This post is a day early, and there won’t be an Arena post this week. I’m taking a little time off from the game. I suspect I’ll get back to it in earnest in a week or two, but I’ve found that nothing cures my feelings of frustration with the game like time away from it. It helps that it’s so narrative-light that there’s not much for me to forget in-between play sessions (okay, that’s maybe a little too bitter/mean, though true; it also helps that I’ve been blogging my weekly sessions because I have a record to refer back to).
I just wanted to share my thoughts on yet another fantasy video game, this one far more recent (even though, wow, it came out in September 2014, making me three years late to it and eternally behind the times). That’s Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. A good friend recommended the game to me maybe within a year of its release, but I sat on that recommendation. The game was on sale on Steam sometime recently, I bought it, and then I forgot about it again. Since my wife and I spent Sunday and Labor Day Monday around the house doing chores, I had the down time and decided to try it out. I’m glad I did; it is a remarkably well-designed game. I played for about fifteen hours over the weekend, which is a huge amount of game time for me even for a whole week anymore.
Of course, it’s less that this game does anything shockingly new, and more that it builds on other good games that came before it. Assassin’s Creed and Batman: Arkham Asylum are obvious influences in the fluid, fast-paced combination of stealth, ranged attacks, and sprawling melee battles; the open world with towers to climb to unlock full map overviews and fast travel locations; and the heavy use of collectibles, enemies, and minor events to make the world feel packed full of things to see and do. And its deep attention to lore and gradual disclosure of encyclopedic information packets with the unlocking of more and more collectibles certainly echo Batman but also BioWare games like Dragon Age or Mass Effect, with those constantly expanding codices. Tolkien’s Middle Earth represents a vast amount of lore–hell, that would be the case if limited just to The Lord of the Rings–and developer Monolith Productions puts that lore to good use.
I’m a little bit of a lore-junkie in general, but I have to say that any sort of collectible in this game is a lot of fun. And there are a lot of collectibles and side events, including artifacts and Elvish symbols and the aforementioned towers, plus runes for your weapons dropped when enemy captains are defeated, plus ability points earned for combat successes that can be paid into upgrading your weapons further and improving your skills, plus side missions to help enslaved humans escape orcs or to build the legend of your weapons or to take down or humiliate enemy bosses, plus hunting and herb-collecting challenges…and so on.
I actually am not normally a huge fan of collectibles in games. Finding them is tedious; the rewards are esoteric; and they’re a distraction from the narrative. But here the collectibles and side quests are a great deal of the fun. Murdering orcs and exploring far corners of the map is the vast majority of what makes this game so addictive. Since so many of the collectibles are oriented around unearthing history or specific memories, and many others actually help to improve your weapons or skills, there is greater narrative significance to even the most frivolous of collections.
Speaking of murdering orcs, though: I haven’t even mentioned Shadow of Mordor‘s heavily promoted Nemesis system. I think I’m still missing out on some of this, because I’m not yet to the stage where I can gain followers, but the rivalries that the game develops–with orcs that I’ve bested or that have fled from me, or orcs who have in turn bested me–really make it far more engaging. I’ve certainly gone out of my way to get revenge on an orc who’s slain me. Plus, I just love the fact that “Kaka Prison Master” is my rival, a big idiot I’ve beaten down three or more times now. He keeps getting back up, uglier and more scarred than before, and seeking me out. He just doesn’t learn. Oh, Kaka.
And even though I’m not at the point where I gain much of value (besides further power for ability unlocks), I love to interfere with orc politics, humiliating this orc and picking an arbitrary side in a duel with that orc, or just wiping out all the captains in an area I can find and calling it a day.
It’s also fun to pry information from subordinates to learn the strengths and weaknesses of individual orc captains. And for a game where lethality matters, I like that the unkillable wraith-bonded protagonist is an in-universe, story-relevant explanation for how the guy can keep coming back from death to have those rivalries in the first place.
Honestly, the most disappointing element of the game so far is the story itself. Unkillable Ranger, our protagonist whose name is frankly irrelevant, has very little of a personality, reacts inconsistently to people and events, and is only motivated by revenge for the deaths of his wife and son (of course, sigh). More absurdly, he is bonded to an Elf wraith, and their shared connection seems to be that they both want revenge for dead families. Women so far have not had great representation in the story; most have been almost immediately fridged, and one was the impetus for the motivations of a supporting character and had virtually no role after being rescued. I just got to the Queen of the Shore and her daughter in the game, so we’ll see what role they have. But even ignoring the gender disparity, the entirety of the story feels stale and reliant upon boring tropes. I don’t care about the protagonist or anything that’s happening. Other than providing the unkillable magic mumbo-jumbo explanation for our Ranger’s ability to die, come back, and actually have that reflected as an event that occurred in the game world, the story has been good for nothing. I guess your mileage may vary here, depending on how much of a LOTR-head you are, but this story is sandwiched between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, so we kind of already know everything important that could happen.
As it is, I think the game would be better if it was simply: Ranger of Gondor is on a quest to murder as many orcs as he can in Mordor. Don’t do cutscenes, except maybe an initial one. Don’t lock areas based on story progression. Just open the damn thing up and let narratives spin out organically with that glorious Nemesis system. Keep the lore to provide a sense of depth and history to the world. But if you don’t have a vital story here, don’t force it. This game is great because of its mechanics; it doesn’t need to be a narrative masterpiece. After all, the best sort of story-telling games can provide is dynamic, emergent, and based on procedurally generated events. Let the players tell a story with the game, and don’t force a lackluster one.
Now that’s actually a problem that applies more generally to open-world games. LA Noire had a super-interesting story that was greatly added to by carefully curated crime scenes and cinematic interrogations, but the open world dragged the story down and diluted the theme. Many are rather fond of Red Dead Redemption‘s story, but I think it’s really the atmosphere and themes (of family, revenge, and government intrusion, for example) that people responded to. The story itself was over-long, told over way too many missions that often amounted to fetch quests or filler with trivial side characters, and themes that were initially clever eventually became repetitive sledgehammer blows of obviousness. Committing to a more compact narrative-focused game or to a true bounty hunting sandbox would have improved the quality of what is admittedly a very good game. And I think virtually any RPG is torn between attempting to tell an engaging narrative involving your character and providing an open world full of choices for you to create your own story. To bring this all back around to Arena, I must admit that the first Elder Scrolls game succeeds in eschewing any sort of required narrative in favor of open world exploration, although when the main narrative nonetheless leaves the fate of the world at stake there is a sense of urgency to it that really does not need to be there.
Anyway. Long story short, I’m liking Shadow of Mordor so far. I’ll probably add another post on the subject when I finish the game, whenever that happens, to reflect on my entire experience and see if any of my opinions have changed or evolved.