Late to the Party | Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor
Games set in Middle-Earth have been hit or miss. The licensed games that have been squarely focused on recreating moments from the seminal films were entertaining in their own right, but limited in their ability to expand on anything beyond copying and pasting assets from Weta Digital with some added interactivity so that it could be packaged as a game. That is not to say they weren’t fun pieces of marketing spawn but in a world that J.R.R Tolkien had labored over for decades to make it culturally diverse there were so many other stories that could have been told other than that of the Fellowship or Bilbo Baggins’ merry band of dragon slayers.
Lord of the Rings Online tried it’s utmost to give us the freedom to live out the fantasy we wanted to as any of Middle-Earth’s many races but it slipped into the Free to Play Abyss while scaling Mount MMO in an attempt to supplant Blizzard’s Behemoth. After that misstep the license went back into its game development comfort zone, but didn’t give up trying to make its own mark. The War in the North, released in Fall of 2013 preserved the hack and slash foundation of the movie tie-in games while adding more RPG elements than they had and even had the gumption to set the game in a part of the world that we hadn’t visited before. That’s where the innovation ended as it was otherwise yet another high fantasy hack and slash where you could switch between a human, an elf and a dwarf whenever you liked and plow through all of the nasties that Mordor coud send your way. It received a tepid reception at launch and resulted in the games going into hibernation, with only Guardians of Middle-Earth , a MOBA that did a fair job at not simply being a blatant rip off of DOTA, which was also coincidentally developed by the same team as the game we are playing today. Fans of the books and films were left in the lurch for a game that would allow them to live in Tolkien’s world without having to follow in Aragorn, Frodo or Bilbos’ footsteps or one that was only Middle-Earth window dressing on a safe genre choice.
In October of last year, just before the release of the Playstation 4 and Xbox One Monolith and Warner Brothers announced Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor. They promised that the Nemesis system, which would allow us to build relationships with completely unique sets of randomized would redefine how we would experience Middle-Earth as the Ranger Wraith Talion. Having heard similar proclamations before expectations were muted until the hype could be proven in the finished game. Now, almost a year after that initial announcement we can finally discover if this is the game to rule them all.
The story, which sits between the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, is a human one that is laced with just enough Lord of the Rings arcana to appease even the most die hard fan that has not only read every book (perhaps multiple times), seen every movie and played every game, but has pored through the lengthy appendices as well. Talion, the game’s protagonist, is a Ranger of Gondor (the pre-eminent human civilization of Middle-Earth) and is tasked with guarding the Black Gate, the only thing separating Mordor, the home of Sauron and all that is evil in Middle-Earth.
Besides his Ranger brethren, Talion is accompanied by his wife and teenage son, who he wants to take away from the Black Gate as soon as he is able. Those plans will never come to fruition as soon after we are introduced to both his wife and son the gate is attacked by a horde of Mordor’s finest and Talion as Talion watches his son and wife get butchered before his eyes before the blade is turned on him by one of the three sons of Sauron and his neck is opened up from ear to ear. But that was not the end for Talion, as he soon learns he was not permitted to die but instead has become symbiotically attached to the wrathful spirit of an Elf, Celebrimbor, and who will help Talion avenge his family’s death as long as Talion wreaks havoc on the Sauron family, two objectives which are one and the same.
From that point on the story meanders between various quest givers who are intent on aiding you on your quest of vengeance, Spartacus like rebel leaders, Queens of a long lost kingdom, a certain jewelry obsessed anorexic, and a beast hunting Dwarf dole out missions that allow you to deepen your understanding of both Talion the man and Talion the wraith in a way that increases our emotional connection to him, but not to his motivation for doing what he has to do besides it weakening the forces of evil. The story would be more successful in doing what it aims to do if it allowed you to spend some time with your wife and son for a few hours in the beginning of the game and then kill them off. The story relies too heavily on the universalized notion that the death of a family member by unnatural means is something that needs to be avenged. The lead designer of Mordor was also the lead designer on Red Dead Redemption, which had a similar problem with grounding the main character’s motivations in an understandable way, that is until the magnificent ending and surprising Epilogue wiped that bland taste out of your mouth.
But the niggles I had with the story following the same fetch quest tropes as other open world games is completely mitigated by the emergent narrative that the Nemesis system allows you to create as you fight your way up the food chain in Sauron’s army. In order to take out the nefarious villains that killed your family you first have to dismantle the army’s chain of command one level at a time, starting with base level grunts, moving on to Captains and finally taking out the generals, or War Chiefs who sit just beneath the spawn of he who is constantly named (Sauron). In most games you would go after each enemy as they were presented to you and keep on moving until the day was won. But every single Uruk, each of which have their own strengths and weaknesses, remembers the battle that they might have lost or won (unless you decapitate them on your first meeting) and will recall the details of your last tussle with a frightening level of detail. The results of those battles not only dictate your progress in the main storyline, but also results in a level of personal satisfaction after winning a battle you have lost multiple times before in a way no other game, not even Dark Souls, was able to accomplish. I will remember Barfa the Humilator long after the last of Sauron’s sons has tasted my blade. But writing great amounts of dialogue for the Uruks is not enough to make or break the experience or ripping apart the Uruk hordes. That is left to the quality of the experience of actually playing the game.
Let’s get this out of the way, Talion could be the universe displaced love child of Ezio Auditore and Bruce Wayne. But like all parents hope, their spawn follows in their footsteps but just does everything a little better. He can clamber up buildings without jumping off into empty space just for the hell of it and can deal with more enemies simultaneously and integrate secondary tools in a much more reliable way than the Dark Knight ever could even though the controls are lifted directly from Rocksteady’s game.
Similarities to other third person action games aside the melee focused combat is perfect. It’s approachable and has an extensive progression character as well as weapon based progression system that never fails to make you feel like you are a few short disembowelments away from a new skill or Epic rune.
Another issue that many open world games run into is creating a world that doesn’t make you want to sprint from mission giver to mission giver as fast as humanly possible. The nemesis system is what saves the day, not only in giving you an endless variety of enemies to make your prime directive in putting into the ashen soil, but in disrupting the social machinations of the Uruks to prevent any upstarts from gaining power by assassinating one of their superiors or stopping the ascent of another by interrupting the execution of a lesser Uruk. And those two examples are only the tip of the iceberg, and the reason that a secondary Trials of War mode that allows you to kill Captains and War Chiefs without worrying about an overarching narrative for as long as you want.
While the Nemesis system won’t be in the version of the game that will released on the Playstation 3 and the Xbox 360 in November because of hardware limitations. Monolith can strip out such a central part of the game’s appeal because they crafted a through running story that doesn’t require it. But they could only go so far in changing the fundamental elements that comprise the game before they would have had to recruit a second development team.
The game’s technical and artistic presentation can’t completely hide the fact that the developers had to concede some aliasing and lighting complexity to squeeze the experience onto the last generation. Which makes it even more amazing that Shadow of Mordor is the most richly detailed and, even in the brownest areas of Mordor (it isn’t all brown, just to put that out there) vibrant depiction of Middle-Earth ever seen in a video game.
It has been more than 60 years since the publication of the Lord of the Rings and 10 since they were recreated on the silver screen. Finally, even though it departs from some of the more family friendly elements of the source material, and I enjoyed playing with the Nemesis system more than I did the main story I can safely declare that this is the piece of interactive fiction that can stand alongside them both as equals.