Fun and games in Shadow of Mordor. Image: Monolith Productions
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Shadow of Mordor is Middle Earth's ode to slasher movies

You’ll never go too far wrong with a commercial product that makes the players feel like supermen, but this is a miscalculation on the part of the developers.

The most impressive thing about Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is just how much like a great game it manages to look. Great games, like great works of art, are originals - they capture something that speaks of their time and place in the world, yet resonate forever. They carry the brush strokes of the master, or, in the case of great video games, the deftness of design that advances the whole medium without causing existing hardware to explode.

As such Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is not a great game. It looks like a great game, it plays like a great game, but, no. This is not a game for the ages. In the same way that a talented painter might mimic the style of an old master the developers of Shadow of Mordor have borrowed heavily from the Arkham series of Batman games to create a game that answers the question “what if the people who made Arkham City made a game in Middle Earth about a ninja?” The final product is a highly polished exploration of the generic. A fake based on the Rocksteady classic.

Shadow of Mordor has you playing Talion, a ranger on a quest to avenge the killing of his wife, son and - in an interesting twist - himself, by a mysterious character called the Black Hand. Upon death Talion becomes joined with the restless spirit of a long-dead elf whose past is revealed over the course of the game. This unlikely partnership means that Talion becomes effectively an unstoppable revenge machine. Orcs (also known as "uruks" in the game) can kill you, and doing so earns them a promotion and bragging rights over you, but you always come back. Unlike most games where death is a failure state and you go back and try again, in Shadow of Mordor death is an inconvenience and acknowledged as such in the game's reality.

Talion shares many qualities with monsters from slasher movies, except instead of teens at a summer camp his prey are orcs, and instead of waiting until (yet another) sequel to make his reappearance when he is finally bested, he just pops straight back up. The orcs grow to fear you, and they mutter about you around the camp fire. You haunt them almost as much as you hunt them.

Something that Shadow of Mordor also has which lends itself to slasher movie comparisons is lashings of violence. A lot has been written about this - however, what it is important to bear in mind is that this is a stealth game. A good stealth game is essentially a murder simulator, and I say this with the utmost affection for the genre. You’re not fighting, you are killing.

Ever since Tenchu: Stealth Assassins on the Playstation set its stall out with vivid blood sprays and decapitations, the genre has been noted for providing gruesome and graphic kills. It goes with the territory that when you spend a long time stalking and lining up your prey the payoff - the reward for the successful hunt - has to be worth it. From Tenchu’s stylised ninja carnage to Manhunt’s infamous brutality by way of Velvet Assassin’s eye-watering head stabs, the Hitman series and its "have object, will provide stealth kill animation for" philosophy and (last but by no means least) the Assassin’s Creed series, and its ability to almost create an entire subgenre out of wandering around an open area slashing throats on a whim. This is a genre that pays its rent with ruthless brutality. And more power to it -  I love that stuff.

So the fact that you’re often called upon to open up an orc like a chainsaw opens a tin of beans is hardly surprising under the circumstances. That you can do so in such a horrific way using the appropriately named "brutalise" button - such that his compatriots run screaming from the scene - is a nice variation on the formula, but it’s a formula nonetheless.

The alternative to stealth is good old-fashioned combat and it is here that the game flatters to deceive most cleverly. The thing is that the combat in Shadow of Mordor is incredibly easy, but it is designed in such a way as to make you look amazingly skilled for being able to do it. This is pure sugar as a game design, with just the bare minimum of skill, creativity or tactics necessary, and the game will keep pumping out sweet, sweet, positive feedback for your actions. Heads fly, necks snap, captains fall, and it is all as simple as can be.

At first this is great, and it’s understandable why the game has reviewed so well - the first few hours you feel like you’re a prodigious talent, as though you’ve found a game you can just tame in a matter of minutes through the sheer force of your skill. But give it long enough and you realise that you’re pushing buttons to order and that you’re not actually very good, it’s just the game loves you and wants you to feel special. The vast majority of the uruks are served up not as threats, but as harmless goons to be styled upon.

You’ll never go too far wrong with a commercial product that makes the players feel like supermen, but this is a miscalculation on the part of the developers. A good stealth game should have combat feel like the last resort, a survival tool when all else fails. In Shadow of Mordor stealth can be a tool for eliminating a tough captain, or it can be inflicted on you arbitrarily as a condition of a mission, but it is seldom genuinely needed. Walking into an enemy stronghold, slaughtering everything in the entire place and walking out the other side is perfectly achievable and not particularly challenging.

One of the better features the game boasts is called the "Nemesis" system. This is a genuinely fun mechanic that works in effect as a procedurally generated whack-an-orc game. Captains rise - complete with names, skills and personalities - and you whack them. Sauron, the big baddie of Middle Earth, has an army with captains and war chiefs, and you can pick these off or play them against each other, or even recruit them to weaken the army. Captains gain power by killing you or completing tasks of their own, and they will remember encounters with you, especially if they win. Sometimes a captain will last long enough to become established, and hunting him down, or avoiding him, becomes more fun than the main storyline.

The system sadly lacks some key elements to excel though. For example there’s no end of new captains no matter how many you kill and they often die incredibly easily, which makes it all feel like a sideshow rather than what it should have been, a strategic tool for plotting the downfall of an army. Also the tendency of dead captains to return undermines it badly. What’s the point of chopping an orc’s head off if he’s grown a new one the next day? Although if it feels bad from the player's point of view, it must feel worse for the long suffering orcs seeing you punch into work every day regardless of your earlier demise(s).

The orcs themselves are the real heart of the game. There is more emotion in those monstrous faces as they contort in fear right before you rip their minds apart for information than there ever seems to be in Talion. They’d be almost sympathetic in a more believable setting, but given how gamey everything feels - from the neatly administered structure of the Nemesis system to the way that death is impermanent - it’s impossible to see them as fleshed out characters in themselves. Under the circumstances this is probably a good thing.

All of this is not to say that Shadow of Mordor is not an enjoyable game, nor is it a badly made game, but it is not a great or especially memorable game. It’s far from a blot on the copy book for Monolith Productions, but they can and should have done better.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

Nicola Snothum / Millenium Images
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The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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