It’s been quite a while since Monolith shook the world and, frankly, it didn’t seem like they had the chops to ever do it again. The studio that once excelled at creating new worlds (Blood, Shogo, No One Lives Forever, F.E.A.R, and Condemned) has languished of late with back-to-back licensed yawns in 2012 (Gotham City Imposters & Guardians of Middle-earth). Who woulda thunk that their second foray into the well-worn world of Tolkien would meet with any more success than the first one? Especially when the game bears such obvious signs of ‘inspiration’ (to put it kindly) from two other well-worn franchises: The Batman-Arkham and Assassin’s Creed games.
Shadow of Mordor (SoM) reportedly began life as another Batman game and it shows. The combat favors rhythmic, well timed buttons presses with random button-mashing frequently resulting in failure. One wrinkle SoM introduces to the combat is that you are very much behind enemy lines. Uruks are wandering around everywhere and a protracted battle can lead to more attention than you originally bargained for, both from the enemy minions as well as some particularly monstrous wildlife. This is a title where discretion will get you a good deal farther than valor. Fortunately, the stealth system works admirably and the toys in your arsenal cater equally well to both stealthy and aggressive approaches.
The environments are large and chunky with an obsessive amount of detail lavished on character models. Much like Arkham City, the game world feels a bit small at first blush, but turns out to be quite adequate for providing plenty of room for your open-world hijinks. Lacking Batman’s grappling hook, our hero has instead been blessed with an Assassin’s mobility. It requires all the same skill (That is to say, hold one button to clamber up darn near anything), but continues to look and feel awesome. A bevy of special skills and gadgets ranging from a ghostly bow, to rideable monsters, to a teleporting sneak attack provides players with a good range of tactical options for both locomotion and combat prowess.
Still, for everything SoM borrows from games that have come before, it also concocts some welcome twists to alleviate the more tedious or aggravating problems associated with these types of games. A fall/stumble move that actually speeds you up? Why, thank you! A short QTE to avoid the final killing blow of an enemy? Beats a load screen! How ‘bout a crouched stealth run? Where have you been all my life!
Bolt on an utterly forgettable plot (The main character’s name is… Talion, I think. He’s possessed by some long dead elf because… Reasons.) complete with several horribly forced Gollum cameos, sprinkle in some unremarkable collect-a-thon items, and you’ve got a title that would have been a polished, fun, if unremarkable, game. So how does it end up as our pick for Game of the Year?
Three words: The Nemesis System. Twenty Uruk captains and five Warchiefs call the shots in each half of Mordor. Each and every one of these boss monsters are randomly generated with their own set of strengths, weaknesses, hatreds, and fears. Moreover, each of your monstrous foes will remember your previous encounters and are quick to chat about it the next time you meet. Occasionally you’ll even have an Uruk too stubborn to just roll over and die. He’ll come back with scars, prosthetics, and new traits from your previous encounters. All of this is brought to life through some of the best facial animation yet seen and a seemingly unlimited cache of excellent voice work.
Of course, there’s more going on in the world than just your man-handling of the monsters. The Uruks themselves will be out and about hunting monsters, recruiting followers, holding feasts, and fighting amongst one another for promotions. Even the lowliest, most generic orc in the world is a viable candidate for Warchief. All he has to do it be good/lucky enough to get the killing blow in on you. Have a bad run of luck on your revenge visit and you may very well give said orc enough cred with the boss man to elevate his power beyond your own. This creates the threat of real consequence to every battle. Even heroes smart enough to run away to live another day can look forward to being mocked by their enemies on a return visit.
While open world games are legendary for being a sandbox of emergent gameplay, Shadow of Mordor takes this idea to new heights by allowing for fully emergent characters. The Nemesis System is, if you’ll forgive the pun, a game changer. Muzglob Iron Arm, a particularly large, well spoken, and strangely honorable Uruk, was my favorite character in any video game this year. Oh, the fights we had matching wits and swords across Mordor’s barren cliffs! His constant triumphs over me had led to his promotion to a level 14 Legendary Captain by that time. I remember the first time I finally took him down after having met my fate at his hands three times previously. It was a joyous moment! A moment that would soon be eclipsed by terror when I later encountered him. Muzglob was very much alive and newly adorned with an iron plate bolted to the side of his head, a memento from my hard fought, if futile, victory. He once again got the better of me in combat. The time after, I won. The stubborn git still wouldn’t die! My second victory instead had gifted him a new, vicious looking hook where once his hand was. Muzglob Iron Arm, indeed! He was my arch enemy throughout my time in Middle-earth, far more so than any of the plot-relevant fodder placed in my path. It is a truly odd idea that he doesn’t exist in anyone else’s game. It’s staggering to think of how many thousands of other memorable villains exist in other people’s games that I’ll never see…
Players have had free reign in sandbox games before. Now, they have company. At long last, the shackles have been removed from your foes as well. While some games have simulated AI agents before, none in this genre have accomplished it with as much artistry and personality as Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. The Nemesis System is one of those ‘next-gen’ features we yearn for!
Monolith has shaken the world before, but this time they might very well have changed it.