Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor Review!

I’m always reticent when it comes to games set in Tolkien’s fantasy universe. Middle Earth is a great setting, but I feel that it was written in such a way that doesn’t leave much room for expanding. And so far, most of the additions to this universe felt out of context and forced in.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is an action game with some elements borrowed from RPGs set in The Lord of the Rings universe. The game was developed by Monolith Productions for current gen and by Behaviour Interactive for old gen consoles.
The story is set between the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings books, in the time when Gondor troops were holding the Black Gate of Mordor guarding the area to ensure that orcs and their Dark Lord will not return. The game starts with the main hero, Talion, a ranger from Gondor, teaching his son the art of fighting so one day he can become a Gondor soldier, a subtle way to add a tutorial for the player.  When the Black Gate comes under attack by hordes of blood thirsty orcs, Talion and his son find themselves defending their outpost in an unwinnable battle. Despite his desperate actions to protect his wife and son, the ranger is captured together with his family. He is forced to watch as the leader of the orcs, Black Hand, is executing them. Helpless and with a shattered heart, he is killed as a sacrifice to lure in a greater power.
            Talion awakes, in a Mordor now under the control of the orcs, but he is not alone. His fate is now bound to an elven wraith who can't remember his identity and follows the main hero everywhere providing him guidance and powers from the land of shadows. Both the main hero and his new companion are trapped in a never-ending cycle between life and death. Using this opportunity Talion starts a quest to avenge his family and protect the world of Middle-earth from this terrible threat.
                On his path of seeking vengeance, Talion battles and slays the leaders of the continually increasing orc army while aiding the outlanders. The outlanders are humans exiled from Gondor now living in Mordor, most of them became slaves to the orcs after their invasion. In order to understand more about the wraith’s past, the duo start searching for lost artifacts with the help of Gollum. Getting in contact with these artifacts will jug the elf’s memory, revealing brief but crucial moments from his past.
Elves live for thousands of years to have the time to regret mistakes.
That won't last!

                The storytelling in Shadow of Mordor attempts multiple and different approaches. Besides the usual main quests cut scenes and the dialogues between the two main characters, a lot of information can be learned by finding artifacts lost in these dangerous lands. With the power of the wraith these artifacts can uncover events from the past of those who used them.
An interesting idea to set a background story for the main character without requiring any effort from the player was adding audio logs at loading screens. These logs present past dialogues from the protagonist's life. I found this idea quite inspired, neglecting the fact that I had to load the game multiple time to make sure I don't miss something. All these things put together add a subtle depth to an uninteresting main story.
Shadow of Mordor clearly takes inspiration from other writings about Middle-earth, like the “Silmarillion” or “Unfinished Tales”. It can be captivating for the fans of this universe to follow all the side stories depicted in this game. Keep in mind that very little is actually canon.
 Despite all the effort, the main story didn't capture me at all and I ignored the main missions up to the point where there was nothing left to do in the game and I needed a break from killing orcs. I didn't feel anything towards the main hero or his shady friend and these two are the only character that received a close to proper attention. All the other characters seem to serve the role of not letting the player feel alone against the hoards of orcs.
Too bad I can't sell it.

            Many of the gameplay mechanics used in Shadow of Mordor are similar to those seen in the Assassin's Creed franchise and this doesn't come as a big surprise. The developers were accused that some of the animation in their game are copied from Ubisoft’s titles. It is quite obvious that Assassin's Creed was a model of inspiration for this game, but I wouldn't go as far as accusing the developers for ripping off another game. It is quite common in the gaming industry for developers to use other titles as inspiration. And if some game mechanics are good why not use them? (I’m not saying copy/paste ideas)
Ubisoft's ghost!
                The game is separated into two distinct looking maps with the second one only being accessible as the story moves forward. Each of the two maps is constituted of multiple districts. By reaching one of the ghostly towers on a map the content of the districts surrounding the tower is revealed providing useful information to the player. This system is very similar to what Ubisoft uses in Far Cry and Assassin's Creed franchises (is about time to use something new, maybe!?).
Each district has its own missions, weapon challenges and artifacts to collect and while this sounds like the game has a lot to offer, the reality is a bit different. The content quantity is above average, but it really lacks in quality. The secondary missions are always about rescuing outlander slaves. The weapon challenges help forging the legend of the weapons used by the main character, but they are nothing more than missions that require some rampage level of killing orcs. The artifact hunting is an invitation to explore the game world. But there aren’t many places with a unique design to be seen and everything comes down to reaching the spot where the artifact is located. There are no interesting puzzles or a tracking system that could slowly lead the player to a lost artifact. Everything outside the main story is incredibly repetitive and monotonous. This would damage the game quality in a severe way if it wasn't for the Nemesis system.
First half of the game.
                The Nemesis system is what makes Shadow of Mordor stand out as a unique and innovative game. This system provides a continuously shifting chain of command in the orc’s army by generating random Uruks (a type of orc), each with their own personality and power. These Uruks will strive to advance in the hierarchy, which can be affected by both the player and the AI actions. The leadership of the orc army is separated in four different tiers of command with each tier having more powerful commanders than the last, ending up with five warlords as the highest ranks. The orc’s captains can challenge each others, resulting into a continuous killing between them in the struggle for power. Killing the main hero will also result into a promotion for the killer. The result of this eternal battle for power can be seen detailed in a special menu in the UI and the daily changes can be seen either letting the time pass or when dying.
To make matters more complicated, information has to be acquired first about the orc leader’s power, abilities and location. This information’s can be obtained either by finding documents, freeing slaves that can provide some details or by forcefully reading the mind of certain orcs by using one of the wraith powers.
Killing a leader will award the player with a weapon rune that can be put in the weapon sockets to provide all sort of combat bonuses and power which is used to further improve the abilities of the two main characters. There are various randomly generated missions that involve the Nemesis system. These Nemesis missions require the player to simply assassinate orc leaders or intervene in fights for power between captains, tipping the balance scale into one direction or completely eliminating all those involved. There is even an online component involved, called Vendetta, in which friends can be avenged by assassinating the Uruk that killed them. But these missions suffer from the same problem as all the other missions in this game, the lack of variety and the abusiveness with which they are generated make them repetitive after just a few hours.
                The orcs are brutal and merciless but they aren't the most courageous or smart beings. Many times in battle they will run away either because they are close to dying or because a fear element was triggered, like fire or a caragor (some wild beasts). A fleeing leader has to be chased down and eliminated fast before he escapes, otherwise he will come back stronger and ready for revenge.
                Overall this entire system adds a certain depth to a game that otherwise would be a rinse and repeat experience (funny, a problem that the AC series has as well). Even if this innovating idea is used to exhaustion in this game (being clearly the developer's ACE card) I found it quite enjoyable and entertaining and one of the main factors that kept me playing.
I'm going to kill them all!

                The combat in Shadow of Mordor, at first glimpse, looks very similar to the one in the Batman Arkham series. This is not a bad thing, but not the best either. I consider the combat in the Arkham games a spam of two buttons combined with direction changing. But the three weapons combined with the progressive skill tree, which adds all sort of combos and new abilities, shape the combat into much more.
                Talion wields two weapons, each serving a different purpose. The sword is designed for fast and engaging combat with multi target functionality. At first the sword play style is mashing a button in a direction trying to interrupt attacking enemies, blocking from time to time and executing them if possible. But with the help of a few points spent in the melee skills, the hit streaks become important and there are enough combo moves to make attacks require more timing and synchronization.
The dagger is a weapon for taking out enemies in a fast and silent way, an indispensable weapon for a stealth play style. Surprisingly the game puts an accent on stealth, allowing the player to choose how they want to deal with different situations. Most of the missions can be completed sneaking around, taking advantage of the terrain, distracting and silently eliminating enemies. Talion seems to have gone to Gondor's school of acrobatics as he is able to climb on almost any wall, walk on tin ropes and jump from place to place without losing balance for a moment. This opens up all sorts of pathways to reach objectives and orc’s camps help a lot because of their verticality. The enemy’s outposts are equipped with alarms which they rush to sound as soon as they spot the danger. Once the alarm was triggered, waves of new orcs will show up forming parties to search for the enemy. Taking on such a big group might be problematic, blowing up fires or releasing caragors from their cages are some of the useful tricks to gain an advantage in order to thin the orc horde or escape.
 I wasn't expecting the stealth gameplay to be well executed and I enjoyed it immensely.
LotR Ezio.

                In addition to his two weapons, Talion can call forth the power of the elven wraith, slowing time in order to shoot ghostly arrows with a deadly precision. The bow gameplay is very disappointing, I was expecting a combination of deadly damage and high skill cap, like Legolas in the Lord of the Rings movies. Instead the game has a bullet time from Max Payne, which gives a huge advantage in every fight. The only impediments from using the bow all the time are energy, limited arrows and some Uruks’ immunity to ranged damage. The first two become less relevant with character progression.
                The two protagonist's power can be enhanced through a series of skill upgrades and a rune system for weapon. There is a fairly standard level up system based on the XP gained by completing missions or killing enemies. With each new level a points is awarded to upgrade the active combat abilities of the two main characters. The skill tree is split in two halves, allowing the choice between physical abilities and the magic of the wraith. Power obtained from killing the orc leaders is required to have access to skills further down the line.
In addition to XP, missions and other activities award some special points which are used to increase passive powers like character's life, the number of arrows carried, energy or the number of runes for each weapon.
Weapons can be upgraded with the runes dropped by orc’s leaders. Each weapon starts with one rune socket and this number can be increased to four for each weapon. The runes are separated in different quality standards and levels.
Grinding pays off!
Like I wasn't powerful enough.

            The combat moves are beautiful and the animations are top notch, some of the best I've seen. Talion can slash enemies left and right, jump over them, kick, stab, punch, push and do anything necessary to succeed. Executing the orcs is violent and satisfying and it’s done in so many ways that it never gets old. Depending on the positioning the execution animations are always different.
The difficulty increases over time with the captains growing in power and stronger units coming to aid them in battle. Dual wielding berserkers or heavy armored orcs are some of the tougher enemies that can easily stop Talion's standard attacks. And if someone is not satisfied with the challenge of fighting packs of twenty or thirty orcs at a time, try taking on a big troll.
                There are two features that bothered me to no end besides the bow play. The time slow during executions and other moments that requires fast reactions during fights was a total combat immersion breaker, waking me up from my complete state of focus. The second issue is part of the console’s legacy. The game has multifunctional keys and this can cause a lot of problems sometimes, as one key can trigger multiple actions in the same place and the game randomly executes one.
I was extremely skeptical about the combat system in Shadow of Mordor, especially after I noticed obvious similarities with the Arkham series. But as I got to play the game and experience how fast paced, visceral and reactive it is, I found it quite addictive.
I'm LotR Batman!
LotR Max Payne?!

The open world of Shadow of Mordor is nice to look at but has nothing to show. The graphics are really good with high resolution textures, detailed models, beautiful lighting and other good effects. But there is almost no artistic design in this game. In all fairness, Mordor is a close to barren area, with little life or traces of civilization. But the developers could have put a bigger effort into it, to avoid making the world as repetitive as the gameplay itself.
Even so, when it comes to the technical part, the game doesn't disappoint. There are enough options to play with and obtain a good balance between looking good and playing smoothly. Graphical fidelity comes to show that this title is not just a console port and when the textures on ultra require 6 Gb of video ram, it is clear that this quality standard was not designed with console in mind (some better optimization wouldn’t hurt).
Empty, yet gorgeous!
Lovely rain.

The sound effects prove even more that Monolith Productions has the resources to make the technical part great, but not the artistic imagination to fill the rest of the game. The battle sound effects were at the center of the developer’s attention. The battle cries of the orcs, the sound of weapons clashing and flesh being ripped apart adds to the intensity of every battle.
The voice acting is extremely well done from human characters to orcs, all sound natural and credible. There are no awkward moments in the dialogues to make the scene look like a poorly scripted one. The orc leaders’ sound laughably stupid even in their attempts to threaten, a great satire for their race.
When it comes to music, the only thing I can say certainly is that I barely noticed it. There were a few moments when I felt like a part of the epic Lord of the Rings soundtrack is in the game, but those moments passed quickly and the music didn't capture my ears’ attention anymore.

Maybe it’s just me, expecting too much from a video game, just because it’s set in the same universe as one of the greatest movie trilogies ever made. But I do think the movies should be the target standard for this kind of games, attempting to reach the quality of sound and action from them it would make a better game.
Why so scared?!

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is a pure action game with little additions from other genres. Expecting something else from it than lots of overwhelming battles with few moments of peace to regain health and complete some collecting missions is wrong.
This would be a forgettable title because of the heavy console gameplay influences and its repetitive nature that leads to monotony in the first few hours. The game is miraculously saved by the addictive combat, the Nemesis system and the gorgeous animations and graphics.

+ Loads of action
+ Impressive graphics
+ Fluent and spectacular animations
+ Addictive combat
+ Voice acting and battle sound effects
+ Stealth gameplay
+ Nemesis system

- Repetitive missions
- Uninteresting story
- Time slow during combat
- Multifunctional keys
- Ranged gameplay
- Many arcade elements
- Optimization