I love sleeper hits. I remember when the original Matrix film came out and, for some reason, I knew almost nothing about it, which was the perfect way to enjoy that film - a leftfield surprise that was so innovative and different that it became an instant cult classic (arguably a blockbuster franchise but the sequels... well, you know...). For whatever reason this doesn't happen to me as much with videogames, as usually I'll already be anticipating which games I will/won't be playing while news about them leaks out and reviews roll in. However, Shadow of Mordor was a game completely under my radar, and I'd written it off as "another crappy Lord of the Rings game". This was a crying shame because I *love* Tolkien's books (they're some of my all-time favourites) and Peter Jackson's films, but I'd been burned one too many times with lacklustre uses of what should be an exquisite license. Recently I attended the EGX Expo at Earl's Court London and walked right past Shadow of Mordor, only giving it a cursory glance; didn't queue for a play test and didn't give it a second thought.
While I was in the queue to play Bloodborne (frickin' awesome by the way) a fellow gamer was chatting to me about the best games at the event and he was *gushing* about Shadow of Mordor, which piqued my interest somewhat as he seemed to be a decent judge of games. Then articles started flooding the internet about the 'nemesis' system and how innovative and "next-gen" it was... and suddenly I found myself doing the unthinkable and pre-ordering a Lord of the Rings videogame!! Except it isn't Lord of the Rings, in fact the reason this game is so special is because of the liberties it takes with the source material, the way it doesn't slavishly rip-off familiar scenarios and movie-established characters, which is what every licenced game based on Tolkien's universe has done in the past. In fact, possibly, Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor might be the best damn videogame released so far this year!!
My initial nonchalance towards this game may have been related to the theme and setting, but a cursory look or play of the game doesn't really do it any favours either, specifically in the originality department. You see, Shadow of Mordor borrows many game design elements from the Assassin's Creed and Batman: Arkham series of videogames, and while I am a *huge* fan of the latter, the former series left me a bit cold - as did it's modern day counterpart Watchdogs (which was good but not great). However, in my opinion this game is a perfection of the systems it lifts, rather than a straight-up plagiarism, and in many ways it improves upon the design of both those videogame series. For instance, the open-world structure and exploring (Assassin's Creed inspired) is very streamlined and easy to get about; to the extent that once I'd decided to hop back into the story missions after abandoing them right at the game's opening, I then had to go through several tutorials covering gameplay aspects I'd already figured out, largely due to the well-designed and intuitive nature of the game. Combat, the blueprint of which is lifted from the Arkham games, is also much deeper and rewarding that it's progenitor. There are a lot of combos and counters to learn, as well as different special moves and finishers to unlock, and by the time you reach the latter half of the game the options available to dispatch or overwhelm your foes is frankly quite staggering.
On the subject of foes, this is really where Shadow of Mordor breaks away from established molds and carves a bloody name for itself, introducing the absolutely genius and innovative new gameplay element; the 'nemesis' system. Your constant antagonists throughout the open world are Mordor's black Orcs, or 'Uruks' in Tolkien-speak, who roam around in small warbands, torture captured human slaves, and get into tussles with each other or the land's indiginous (and carniverous) wildlife. They have fantastic dialogue that ranges from the humourous to the outright revolting, written expertly by Dan Abnett of Black Libray fame, and recorded in rough cockney accents just like the movies. But they're not just carbon-copied cut-and-paste jobs walking about, they all have their own personalities and occasionally you'll run into a truly unique Captain. These individual Orcs are generated procedurally by the game and so each one looks different, sounds different, has their own fears and hatreds, and each will remember you every single time you run across them. By default the game makes a load of these buggers to serve as the current status-quo of Orc command, but if you find yourself killed by any Orc wandering the open world, expect to find that nemesis of your promoted to the rank of Captain and given various bonuses as well as a new grim-sounding moniker.
Pictured above is Musglob Beast Hunter, an old friend of mine who jumped me from a bush as I was trying to complete a survival mission; collecting herbs and medicinal mushrooms across Mordor. After exchanging some harsh words, and even harsher blows, I eventually clove him from face to groin and left him for dead in the process. Unfortunately, that wasn't the end of Musglob, as several missions later when I was in the middle of challenging a much more powerful Warchief he returned with a huge open wound running down his face and chest. We exchanged blows again, and this time I burned him alive. Musglob must have some fantastic Orc paramedics because the bastard returned again this time with a burnt as well as hiddeously scarred face... so I grabbed him, stabbed him repeatedly in the throat and face and was sure he'd meet his maker. The last time I met my dear old friend was randomly on the road travelling from one stronghold to another, he was at this point disgraced and no longer even a higher tier Captain from what I could see, to add insult to injury his head was now held together with string and he had to wear a brown bag on his head. Decapitated and rotting in the earth, I still think of Musglob occasionally, and really miss our little scuffles.
This example of Shadow of Mordor's 'nemesis' system is one of many (I could tell you more about Zimug the Sheild and his crazed wraith-fire burnt eyes) circulating on the internet at the moment, and is the primary reason that the game is becoming such a cult-classic and sleeper hit. There have been loads of articles recently about "emergent gameplay" and the move away from scripted events, or narrowly defined storytelling, and more towards these player-enabled myths. That's not to say that the story is a slouch though, and as a Tolkienite and fan of The Silmarillion I enjoyed very much the glimpses into events taking place outside established canon; we even get some insight into events of the Second Age of Middle Earth, which is as rare as unicorn poop! Some liberties are taken and if you're a neck-beard purist who is easily galvanised into nerd-rage then perhaps you won't appreciate it as much as I did. I can accept that. The characters are all well voiced by some top-notch talent including the fantastic Troy Baker and Nolan North, although as usual the main protagonist Talion is a bit of a damp squib, and really just an avatar for the player. The supporting cast steal the show, especially the gruff Dwarf you meant in the game's second half.
Shadow of Mordor is also impressive from a technical standpoint, with the at-a-glance barren landscape of Udun packing in a surprising amount of incidental detail and embelishment; the second area of Nurn is a verdant lush environment, which really pops and looks absolutely gorgeous after the harsher land preceding it. Character models are very detailed and the animation transitions are seemless and suberbly motion-captured, which makes wading into combat and performing all those finishers so much fun. In terms of the music, an insane level of detail has been applied to the soundtrack, indluding choral chants of the Orc Captains names when they fight you in strongholds; when you factor in that these are procedurally generated, creating hundreds of combinations, the technical work to achieve this must have been extensive. The orchestral score is also highly evocative and rivals some of the best pieces found in the Lord of the Rings feature films. It's all fantastic stuff!!
I played Shadow of Mordor for a total of 22 hours 19 minutes before deciding to move onto the next game in my queue. In that time I finished the main story missions and a sizeable chunk of side quests, all the time upgrading the main character Talion with new abilities and traits, the majority of which come from collecting the "runes" of dispatched Orc Captains and Warchiefs. There are also loads of collectables and currency hidden throughout the open world, which can be used to unlock all sorts of different upgrade slots or just simple tweaks like extra health or arrows in your quiver. This constant levelling and the addictive quality of the 'nemesis' system make Shadow of Mordor an easy videogame to sink hours and hours into, and my only criticism is that it could perhaps use branching dialogue or different choices affecting the overarching narrative to provide some more replay value. This is a single-player experience, but it does have some online components such as 'revenge' missions flagging up on your map, allowing you to dispatch named Orcs who have felled another player in their game. There is also some DLC to download and bolt into your game including some challenge missions outside the main game mode, alternate character skins for Talion and some warband quests for the main game if you have the PS4 version.
|9/10||So, after initially ignoring this surpise sleeper-hit of a 'AAA' game, I've now pre-ordered, played and enjoyed Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor more than probably any other game thus far this year. It will certainly take something special released between now and the end of 2014 to dethrone this one. I highly recommend it, especially if you have one of the new consoles and are looking some something that has genuine "next-gen" gameplay ideas. I expect the 'nemesis' system to be copied for many years to come!|