Everyone else loves Middle-earth Shadow of Mordor, and Brenna feels a bit left out. Better get your pitchforks.
Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor
Played on: PS4
Code: Supplied by Warner Bros. Australia, unsolicited. Came in a press kit with fancy presentation box, broken sword bottle opener, and glossy brochure.
Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor has a lot of stuff going for it, and several people whose opinions I really trust have said it’s one of the best games of the year so far. According to a number of critics, Shadows of Mordor takes the Assassin’s Creed and Batman: Arkham formulae and refines them into pure gold, with immediately satisfying but customisable combat and a living, breathing open world.
This was not my experience.
For starters, I felt that navigation didn’t have the crunch of Assassin’s Creed. Maybe it’s because the environments in the early stage of the game favour open landscapes rather than dense, built up cities, but I spent a lot of time running in large circles around baddies to keep out of their sight lines, on my way to the one obvious bit of cover near their patrol area. Just about the only climbing and leaping I did was to unlock fast travel towers, or to go straight up the vertical cliffs that seem to exist purely to inject some verticality into an otherwise entirely flat design. This was just not as interesting to me as dashing over rooftops, swinging from poles, creeping through vents and other mainstays of the open-world genre.
On the other hand, there’s a lot less of Assassin’s Creed’s navigational annoyances. You know how Ezio and pals are so obsessed with keeping on a delicious parkour chain that they often leap off in entirely the wrong direction? Shadows of Mordor doesn’t do that. The one-button run-climb-jump system is much more deliberate, giving you plenty of time to adjust which way you’re facing and ensure you’re on the right path.
The graphics are super pretty though
Although the muddy, empty landscape of the first environment is disappointing, the graphics are in general superb. Animations are glorious to behold, and on PS4, character models are awash in beautifully detailed textures. Pause a moment to take in Talion’s armour, for example.
So it’s kind of a shame there were so few reasons to use it in the sections I played. I didn’t get out of the first environment, but I believe, from the map screen, that there is more to Shadows of Mordor than the dull intermittent ruins I was running around in the first few areas; I hope they make better use of Talion’s traversal abilities. In general, I felt that level or perhaps mission design hadn’t lived up to the promise inherent in Talion’s polished parkour abilities. In one mission I had to infiltrate a stronghold, and was excited to do some clever climbing and stealth. But in the end, I just used the good old run-around-in-a-big-circle-keeping-out-of-enemy-sightlines tactic, then ran straight up a totally unguarded vertical wall to the very top of the structure, leaping down to take out my lonely target.
In general, enemies are very easy to evade, even when they’ve been fully alerted. Every time I encountered a dude I couldn’t be bothered killing in melee, I just ran away and walked behind a rock. Four or five orcs would follow me a short distance and stand staring into the distance, complaining about how they couldn’t find me, then bugger off. I would pop out, dash up behind them, and off one with an arrow and another with a stealth kill before rinsing and repeating.
I found this much more efficient than the combat everyone else is raving about. It looks great, with Talion linking together a huge variety of moves in a seamless dance of deadly grace, and combining attacks, counters and dodges is both easy and satisfying. It’s much easier to hit the target you want to than in Assassin’s Creed, and the game really rewards you for managing to separate one enemy from the crowd because then you are safe from interruptions and can ground execute him, saving a great deal of time.
But if you’re in a big crowd, it’s nearly impossible to get enemies on their own, and that means you can’t execute them. Combat thus becomes a pretty wearisome affair, as even grunt enemies are whatever we’re calling the melee equivalent of bullet-sponges, requiring dozens of beat downs. If you’ve unlocked the (very early) ability to do executions once your combo counter hits then you’re in a better position to take them down quickly, but even these executions can be interrupted, as can interrogations, so every encounter seems to stretch out forever.
That said, there’s a substantial number of combat upgrades to unlock in addition to customising your weapons with runes, so I’m sure further down the track it gets better and Talion needs fewer than 30 whacks to take down a dude with a club.
At this point I’ve told you that I didn’t enjoy running around the environments and I didn’t enjoy killing things, both of which are the bread-and-butter of this kind of game. So let’s talk about what Shadows of Mordor brings to the genre which is new and different.
Also there are no women?
EARLY GAME SPOILER: Shadows of Mordor starts with the refigeration of Talion’s wife and son whom we know almost nothing about. This is a super boring and lazy trope to motivate male characters. We do learn a little more about the characters during subsequent loading screens, which is nice, but in the early hours of the game Talion’s wife was the only female character I encountered. This was a bit disappointing to me personally, and I hope later missions introduce someone to liven up the sausage-fest.
Monolith has done something really, really cool with Shadows of Mordor which elevates the world you explore from a stage for your murder sprees to something very special. The world is populated by (mostly randomly-generated) enemies, each of which has its own quite extensive list of strengths and weaknesses. How you interact with these enemies changes how they interact with each other.
Say you are shot by a lowly archer, the most pissweak of units (this probably happened to you while trying to complete an archery challenge, which would have frustrated you somewhat as using the bow is not great). That archer will grow in power having killed you, becoming something rather more formidable than the frontline fodder he was previously, and be promoted to captain, if there’s an opening. As you kill officers of Sauron’s army and are in turn killed by them, the ranks constantly shift and change – and the orcs lead a semi-independent life of their own, challenging each other’s power.
In theory, this seems super cool. It’s supposed to make taking chances and dying fun, something a lot of games fail to do, because it switches up the power landscape of Mordor. In practice? Every time you die, your enemies get tougher, while you do not. I am yet to see an upside to this.
I could cope with Pug the Archer or whatever he was called suddenly getting a lot tougher after dispatching me if it were not for the fact that I ran into him a few minutes later on the opposite side of the map, where he ambushed and murdered me. I was not expecting a captain to be hanging out by some herbs I was collecting for one of the many Red Dead Redemption style open world challenges. Still, I took my defeat meekly enough – until it happened again on yet another remote part of the map, this time while I was looking for a collectible.
I’m one of those open world gamers that likes to get everything optional done as it becomes available rather than at the end of the game, and Shadows of Mordor does not cater to that: if you fling yourself around the open world in pursuit of side quests, you will come up against captains you haven’t researched yet, and they will beat you up, and get tougher in so doing.
This annoyed me, because it forced me into following the main storyline in order to progress without being murdered every few minutes. In so doing, I was further annoyed to discover that the main quest throws tutorials at you constantly for the first few hours. These tutorials aren’t in themselves the problem – they’re quick text-based prompts you can revisit in a menu rather than drawn-out handholding – but there were loads of things in them which I had no other way of knowing, and struggled with while roaming the open world in search of entertainment. It’s like the game sets you loose with a bag of tools, but doesn’t tell you they exist, let alone explain how they work; repeat players will have no problems but first timers who don’t want to pursue the main quest immediately just flail (and get murdered).
It’s a shame I’m struggling to enjoy the benefits of the Nemesis system because other people are having a great time with it, and I can see how it would add to the ambience of the world. Most open world games are sort of flat and lifeless; the NPCs may as well be cardboard cutouts. It looks like there’s a growing trend for more lifelike worlds, with Watch Dogs and Assassin’s Creed: Unity both taking steps to make things feel more real (with varying results), and Shadows of Mordor certainly makes the effort. As you wander around, you’ll constantly hear orcs and humans chatting away, often reacting to your recent or present actions in meaningful ways.
This is a small, ambient touch but it’s very well done. I didn’t hear a single piece of repeat dialogue. It must have cost a fortune in voice acting but it’s greatly appreciated, and I can’t think of any game to have implemented a similar feature so extensively. (I’m not sure why Warner Bros. didn’t have the budget to research “things people do”, though; both the orcs and humans spend a lot of time doing absolutely useless shit in far greater numbers than are necessary. You keep tapping that pick on a blank cliff face, mate, while four guards walk aimlessly around you; this is absolutely what I want my army of darkness and its slave workforce to do with their time.)
I dunno, dudes; I just don’t like Shadows of Mordor. Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe it’s just not for me. Maybe I just resent taking time off Destiny. I’m sure someone will come along and tell me I didn’t give it a fair go by playing past the first four hours or whatever, which will frustrate and annoy me because if a game isn’t fun for those first few hours I don’t particularly feel any motivation to keep going.
The good news is, Steph has a lot more patience than me, as well as being the official VG247 Lords of the Rings expert. I’m trying to coax her to share her thoughts on the game too, so stay tuned for a second opinion – or just check out the rave reviews Shadows of Mordor is getting elsewhere.