Shadow of Mordor
There’s something to be said for ‘if at first you don’t succeed’ in gaming. The only difference in Shadow of Mordor is if at first you don’t succeed you can expect the enemies to remind you just how crap you were the last time.
What am I on about? Probably Shadow of Mordor’s best and most innovative idea which is called the Nemesis system, something I’m amazed no one else had thought of first. I’ll cover it in more detail shortly but needless to say it makes Shadow of Mordor stand out a mile from your average 3rd person brawler/adventure games.
Instead I’ll start at the beginning with our character Talion who in typical gamer fashion has a bone to pick with the orcs and Urak’s who just so happen to massacre his family (And him) at the start of the game whilst they live around the Black Gate. For anyone familiar with the LOTR canon you’ll know that the Black Gate wasn’t the best place to set up camp with the return of Sauron. Instead of dying Talion is left in a limbo state of being a ‘ghostwalker’. Not able to die but not able to live as he once did. Alongside him he now has a wraith who guides him and provides advice/new skills as you progress.
The game mechanics are very similar to Assassins Creed, you are able to climb most structures and stealth kill around the open world map to explore as much as you want. Taking over towers reveals more of the map, opening up main mission quests and side missions galore as well as collectibles which all contribute to increasing your skills. The game world is pretty enough (Although I certainly don’t think it pushes the envelope on the console) and so far I’ve played through the first map to completion (You get two maps). What is impressive is the amount of NPC stuff going on. Humans will start insurrections against the orcs (Humans are being turned to slavery to help Sauron’s army), you can decide to help or watch them be cut down. Orc leaders will start battles with one another for a chance at moving up the greasy pole of promotion (Similar to working in any normal workplace I guess) and Strongholds are littered throughout the map for you to take on or find loot in. Another impressive feature is the local wildlife (Caragors – you’ll have seen them in the new Hobbit films – if not they are like extremely large annoyed dogs with big teeth), these beasts can be tamed by you and ridden as a living tank to attack the hordes. Better yet you can attract them to encampments by releasing food bundles or breaking them out of cages. Caragors are an equal opportunities enemy and will attack you and the enemy, the rule of thumb is if you are closer they will bite you, so it’s always best to release them and get to high ground. Although they can climb things so don’t get to smug as you watch them do your dirty work for you.
The skill tree is impressive with collectibles providing you with cash to increase your health and focus (Slows time and allows you to fire your Bow) and other skills. In addition you carry 3 weapons (Which are upgradable during the game – a Sword, Dagger (For stealth kills) and a Bow). Increasing skills unlocks more spaces for Runes to be attached to these weapons, runes are earned from killing the Orc captains, the harder they are the better the rune dropped, meaning you’ll walk a tightrope of allowing certain Orcs to get more powerful just to earn better rewards. But let them progress too far and you’ll find they are a bugger to kill.
Combat itself will be instantly familiar to anyone who has played Assassins Creed or any of the Batman releases. You have one attack button, a throw and a counter. You string these together to allow you to fight 20+ enemies at the same time. It feels like a good balancing act as you fight multiple opponents at the same time whilst dishing out a kicking to the Orc captain you’ve come to kill. Its only let down occasionally by the feeling of hammering the same buttons for the same outcome or where the camera decides to spin into some scenery meaning a mad second or two of hammering the counter button in case someone gets a hit on you.
Death when it comes (And it will – repeatedly) means you spawn at the nearest tower you’ve unlocked. In the early parts of the game you’ll want to focus on stealth over simply trying to kill everyone as you remain weak until you’ve leant the basics of combat and countering and got a few health increases. Health doesn’t recover by itself and requires you to pick flowers from the world, which can prove difficult or impossible during combat so don’t bite off more than you can chew!
Which introduces us to the best part of the game. The Nemesis system. Every enemy Orc in the game has a unique personality which is randomly generated for each game. These Orcs have strengths and weaknesses that could mean an Orc fleeing from battle if you manage to free a Caragor near them, alternatively it could mean one of their strengths is being invulnerable to stealth kills, meaning a more direct approach is required. Others may walk around with a personal bodyguard of Orc warriors, no two of them are the same.
The cool thing about the system is that they get promoted if they kill you, promotions mean better skills and more exposed weaknesses for them, promotions also mean they rock the boat in the existing chain of command and may decide to go and bump off another Captain they feel is taking over their turf or get assassinated by a young upstart who fancies a go at the big time himself. Watching these internal power struggles is brilliant as an outsider, even more fun when you are the shadow behind the scenes directing them. One of your skills allows you to persuade (i.e. threaten with death) Orc leaders into doing your dirty work for you. You might decide to allow an Orc captain to live provided he goes and rallies his army against the swine of a captain who has killed you repeatedly for the last five attempts and then whilst he is raging a war for you, sneak in and kill the captain whilst his guard is down. It’s like an episode of House of Cards, just with more blood and no Kevin Spacey.
Another smart move is that Orcs will remember you and bear the injuries of previous battles. I had one Orc captain who despite my repeated attempts has managed to dish out a number of beatings to me despite me throwing him through a fire, exploding a camp fire next to him, slicing half his face off and breaking most of his bones. His face is now a patchwork of scars with one side entirely blackened by the fire damage and armour in the places on his body I haven’t smashed yet. But still he breaths and teases me every time I face him with reminders of the last time he hung me out to dry. Which leads me on to the dialogue in this game. First rate in my view, not necessarily for the quality of voice actor they’ve hired (Mostly Eastenders extra’s from the sounds of things) but instead from the shear breadth of lines in the game. I don’t think I’ve heard one line repeated so far and Orcs constantly comment on the fact they have seen me before and that I can’t be killed. The captains are even better either hiding in fear or talking smack as I get beaten again by them. Each time they remind you just how far they have come and how far you have fallen against them previously.
The entire Nemesis system is a class act and leads to some of the most enjoyable moments in the game as you continually try and alter the hierarchy of Captains either through brute force or more underhand tactics. The dialogue is just the right side of needling you for failing previously and pushing you to wipe the smile of the faces of your enemies. You’ll spend a lot of time just partaking in the internal battles between the Orcs rather than the storyline which leads me on to the less good points.
The story is weak (At least so far) and as I said seems like the typical act of revenge. If anything they probably could have dropped the story entirely and allowed you to just play around with the Nemesis system more. On top of this the graphics are not pushing the console and the lack of additional weapons feels lacking later in the game, combat feels mechanical after a few hours of play and whilst executions are brutal they begin to meld with one another later in the game.
Longevity wise it seems like a value for money purchase. With no MP you have a challenge mode available which I haven’t tried as yet plus the promise of future DLC in the obligatory seasons pass.
In summary then SOM seems to take all the good bits of other open world 3rd person games and bring them into a neat little package of playability. I had doubts about whether SOM would be a decent release but the thing that’s really saved it and makes it stand alongside games like AC and Batman (And in some cases stand above them) is the Nemesis system. Hours can be sunk into this area of the game and just sitting and watching the power struggles is enjoyable by itself. Start getting involved in it like some sort of deranged Malcom Tucker and you’ll be rewarded with your own little Orc Lieutenant potentially becoming one of the War Chiefs, safe in the knowledge that he will have your back when you need him or you’ll have his head. Its been a long time since I’ve felt my actions can have a direct effect on the outcome of a game, but SOM manages to give that sense of power (And responsibility) because who wants an Orc called Ratbag becoming number 1?