Sunday, January 7, 2024

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor (PC, 2014)

Some times you can almost see exactly how the pitch meeting went down in a game, book or movie. You can see the checked boxes, the business research that went down and the cogs and wheels behind different choices and functions. When some thing is by the numbers, it is rarely entertaining. By the 7th and 8th book of Harry Potter, I could almost see how J.K Rowling knew it was going to be turned into a movie, and it had almost turned into a bland movie script instead of the original, charming adventure it had started out as. Or just take a look at the last couple if Disney movies to see how to not make a movie based on what you think your audience wants to experience. There is no passion, just a desire to get things done as quickly, and profitable, as possible.

With some games however, this glaring obviousness in game design doesn't always turn out to be a bad thing. Even if the thought process behind the game design of games like Thief, Deus Ex, Dishonored and even Mario games is obvious at a first glance, there is a core idea and a want to pursue something fun that is missing from something that is purely created to fill some wallets. 

I am not naïve enough to think that that wasn't the main motivation for the beforementioned games as well, yet they manage to still create that ever elusive "flow", or the feeling that I as a player am in control and the game is my oyster to explore.

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is a game with its blueprint obvious to the player. Every new skill you acquire, every new enemy you meet, the step-by-step of progression is obvious and easy to detect. But it manages to find a pacing and rhythm in the combat button-mashing that just ends up being good old, simple fun.

I've had my sights on Shadows of Mordor for a while. Ever since it came out it was one of the few Lord of the Rings games to catch my interest. I have a pretty neutral relationship with the Lotr-franchise overall. I absolutely loved the first film and enjoyed the other two. I thought the books were pretty so-so, but love the Hobbit. The Hobbit movies on the other hand are a good example of the abovementioned board meeting gone wrong. So I'm not hype with every new Lotr thing that comes out and have had close to zero interest in the new TV-series or the MMORPG.

There was something about Shadow of Mordor that seemed to make it stand out though. Gone were elves, dwarves, rangers and dragons (not that I particularly mind those). It seemed a tighter, more controlled environment where the setting was just an excuse for what was reviewed as good gameplay. It lingered in my backlog for years, as games tend to do, until I decided it was time to bash some orc skulls.

You play as Talion, a human who dies during an orc/uruk attack in the opening sequence (I won't distinguish between orcs and uruks, though I know it will probably annoy some Lotr purists. When I type "orc" or "uruk" just assume I mean one or the other). The game is thus off to an interesting start. Fortunately it doesn't end there. Talion is possessed and saved by a mysterious elven ghosts (ok, so there are some elves in the game). Finding out who this is, is part of the main story line.

You're dropped into a world which could be optimistically described as tragic, more accurately described as 50 shades of brown. You won't see any trees, butterflies or cute lite rabbits running around this place. You're in fact in the vicinity of Mordor and surrounded by orcs and their human slaves everywhere. At first it's easy to become a bit overwhelmed and think that you won't stand a chance against the sheer number of enemies. 

Fortunately Talion is exceptionally skilled at sneaking around. Unlike your protagonist in Thief or Dishonored however, Talion is also a beast when it comes to direct combat, and you quickly learn to deal with hoards of 10-20 orcs and more. 

It would be easy to pick apart the game design choices here - there are convenient bushes to hide in every 20 meters, Talion can climb pretty much any surface better than a mountain goat, the orcs behave predictably, and also stash an unhealthy amount of explosives right next to their camps and so on and so forth. But that doesn't really matter. Tetris has, after all, an extremely predictable game design. The fun comes in trying to plan your advance and attack based on the knowledge that you have on hand. Will you sneak up to a tower and jump the Orc Leader from above? Will you let loose a caragor and try to attack in the confusion? Will you pick the orcs off one by one or try to go in swords swinging?

There are many choices
and they grow as you process through the game. Where you start out pretty simple with a few ways of attacking and defending yourself, you quickly unlock an arsenal of options that allow you to handle fights in more ways. Of course the game then also presents you with new and more difficult dangers to take into account. Overall the level design and combat is very well throughout and designed, it keeps up the fun through all the 15 hours I have played the game so far.

That isn't to say it is perfect however. The game allows you to control and execute a vast array of skills in just a few button clicks, which means they are mainly context-bound. This means there will be situations where the game thinks you want to do something you don't. This is especially true for trying to interact with the environment, like climbing and jumping things. I've been stuck on small thresholds on the ground with 40 orcs around me, because the game is trying to climb something that clearly just needs running over. I have been stuck in "sneak along the wall"-mode when all I wanted was to pass the wall running. I have jumped off things the wrong side because the game can't decide which way I am looking.

But this has never been the cause of my death, just some sweaty and sweary moments. In all the abovementioned cases I can see the logic the game algorithm is trying to apply, it was just a few steps behind or ahead of my own thought process resulting in some hilarious moments where Talion is seemingly humping some wall trying to climb it while I am desperately trying to not get killed.

But overall the system has probably saved me a lot more than it has put me into trouble, and I think they've done a good job balancing your skill with the overwhelming odds that you're some times up against. It rarely feels too easy, it rarely feels unfair.

The voice acting is good. I thought I recognized Talions voice and yeah, duh, it's Troy Baker from Batman: Arkham Knight and The Last of Us fame. All the orcs sounds suitably angry/dumb like they're supposed to as well, and I actually enjoy the little cut-scene of smack talk that comes every time you encounter an uruk captain.

The story is set apart from the other things I have seen from Lotr so far, like the movies and the books. Spoiler alert, but as far as I've gotten there are no hobbits or white mages as far as the eye can see. And I like that. This is about other people having the same fight but elsewhere in this world. It actually makes the world more real, the fight more urgent. I can imagine that Frodo is working is way through some bog at the same time I am slitting throats in my corner of Middle-Earth. I could've also gotten this completely wrong and maybe Talion lives in some other time, but it doesn't matter. The story is just the frame work to get you into the action.

Playing Shadow of Mordor I can easily sink into the game world and pretend I am a badass ghost-riddled uruk-slayer, slowly chipping away at the dread that is Sauron. It's not profound, but by golly is it fun -  the same kind of fun watching a Godzilla or Jackie Chan movie gives. You know what you're going to get, but it is exactly what you want.

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