January 15, 2020 at 2:02 AM #878
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor
Rating: 4.0 – Great
One idea to rule them all, one idea t- actually, that’s enough.
You’ve been given the rights to a near-century old beloved IP with decades of in-depth lore, fan speculation and detailed history which effectively laid the groundwork for an entire genre, what do you do to take advantage of the rich tapestry of artistic legacy? ANGRY MAN STAB ORC! What do you do to expand upon a story so dense and detailed that it spanned 6 complete books without even getting into the expanded works which delved ever further like a Dwarven mine? WHAT?! ANGRY MAN STAB ORC!! How do you even begin to explore a world so thoroughly defined with rigidly set dimensions and scale, how do you fit all that into a game? ANGRY MAN IN ORC HOUSE! MANY ORC! STAB ORC ANGRILY!!!
Shadow of Mordor is one of the most single minded major titles I’ve ever played. The design statement is headed "Stab Orc Captains" and filled with nothing but stick figure doodles of massacres, but Monolith have dived into that idea as far as imaginable. The story? Nice Man is turned into Angry Man when he and his family are killed by orcs, he then teams up with a ghost elf to stab some damn orcs. The missions? Stab some fancy orcs. The side missions? Stab some lesser orcs. The Nemesis system? Stab a spreadsheet of orcs. There’s no downtime from the carnage; the entire map is enemy encampment devoid of safe zones and youÃ¢Â€Â™re too angry to have any friends to hang with or non-stabbing based jobs to do. It’s entirely orc stabbing and it’s some of the most fun I’ve had since the Portal series.
Every dead orc is sacred, every dead orc is good, if a dead orc is wasted, God will punish you
At the heart of it Shadow of Mordor is an unrepentant power trip, you’re faster, stronger and better equipped in both gear and skills than your prey, and the game relishes the brutality you inflict upon it. It’s so pathologically violent that it feels like something that would be used as meta-commentary on the nature of gamers in a more artistic game with a "who’s the real monster" concept, but it’s played dead straight. The message is murder is awesome if you do it savagely enough to something expendable and inhuman enough and I wholeheartedly agree.
The two primary methods of mercilessly snuffing out sentient meatsacks are stealth and open combat, both methods are insanely broken in your favour but incredibly fun to execute and have a steady drip-feed of new abilities/enemy types to keep the action expanding at an acceptable pace. Given the game has no interest in anything other than murder the addition of new mechanics whenever you do a story mission is good variety, but it does feel like a giant tutorial, particularly on replays.
I am become death
Combat slowly escalates from an incredibly simple attack and counter two button system to a frantic onslaught of stun blasts, explosions, opportunistic finisher moves, and ally creating mind control. The typically mob heavy approach leads to a balance of just mashing attack until a downed foe can be quickly executed or incoming swings need to be parried, flipped behind or stunned; you inspect the screeching mobÃ¢Â€Â™s unit composition to decide which action is needed next. ItÃ¢Â€Â™s visually satisfying to inspect the chaos rather than just your own moves and position, yet itÃ¢Â€Â™s busy enough to be entertaining to perform.
You can parry or dodge cancel any movement at almost any time so it’s as easy as a furious mob battle could ever be, but looks and feels great with a good illusion of tension when attempting to quickly land one shot kills or magic flurries before getting smacked in the spine, and living on the edge with last second parries turns you into an immensely satisfying swirling torrent of death. When you’ve terrified a captain into running for his life and you’re chasing him down while fighting off the wave of supporters that swarms over you soon as heÃ¢Â€Â™s pinned down it genuinely feels like you’re some kind of movie hero… or movie psychopath. Either way it feels great to be an unstoppable juggernaut slaughtering all comers.
Stealth actually serves a similar purpose in Ghost-elf Knife Adventures; you don’t sneak because you’re in danger and need to protect your delicate flesh organs, you sneak to methodically terrorize your defenceless victims. This is basically if batman liked gutting people and jamming knives into the foreheads of screaming grunts. As with the combat your arsenal quickly escalates from backstabs and drop attacks to a devilish set of draws, rabid animal attacks, poisonings and explosions to inflict satisfying cruelty with.
Again the game is ridiculously broken in your favour as you climb any surface faster than arrows can fly, thereÃ¢Â€Â™s no such thing as fall damage, and enemies can’t look up or down or remember anything that exits their line of sight; you can simply run from any combat event, get stealthed in 6 seconds and start killing again. This isn’t a stealth game; it’s a reign of terror game. There’s no downtime, you’re either killing or planning a killing without exception.
This time, it’s personal
Given the game doesn’t have towns or scripted side quests or characters or mini games or a plot or world building or an ending that isnÃ¢Â€Â™t a freaking QTE or any mechanics that aren’t dripping with gore, there was definitely a need for something to fill in the 30 hours it takes for rampant, unrepentant slaughter to grow tiresome. Monolith had a big brainstorming session lasting days on end until finally, a brave soul chimed in with "Slaughter orcs?", and one huge promotion later, the Nemesis System was born.
The system is a way of organising random slaughter and is equal parts charming, fun, and a pain in the arse. The armies of Sauron are led by Orc captains and Warchiefs each with unique names, looks and "traits" which define various combat strengths and weaknesses like being immune to arrows or one shottable with animal takedowns. As captains move up the ranks their weaknesses become less crippling and their strengths more all-encompassing. The game tracks your altercations with each so theyÃ¢Â€Â™ll remember escapes and kills from the past and taunt you personally to give the eventual kill a bit more pleasure. They also vie for power amongst the horde with in-fights and events which boost their standing unless you crash them to force preferred outcomes. Sadly the drip feed of new functionality restricts the advantages of influencing the horde beyond simply killing everyone until youÃ¢Â€Â™ve only got a handful of missions left in the game
While there are some reshuffles based on story progression the primary trigger for captains powering up and the dead being replaced is your death. ThereÃ¢Â€Â™s an entertaining strategic element picking and choosing your battles to weaken their army while risking undoing all the work already done. Do you fight a tough bloke who is immune to combat and risk having three hours work replaced with new captains, or do you risk dying elsewhere and have him get even stronger? It also provides temptation to stick to attacks when things go pear-shaped in case the escaping enemy gets a boost.
The system is likely why the game is this easy; every time you fail it gets harder so at some point itÃ¢Â€Â™d become a negative feedback loop, they just played it a little too safe. Merely the threat of a fairly harsh penalty makes the dicier moments more exciting as is but I wouldn’t have minded a little bump in death rate just to make the chessboard shuffling more prevalent and the system more nail-biting. I love the maniacal power trip of the gameplay, but the mechanic here demands more death to work properly
Now you’re just pissing me off
Which leads me to my only real negative section; how wrathfully annoying it is when stuff doesn’t go right. Why is that a lead-in, you ask? Well because Shadow of Mordor pushed me close to a rage quit. After killing off over a dozen captains and leaving only fiddly ones, while walking to my next kill I clipped straight through the ground and died beneath the world map. It’s technically an open world and that happens in like 20% of them, no biggie… Then the battle recap happens: Some poser gets credit for killing me and gloats in my face. The fiddly guys level up. My dead guy spots get filled with new guys. I don’t play again for three days.
Obviously that’s just an unfortunate glitch and mechanic clash that hopefully not many people will have to seethe through, but the game does have clumsy moments and theyÃ¢Â€Â™re utterly infuriating. By and large the game controls great, climbing feels fluid, jumps are tightly locked to landing locations so you don’t need to worry about momentum and grabs as you zip about. By the end you’ve got a complicated moveset with many functions mapped to single buttons so the 95%+ success rate of input interpretation is impressive, but when it goes wrong it instantly kills that obscene power fantasy that the game relies on.
Sometimes Angry Man will dive headfirst into walls and do somersaults against them instead of safely leaping up it, usually when surrounded by hungry rhino-dogs. Other times he’ll get stuck creeping along the top of a wall, angrily confused by the concept of a 45 degree bend instead of the nice right angles which are popular in Mordor architecture circles. Sometimes a nice safe hop down to a raised rope walkway randomly becomes a giant leap to the ground because his ghost friend pushed him assumedly. Despite being filled with murderous rage, sometimes Angry Man takes an almost romantic interest in one side of a wall refuses to hang on the other side, even if it leaves him in an archer’s line of sight. In combat his rage is so absolute that when an armoured foe is knocked over and ready for the finisher, heÃ¢Â€Â™ll change his focus to a mind controlled ally across the ruins and stab him instead. When you’re on a wall O does a simple drop to hanging, but when the stealth button is also held it turns into a kamikaze down onto the nearest enemy which is quite different. ItÃ¢Â€Â™s 100% my fault for clawing crouch in the single situation it happens automatically, but Christ it’s annoying.
It’s not constant issues, but something will behave in a manner distinctly not as intended every five to ten minutes and every few of those will make something that would been cool be decidedly uncool. ItÃ¢Â€Â™s a shift from Ã¢Â€ÂœThis is so badassÃ¢Â€?to "No, jump you d***head" in an eighth of a second and it feels awful.
Murder playgrounds are fun
Shadow of Mordor is a toy; it’s a big dumb violent toy for manchildren and I am manchild. It has one idea and squeezes every last drop of joy out of it. It’s a rollicking barrel of fun and it gets my whole approval and recommendation, but I can’t bring myself to call it overly impressive or important, honestly out of arrogance more than anything else. It’s one of the most enjoyable experiences around, it just lacks an X factor to make it feel special; I didnÃ¢Â€Â™t learn anything about what I find important in games here, I donÃ¢Â€Â™t see any lessons the industry needs to adopt, itÃ¢Â€Â™s just a really stupid, really good time.
It may not be a game that taught me anything, but it is one where I managed to lure two generals and their squads towards a fire which then detonated allowing me to glide through the chaos to execute both of them while they screamed on the ground as their guards were distracted by burning to death slowly. Was it artistic? Not particularly. Was is hard? Nope, took literally 15 seconds. Was it clever? No, it was my second idea after 60 to 1 all in brawl. But was it awesome? Feel my nipples and you tell me. If you’re looking for disposable fun this is an absolute pinnacle, but the lack of an "extra" level of depth holds this down a bit.
… I’m also knocking off a point for the falling through the map death and subsequent punishment, I’m still angry about that.
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