Modern day power fantasy RPGs take their heed (at least in part) from Gygax and Arneson’s age-old pen and paper RPG, Dungeons and Dragons. The basic core dynamics of gaining experience points, levelling up, spending that XP on new skills, feats and perks – these game mechanics are translated directly from the time-honoured Player’s Handbook and the systems of racial tiering is owed entirely to Tolkein.
Monolith have brought the whole thing full-circle with their release of the first standalone fantasy video game scoured almost directly from Tolkein’s literature and surprisingly it’s not a by-the-book RPG. You will also notice by the title that this game is not a Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit tie-in game and is to my knowledge the first Middle Earth video game to take a serious narrative departure from the books or the Peter Jackson film trilogy. Other titles in the past such as War in the North and The Third Age have skirted the events in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and used loose story threads to tie the games into that universe. Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor tries no such thing, rather opting to tell a standalone story in a universe rich with its own mythology. The only problem is that the game seems to be unsure of what it wants to achieve. The watery story seems to be deliberately opaque with the gamer given barely a scrap of narrative to help them understand what is going on. Skyrim this most certainly is not.
Shadow of Mordor’s protagonist is a Gondorian Ranger by the name of Talion. In the game’s opening sequence, Talion and his family are murdered by agents of Sauron but Talion is resurrected, partly-possessed and maybe haunted by an unknown Elven wraith. Reanimated (possibly) by The Wraith’s ethereal Eldritch powers, Talion heads into darkest Mordor to exact his revenge on the entire army of Sauron. The opening sequence takes all of about twenty minutes and serves as the usual hand-holding combat tutorial as well as introducing Talion’s motives, such as they are. For a game set in a world so deeply steeped in history and detail this opening chapter seems too shallow for Tolkein and in fact is more Xena: Warrior Princess than Game of Thrones. The sum of Talion’s motives is “Orcs killed my wife so I’m going to kill all the orcs” and for the whole first act that is the entirety of the game experience. We’re given no deeper insight into Talion’s motivations or his personal journey; he’s as deep as a cup of cold tea and the entirety of Shadow of Mordor’s premium next-gen experience is supposed to be held upon his wafer-thin quarry. Even The Wraith remains a purposeful mystery which rather than serving as intrigue instead becomes a bone of contention and is as much of an emotional obstacle as Talion’s unremarkable backstory.
This distance between player and game continues to grow for the first few hours of playing as Shadow of Mordor offers absolutely minimal direction. The lack of story-driven activity is reinforced by an open-ended gameplay style that borders on negligent. Monolith have adopted a mentality of introducing only the most basic concepts before setting the gamer free in the world of Mordor, which appears liberating at first with Talion carving a swathe in The Enemy’s forces, testing his combat mettle against goblins and Uruk Hai alike but after notching a hundred or so kills with no appreciable momentum in the story, Shadow of Mordor starts to grate.
The opacity of direction adopted by Monolith in Shadow of Mordor continues throughout the game experience and I’m honestly in two minds about how to review that. Eventually the gamer will realise what they’re about and what Talion needs to do to survive so far behind enemy lines. In a manner of speaking, Shadow of Mordor takes the player and thrusts them behind enemy lines with no direction and in a trial by fire, sees how they’ll cope. The game is punishingly difficult from the second the disk goes into the tray and will border on demoralising. Talion will certainly die, that’s a given. But then as is made abundantly clear, Talion is supposed to die. Dying is a very important part of the experience.
As a single ranger fighting deep within the heart of The Enemy, it would stand to reason that Talion won’t be walking away from every encounter. In fact the game is structured in such a way that defeat is probably more important than victory in a lot of cases. Much like the highly-regarded Dark Souls series, death is a feature which has been woven into the fabric of the game. From the outset Talion is surrounded on all sides by the infinite hordes of Sauron’s forces. At the very start of Shadow of Mordor Talion has very few skills and combat abilities so getting into a scuffle with half a dozen Uruks is a tricky affair. Whilst the game borrows its combat mechanics liberally and bare-facedly from the Assassin’s Creed and Batman: Arkham series, it plays differently enough. AC and Batman have taught us that Ezio and Bruce can both happily take on mobs of thirty+ goons and with dutiful care and attention, liberal use of the counter button and a smattering of gadgets they will both live to tell the tale. Whilst these hack-and-slash brawlers are lots of the fun the same rules to not apply in Shadow of Mordor, where combat is closer to Soul Calibur than Arkham City. Talion must rely on building his combo-meter, utilising every ability in his codex and always keep an eye out for the changing flow of the battle. Combat in Shadow of Mordor does not follow the Batman or Assassin’s Creed rule of enemies waiting their turn to fight; these are orcs and as such will mob Talion, each of them clobbering and clawing at him – despite liberal use of that counter button Talion is likely to fall victim to death by a thousand cuts as enemy mobs will whittle his resolve down with sheer numbers opposed to skill. Is it fair? Certainly not, but would you honestly expect the agents of Sauron to play by the rules?
Despite any gamers best efforts, using their grey matter to pace their encounters, using the rhythm of battle and Talion’s full range of manoeuvrability and skills, Shadow of Mordor will still prove to be the death of him. In Dark Souls, player death is turned into a common gameplay trait – in Shadow of Mordor it’s a full-blown dynamic. Whilst Talion cannot truly die he will be resurrected at the nearest resurrection point – towers which are unlocked like AC’s synch points or Far Cry’s radio towers. The Uruk who slayed Talion gains a level, forges new armour and becomes harder to defeat next time. In fact the next time their paths cross, this now-captain Uruk-hai will taunt Talion, reminding him of his previous defeat. Over time Talion will generate a Nemesis or two – Uruk-hai that he thought he’d killed but who will return battle-scarred and embittered; who will not rest until Talion lies underground – something which cannot happen. The Nemesis System is truly the heart of the game and the emergent narrative that it represents will prove to be something long spoken about around the pub table; tales of that one Uruk who keeps turning up to ruin the day; that time your Nemesis killed you whilst you were trying to achieve something else; his stupid name or the funny insults he chooses to call you. Every Uruk-hai is procedurally generated so everybody’s game will be different; the appearance, names and even the motivations of every Captain and War Chief are drawn from a huge data set so it’s entirely unlikely to see the same (non-story-based) Uruk-hai in two games. The procedural nature of the Uruk captains is the biggest strength and the closest to an original feature Shadow of Mordor has. Some captains and often your Nemesis will be immune to a wide range of attacks – running in head-first will almost certainly see Talion returned to his resurrection towers and his enemies stronger for their next scuffle. The gamer is not entitled to victory in Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor and the game asserts this with a rapacious appetite for player blood.
What Shadow of Morder does give Talion though is the ability to learn. Talion can collect intel on his enemies, interrogating low-level Uruks or stealing documents to find the whereabouts of Sauron’s Captains and War Chiefs – he can even go so far as to uncover their strengths and weaknesses. Captains who are invulnerable to stealth attacks must be approached differently to those who are weak to them. This many-tiered system offers Talion a cacophony of ways to achieve his goals but firmly informs that the game rules must be obeyed – running in and hammering the attack button will work in a variety of cases, but it’s not a foolproof plan and to succeed without benefiting your adversaries takes a measured and considered approach.
As mentioned before the core gameplay largely apes Assassin’s Creed and Batman: Arkham Asylum, with the clambering and free-running from the former and the super-slick melée of the latter. Dark Souls is another obvious influence, as is Far Cry. Borrowing heavily from successful franchises is welcome for the gameplay but further dilutes the overall core of the game. Shadow of Mordor seems to be trying to be several things at once, and rather than championing the Nemesis System it seems to be lost in whether it wants to be more Batman, Assassin’s Creed or Dark Souls. Combat challenges will appear on the map which facilitate the improvement of Talion’s skills or weapons. Whilst not explicitly stated, these trials are important to the fabric of the game as without undertaking these side-quests, Talion will be in no shape to face the higher-level Elite Captains and War Chiefs – another way which the game drives its death-resurrection-revenge mechanic. A small bugbear with these is that often the challenges themselves are quite obtuse, with Shadow of Mordor asking Talion to perform certain moves without fully explaining what those actions are. Leaving the gamer to suss this for themselves seems a bit mean-spirited in the greater sense of things, but then again this is Shadow of Mordor so by now you should expect that nothing is going to go your way.
Aside from the Nemesis System though Shadow of Mordor loses its way more than a few times. Trapped somewhere between hybrid RPG, hack-and-slash and cerebral brawler it’s hard to the game to find a place where it comfortably rests. To say that the enemies and creatures in Shadow of Mordor are unoriginal is disrespectful to the source material and in fact Shadow manages to remain immensely faithful to the core intellectual property whilst stretching those boundaries just a little. The problem with these power fantasy tropes though is non-Tolkeinists could easily claim that other games are doing newer and more interesting things with the medium. Adapting IP is a hard fight to win as my recent video explains but overall Shadow of Mordor succeeds in delivering an entertaining game, although one which may have been better for not trying to shoehorn itself into a very saleable brand name.
On the one hand you should be happy that Monolith are attempting to present a new franchise like Shadow of Mordor. There is good developer pedigree here and Tolkein is the great-grandfather of all fantasy. Surely though there is already far too much competition to compare it to? The move is equal parts brave and naive with the swords and sandals market already crowded to the point of saturation – were it not for timing it would be easy to see Shadow of Mordor lost among Dragon’s Dogma, Dragon Age, Elder Scrolls and The Witcher; games in which player direction is decidedly more focused and brand identity is stronger.
Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor needed to focus more upon its own strengths; the Nemesis System is an excellent bit of kit and the game could largely revolve around it. The wishy-washy story, horrible slowdown and borrowed mechanics make this a bit of a hodge-podge for next-gen gaming but overall the game remains a muddy, bloody romp.