Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Out of the Shadow of the License

Game: Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor 
Monolith Productions, 2014 (PC version reviewed)

Who would’ve thought a licensed Lord of the Rings film tie-in would handily surpass both Assassin’s Creed and the Arkham series as the king of the Open World Action Rhythm Combat Stealthy-Stabby Things, or whatever we’re calling this genre now? Shadow of Mordor not only perfects the crowd combat and parkour mechanics that have become the core signifiers of these games but introduces the remarkable “Nemesis” system to bring its open world to life. Without going into much detail, since it’s been written about extensively elsewhere, Nemesis essentially creates a procedurally generated army of orc leaders each with their own personality and personal history with whom you as a player develop your own stories and conspire to infiltrate Sauron’s forces using a kickass set of magical mind control powers. However simple the mechanic sounds on paper (and it’s not; the tactical variations of your abilities are nearly limitless), it animates and elevates every enemy encounter in SoM into a piece of your own epic narrative and keeps Mordor’s mooks from ever feeling like the mindless masses of the Assassin’s Creed series or the inconsequential overworld encounters of the last few Arkham titles.

Slip of a story notwithstanding, SoM’s presentation actually succeeds in making Lord of the Rings’ lore compelling in a way I can’t remember any of the other games doing in a long time, even if it does behave over-seriously about the whole affair. It certainly helps that (a) the world actually feels lived in and (b) it doesn’t litter everything up with cutscenes from the films or tangential tie-ins to the actions of the Fellowship characters, some unnecessary Gollum cameos notwithstanding. SoM avoids Assassin Creed’s cardinal sin of becoming an endless icon hunt by being confident enough in its core gameplay to eliminate nearly all the half-baked minigames that have become unfortunate staples of the genre. It’s also not afraid to steal the best elements of Far Cry 3 and 4’s base design and wildlife interactions, which add even more exciting variability to the whole affair.

Despite offering two massive open world battlefields, SoM doesn’t overstay its welcome, offering enough content to keep you coming back potentially forever but wisely keeping its core story trim and free of fat. I comfortably completed the main quest in about 15 hours while taking advantage of a good chunk of the side content, which felt like exactly the right length for this kind of game and a refreshing change of pace after the endless bloat of the last dozen or so Ubisoft open-world titles. The campaign does conclude rather abruptly, but it’s more a factor of the final mission feeling a bit rushed than any problem with the narrative, which wraps up rather nicely even while leaving open a clear path to a sequel.

I could go on about SoM’s other strengths endlessly - the near-perfect pacing and challenge scaling, the almost total lack of load times, the smooth introduction of all its systems without obnoxious tutorializing, the extraordinarily competent cutscenes, the beautifully fluid character animations - but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention at least a few of its shortcomings. A few of the unskippable cinematic conventions, like the theatrical WWE-style introductions of the orc captains, get tiresome really quickly and can royally fuck up the flow of combat. Although the parkour mechanics manage to be far more reliable than Assassin Creed’s, there are still those inevitable moments of frustration when you try to scale sideways from wall to corner and wind up lunging fifty feet down to a waiting army because the contextual pathing misinterpreted your command. Stealth is a bit too forgiving, offering a temptingly simple way to undo careless mistakes and avoid the very interesting procedural consequences of player death (upon which the world advances and Sauron’s army grows and evolves while you spend some unseen downtime in the grave). And despite some gorgeous environmental design, Mordor’s fortresses can get a bit samey, with frequent deja vu confusing your infiltration strategy.

But while SoM may not be perfect, it’s as damn near perfect as any triple-A studio title of last year or this one, learning all the right lessons from its inspiration sources and introducing radical innovations so successfully as to become the definitive new standard for the genre. In an era defined by big budget failures and genre stagnation, wherein tiny indie titles have come to dominate the market of inventive ideas, Shadow of Mordor is an excellent argument that there are still some things money can buy when it’s thrown at the right people.

Loved it!

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