Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor
Monolith is one of my favorite developers. Some studios seem to get bogged down in making the same game for decades, turning what was once an exciting new thing into a McDonald's type experience. Maybe Monolith has been spared that fate by never having the same level of success other studios have. But with a track record of Blood, Shogo, F.E.A.R, AvP 2, Tron 2.0 and No One Lives Forever, I had high expectations going into this. Unfortunately, Shadow of Mordor isn’t nearly as good as any of the games they’ve made before. There’s a lot of wasted potential here.
When the game is at its best, it’s delightful. The game has the “Nemesis System”, which means the world is populated with loads of boss characters that seem to pop up when you least expect it. If you die, the world state is shuffled around as captains fight each other, and enemies who killed you gain prestige in the world and gain higher stature. Because of how these characters are written and acted, it’s wonderful to attack what you thought was a normal enemy, and then be brought into a quick little cutscene introducing the captain. It adds loads of character to the world and a feeling of unpredictable chaos. More of this in open world games, please.
Apart from the Nemesis System though, the game is bloated and unfocused. All the other mechanics are taken straight out of Assassin’s Creed, the Batman Arkham series, and Splinter Cell. The way they’re combined doesn’t feel tight and slick. Instead, it’s more like a monstrosity that’s taped together with sharp edges sticking out. For example, the Assassin’s Creed climbing system is often inadequate to deal with the stealth challenges the game requires of you. That climbing system was designed to make it easy to run across entire cities. This is a more intimate game, with precision requirements. So I had problems dropping down where I wanted, or I accidentally jumped off a ledge right into a swarm of enemies, instantly failing the mission I was doing which required stealth.
What bothered me the most though was the crappy story. There are no character arcs, no themes, nothing the game “is about”. It’s just “go there, do this, do that”, without the story expressing anything interesting about the things in here, like revenge, slavery, violent uprisings, leadership, and so on. The characters are just boring templates to work as quest givers. No attempt was made to create believable scenes with characters expressing anything beyond exposition and objectives. Even the very worst Middle Earth fan fiction must be better than this. It doesn’t even try to expand the lore in any way, as you don’t get to see the lifecycle of the Uruks, like how they’re born, how they’re raised, or anything like that which I feel should be a part of this. Instead, you get characters quoting lines from the movies, and hamfisted cameos from Gollum and Saruman. It’s clear the developers didn’t care about anything here apart from the Uruks themselves, and recreating their favorite “badass” moments from the films. Compared to other Monolith movie license games, it’s a poor showing, as Tron 2.0 for example was a better sequel to Tron than Tron Legacy ended up being. They’ve done better than this in the past, several times!
Despite all my complaints, Shadow of Mordor is still an alright game. As a stealth action game, it’s a nice time. You have plenty of options in how to isolate and attack targets, as you can release animals in camps, or use mind control powers to make people fight each other. I wish it’d been better, that there would have been more to it. But thanks to those moments where captains showed up where I least expected it, the game redeemed itself. When it happened, the game felt like it was doing something exciting, in a way that’s strangely rare in modern high budget games. It was allowing things to get out of control, to be unpredictable, to not be obsessively controlled by the developers own scripting. And that’s something I’d like to see more of in high budget games.