At first glance, you may look at Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor and write it off as a half-cooked licensed product in a franchise somewhat known for throwing their name on anything, regardless of quality. I urge you to shake away the desire to slip on The Ring and disappear from this conversation. This game is really good, and you should play it.
When you do give it a spin, a well-informed gamer such as yourself may notice that this title feels a lot like other titles you’ve played before. Since there isn’t anything truly original in this business, you don’t over react. You appreciate that you already have a working knowledge of these systems, and use this experience to help you make more critical judgements as to how you can wreak the most havoc behind enemy lines. You’re good like that.
But don’t let your familiarity fool you, the Shadow team at Monolith not only used gameplay designs that are essential pieces of other popular products, they also may have found a way to truly perfect some of these ideas. Below is a short list of a few of these triumphs.
Batman’s emo mystical ninja approach to combat was crystallized into an efficient and satisfyingly simple system in the Arkham series. It was an experiment in tactical minimalism – every button does only one thing, and every button has a different role to play. When taken as a whole, every ski mask wearing thug is a list of three to four decisions that need to be made. Do I stun him to give myself some time for his friends to show up, or do I just mash him into a pile of vigilante byproduct right now?
Things happened so fast as each game in the series progressed the system, that it stopped being much of a game about tactics, and more of a game of reaction and prediction. There wasn’t enough time between button presses to feel like you were truly in control of what was happening, and not just simply another one of the symptoms of violent chaos. By slowing things down a bit, Shadow brings that sort of choice back.
Each blow Talion lands is heavy; the consequence is felt both on the victim and the player. The cooldown frames and start up frames between attacks are much longer, and when up against regular uruks, their stun frames are slightly longer than a Gothamite. The space between allows for a more tactical read of the ever changing environment of many green men coming to kill you. Talion doesn’t have as many options as Batman when the fight is on, but Mordor is quite literally a kill or be killed sort of country, and there are only so many ways to kill something before actions become redundant.
The limited actions Talion has in combat may do a better job at reinforcing the entire game’s mission statement than Batman’s belt of tricks. Sure, he can batgrapple people towards him, link stunning attacks together, but there are usually multiple other options to beat up the same guy. Having options is fun, admittedly, but there is a such thing as having too many tools. Especially when Batman’s goal should be to get in and out of fights as quickly and efficiently as possible. He a superhero, and these guys are in the way. He shouldn’t be taking extra time to live out his most sadistic fantasies on do-baders (no matter what Frank Miller tells you.)
Talion doesn’t grapple people to him. Instead, he can teleport himself to enemies, and dispatch them quickly and brutally. He can stun foes, but the various ways he can do so are limited. Dodging over enemies can eventually put them into stunned states, or he can just punch them with wraith powers (circle on the PS4) when available. A group stun also exists, but the point here is that each utility isn’t redundant. Dodge when you can’t punch, and group stun when there’s too many to dodge over. Stun when you can’t mash attack to kill outright. Elegant and straightforward.
Talion moves over obstacles so quickly and effortlessly, you’d almost think he wore a white shroud and hunted religious zealots in a past life. He does so with a supernatural edge that transcends any Assassin, leaping up the sides of buildings with height a normal body couldn’t muster.
Climbing buildings was a novel idea back in 2007, when no one had really done it before. Assassin’s Creed would become the prodigal parkour simulator, turning every player into a historically fictional Spider Man. But as the Creed games gave you more nooks and crannies to climb into, it started to become a hassle to get any where in particular.
The same goes in Arkham games. Batman can climb and grapple his way across the immense sky scrapers of Gotham with grace, but getting to a particular place on the map became increasingly difficult without the addition of fast travelling. Mordor is a destitute and dilapidated place full of half standing structures and shallow cliffs. You rarely spend more than a few seconds getting to the top of any given structure; high enough to see far stretches of the countryside, but not so far away that you can’t clearly see the sorts of orcs in the slave herding pack beneath you.
Getting from one end of the map to the other is a breeze as well, compared to Shadow’s more densely populated peers. With the bonus of boosting speed with a well timed button press after hopping over an obstacle or sticking a landing, your land speed while running is formidable. You can also go all Beastmaster on some of Mordor’s wildlife. Quadrupedal lion monsters like caragors can be turned into mighty steeds and move lightning quick at your command. I’ll take that over roof running or glide boosting any day.
Serving almost as an analog to Talion’s no nonsense approach to other living things, stealth is treated as a means of preemptive strike rather than a full grown strategy in Shadow. As Arkham has encounters within its main campaign that are built around the element of surprise, Shadow’s take on going unseen more resembles the way you’d use stealth as Batman when you’re simply roaming the streets. Drop down from ledge, disable a group of people, profit. With there being much more wide open spaces in the blasted lands of Mordor, coupled with the sheer amount of enemies patrolling its lands, you’re never in a position where you can stay hidden for too long.
The stealth focused bits of Arkham games, though fun and interesting within themselves, become jarring and can hurt the pacing when thrown in the middle of a mission. Jumping down from gargoyles and de-gooning the room in baby steps is an interesting concept until a bad guy finds you and all you have to do is jump back up to the nearest gargoyle and swing around a bit to lose them. Especially when these guards clearly know where you went. It’s one of those moments where a games immersiveness suffers. Very gamey mechanics, like how events trigger, the distance from which a model is alerted by your presence, etc., begin to surface through the cracks.
Stronghold-centric missions in Shadow resemble the Arkham stealth missions the most, but even then it isn’t your standard tip-toe through the dark spots. Talion is more served by causing controlled distractions, like setting wild beasts free or poisoning the grog, to destabilize the heavily militarized zone so that the enemy has bigger and more immediate problems than you. This is a way more refreshing and rewarding take on stealth, as the impetus isn’t rested on the idea of staying hidden, so much as it is staying less threatening than everything else going on. It’s a very active form of game design that more people should copy.
Making death a humbling educational experience is the new hotness in games right now, and is best executed in games like Dark Souls II and Spelunky. Game over screens aren’t quite good enough anymore, and Shadows knows that. So in a somewhat fourth wall breaking sort of self awareness, Talion’s new found immortality made game mechanic, his death really only triggers to let time pass and watch the world carry on without him for awhile.
When he’s back on the ground, his targets have moved and his killer most likely stronger than their last encounter. When you meet the culprit again, you begin to appreciate staying alive more, because instead of starting over and trying the same challenge again, you’ve made the same goal just that much harder.