Note: I am honoured to announce yet another contributor to Playthroughline! John Keefe is one of my fellow authors at The Editing Room and when I asked him if he wanted to abridge a game, he set his sights on Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. I'm not a fan of Lord of the Rings, so thank Ilúvatar someone else tackled this game. Please enjoy his glorious contribution and if you'd like to read more, there's further thoughts from John below.
Shadow of Mordor proves just how spoiled we are as gamers. It was not so very long ago that any game with even a whiff of movie tie-in was utter crap, that "open world" was just code for "big and padded," where story came to you in walls of text and combat involved two buttons for attacking and one for a dodge. Fast forward to the glorious future of 2014, and Shadow of Mordor has fixed all of those problems and yet somehow feels weirdly B minus. Shadow of Mordor has learned its lessons and put in some serious effort to make a fine product with a fun bit of storytelling. Yet it's not the greatest thing ever, and as we weather this deluge of high fantasy that floods every corner of pop culture, second place is a weird position to hold.
Maybe it's just because Mordor does so much right, but not quite enough new. As I snarkily mentioned several times in my short script, the game really is just a mash-up of Assassin's Creed and an Arkham game; an exceedingly well-made one, but maybe there’s only so good a mash-up can be.
I feel bad even saying that. For years now I've been begging triple-A games to rip off Arkham's counter-based fighting style, one of the best innovations in brawler gaming I've ever seen. The fighting systems of God of War or Zelda feel downright simplistic now that I know how to parry and riposte. I just can't mash A over and over again anymore, not when there are several other perfectly good buttons I could be using to give this fight a little rhythm.
Shadow of Mordor gave it to me. You can block, parry, roll, dodge, distract, throw knives, or do the cucaracha in the midst of combat, all without missing a beat. It feels skillful and grand, even when it's easy. I'm enjoying myself, but somehow that’s all I'm doing. I don't feel especially engaged.
Maybe it's the extremely loose structure of the game that's keeping me at arm's length. I was reminded a bit of X-COM while playing Shadow of Mordor. X-COM employs a really fascinating reversal of the usual video game format; the story is structured around the gameplay, not the other way around. Usually, Mario beats the dragon, takes the star, and moves on to the next place, linear as a train going down the line. X-COM does just the opposite. You spend most of your time juggling responsibilities at your base, interacting and managing resources, and occasionally a story mission pops up on your radar that you can choose to pursue or leave for another day.
This "gameplay first" attitude makes X-COM thrilling and smart, but the unfortunate side effect is the story being more cliché than a rose by any other name on a dark and stormy night. None of the storylines can contradict each other, and since they can be played in pretty much any order, that means not a whole lot happens in any of them. Character development is nonexistent. Your gruff sergeant barks at you, the nerdy scientist acts all nerdy, and the aliens tick off every all-your-base trope in the book so you know exactly what's going on and no one gets confused.
Shadow of Mordor offers a similarly freeform story, which is similarly boring. All the cutscenes take place in little pocket universes completely disconnected from one another. Characters try to allude to past events or other locations but there's no real sense of narrative motion. Talion appears, asks for help, everyone talks in circles for a bit, and then you go kill Orcs.
Celebrimbor is the only one who exhibits any change at all as the story progresses, and that's done in such a blatantly literal way it barely counts at all. In lieu of growth or change, he touches some magic MacGuffins here and there and remembers things. This is played off as some big deal, but it doesn't go anywhere. Like Talion the Dour, he's still just as gruff and humourless at the end as he was at the beginning.
Many players have commented on the emergent storytelling the game offers with its Nemesis mechanic, one of the few things the game does that's sort of new. I'm all for rewarding innovation, but I'm not sure that saved it. Mass Effect managed to juggle some great scripted storylines, creating characters I legitimately cared about and letting me roleplay a hero to whom I became extremely endeared. Raising your little Orcs to be big strong killers is more like running an ant farm to me. It can certainly be fun, but I'm not sure it's particularly deep.
So now that I've looked this gift horse thoroughly in the mouth, let me once again reiterate that I would be peeing myself in joy if Shadow of Mordor had popped onto my radar five years ago. At its worst, it's a promise of great things to come for gaming. I just wish it could go a little deeper. I also wish Troy Baker could sing at my wedding, but that's neither here nor there.