Shadow of Mordor’s story is lacking, but it doesn’t really matter

By Sherif Saed, Friday, 10 October 2014 14:22 GMT

The Nemesis system overrides weak plotting in the latest Lord of the Rings blockbuster, says Sherif Saed.

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Warning: minor story spoilers below.

After days of Shadow of Mordor play, I can tell you this: the main storyline is nothing more than a progression spur. There’s nothing interesting or ground-breaking about it, being mainly a retelling of events from The Lord of the Rings pertaining to Celebrimbor. The motives of Talion, the main protagonist, aren’t in any way original or enticing. Supporting characters, with the exception of Celebrimbor, are only there to push the story forward, and little is done to flesh them out into anything other than tutorial buddies or mission-givers.

I stopped noticing the lacklustre story beyond the two-hour mark, when the gameplay hijacked the whole experience. The general narrative just didn’t matter anymore.

Shadow of Mordor’s main gameplay mechanic is the Nemesis system, which aims – and mostly succeeds – in giving enemies personality, character and, more importantly, permanence.

Did you injure an Uruk with a non-fatal explosion? If you run into him again (and you will), he’s going to be covered in burns and he’ll remember how he got them. You can’t understand how mind-blowingly convincing that is until you’ve played Shadow of Mordor. Uruks who’ve killed you get promoted to higher ranks; suddenly, a weak, meaningless, faceless Uruk scores a kill and becomes someone you have to worry about. And if he kills you again he’s going to become a real problem. Nemesis does a good job of building on traditional narrative devices.

I encountered my first nemesis during the first hour of play, just as I was getting acquainted with the combat. He killed me several times over, getting promoted each time as a result. Eventually he became a Captain and bodyguard to a Warchief, one of Shadow of Mordor’s ultimate enemies.

I spent three hours trying to recover from these early mistakes and the resultant emergent narrative. I couldn’t just fight through outposts anymore. Brenna found this frustrating as she saw no upside to it, but it struck me as one of the game’s best features. Nemesis forced me to overcome an obstacle of my own making. I started doing all the side-missions (which actually served as good training for the three main weapons – the sword, dagger and bow) and soon I was ready to take out all the fuckers who’d previously killed me over and over.

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I hadn’t realised I was ignoring Shadow of Mordor’s story until I reached a point where I couldn’t progress unless I played main missions. I just didn’t care. I was so lost in my struggle to clear out the Warchiefs and their bodyguards that I forgot Talion had problems of his own.I was having enough fun stalking Uruks for intel – and later using that information to learn the weaknesses of Captains and Warchiefs – to essentially make “the story” redundant.

I usually care about a game’s plot. I’ve endured bad gameplay for the sake of story on many occasions (cough Mass Effect 1 cough), but Shadow of Mordor is the first time I’ve experienced an inverse to the normal pattern. It made me question all those times I’ve dropped a game because it had a less-than-interesting story. How many might’ve had good gameplay, had I given them a chance?

Shadow of Mordor’s gameplay systems override its story and make it harder to go back to other games of the same ilk. I’m reminded of my reaction to environment destruction in Battlefield: Bad Company 2, which was like nothing I’d seen before in a multiplayer shooter: similar games felt instantly clunky and limited as a result.

While Shadow of Mordor’s traditional story-telling is lacking, it’s shown games should flesh out rank-and-file enemies as well as player characters and key NPCs if they’re to attain next-gen immersion. Play it for Nemesis and don’t worry about the plot: it doesn’t really matter.

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