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.