So to sum up what I said in my last post: A new Arkham game that is doused with enough courage to revamp some of the more dated mechanics it wouldn’t be a bad thing. But despite that, it’s still a series that risks falling into “franchise fatigue.” Now more than ever, there’s only so much Batman consumers can handle. The wisest decision WB can make is to announce a sequel to Shadow of Mordor.
Now to be clear, the mechanics of Shadow of Mordor are very similar to that of the Arkham games. One button is to attack, another is to counter, build up enough of a combo and you can finish an enemy off. Pepper in some basic parkour and stealth mechanics a la Assassin’s Creed and it seems pretty clear why Monolith Studios were on the verge of legal trouble. So what saved the game from being a complete copy of its predecessors?
Two things: The setting, and the Nemesis System(Warning: Spoilers will follow for the ending so just keep that in mind). Lord of the Rings games have had a hit or miss history with some entries regarded as well-done and others that couldn’t quite meet that criteria. Shadow of Mordor wisely finds a place in Tolkien’s timeline between the Hobbit and the main trilogy that allows much more narrative freedom and a wide open Mordor ripe for exploration. You play as Talion, a Ranger who, before dying himself, watches his wife and son die by the hands of Sauron’s three lieutenants. But before he can enter the afterlife, his spirit is bound with that of a mysterious Elven wraith, cursing him to constantly return to life after death, but granting him a host of supernatural powers ranging from invisibility to possession of Orcs. A-list characters like Sauron and Gollum play a large role in the story, and the former ends up being a disappointing final boss fight (but more on that later). This is where the Nemesis system comes into play.
If you’re interested in the short version, here’s a quick rundown of how the Nemesis System works from the developers themselves:
Everything I mentioned above has been in some other triple-A videogame, somewhere. The key component that ties all of those loose ideas together is the Nemesis system. Since Talion can’t “die” per se, how can Monolith punish the player for his lack of skill? By forcing the player to adapt to a stronger army. The Orcs (or Uruks in this case) you contend with aren’t just stray bands of enemies that wander through the barren wasteland. There’s a chain of command including captains and powerful generals. Whether or not you choose to get involved, there’s always political intrigue within the Uruk army. Captains will rival each other for power or prove themselves in a trial by combat with Caragors. An esteemed General will engage in a duel with an ambitious officer below him who thinks he has what it takes to lead the Uruk army. On it’s own this is already a great system, because it means that who you fight and how powerful they are will always be changing. If you end up dying, then the soldier who struck the killing blow will begin leading his own set of troops across the barren landscape. So if you kill a ranking officer, there will be a power vacuum, and ambitious Uruks eager to attain that position.
Again, on its own this is a great system and its enough to distinguish itself from anything similar such as Assassin’s Creed or the Arkham games. But rather than just slap a different name on each officer and call it a day, Monolith created a program that generates Uruks with different physical attributes, personalities, and fears to exploit. For instance, an Uruk officer might be weak to stealth kills, but in combat will become so enraged that the only way to kill him is to exploit his fear of giant beasts such as Caragors by riding on top of one to chase after him and deliver the killing blow. THere are some Orcs that will pathologically speak in rhymes, and others whose only motive ifor living is torturing a human. They’ll remember if they killed you and have the scars from your last battle to show it. But the best moments in the game come when the Uruks try their hand at returning from the grave. There are officers that you may think are dead, but later on will come back to haunt you for another showdown (my favorite archenemy was an Uruk I had stabbed in the face and supposedly killed so many times that by our final encounter, his face was shrouded in linen). Be aware, we’re still not done.
Arguably the best mechanic,and the sign of any great game, is that when you throw a wrench in the works, the game adapts to your actions. One of the features in the game I mentioned early on was the ability to possess Uruks and get them to attack their comrades, but that can play a role in the politics as well. Rather than possessing an average soldier, perhaps you possess an officer to be your personal mole inside Sauron’s army. You can command him to complete rites of passage such as feasts, surviving ambushes, and killing a fellow officer in a duel, all with the end goal of making him one of the five generals. However, you could also possess the general’s bodyguards, and command them to slay him or plot an assassination. The possibilities aren’t endless but what’s thee is revolutionary.
So what does a game this great need to improve on? The actual gameplay. Once you’re bored of playing Game of Thrones there isn’t much to keep you playing after the story. The collectibles promise a big reward if you can collect them all but just give an achievement instead.Side quests exist, but all of them come down to “kill this Uruk, free these slaves.” The Nemesis System let the game get away with this once, but a sequel will either need to upgrade that system or add much more layered side content to hold interest.
There’s also the issue of uninspired combat. The executions are bloody and visceral, but the actual combat is nothing more than “Batman with swords.” Stealth dos exist, but it’s pretty barebones (stab from behind, drop assassinate, tag enemies hide in bushes etc.) and the game is not designed to carry a 100% stealth playthrough. Outside of those two complaints the only other thing I would change is including a climactic boss fight. Everything leading up to it is great, especially since Sauron’s minions are such great villains. One was once a field medic who took joy in helping others but now lives to torture his foes for as long as he can. Another has a suit of armor that is cursed to stay on his body, but never grow with it, leaving him in a constant state of misery and pain. Before facing the last two minions, the game finds your archenemy and forces you to face them in one last battle. On your way to fight Sauron, you command the five Uruk generals you possess and their soldiers in a massive confrontation, and it feels like the game is truly building up to something jaw-dropping. Unfortunately, you’re instead given a five-second quicktime fight and an inconclusive ending that hints at a possible sequel but leaves no way of knowing for certain.
In conclusion, if a sequel happens, I’ll be elated. If either Batman or Shadow of Mordor get a second chance it’s a good thing. However, I’m seriously rooting for the latter to get a second chance. There’s definitely room for improvement, but if said improvements are made, then there’s a very good chance that Shadow of Mordor can stand on its own two feet as a franchise that changes everything we know about villains and the world around them.