I tried to blast through Grimrock 2 so I could review it this week, but it’s quite a bit larger than I was expecting and I have as a result bitten off more than I can chew. I have a backup post in the process of being written but it likely won’t appear until Tuesday (21/10) or Wednesday.
Is a clone really a clone when it does more to push the genre forward than the clone-ee ever has?
You see, up until a couple of weeks ago Shadow of Mordor had barely registered on my gaming radar – and when it had, it had been as a straight Assassin’s Creed ripoff with the Lord of the Rings IP pasted over the top of it. This is not a million miles away from the truth; if you think of a mechanic that’s in Assassin’s Creed (aside from the recent innovation of the boats) chances are you can find either an analogue or a direct replica in Shadows of Mordor. The similarities are more than superficial, from the free-running to the climbing of high structures to picking out your target in glowy-infra-vision to hurling yourself down on top of them to skewer them through the brain with something sharp. Shadow of Mordor does it all, and if that were all it did it would likely have been consigned to the “soulless cash-in” dustbin roughly three microseconds after it launched.
This is why I was a little surprised to see Shadow of Mordor drawing glowing praise from pretty much every outlet that reviewed it, not to mention some improbably high scores for a mere Assassin’s Creed clone (9.5 from Polygon? I know Polygon is Polygon, but the actual AC series doesn’t get scores that high, let alone a knockoff). Either SoM was doing something right, or the entire games journalism establishment had gotten it horribly, horribly wrong. And since I’m really not interested in this year’s Assassin’s Creed title1, I thought I’d let Shadow of Mordor try its hand at being a stand-in.
So. Shadow of Mordor has you playing Talion, a Captain of the Rangers guarding the Black Gate of Mordor. SoM is set a few years before Fellowship of the Ring, and so Mordor is still nominally under human control and not yet the blasted, orc-infested wasteland depicted in the films. That all changes in the tutorial sequence, when the Black Gate is overrun by Uruk-hai and the entire Ranger garrison – not to mention Talion’s wife and son — are butchered. Talion himself has his throat cut by the baddies as part of a ritual sacrifice but he survives thanks to the attention of the long-dead wraith spirit of an elf lord, who turns up in the spirit world to announce that Talion is “banished from death” and promptly bonds with him. This grants Talion a host of wraith-induced superpowers and as soon as he’s out of the tutorial he immediately hares off into Mordor in search of vengeance on the Generic Bad Guys who killed his family.
It’s all pretty by-the-numbers as far as setting up the rest of the game goes, and so probably the most interesting this about this tutorial sequence is how short it is. Assassin’s Creed has become infamous for its hours-long tutorials — the worst of them, AC III, still had the training wheels attached six hours into the game — but Shadow of Mordor is well aware of this criticism and consciously limits its own dedicated tutorial to no more than fifteen minutes. It teaches you the basics of climbing, fighting and stealth and then shoves you out of the door to seek your revenge. There’s far more to the game than that, of course, but while SoM is guilty of locking several of the more interesting abilities behind plot gates you can do probably 60-70% of the stuff in the game from the moment you wake up from your first death, with much of the rest of it taught to you in optional side missions rather than being shoved down your throat one at a time until the game is absolutely sure you’ve understood all of its awesome features.
Most of those awesome features stem from Talion’s dead elf friend. Several of them we’ve seen before in Assassin’s Creed — Eagle vision is replaced by shifting into the wraith world, which lets you see through walls and pinpoint items of interest such as your next target — but Shadow of Mordor has also dipped deep into the Arkham Asylum well when putting together its combat system. Combat is all about pushing X to hit orcs and building up your combo meter. When the combo meter flashes red, Talion can perform a special attack. One of these is a standard — if startlingly violent — execution move, but you can also burn enemies with wraith fire or drain their life force to recharge your abilities. When an orc winds up for an attack there’s a big “Y” symbol that flashes above their head, and you duly push Y to counter their attack; meanwhile there’s also a somersault-over-their-head dodge move that can be upgraded to stun enemies so that you can unleash a super-fast flurry of blows on them, which itself can be upgraded so that the flurry is finished off by Talion using his wraith powers to literally explode their heads. There’s plenty of tools to be unlocked as the game unfolds and nearly all of them get used in a fight, which is a good sign that the design is working as intended.
Still, that Shadow of Mordor competently executes features we first saw in other games doesn’t make it any less derivative. What does, though — and what I’m going to spend pretty much the whole of the rest of this review talking about because as far as I’m concerned it is Shadow of Mordor — is its Nemesis system, aka “The Most Original Idea I’ve Seen In A Triple-A In A Good Long Time.”
There are hundreds of orcs walking around Mordor at any one time. There’s also giant dog-things called Caragors, even more giant Rancor-beasts called Graugs, plus the occasional group of human slaves you can free, but the population as a whole is probably 90, 95% orcs. You murder a lot of orcs in this game (I’m reasonably sure my kill count was in the low thousands by the time I finished) and the vast majority of them are easy to kill; you just hit them a few times until you’ve built up enough of a hit streak that you can chop their heads off and be done with it. Every so often, though, you’ll be in the middle of a fight, orc noggins will be falling like rain, and you’ll try to execute the latest poor mook unfortunate enough to find himself in range of your sword only for this to happen:
Congratulations, you’ve just found an orc Captain. Captains are named orcs with a whole range of incredibly nasty abilities (exactly how many they get depends on the power level of the orc in question). Most captains are immune to damage of one type or another, and very few of them can be taken out by the insta-kill attacks you come to rely on in combat. The presence of a captain usually turns a fight from a triviality into a life-or-death struggle – since you can’t dispose of them quickly, if they have any goon backup at all it’s likely that while you’re trying to whittle them down their friends will shank you in the back. If they manage to knock off all of your health you get a Last Chance where everything goes into slow-motion and you have to do a quicktime event while the last orc to hit you raises their weapon to deliver the final blow, and it’s here that SoM has the first of many excellent touches that gives its population of orc captains a real sense of personality; the whole time this is going on the background noise fades out to be replaced by the surrounding orcs chanting the name of the captain who is about to kill you, like they’ve all just taken a step back to let you two finish your business one way or the other. If you pull off the (quite difficult) quicktime event Talion knocks away the killing blow and clambers back to his feet to continue the fight with a sliver of health remaining. If you fail then, well, you die.
But death is not the end in SoM. As the wraith says, Talion is banished from death, and if having his throat cut in the intro sequence didn’t stick, an orc captain impaling him on three feet of steel isn’t going to have any more success. Instead the captain gets a few seconds to deliver a suitably humiliating epitaph and then wanders off, and the game then transitions to this screen:
This is called “Sauron’s Army” in the game, but I always thought of it as the Orc Zoo since its SoM’s representation of the orc ecosystem in the area you’re currently in. No matter how many times you’re killed you always come back at one of the ghostly checkpoint towers littering the map, but there are two downsides to dying. The first is that the orc that killed you will increase in power, moving up a rank, gaining strengths and shedding weaknesses. If you were killed by a random no-name orc then they get promoted into the Zoo, acquire a name, some powers and a much more intimidating character model. The second downside is that the only time the Zoo changes is while you’re dead; you can carve quite the bloody path through the captains while you’re alive, but as soon as you cark it random orcs are promoted to fill any gaps that you’ve managed to open up, while existing captains move up the food chain by resolving random events (recruiting more orcs to their personal gang, say) or internal power struggles (assassinating a rival captain).
So not only does the orc that killed you level up when you die, but so do many of the other orc captains in Mordor. The Zoo makes it possible to track the progress of individual orcs even if you haven’t seen them recently – the very first orc to kill me, Krakhorn the Poet, eventually made it all the way from random footsoldier to one of the five Warchief positions, with my only other interaction with him being to “save”2 him from an ambush by another orc captain. If you do see them again then, excellently, they’ll remember you and have personalised dialogue. Horza the Noble killed me four or five times at the start of the game, and each subsequent time I crossed blades with him he’d express increasing levels of incredulity that I kept coming back.
Horza’s an interesting story, actually. Because he killed me so many times he eventually got so powerful that killing him was no matter a question of just running in and ganking him, it was going to take some planning. It wasn’t that he was completely invulnerable to damage like certain other orcs I could mention, but he was sufficiently tough that I couldn’t kill him before a bunch of his friends ran in to help him. This is where the Intel screen comes in; as you travel about Mordor you can get information on a single captain’s strengths and weaknesses by interrogating special orcs called Worms. In Horza’s case it turned out that he was weak to combat finishers, and had a fear of Graugs and Caragors. I couldn’t stay alive long enough to whittle him down with finishers and didn’t have the Graug-taming ability yet (they’re pretty rare anyway) but I could ride Caragors, and so I spent five minutes looking for a Caragor, taming it, and riding it to where Horza was lurking. Horza took one look at the Caragor and tried to flee, which meant he lost all of his special powers and could be instantly killed by any finishing move. Like the Caragor’s bite attack.
Now, when you feed your target orc to a giant dog-thing you generally expect them to stay dead, but this wasn’t the end for Horza. Particularly annoying captains can come back from the dead just like you can, and so when I later tried to draw out and assassinate one of the Warchiefs I was very surprised to see Horza turn up as his bodyguard, not to mention a little miffed since this meant I’d now be fighting two super-orcs instead of just one. I tried to draw the Warchief away using ranged attacks but Horza noticed and charged into the fray, at which point he uttered a one-liner about how I wasn’t so tough without my Caragor to back me up. He’d also lost his helmet so that I could see he was sporting some wonderful new facial scarring from my previous attempt on his life. This was fantastic personality that had been given to this randomly generated orc bastard; what could have easily been a quite tedious game of whack-a-mole as I worked my way through the captains had turned into a genuine vendetta. I hated Horza. I wanted to see him dead, not because the game said I should kill him, but because he’d been such a massive pain in my arse during the first two hours in Mordor. It was an experience that was only slightly spoiled when I accidentally managed to put Horza down permanently about ten seconds later by chopping his head off during a Last Chance event. Even the most powerful captain isn’t going to come back from that, and so that was the end of Horza.
The way the appearance of the captains changes both as they get promoted and as you come up with new and inventive ways to kill them is one of the best things about Shadow of Mordor. There’s five or six different basic orc models in the game and all of them are fantastically animated to give the orcs some real expression, and once an orc is promoted to captain they get some pretty intimidating personalised armour bolted on top of that model, not to mention an appellation to the end of their name that makes them even more special. Zok Brain-Damaged had a cage built around his skull protecting his exposed brain, while the archer with “The Crow” description was covered in bird feathers and had a helmet with a beak on it. Put an arrow through a captain’s head and they’ll come back — if they come back, it only happens sometimes — with a metal plate over their eye. Burn them with wraithfire and their eyes will turn solid white. Burn them with regular fire and they acquire some awful facial scarring from it. They’ve also got an array of one-liners that changes based on what they’ve heard about you and how you killed them before. It’s an amazingly reactive system, to the point where it’s more fun to try and breed super-orcs through survival of the fittest than it is playing the actual game.
Unfortunately after putting all the hard work into coming up with this amazing system for personalising orcs and for creating dynamic targets for assassination who you want to kill because you personally hate their guts, Shadow of Mordor fails to do anything really interesting with it. The Nemesis System existing for its own sake is fine, but the way it ties into the main plot is really poor; you work your way up the food chain in the first map and take out all the warchiefs, and then the game asks you to do it all again on a second map, except this time you have to convert all the warchiefs to your side using a special wraith power called Branding. And then once you’ve done that the game ends. There’s not really any payoff or any point beyond the incidental vendettas the player comes up with through playing the game, and the plot missions do fall into the Assassin’s Creed trap of existing solely to show off game features making them incredibly incoherent and one-dimensional. After the novelty had worn off (which did take a good 12-15 hours, admittedly) I found myself asking “Okay, now what?” and Shadow of Mordor didn’t have a good answer. It barely had any answer, in the event; the last hour of the game smacks of We Ran Out Of Time/Budget syndrome given how perfunctory it is.
Potentially a worse problem for SoM is that the Nemesis system itself starts to wobble alarmingly during the latter half of the game. At the start of the game it’s working precisely as intended because you haven’t unlocked most of your abilities yet and so you’re dying quite regularly, which both gives rise to these memorable orc opponents and refreshes the ranks of orc captains as new ones are promoted in. Krakhorn, Horza, Pigug Warmonger – these are all names that I remember because of our numerous run-ins (hell, Pigug even refused to kill me once after chokeslamming me to the ground because it wasn’t worth the effort). Sooner or later, though, you’ll get powerful enough that you just stop dying. Because you don’t die there’s nothing to advance time3, and because time isn’t advancing the Zoo remains static. You kill captains you come across first time, and once they’re dead they stay dead with nobody to take their place. I cannot remember a single orc from the second half of the game (aside from that crow dude) because not one of them managed to stay alive for more then fifteen seconds after I’d started the fight. I liked the way player death was tied into the Nemesis System since it promoted exactly the sort of rivalries I just described, but it also needed some other way for time to advance — time limits on events after which they’d resolve automatically, or even just advancing time whenever you fast travelled to a checkpoint tower would have worked.
There’s also the problem that Mordor is… well, it’s Mordor. It’s not quite the ash-blasted wasteland of the films, but it’s still a tremendously dull environment full of reused art assets (I have a screenshot somewhere where the same ruined tower is used three times) that’s no fun at all to explore. In this, at least, Assassin’s Creed still wins hands down; despite Shadow of Mordor being a very good looking game on a technical level, the AC games have far more interesting environments. SoM’s long-term appeal is therefore quite limited, and after fifteen hours I felt fatigue setting in and burnt through to that immensely unsatisfying ending.
I think the Nemesis System more than justifies Shadow of Mordor’s existence as something more than a simple ripoff. Taken as an isolated feature it’s been executed amazingly well even if the larger game fails to make proper use of it. I genuinely think it could push the genre forward; I’d like to play an Assassin’s Creed (or other similar game) where a similar system was used to dictate assassination targets rather than having them spoon-fed to you by the plot. I really hope Ubisoft and other developers are looking at Shadow of Mordor and taking notes. Ultimately, though, Shadow of Mordor’s other features are never better than good — and often simply mediocre — and this drags it down so that I look back on the game as a whole as a very uneven experience. Was it worth playing? Absolutely, it’s one of the most interesting games I’ve played this year. Will I play it again? No, probably not. For all the replayability the Nemesis System is supposed to provide Shadow of Mordor doesn’t make anywhere near a good enough use of it to justify a second attempt, and it doesn’t have anything to fall back on past that.
- I’m far more interested in Rogue than I am in Unity, but they’re only releasing that on last-gen consoles. For some reason. ↩
- By which I mean I was so busy killing the other guy that Krakhorn managed to flee while my back was turned. ↩
- Not quite correct. You always have the option to manually advance time, but this is only a tool for those playing PokeOrc. ↩