A third-person, hack-and-slash, Lord of the Rings original untold story made by a AAA game developer in the same style as the well-received and enjoyable Arkham series of Batman games? What could go wrong?
Apparently, a few things. Seriously though, as many criticisms as I have for this game, overall, I enjoyed my time with it. Except, calling it a game is could be going too far. What Shadow of Mordor truly exists as is an extended tech demo and proof of concept for the development of its sequel, Shadow of War. This game is akin to a highly polished beta, meant to whet our excitement for what’s coming next. It makes use of stunning visuals, fun (if not Batman: AA-like) combat, and a really unique game system, to try to deliver a memorable gaming experience. Though it mostly succeeds, it also drags its sparse content too thin, leading to a slightly unsatisfactory tedium. Yet again, I couldn’t help but have a lot of good fun along the way, and picking it up for its steam-sale price of $15 (CAD) back in April was definitely a bargain.
Part of what makes this game special – in addition to the aforementioned crisp visuals and tight combat – is the breakout hit found in the Nemesis System. This mechanic makes use of randomly generated interactions between the player character Talion, and the hundreds of Orc enemies he kills (or who kill him). The game has Talion hunting a series of Orc Captains and Officers, leading all the way up to Warchiefs and Warlords. Any time you kill a Captain or any high-ranking Orc, there is a random chance that the Orc survives your attack to fight another day. Take off Dugrub the Defiler’s head with a well-timed execute move? Too bad, he’ll be back with metal plates grafted to his neck where the fatal slice should be, and he remembers you. Interrupt Losh the Trickster’s feast that he’s put on for his hard-working warband by poisoning the ale? Too bad, he’ll be back with a sickly pale green hue to his Orcish skin, spittle bubbling from his lips and down his chin, as he cries for your gruesome death at his hands. Even better, should you happen to fall to a nameless Orc grunt in battle, there is a chance that orc will be hailed for his heroic actions in slaying the Bright Lord (that’s you), and promoted to Officer.
A particularly memorable moment for me was watching Relgor Hack-Cleaver kill me in battle, get promoted to Officer, challenge another Officer to an Honor Duel, win, then get hired on by the region’s Warchief as bodyguard. Relgor then decided the lure of power was too great, killed his ward, and took the region for himself. This was all while still hunting him at every turn, as he escaped my wrath many times, only to rear his cleaving head every time I messed up and died. I created the final mini-boss for my region, and was able to watch him from near and far as he gained in level, increased his Orc horde, and decked himself out in slick new armor and weapons. This completely random and unique set of events have given me a great story, and a meaningful experience with the game. Basically, the Nemesis System is really cool and leads to unique, memorable moments that force investment in the stories the player creates within the game.
In addition to the stories that the player and the Nemesis System itself will craft randomly and organically, Shadow of Mordor features an original story explaining what’s happened in the world of LoTR in a relatively underrepresented period of Middle Earth history, that being the period between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings books. It would’ve been easy to adapt a more well-known character or story from within the vast Tolkien universe, but the game does a good job weaving the tale of an original character into a very well-known story held as sacred by purist fans. This is not an easy task. There are plenty of games that have failed to give similar ‘made-for-game’ characters like Talion an interesting character arc that goes hand in hand with a Tolkien mainstay like Celebrimbor (the Elf who forged the Elven Rings of Power).
Combat is an issue I come out on both sides of, in that it’s varied and cool until it isn’t. The animations and responsiveness for Talion are great– at first. The enemy AI gives the player a challenging feeling followed by a sense of accomplishment upon vanquishing a cohort of slimy Orcs for the first 3 hours of play. A Rock-Paper-Scissors element to Officer and Captain strengths/ weaknesses tries to keep you on your feet throughout the experience, forcing a variation of stealth, ranged, and close combat takedowns. These strengths and weaknesses are doled out again randomly by the Nemesis System, leading to good variation in play.
On that note though, one of my biggest criticisms of the game lies in its varying level of difficulty. The difficulty curve is wonky, simply put. Talion plays very powerfully initially, making the player feel like an expert swordsman and ranger, cutting through swaths of orcs with blade, bow, and ghost-elf magic. Then out of nowhere, enemies deal almost triple damage, and themselves take seemingly twice as long (or longer) to kill. This is followed by the game turning itself down to ‘baby-mode’ as soon as you get the ability to mind-control Orcs, and have them fight their brethren for you. My issue has less to do with the difficulty drop later in the game, since it makes sense gameplay-wise: you’ve acquired a strong, new, end-game ability.
However, bumping difficulty by inflating numbers is a lazy way to increase the challenge delivered to players. Instead of feeling inspired to vary my playstyle, and seek out new strategies to overcome this abrupt new obstacle, I felt only frustration. You spend the first few hours of the game perfecting a combat playstyle that’s providing you success, only to be told by the game, “This won’t cut it anymore, figure something else out entirely.” This concept is not an inherently bad one in game design, but a well-crafted experience gives a player clues or context as to why their old tricks won’t work anymore. Instead, this was the same zone, with the same Orcs, in their same camps suddenly kicking my ass. I sincerely hope the sequel fixes this artificial bump in difficulty in favour of new and trickier mechanics, or by using more of the rock-paper-scissors Orc Captain weaknesses we already see in the game.
Speaking of the same Orcs in their same camps, in Shadow of Mordor there just isn’t enough content. More specifically, the content there feels totally same-y and recycled after a few short hours. The two open world-esque zones Udun and The Sea of Nurnen both play and look very similar. You have your choice of slashing through identical Orcs in a reddish-grey, dusty, craggy basin, or doing the same in a greenish-grey dusty, craggy shoreline. Both were populated with roughly the same amount of Orc camps, the same roaming saber-cat-like Caragors, and the same dumb, lumbering, bipedal, monstrous Graugs. For example, I spent 15 hours with this game, and I have a hard time differentiating where I was, and who I was hunting at any given time. This aspect of the game works directly against the unique, memorable moments that the Nemesis System tries to create. If the sequel Shadow of War seeks to remedy this shortfall, it would do well to make sure the player has to navigate varied landscapes (lush with unique flora) in different ways, give each area’s enemies distinct and separate gear and fighting styles, and possibly even shake up the fauna that are found in each zone.
Ultimately, the most disappointing aspect of this game is that it’s so close to reaching its potential. With the focus of the sequel shifting to fortress assault as an anchoring gameplay mechanic, I worry that less attention has been paid to fixing the issues at the heart of Shadow of Mordor. I can only hope that this huge shift comes with a focus on keeping the content varied and interesting, and I look forward to paying full price for Shadow of War, hopefully a full and varied game, after having enjoyed this extended, proof-of-concept beta.