I had put off buying Monolith’s Shadow of Mordor as we were engrossed with Dragon Age: Inquisition. Since the Inquisition has ended though, I’ve had a chance to start playing the game that had made quite a splash for a few weeks after it was released, before Dragon Age came out and absorbed all the coverage.
I knew going in that I would like the Nemesis system, as its a design element that I am simply all about. It’s people-oriented (if we call orcs people), and provides an agent-centric framework to the game’s central combat mechanics. It’s also procedural and dynamic, and it encourages the player to take part in the storytelling by having them create and participate in their own narratives. It’s pretty neat. There are a lot of little touches that make the system work well. I love the way orcs taunt the player with details about their previous encounters with you, and the way strengths and weaknesses can be learned through observation (my favorite: shooting someone in the back of the head and then seeing a little cinematic zoom-in informing me my target as the intimidating albeit ungrammatical trait of “HATE OF PAIN!”). At times, it really felt like I had a relationship with these orcs, albeit one based entirely on murder. That’s a huge step-up from the largely faceless and nameless badguys of most games. The Nemesis system takes something that could get boring very quickly (killing bosses, basically), gives it texture, and turns it into something fresh and new. It has a few flaws (all orcs sounding the same, too many strengths/vulnerabilities on one orc diminishes the impact, the eventual repetition from pattern-recognition inherent to all procedural systems), but it really is amazing design.
While I knew going in about the Nemesis System, what I did not know is that the game is otherwise basically just Assassin’s Creed: Mordor. Part of me gets that this is how a genre develops, like how “DOOM-Clones” eventually became First Person Shooters, and “GTA-Clones” eventually became sandbox games. So, “Assassin’s Creed Clone” might just be the precursor to some sub-variant of the open-world action-adventure game, and iterative fleshing out of mechanics is how these gameplay elements get refined. Fair enough. But still though, it’s hard to just ignore that it rips a lot of design elements from AC. I was surprised how most reviewers either didn’t mention this, or referred to it obliquely like ‘taking design cues from AC’, or activities being ‘reminiscent of Assassin’s Creed’. ‘Reminiscent’ is pretty generous, when ‘is basically identical to’ is more accurate. The way you climb, do drop kills, hide in bushes, the way the map works, wraith/Eagle vision… the entire structural underpinning of the game simply is Assassin’s Creed. That’d be fine if it was making great use of these mechanics, or was putting a new spin on them, but it’s not really. I think the game could’ve worked so much better if it had more room to breathe. It clearly cares about two things: Combat, and the Nemesis System. I wish it had focused just on those two things. Not only are those the best elements of the game, they are the only way to even distinguish it from an Assassin’s Creed game, besides the setting.
Speaking of which… the setting. It’s Lord of the Rings, sort of? Games set in the timespan of the books have been so exhaustively plumbed that they basically have to invent new settings for plots to take place in within Middle Earth. Yes yes, I know that its using some obscure elements from the Silmarillon to justify its existence, but I feel like that isn’t fooling anyone. No one was like “You know, there’s a compelling story to be told about Celebrimbor”, because if they had, they game would just be about him in the 2nd age, not the zany body sharing plot they came up with. I can’t help but think how much more interesting the game would be with an original universe, unshackled from LOTR baggage. Because as a non-canon entity, it can’t do anything interesting with the Middle Earth setting to meaningfully affect the world in any way (since what happens after it is already set), it can’t use any existing characters except as cameos (since what they do is already known), and can’t take place in an existing time frame (since everyone knows what happens then). So… what can it do? The Tolkien elements that it retained are: Orcs, a Dark Lord, Elves, and Gollum cameos. Gollum is the only element there that isn’t already generic fantasy. Basically, if you removed the name ‘Mordor’, removed Gollum, and a few fleeting references to the One Ring, no one would know this is a Lord of the Rings game. So, I can draw no other conclusion then that the use of Middle Earth is purely as a cash grab. “Oh cool, it says Mordor, I guess I’ll buy it then” says the dumb customer who exists only in the mind of a Warner Brothers’ marketing executive.
The story is generic and forgettable, but that’s okay. It’s a fantasy game after all. Most fantasy games have bad plots.
There’s been a lot of hand-wringing in recent years about AAA games and how they’ll be financed in a world where people like $1 or $10 games. Playing Shadow of Mordor makes me think how much better it would’ve been as a smaller title with a slashed budget that focused solely on its core elements. Then it could ditch the map (who cares about an open world if its a barren hellscape?), ditch the stealth (which is done better in almost any other game), and ditch the licensed setting (in favor of something original). Then it could focus just on the combat, which really isn’t bad. And focus on the Nemesis System, which is the coolest part of the game and what every reviewer liked. Instead of an Assassin’s Creed clone bizarrely set in a made-up Middle Earth plot, we could’ve had a cool tactical fighter, set in an interesting world, where instead of fighting nameless foes, our enemies have a dynamic hierarchy and whatnot. I would be so much more interested in that game.
There’s a lot to like in Shadow of Mordor, and it really isn’t a bad game. But it’s hard for me to ignore the executive meddling that’s written so plainly all over it. Monolith’s developers should be commended, I guess, for being able to sneak some genuinely interesting game elements into a game so clearly designed by a committee of business anaysts. “Assassin’s Creed in Lord of the Rings! Guaranteed to sell!” they must have Powerpointed enthusiastically. Hopefully someone realizes that’s not the reason its selling.