Saturday, October 4, 2014

Sauron's Mini-Bosses: Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor (review)

The news ticker for Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor reads 'Assassin's Creed meets Tolkien' and while I wouldn't suggest that this analogy is necessarily a bad thing, I feel that it does sell the game short. Assasin's Creed may be lean on innovation, but each successive entry proves that the base formula of parkour, stealthy kills, and well-timed parries is still a blast. Shadow of Mordor admirably builds on this through a robust nemesis system that has a few flaws but is ultimately a ton of fun.

The Short
+engaging nemesis system
+highly polished
+outstanding animations

-throwaway story
-familiar gameplay


The Long
The similarities between Shadow of Mordor and Assassin's Creed are numerous. Each takes place in an open world with collectibles and quests strewn about, combat pits a lone hero against a horde of baddies, and both heavily feature parkour. The AC formula is well-worn at this point and if you absolutely detest it than chances are Shadow of Mordor will leave you disappointed. The story holding the open world together is replete with loose ends, one-dimensional characters, and an abrupt ending that keeps the door open for the inevitable DLC packs. That said, fans of the Lord of the Rings mythos may find more to enjoy here as the background on the forging of the one ring is elaborated and the mortal-wraith hybrid of Talion/Calembrimbor is an intriguing concept even if its full potential goes unrealized. Fortunately, the story missions can be worked through quickly and can be considered a glorified tutorial for the centrepiece nemesis system.

As the player slices their way through the faceless horde, occasionally one of the nameless will step out and challenge the player. At first, the system is nothing more than a tool to signal out particular orcs as stronger than others. As the story progresses, a ranking system emerges consisting of captains and warlords who can be pitted against each other and turned to do the players whim. Each named orc is granted a set of procedurally generated strengths and weaknesses and levels up depending on the state of the game world. These unique enemies, while predictable, are not static and will engage in their own side-quests and rivalries while the player goes about their own mission and over time can become quite formidable. Encountering a captain in the wild will lead to a short vignette where they will quip about your recent deeds and highlight the epic combat about to unfold. Captains are neat but are just the appetizer of the nemesis system. At any time, the player can invade one of the numerous orc strongholds and wreck havoc in an attempt to lure out a warlord. While significantly stronger than a regular captain, defeating a warlord can open the way for a dominated orc in the player's pocket to fill the power vacuum and grant control over a portion of Sauron's army. The system is nuanced and the sense of satisfaction that comes with deftly manipulating the lower ranks to ultimately enact a coup never gets old.

As one might expect with such a complex structure, the nemesis system isn't without its flaws. The sheer number of hostile captains can be a frustration early in the game where accidentally wading into them can spell disaster for a quest. It's not uncommon to end up squaring off against two or more captains at once which usually means meeting a grisly death. Further, some combinations of strengths and weaknesses can be particularly difficult to overcome and require reliance on cheesy tactics. I was especially irked by how many unique orcs I encountered that were utterly immune to ranged damage. This wouldn't normally be such a problem but arrows are one of the few ways to slow a fleeing enemy down and it's frustrating to see your quarry get away after carving a path to them. Finally, the logic that an orc levels up if he manages to kill the player is sound, but could potentially lead to a virtually unassailable enemy after repeated failures. None of these issues are game-breaking however. Running from a fight is a reasonable course of action when faced by overwhelming numbers, every orc will always have at least one way to kill them, and even the strongest baddies can be overcome with a bit of skill and proper planning. On whole, the flaws are more minor nuisances than anything and don't significantly detract from an overall fantastic system.

Aside from the nemesis system, much of what's on offer as been seen and done before. Combat is an ebb and flow of stealth and melee. Picking off archers leads to vicious dagger strikes from the shadows and eventually to full blown open dueling. Get in over your head and retreating to cover for a period will send patrols back to their routes and the whole process can start again. It's fluid and engaging but doesn't break the mould. Progression takes the form of unlocking rudimentary improvements like extra health and arrows - calling it RPG-lite would be generous. Captains and warlords can drop equipable runes that instill combat bonuses but, again, none of these really shake things up beyond providing extra resource regeneration or bonus damage. Finally, as alluded to earlier, the endgame is predominantly a treasure hunt for various goodies across the map with little incentive to find them other than to scratch the completionist itch. While this might come off as overly negative, bear in mind that it's all extremely well polished. The world is deftly crafted providing plenty of avenues of approach and a lots of eye candy along the way. If treasure hunting is your thing, you would be hard pressed to find a better way to do it.

Graphically, the PC version has a sizable optional texture pack that requires a top of the line video card to use with any reliability. The jump between high and ultra quality is noticeable when objects are viewed up close but the hit in performance isn't worth it for those who aren't running a beast of a machine. In general, the textures look great but are overshadowed by the superb animations. Whether bouncing between multiple enemies or jumping across ledges, it all feels natural and avoids the usual feeling of canned sequences playing into each other. Special note needs to be made for the brutal kill moves that simply need to be seen in motion to appreciate fully. Sound design meets a high standard with sword swishing and arrow loosing meshing well with the orc battle cries. Music is sparse and generally sticks to the background. While I understand licensing issues, I couldn't help but feel that implementing some of the score from the Peter Jackson films could have kicked the action up another notch. All told, the game exhibits the sheen expected from a big budget AAA title with no major bugs and few hiccups. 

It's been said that the mark of a great licensed product is that it would work without the license. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor doesn't need the Lord of the Rings to sell the engrossing nemesis system and the majority of the core mechanics have already proved successful in other franchises. Indeed, it stands on its own as a quality title that smartly builds on the gameplay pioneered by Assasin's Creed and the Arkham series. The few flaws it does exhibit are easily forgiven in light of the high level of polish and immense fun-factor.