Wednesday, May 27, 2015

xBox One: Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor

Nemesis system, nemesis system, nemesis system. In all the reviews that spoke favourably of this game, they all mentioned how innovative and fun the nemesis system was. It was. It was fun. But it really only played a key part early on in the game, for later on you become powerful enough to not need it. It still stays fun. Slowly picking off orcs and uruks, leaving weaker ones behind makes boss battles much easier. But despite being a new concept, I believe innovation relies on it really playing an integral part of the whole game.

Shadow of Mordor takes place in the scary period between Peter Jackson's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Talion is a ranger stationed at the Black Gate, on the edge of Mordor, just before the world becomes aware that Sauron is rising once again, and has filled his land with orcs. The Gate is attacked by lieutenants of Sauron and Talion is killed, along with his family. No, the game doesn't end there, it just begins. The spirit of an elf Lord inhabits Talion's body turning him into an unkillable soldier of revenge.

Cool, an explanation for respawning after you are killed. Not like a dead man can die again. Now if the orcs can only learn to dispose of his body properly, they won't have any more issues with him.

You start off weakened, as you do in all games, stalking about in the rain and shadows (of Mordor), killing orcs stealthily and running from larger crowds. Soon you get a magic bow, with magical replenishing arrows, and runes to plug into your sword and your dagger.... which is actually a broken sword. Your goal is to fight up through the ranks until you draw out the lieutenants who were responsible for your death and that of your family.

Along the way, you encounter unique orcs, captains, warchiefs and finally, the Black Captains. But not just up the orc chain, as there are also beasties such as Trolls and Caragors, cat like versions of the worgs we saw in the movies. The unique orcs get names and a look and a funny saying. Initially this is a lot of fun, as it gives character to your enemies. But the more you play, the more the "a little from column A, a little from column B" aspect gets repetitive. Also, these orcs often return from the dead. Even if you behead them, they somehow end up coming back, a little older, a little wiser and likely scarred by your being so rude to kill them. The guy you burned might have horrible scars, the guy you split in two might be sewn together. Its kind of weird, but fun.

The gameplay is a combination of stealth stalking and Arkham Asylum style button mashing combo combat.  At first this is fricking annoying, and you have to run away or die - a lot. But as you get more useful combos, and get used to the style, it becomes fluid and cinematic. Nothing like being in a mix of about 15 orcs, rolling about, knocking down and beheading orcs, left right and centre. Jump over that guy. knock that guy to the ground, light up this one and put an arrow through the eye of that guy. Much heroic fantasy sword play!

Now, back to the nemesis system. Each of the unique orcs connects to another in the ranks. If you want to take down a top level bad guy, a Warchief, then you better have already taken down some of his allies. Or that mix of 15 orcs is going to contain every higher level orc who reports to him. As the game progresses you can pretty much clean out every orc that matters in an area.... until the next time you are killed. Then, survivors are promoted and the ranks fill up again. That guy you scarred? He's now a captain and realllly pissed at you.

Another trick in the system is "branding" your enemies. Basically, using your blue colored magic you can bring orcs under your influence. They become enthralled to you. And in turn, everyone reporting to them is yours. Soon, a skilled brander can have an entire region under their control. Lead your own blue light gang against the Warchief and its an all out brawl. And when they all die?  Start over again! There are always plenty of orcs to sway to your cause.

But eventually the gameplay becomes repetitive. Stalk orcs, brand orcs, kill orcs, take out captains and take down warchiefs in their fortresses. The story moves you along, stalking the ranks to be led to the Black Captains who were responsible for your death. The elf lord possessing you, and keeping you alive and killing, turns out to be Celebrimbor, that guy from The Silmarillion who forged the Nine Rings. He was used by Sauron and betrayed, and wants revenge. You are his instrument but you have to get through the Black Captains first.

If the game has one major flaw, that is it. The Black Captains. The first is decent, a tough boss battle requiring time and skill. The next is a stealth hunt that takes only time. And the final guy, before Sauron? A few quicktime events (directed videos hitting a single button) and he goes down. And that drives Sauron away. Bleah. Let down.  You only ever get to use your army of tagged Warchiefs once and then they are wasted.

But in general, it was a hell of a lot of fun. And Talion is a great looking character, the kind of Mary Sue ranger for D&D players. He smack a bit of a super model Aragorn but his character model looks and moves well. DLC holds no interest for me, but an entirely new sequel might.