With the Hobbit trilogy (I still cannot believe they stretched it that far) now complete there is a lack of Lord of the Rings in the world today. Monolith Productions and Behaviour Interactive are hoping their collaboration will remedy this and give fantasy fans their fix.
However with a game that was subject to a number of small-scale scandals during production and an attempt to wedge a story into a book that is over 100 years old is it possible that this game lives up the name?
Is this game “my precious” or a precious waste of my time?
The scandals during production were both moderately small-scale – Michael De Plater claimed that it was running on the Assassins Creed engine caused a storm in a teacup while the TotalBiscuit scandal was decidedly larger (yet still largely ignored by mainstream media). Totalbiscuit stated that he (and several other large ‘YouTubers’) had been offered early access to the game in exchange for positive “reviews” – a Judge stated that such deals must be made public.
Aside from these there was no big marketing push to make casual gamers aware of its existence Monolith simply went to comic-con and allowed the reviews to do their marketing for them. The result of this tactic was that ‘Shadow of Mordor’ was a rarity in modern gaming – it was sleeper hit.
The game deserved its’ success too as it does a lot of things well – what it doesn’t do however is really bring many new ideas to the table.
‘Shadow of Mordor’ borrows its core mechanics from titles that have come before; the locomotion mechanics feel as though they have been lifted straight from ‘Assassins Creed II’ and given a ‘Lord of the Rings’ sheen. This is no bad thing as ACII is the best in its series but it does bring with it a fair share of issues, specifically Talion not climbing where you want him to and sometimes refusing to mantle, climb or descend on request. Do not get me wrong these issues only reared their heads only a few times during my play-through but they always occurred at the most inconvenient times.
The combat was borrowed from the Arkham games; again this is no bad thing. The combat is balanced, nuanced, balletic, graceful and brutal – you get a real sense of feedback with every hit of your sword – orcs recoil in agony and the graphics do a great job in conveying Talion’s intensity and the orcs in their death throes.
The stealth mechanics also feel lifted from the Arkham games; Talion can sneak around, hide in bushes, distract and maim orcs all in the shadows.
Although it sounds like I’m on a downer about all of this borrowing of mechanics I am not because ‘Shadow of Mordor’ (SoM) borrows from the best and; at least, equals the execution. In fact there are times that SoM actually surpasses its inspirations – high praise indeed – the reason behind this is two-fold.
1) SoM succeeds in offering the player choices – these choices go beyond the usual ‘stealth or chaos’ that you’d usually get in these games because there is an incredible piece of coding going on; all the time, behind the scenes…
2) The Nemesis system. This is a true revelation and it is executed beautifully. Every battle you have with orcs is monitored, if you win you will have a Nemesis that will be back for revenge – if they win you will be offered the chance of revenge – but the orc will be promoted and become more powerful.
Each captain is beautifully animated and there are a lot of different things they could say (I beat a lot of captains and died a lot to their hands too and I never got a repeat) it really does add a sense of personal rivalry to the game and makes you become almost obsessed with killing those who kill you!
The nemesis system goes far beyond just creating rivalries however – the orc army has ranks and they’re always vying for position – it is an option (and it always remains as such) for you to take advantage of this fact. By ‘dominating’ a captain you can then tell him to challenge another captain or war chief – if yours wins the battle he gains rank and you have a high powered ally and all of his followers!
This leads to some interesting situations – the end game of defeating the war chiefs can go two ways – a series of incredibly difficult boss fights or a game of tactics. In my play-through I tried the hard way and made very little progress – when I started dominating captains and using them I progressed incredibly quickly. It was hugely rewarding to see a plan play out…what an incredible idea that has the potential to change gaming for us all.
The game never tells you how to do something (although it offers challenges that are, well challenging) and this is its greatest strength. Most games offer choice and use a series of smoke and mirrors to create the illusion, here it genuinely feels like the developers want you to play with their rules – bend and break them.
Unfortunately we’ve come to the things that SoM does poorly – first things first the story is absolute pants. You are Talion; a ranger, whose family is murdered the night Sauron returns to Mordor, seconds before he himself is killed by the Black Hand. He is granted a chance of revenge by a wraith by the name of Celebrimbor.
It starts strongly (and has an incredible tutorial) but unfortunately the first act and a half meanders far too much and soon you lose interest – the final act and half therefore have to kick up the pace and I’d argue they kick it up too much. This leaves the story feeling poorly paced and hugely unfulfilling – not what you want or expect from a ‘Lord of the Rings’ game (although the title does not contain LoTR at all) – Talion and Celebrimbor’s quest for vengeance falls flat and the player is left cold by the end.
The final battle is also a huge disappointment; you spend the entire game building an army and I was expecting a huge battle for Mordor at the end…it was not that…at all. There was a small scale skirmish with your army but after that it was shockingly lazy. A QTE. It left me feeling detached from what was happening on screen, and it felt against everything the game was up to that point, gone was the options and gone was everything you’d earned to that point. It made the preceding hours feel like a waste of time…and that is a huge shame! No game should make you feel like you’ve wasted your time.
Overall ‘Shadow of Mordor’ was an excellent game. I enjoyed playing it a huge amount, but the disappointment in the end left a very sour taste in my mouth and the poor storytelling left me in a state of ambivalence.
SoM is more than the sum of its parts and is an incredibly strong start for a new franchise; if I had played this in 2014 it may have made my list for GOTY.