Shadow of Mordor: The Padding of the Rings

Everyone who has played Shadow of Mordor has a story about their favorite nemesis. That orc or uruk who just keeps beating you to the ground, or always getting away – returning later with scars and bruisers ready to go for round 2.  For me, there was a duo of bruisers who would inconveniently show up as I was going about my business and expertly pummel me into the ground. Luckily, cause I am playing Talion who has been cursed to never die, I promptly get resurrected at the nearest ancient magic elf tower. However, the orc who kills me gets stronger and more powerful, making it harder to take them down.

Luckily, they usually have weaknesses and to find those out, I just need to mind melt a certain type of orc or another orc captain with my funky elf ghost powers. As I reach out my hand, my ghost buddy takes my shape and my now shimmering blue palm is planted onto the orc, who now looks possessed – which I suppose he is. With a overly dramatic “SEE ME NOW” the elf is able to read the mind of the orc and now I know that my nemesis is vulnerable to fire. After disposing of the mind controlled orc, I set about thinking how to introduce some flame to our next fight.

Turns out this orc captain is having a feast for his crew. I can invade and disrupt the celebrations and, if successful, he will either flee or I get the kill. If he succeeds in holding the feast, or if enough time passes and I do not get around to dealing with it, he will grow in power. There are a few events like these around the map and I am not sure if I will have time to interfere with all of them. There are more powerful orcs that would be an absolute pain if they gained power, so maybe my flammable nemesis will have to wait.

This system, praised in almost every review, is a lot of fun. It gives life to a world in a new way and opens up the game to systemic interactions – such as when dueling with an unknown orc captain and getting my ass kicked, suddenly a caragor rushes onto the scene from the bushes and scares him away. (Caragors are these giant dog/lizard like creatures) Later, when you are able to mind control the orcs, you can try your hand at king maker by manipulating the military hierarchy to put the orcs under your control in the positions you need them to be in. This becomes the main quest in the second part of the game, where having the highest ranking orcs – the warchiefs – under your control becomes the main factor. The best part of mind controlling the orcs, or “branding” them, is seeing groups of orcs walking around the world under your influence, who will join battles on your side and elicit appropriate barks from the enemies.

The world is well created and is alive in a way most other open-world games I have played aren’t. The orcs have small conversations, the captains and warchiefs remember you and you build these emergent love-hate adversarial relationships totally naturally. It is the kind of system that should serve as inspiration to other games, but hasn’t yet.

The combat is fluid, mostly, and pretty brutal. Often the camera will switch into slow motion as you gruesomely decapitate an orc, blood flying everywhere as the orc’s head slowly soars over your head.  The game even has a special camera mode so you can make sure to catch the action and gore for posterity. A little gross, particularly as the game tries to humanize the orcs by giving them personalities and a culture. It elevates them from the mere cannon fodder that NPCs often inhabit in other open world games. They don’t just exist, they are. It is a testament to the craft and love Monolith Studios poured into the game.

You are armed with three weapons – sword, knife, and bow – each allowing for a different approach which you can combine as you see fit. The sword is for jumping in and hacking wildly. The knife is used for stealth and insta-kill takedowns (as long as you remain hidden) and the bow can take out enemies from afar. As you progress and take out captains, you gain runes which are used to enhance your combat abilities, some of which make certain play styles more efficient. In addition, there is a skill tree which you unlock slowly over time that grants Talion and his elf friend special abilities that you can add to your combat kit and allow you to deal with certain situations in a different way, sometimes even introducing new systems into the mix for you to play around with. It is incredibly rewarding even though there were a handful of skills I barely used.

Yet, it still falls short because in pulling the good things from previous open world games, it also pulls the bad.

First off, there are too many collectibles that do not really matter except to increase the completion score. Finding artifacts that gave some background lore to the characters was interesting, but the survival and hunting challenges seem to be added just to have another thing to do. The most disappointing was collecting what is called Ithildin, which are these luminous seals that as you collect, construct what looks like an elven gateway – like from the movie! It looked intriguing but the reward didn’t even come close to match the build-up.

Second, it also adds padded content in the form of a second, gated area. While there is a contrast in look and feel of the two (one is mud, the other is green) the second area doesn’t add anything that couldn’t have been included in the first. Of course, there are a few bigger nasties, and your buddy character is different, but it mainly rehashes the first area in all ways except the main quest, which did not need a complete second area to accommodate. Shadow of Mordor is very entertaining but a whole new area with basically the same things, just a bit harder, really feels like padding. The nemesis system is so interesting and invites experimentation, another area with just more junk to do gets in the way.

Of course, the map is littered with side quests and towers you need to unlock. The enjoyable side missions are those connected with your weapons – your sword, bow, and knife – which increase the amount of runes you can attach to them. Only about half of these missions need to be completed to unlock the special abilities of your weapons, which is good if you do not have the time or the will to slog through them. I found these missions engaging because they set goals under certain limitations. When you reach the second half of the game, Talion becomes quite powerful and the whole game becomes rather easy. Missions such as sneaking through a whole orc stronghold without being spotted and without killing anyone were still challenging despite the power I had built up and were much needed at that stage of the game. However, there are other missions that were particularly bothersome, and these were the outcast missions. Unlike the other side missions, these are not initially shown on the map. Instead, as you roam around you will come across some orcs being exceptionally cruel to some human slaves. Kill the orcs, free the slaves, and you will get a new mission where you need to free even more slaves. These missions were all the same and the rewards were negligible so I couldn’t make myself finish them. Unfortunately, for some reason, there are more outcast missions than any other type of side mission in the game.

All these elements just feel like padding. Distractions from an already interesting and novel game.

The most egregious part of the game was the number of Quick Time Events. I really hope games stop adding these in. Especially when the final battle is just a series of quick time events. You spend most of the game learning how to fight specialized orc captains and chiefs, taming giant monsters, and generally dying over and over until you become powerful enough to wipe entire orc strongholds. The final bad guy, instead of a challenge that requires a culmination of all the skills and combat knowledge you have gained, is downed with a few quick time events. Mash “A” to finish the game.

It was very anti-climactic, even from a cinematic point of view. The story is passable at best, which is a shame because the voice acting is generally very good, so it was a surprise they wanted to hinge the ending of the game on the narrative aspect rather than the combat aspect. They could even have incorporated all the past orcs you had clashed with and bested, presented the history of your nemeses in some way. Instead, press a few buttons and watch the credits roll.

In the end, the game doesn’t really have much to say. Elements of previous genre titles are included and mixed well and the nemesis system certainly is special, but on the whole, the game is rather tone deaf. Women characters are all damselled or fridged for no reason whatsoever. There isn’t any narrative reason for this save for one instance perhaps, not that it would have made it better if there was. The worst case of this is when a quest is to rescue Lithariel, an elf princess and fighter. By all accounts, she is introduced as a competent warrior but the main quest she is part of, the game has you drag her out of an orc stronghold, dropping her like a sack of potatoes to fight off incoming enemies. Why?

Half the game is about effectively enslaving orcs, which themselves are slavers, and while the irony isn’t completely lost on Talion, his elf buddy waves it away in the name of revenge and power. While technically, the game says you control them by fear, the effect is the same. By branding the orcs, you are enslaving them against their will to fight for you, blurring the lines between the heroes and the villains in the story. Not necessarily a bad thing in a story, but the game doesn’t explore it at all in any meaningful capacity.

The end result is a very enjoyable open-world game that lasts too long, is padded with the same meaningless tasks as other games of the genre, and a game that is afraid of taking risks or giving punches in its story. For a major studio release, it is par for the course. It is fun to play and slay orcs, but besides the nemesis system, the game isn’t memorable.

 

 

 

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