I built a computer this past fall and have dived head first back into gaming. While I ostensibly told myself I wanted to play smaller games, more focused on strategy and not dependent upon schlock value – that whole little conscience about doing things which a theologian wouldn’t – that didn’t last long. Action-adventure has been the order of the day. I burned through the Batman: Arkham series (look for discussion on that soon) and have recently finished Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor.
The game has you playing as Talion, a ranger of Gondor in the mold of Aragorn from the Jackson films. The short tutorial section sees Talion’s garrison at the Black Gate of Mordor attacked by three Captains of Sauron’s army, ritually sacrificing Talion and his family to have an elven spirit possess the ranger. Talion finds himself unable to die with this new mysterious stranger who gives him mind-controlling powers over Mordor’s orcs. You proceed to wreak havoc with Talion, ultimately dominating the orcish warchiefs along the Black Gate, and leading an army of your enemies to slay the three captains.
Tolkien is rolling in his grave.
But before we get to that, let’s discuss the good. I’ll talk about gameplay today (so non-gamers can probably stop reading) and some thematic issues on Thursday.
Gameplay Review – 7/10
While I can’t say the game is gorgeous, I applaud the variations of orcs presented by the game. By the end of your little mission of vengeance you can begin recognizing some of the same models, but that’s only after 25+ hours of play. The character designs were good, if not inspired. The artists did a good job of making this look like a Jackson movie, at least it’s darker aspects.
The gameplay is a mix of freeflow combat with some stealth. In this regard, it plays a lot like an Arkham game. I’ve not played Assassin’s Creed, but it seems to also take from there some inspiration, especially in Talion’s climbing of almost any surface and take-downs from on high. The combat fun, allowing both a kind of button mashing glee or more nuanced timing of attacks and counters. The stealth is simple, but nerve wracking enough, forcing you to keep your blade sheathed as you carefully move from roof to roof, silently stabbing orcish archers.
The missions are varied for about the first half-hour, then become a rehash of the same rescue these slaves/silently kills these targets/survive the mob formula. There is some attempt to mix them up with time limits or the use of Talion’s later abilities, such as dominating targets secretly. But these efforts are ultimately futile. Your mileage may vary, but I greatly enjoyed the freeflow combat and quick stealth, so the repetition didn’t bother me.
The game’s major feature is a conceit called the Nemesis system. Remember, Talion can’t die; he returns to life after every defeat. The enemy who defeated you will remember this, thus giving you a chance for some vengeance in the face of their surprise. Captains will also flee from you at times, succeed in certain missions, be affected by the environment – all of these things are remembered and influence how they interact with Talion at later times.
The conceit is interesting, but never really paid off for me. At most, it changed an enemy’s opening dialogue (captain’s offer a two-line challenge once you reveal yourself) to reflect a past event. Nothing substantive ever changed. It’s an interesting idea and the possibility is there. The sequel, coming this summer, claims to make better use of it. We’ll see.
Of far greater interest to me was the branding system. Gaining the ability in the second half of the game, Talion can dominate any orc he comes across. This allows you to build a small army who will fight for you. With the power to brand mid-combat, there’s a visceral joy in having a huge ambush become a rout as you turn half the mob against itself.
You can also dominate Captains which suddenly make you a player in the simplistic might-makes-right politics of Mordor’s orcs. You can send a Captain against their fellows, become fifth-column bodyguards of Warchiefs, or even betray their leaders. Soon you’ll be able to have your own orcs become Warchiefs. You may even find a random captain and his crew coming to your aid in the middle of a stronghold.
The system has its limits. You can’t direct your minions beyond turning on their fellows. Thus you’ll sometimes be moving toward a goal while they wander off in another direction, leaving you to rebuild your little cohort. The idea of actually building an army and taking a stronghold, implicit in the whole dominating of Warchiefs thing, never pans out, though it’s a promised feature of the sequel.
The system has some major potential, especially were it to allow more involvement in the orcish politics. However, any complexity is soon undone by the game’s major fault – you quickly become nigh-near all powerful. Between pulling off 10+ headshots in the same number of seconds, a very generous counter-system, and the ability to have a small battalion fighting with you in a few moments, defeating a Captain or Warchief soon becomes a matter of if you want to brand them or kill them and never much of an actual challenge. Every Captain has some sort of weakness that can be exploited. The most challenge comes in forcing a brand on a Captain that can only be one-shot killed (have his turn-coat allies knock down his health until you can brand him).
The boss fights are basically non-existent. They’re there ostensibly, but they’re straightforward and dependent on onscreen instructions. This makes the final half of the game little more than putting off the end as you indulge in branding orcs and finishing up your missions.
In general, it’s a mindless little distraction. There’s nothing transcendent or especially groundbreaking. There are oodles of potential in the Branding system and possibly in the Nemesis system, but it never does more than tantalize with the possibilities. The combat and stealth is fun, though treads a lot of ground before it. I knocked it out in about 30 hours, completing everything but the DLC.