing, it is the Nemesis system which really carried the game from being more than just an average fantasy fighter.
Essentially as well as the endless orc soldiers for you to cut through there are also lieutenants, captains and warlords. These orcs have names and personality traits which you can discover by beating them out of the underlings (for example) and are in a constant state of flux as they jostle for position in Sauron’s army. Certain events occur allowing them to level up and gain in power and status, challenging those above them, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. Events triggered by the different orcs conclude every time you die, calculating whether the various orcs were successful or not, and repeated success can lead an orc to becoming increasingly powerful, gaining more health and damage and a larger following and thus becoming increasingly difficult to deal with when you eventually come across him.
It’s a dynamic and emergent system which, other than during the training in how to use it, features completely new and different orcs every time. Their ranks are also constantly replenished, so there is a constant supply of new bosses to deal with. They also change based on interactions with each other and with the player, sometimes surviving encounters with you and thereafter developing a deep fear or hatred of you.
Even more exciting is when you gain the ability to mind control numerous orcs and are then able to insert your own agents into the leadership contest, and then look after them through their trials with the intention of creating your own army of orcs to challenge Sauron. It’s a very cool system where you can track and help your pets and take down or humiliate those which oppose them. The use of fears and hatreds is also pretty amusing, allowing you to terrify certain captains into fleeing through usage of specific hazards.
I won’t deny that it’s a very clever system and actually can be great at fostering a relationship between the player and the various orcs. Either a sort of protective, doting feel for your favourite thralls or a more vicious level of spite for those which survive the attempts on their lives, or even worse, those which manage to kill you. Plus it allows for a pretty high degree of replayability as the orcs changes each time.
All that said however, there is a fairly significant flaw in the system for players like me. The system relies upon the repeated meeting of orcs for them to start gaining character and making an impact on the player and this is rather difficult if every time you meet an orc captain you just kill it… It simply is part of my play style that unless there were extenuating circumstances, usually orcs never survived their encounters with me and so thus remained weak and undeveloped for most of the game. It is only through concentrated effort to leave some alive that they ever started to get a bit more interesting.
You are encouraged to try and kill more experienced captains, as they will give you more experience and drop better upgrades for your weapons, but neither of these is really incentive enough to not just lop off the baddy’s head and then that’s one less orc to worry about! Plus, the weapon upgrades are another one of those features of the game that feel so unimportant. They barely tutorialise it, and the benefits are so minor that it barely even feels worth actually using it!
So that means that it always felt like I was going out of my way to actually try and get engaged with the game, rather than it happening naturally. Really the only time it genuinely caught my interest was after an orc I actually killed somehow survived it! Best of both worlds, but also a rarity (after all, how many Orcs do you think can survive brutal decapitation?).
This meant that for me personally Shadows of Mordor is actually significantly less engaging than it might be for others. With a plot which is predictable if only barely understandable, without use of the in-game glossary, and characters which do nothing to stir attachment or even memory, the game really was relying heavily on its gameplay to carry it to greater heights. And as said gameplay did not really end up having the right effect, for me at least, that relegates it to a lower score than it might otherwise have received.
It’s one of those weird moments where I analyse my decision over and over because in writing, everything about the game should really excite me! But instead I just end up feeling detached and disinterested.
|· Fun gameplay combining the best parts of Assassin’s Creed and the Arkham series
· Nemesis system delivers on promise of creating a unique, replayable game with constantly varying and interesting enemies
· Mind-controlling enemy orcs as sleeper agents is absolutely inspired and can really make for some fun and amusing situations
· Skill tree allows primarily for more options in fights and stealth whilst never making you completely overpowered
|· Story is extremely sub-par and exposition is practically non-existent
· Characters are either new but boring caricatures, or pre-existing and completely and obviously shoe-horned in
· Benefits of Nemesis system require actively working with it, certain styles of play (killing the orcs) results in not using the system to its full advantage
· Weapon upgrade system seems broadly superfluous
· Climbing has all of the bad parts of Assassin’s Creed as well