12 October, 2014

Review - Enslaving the Slavers in Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

As shadow descends across Mordor and its inhabitant are pressed into servitude, to labour for the Dark Lord until all life flees their body, will you fight to pierce the pall of darkness? Or will you become the very evil you sought to destroy? Just a warning; I discuss some characters and events that occur in the main story, however, I do not believe I mention anything that wasn’t already shown in trailers and honestly, there isn’t any real plot twists or reveals to be spoiled.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

After watching your wife and son be bled dry before your eyes, for the dark whims of the Black Hand of Sauron, you awaken once more. You’re Talion, a captain without a company, a ranger without a bow, and your body isn’t entirely your own, you share it with the spirit Celebrimbor, the master artisan that crafted the Rings of Power at the behest of Sauron. Caught in a perpetual cycle of life and death, your quite singular task is to strike out against the malice that is swiftly corrupting Mordor, and of course avenge the injustice wrought upon both Celebrimbor and yourself.

The premise of Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is sound, though not entirely original; it is suitably dark and graphic, certainly not the PG (Parental Guidance) adventure across the Shire. Where the story goes from there is middling at best, and is definitely not the reason you should play. Shadow of Mordor is a spectacularly fluid and detailed open world game, which sheds many of the tropes and conventions found in the genre, in favour of a unique, sophisticated AI hierarchy, the Nemesis System. In essence, the Nemesis system keeps track of the orc hierarchy; each orc (okay Uruk) has their own personality, expressed through their appearance, title, the traits they possess and their motivation. All captains are trying to work their way to the top, to become warchiefs and all warchiefs are trying to stay at the top by recruiting subordinates captains as bodyguards. Captains can be encountered in the open world, or during Uruk-specific side missions. There are enough captains that you rarely go too long without facing one in the open world, and if the battle grows long you’ll probably attract the attention of a lot more.

From such humble beginnings Dûgza proved a worth foe.
Each Uruk captain will have their own side missions, these short skirmishes include; beast hunts, recruitment, executions, and ambushes. Ambushes and executions will often involve two rival captains; the attacker and one on the receiving end, you don’t necessarily have to undertake these missions or part take in actual battle even if you do. Captains will gain power, or die, based on the outcome of these events and you’ll want to ensure certain captains survive and perhaps prevent the strongest from gaining more power, especially if they keep killing you.

Your ultimate goal is to brand (more on that later) the Uruk warchiefs, or brand a captain and support his rise to the top, through; murder, initiation missions, and the inevitable betrayal of their respective warchief. Branding is the act of dominating the mind of an Uruk (and his followers), using Celebrimbor’s wraith powers, but this isn’t an ability you begin your journey with. The Nemesis system and the mechanics that feed into it are unique and perhaps even ground-breaking, a potential catalyst for a change in the way that open world games are designed from this point on. Smaller side missions and short challenges exist in the world but you can get by fine without undertaking any, the collectibles on the other hand can be well worth pursuing if you have any interest in the lore. The Ithildin, glowing markings, are added to a wall to reveal a memory sequence once all are acquired, but artefacts are far more immediately rewarding; these items of interest have associated lore and narrated memories of the events that surround them.

The main story missions will take you through the ropes of guiding an Uruk to the top spot and eventually sets you down the path of raising an army of subjugated Uruks. You meet some characters along the way that had the potential to be interesting, but most – like Talion himself – are flat, one-note specimens with focus-tested-to-hell faces to boot. The poor showing of these middling ciphers is vastly overshadowed by the grating cameos and tropes that punctuate the cutscenes. Characters and events of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy make some pretty unnecessary and unwelcome appearances; Gollum appears for a couple of pretty pointless missions, and a monarch happens to be under the influence of the White Wizard Saruman. Gollum at least plays a supporting role for a portion of the main missions, guiding Talion to the lost relics and belongings of Celebrimbor, conversely, Saruman is only mentioned once, making the whole scene seem even more throwaway. The reward for the Gollum missions is almost enough; a series of flashbacks to Celebrimbor’s life, as he forged the Rings of Power - as an albeit lapsed Tolkien fan, I find any scene featuring the bleach blonde locks of the elves to be enthralling. But this could have been presented far more elegantly – all the cameos did in the end was remind me that the outcome of the game would ultimately have no impact, because chronologically the movies had yet to happen.

Shadow of Mordor’s gameplay is a fluid as the hierarchy of the Dark Lord’s hordes. Movement is fundamentally similar to the Assassins Creed series, except here it’s a lot more loose and forgiving; Talion will hurl himself up the even the most insurmountable ramparts, and can leap headlong from the tallest battlements – the best part is there is no fall damage. The world, consisting of two sizable maps, is laid out intelligently; it’s not huge, but nor does it feel small. The environments and locales within them are unique and well detailed, and there is a lot of verticality too – it’s usually a good idea to gain the advantage of height wherever possible, whether to rain down arrows, leap into assassinations, or simply to admire the vistas. Enemies are spaced across the map well; you can engage one captain in the wilderness , but take too long and other roving Uruks will soon come running to the sound of battle. Naturally, strongholds are a different matter entirely; expect to be surrounded the moment you reveal yourself. As captain after captain shout taunts and threats before joining the melee, I never once felt cheated, because seeing even your best laid battle-plans crumble is exhilarating.

The combat is distinctly more Batman, (the Arkham series) than Assassins Creed, you’ll spend most of a battle countering, dodging and leaping over the shoulders of your attackers, building up your streak to enact brutal two-button finishers. Of course combat can be mitigated, and occasionally avoided entirely, by stealth and manipulation of the environment – why fight a squad of Uruks when you can scatter them by dropping a hive of Morgai flies in their vicinity? In the first half of the game – if not more – combat proves quite challenging, yes there is nothing stopping you from countering everything for all eternity, but you lack the offensive bite to turn the tables on the ever-growing horde. I died a lot early on, but death has tangible meaning here and it’s not necessarily punishment – seeing the Uruk responsible for your death being promoted and rewarded helps build your rivalry with them. Such rivalries are the strength of the Nemesis system, heightened by the cinematic nature in which the Uruks are introduced into battle; you clash blades and the camera will swing in close as your opponent spits insults into your face. These insults, their excuses for fleeing and their other remarks, often reflect their personality and appearance, and will remain consistent when you next encounter them. Furthermore, wounds and scars from previous battles you will mar the Uruk’s appearance, all these little touches add to the feeling that your opponents actually have an identity and personality.

In the main story missions death is handled more conventionally, you can restart checkpoints when you die, though none of the missions are long enough, or hard enough to cause any real trouble. Thankfully, there are no eavesdropping or tailing missions either. Towards the end of the main narrative you acquire the ability to brand and conscript Uruks, through this wraith power the horde can be controlled. This has serious ramifications to the flow of combat, branding can mean the difference between victory and retreat, or worse. Stealth branding is quickly unlocked, proving particularly effective when used on the archers that so often surround the body of the hordes. Or of course, wade into the fray with the mid-combat branding unlocked and you can recruit followers as quickly as you might initiate executions.

Both movement and combat benefit hugely from the great animation; the attacks, counters and knockbacks all flow together naturally. When you’re playing your best, it feels your actually watching combat, a dance of slashes and clashes rather than a series individual moves, culminating of course, with beheadings, beatings and all manner of other gory finishers. The visuals themselves are also quite impressive, particularly the leathery skin of the Uruks, as well as the shear variety and diversity of the models and their garments. Shadow of Mordor doesn’t render the denizens of Mordor flawlessly however, when branding enemies the frame rate stutters, when surrounded by a dozen – perhaps less – branded Uruks in combat, the frame rate dies a shuddering death. Due to the main story,
such situations are unavoidable, but I didn’t encounter any frame rate trouble outside of the branding scenarios. The art itself is naturally, reminiscent of that of the Lord of the Rings movies, and captures the look of Mordor well, for example; Udûn, the first area looks much like the Mordor of the movies, a grey husk scattered with ruins and infested with all manner of dark inhabitants. Whereas the second of the two maps, Núrn, overlooks the Sea of Núrnen and is far more fertile than Udûn, though naturally, such beauty does little to deter the orcs and the landscape is being rapidly spoilt by looming constructs and slave camps.

Licensed games are all-too-often of a middling to poor quality, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is certainly not that. Though I feel it still clings to closely to the movies that preceded it, and that the vast majority of the story missions can at best, be described as tolerable, Shadow of Mordor is still one of the best open world games released to date. The complex and powerful Nemesis system is of course its crowning achievement, but the tight combat and largely sharp presentation must be considered also. Hunting and being hunted through the warrens and pits of Mordor was an endless joy and the slivers of hard Tolkien lore scattered amongst its ruins were a treat worth savouring.