Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

Post-Launch Review
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor (PC)
Developer: Monolith Productions
Released: September 2014 (North America)
Played: ~98% complete in 20h
Note: DLC will be covered in one or more later posts, likely coming in the next week or two. Or maybe three. Whenever.


Talion, a ranger of Gondor guarding Mordor's Black Gate, is killed along with his family during an orc attack. But Talion finds he hasn't truly died - instead, he is bound to an elf wraith with little memory. Barred from death, Talion and the wraith set out for revenge on the man who cursed them, the Black Hand of Sauron, fighting their way through the armies of Mordor.

At Launch

Review scores averaged 86%. Critics were very impressed with the nemesis system, combat, audio, and lore, but less so with the story and side missions. The PS3 and XBox360 versions were slammed for technical problems.

Post Launch

Two major DLC packs, Lord of the Hunt and The Bright Lord, add additional story missions - one following the dwarf Torvin, and the other set 3,000 years in the past during the wraith's life.
Other DLC packs include a series of unique side quests, challenge modes, and character skins.
A free HD texture pack is available for the PC version.

Note: screenshots taken with HD texture pack installed

For quite a while, Shadow of Mordor didn't really grab me. The game's systems seemed novel for a short while, and then became repetitive. Early on I thought having to gather intel on the captains and plan your attack was great and what Assassin's Creed should have been all along, but there are relatively few strengths and weaknesses, and most of them either don't have a huge impact on combat or are too situational. The army system was neat with orcs fighting for position and replacing each other, but there was no connection to any of them so it started to feel like a meat grinder of dudes perpetually replacing each other. And it got annoying to have to sit through so many unskippable animations whenever I died.

Having started to find the game repetitive before getting even a third of the way through, I set out to kill a warchief after eliminating his bodyguards. Except one of the captains I'd killed - Tuka - was still there! He'd lost his helmet and was covered in scars, and taunted me when he saw me. The shock was even crazier considering that he was a rank 20 captain who could only be damaged by ranged attacks - not combat, not stealth, and had huge advantage against mounted attacks. 
With this unexpected extra opponent, I got my ass kicked. Still recovering from the nasty surprise, I decided to track down and kill Tuka again. It was a challenge since I could only use ranged attacks and he was hanging out in a stronghold, but I managed it.

And then he came back again, even more damaged than last time, and I got my ass kicked by the warchief again. This happened about three more times before Tuka stayed dead, and each time he came back uglier and angrier. It took a ton of work to get this guy to stay dead. Until Tuka's return, Shadow of Mordor felt like "merely" a clever iteration on a now-common AAA formula, but the unexpected nemesis blew my mind.
To back up a bit, I said the game had started to feel repetitive. That's not a knock on the combat system - the abilities are a lot of fun, and the structure and captains' weaknesses do a great job of supporting all three styles of play (melee, bow, stealth) as well as throw in some extra fun like blowing stuff up or releasing/riding powerful beasts. The shadow strike ability was especially fun, as you could teleport across the map as long as you have a target.
My issue was not with the mechanics of gameplay, but what I felt was a disconnect between the power level of the game and the lore of The Lord of the Rings. All throughout the books and movies, magic is subtle - the most powerful wizards and even the dark lord himself act more through intermediaries and manipulation than through direct imposition of power. The single fireball in The Two Towers extended edition is remarkable for its flair in this setting, even though it looks like small potatoes compared to what you'd see in, say, D&D.

Which makes it feel a little off-tone to play as an undying, teleporting, mind-controlling, head-exploding, one-man-army of a man-ghost.

Don't get me wrong - the story and lore felt faithful to the setting. The history and name drop of the wraith's identity, as well as the guest appearances, make sense and fit together well. It's the flashiness and power of the game mechanics that seem out of place.

Despite that complaint, the flashy powerful combat is a lot of fun. It's the same style as the Arkham games, but much more brutal since you get to actually kill your targets. Many of the unlockable abilities are very satisfying and unique, such as bow-based teleportation and riding huge creatures. The best feature is branding, and it's a lot of fun to get your own horse in the race and promote your guys up the ranks.

Overall this is a very good game that hardcore Tolkien fans will pick apart. Gameplay is fun and diverse, though the nemesis system didn't quite hold my attention as intently or for as long as I expected. Side missions could be more diverse but combat is interesting enough that it's not a huge problem. If you've ever felt like Assassin's Creed was missing something, give Shadow of Mordor a shot - researching and strategising to take down your targets is very cool, especially when things don't quite go according to plan.

Recommendation: play it.

No comments:

Post a Comment