There’s a lot of potential in Shadow of Mordor for a great sequel, but this first attempt is being crushed under the weight of Tolkien’s source material.
“Hoshu of the Spiders.” The name rolls off my tongue with all the hatred I can muster. I’ve been playing Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor for fifteen hours already, and here comes good ol’ Hoshu, waltzing back into my life like that guy everybody hates at the birthday party, covered in scars from our previous encounters.
The two of us have done battle five or ten times over the course of the last ten hours. When first we met he was a mere shrimp of an Uruk captain—a scrawny little thing with a metal cage around his head, like a bear trap, who shot poisonous crossbow arrows at me. He killed me that first battle out of luck more than anything else, shooting me in the back as I fought another captain.
And he climbed the ranks. And climbed and climbed. I’ve killed him. He’s come back from the grave. I’ve killed him more times. He’s come back again and again, each time with a snarl and a taunt, like “You thought you killed me, huh?”
Yes, Hoshu, I did. I stabbed a sword through your spine and left you bleeding on the battlefield. He doesn’t even have that metal cage anymore. It was torn from his face, leaving oozing scar tissue across his eyes.
He just. Won’t. Quit.
Enemy of my enemy
You’ll never meet Hoshu. Sure, he sounds like an important character in the Lord of the Rings-themed third-person action game Shadow of Mordor, and he was important—at least in my playthrough. But he’s ultimately a product of the game’s Nemesis system. Rather than propelling you through a series of predetermined enemies in the course of its open-world experience, developer Monolith has instead scripted a system that turns ordinary fodder enemies into procedurally-generated boss fights.
Hoshu is a random set of traits: a poisoned-crossbow wielder with a metal grate on his head who hates fire and is invulnerable to both ranged attacks and being leaped over, with a reedy but intelligent-sounding voice (for an orc). Oh, and of course the “Hoshu of the Spiders” name, which is completely random.
It’s an impressive system, especially when compared to the open-world games of yore. The awkward series of clones wandering around Grand Theft Auto V or Watch_Dogs already seems old-fashioned. Even the “nameless” fodder enemies in Shadow of Mordor are simply biding their time. If one of them manages to kill you the camera will zoom in and put a name and face to your foe, and they’ll most likely get promoted to captain in your absence—instead of reloading after you die, a nebulous amount of time passes during which various orcs will move up in the ranks, fight amongst themselves, or even be murdered by jealous rivals.
If Shadow of Mordor were being ranked off a single system, it would be a runaway success. Oh boy, would it. The Nemesis system is easily the most “next-gen” feeling thing we’ve seen so far from the new console hardware. While others have made use of better graphics tech, Shadow of Mordor really drives new systems forward, and that’s fantastic.
Unfortunately it is not a single system. It is a game, and as a game Shadow of Mordor just doesn’t really hold together.
Let’s hit it on the sequel
For all the “Assassin’s Creed in a Tolkien world” comparisons that Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor received pre-release because of the free-running aspects, I feel it’s an especially apt comparison to make in the full game also—for entirely different reasons.
Assassin’s Creed was one of the first big open-world games on the previous generation of consoles, and as such it was this incredible technical achievement at the time. “Look at the size of these crowds! Look at the size of the map! Look how fluid the animations are! Amazing!” All these traits helped distract a bit from the fact that the story was nigh-on nonsensical and the core gameplay loop had you performing the same exact actions for fifteen or so hours. And then Assassin’s Creed II came about and turned a bunch of disparate systems into a real game.
The nemesis system is a great start. The main characters—a dynamic duo consisting of Gondorian ranger Talion and his possessive ghost-elf of legend Celebrimbor—are a great start. Shadow of Mordor is a great start. There’s a lot of promise left on the table, though.
The main story, taking place between The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, is at its best boring. It’s no fault of the characters, who are universally well-written: Talion and Celebrimbor, the dwarven hunter you befriend, the two women ruling over a band of outcasts, they’re all strong.
But the tone of the game oscillates wildly and unpredictably between “This is serious business” and “This is a wild romp.” It’s all-too-similar to the lackluster Hobbit films more than the grim-dark apocalypse feel of Lord of the Rings, and it’s not particularly great at either end of the spectrum. The emotional, dark parts of the game never approach the complexity nor the depths of despair plumbed by Tolkien’s source material, and the silly parts of the game just feel out of place.
And while it’s interesting to learn about Celebrimbor, Sauron, and the forging of the Rings of Power, we end up too often in a Star Wars prequel or Force Unleashed situation where the source material is just too strong. Whereas something like Knights of the Old Republic managed to escape the binds of Star Wars canon by jumping into the past, in Shadow of Mordor I kept getting that weird uncanny valley feeling of “Well if all these characters existed between The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings how have we never heard of them?”
Did you know, for instance, that in addition to the Mouth of Sauron there were all sorts of other embodiments of the Dark Lord’s power wandering around Mordor? And that, in every case, these ultra-powerful Sauron-infused beings could be killed easier than a swarm of two-dozen or so orcs? Monolith really cares about the Lord of the Rings lore, but any story-potential here is being crushed under fifty years of propriety.
The game also forces you to swap locales halfway through the game, which completely undermines the Nemesis system. You’ve been fighting these same orcs for hours, and then suddenly they’re yanked away from you and replaced with a whole new set. You could go back to that old map and see your old buddies again and collect more useless collectibles, but why bother? The story doesn’t make you. It also makes the first half of the game seem like a weird prologue to the real game, beginning eight hours in, as you unlock the much-touted ability to mind-control orcs and start playing different factions in the Nemesis system against each other.
And lest we forget the game’s influences, Shadow of Mordor repeats some of the sins of its predecessors. Combat, especially, is the same “Just hit the attack button forever and ever while one or two orcs swing at you, amen” style as the Arkham games.
It’s fluid, it’s responsive, but it’s not especially engaging anymore, and Shadow of Mordor is the most blatant rip-off I’ve seen in years. You even have a Stun ability, though instead of swooping Batman’s cape you’ll use your wraith-half to blind somebody with light? What’s Manfred Mann doing these days?
The Nemesis system is a fantastic piece of tech, and I can’t wait to see both what Monolith does with it next and what other open-world games accomplish with the inevitable rip-offs of this system.
But at the end of the day, it feels less like the Nemesis system was built into Shadow of Mordor and more like Shadow of Mordor was built as an outlet for the Nemesis system. It’s clearly the centerpiece here—everything else, from the story to the combat to the occasionally buggy free-running is given short shrift. By the time I’d finished eight hours of the mediocre story I was ready to quit, and the actual seventeen hours I put into the game felt really long. Characters disappear from the plot without a trace, none of the pieces really tie together correctly, and the final boss battle is a damn quick-time event.
There’s so much potential for a mind-blowing sequel, but Shadow of Mordor is ultimately a great system surrounded by mediocre content.
Hayden writes about games for PCWorld and doubles as the resident Zork enthusiast.