Facing the SHADOW OF MORDOR

Time to brawl with some orcs and click on menus. Yay?

I really want to buy and play Middle-Earth: Shadow of War…but I never finished the first game.

I started it several times. I even re-bought the Game of the Year edition to get all of the DLC when I found out it had its own set of achievements.

I’ve never made it much past about one-third of the story content.

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Shadow of Mordor’s lighting system is still right in line with modern visuals.

I have no idea why.

Shadow of Mordor is an incredibly capable open-world brawler that’s filled with mechanics. Both it and its recent sequel make the gamble that a big pile of intricately inter-connected systems will be enough for you to play through the whole thing…even when the story is kind of meandering around or sending you on predictable quests.

Here are some thoughts I have from playing the game for a few hours this week.

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The game is weirdly-lacking in interiors. Like, most of the world exists outside. Which is strange when you stop to think about it. So this cave early on is a highlight.

GRAPHICS

I’ve always loved the way Monolith games look, thanks in large part to their custom engine they’ve developed over decades, the Lithtech engine.

Remember FEAR? That was an awesome-looking game…and yet it got there through its use of animation, physics, and lighting…and not necessarily by having the most complex geometry in the world.

Shadow of Mordor has a similar visual philosophy. The actual design and geometry of the world itself aren’t the most complex or shocking to look at…but the textures, the character models, and the lighting and particle systems are all amazing.

The volumetric lighting in particular helps the game to hold up even today, and I think is also probably responsible for reviewers saying that the new game doesn’t look that much better than the old one.

Also, kudos to Monolith for actually taking advantage of the relatively massive pools of RAM the newer consoles offered them back in 2014. In an era where a lot of cobbled-together games and remasters were coming out, Monolith had the guts to crank up texture detail to impressive heights.

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IT’S OKAY TO LOSE

I think Shadow of Mordor needs a big text prompt telling players it’s okay to die.

Talion, the main character, can’t really die because he’s been “banished from death” through his tie to the spirit of the elf ring-maker Celebrimbor.

That was one of the geekier sentences I’ve ever written.

Anyway, when you die in the game, the Nemesis System hierarchy is allowed to grow and change, and this is at the core of the game mechanics.

Many times, the nemesis-generated orcs will wander up while you’re trying to accomplish some other task, and battles get nigh-impossible. I think this is done on purpose to make you lose.

But I imagine some players will try to tackle these impossible odds and get frustrated and quit when they don’t win.

I know I’ve been guilty of this. Once I learned to embrace losing in the game, I started having a lot more fun.

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I really like the specular highlights that happen when it rains. It has a pleasant shiny quality that reminds me fondly of Original Xbox games. And the way raindrops are individual particles that bounce around is neat, too.

IT REALLY *IS* A PILE OF SYSTEMS

The story in this game is not very good.

Talion’s family dies and he wants revenge. Celebrimbor’s family is also dead and he also wants revenge. So they kill a bunch of orcs and go after the bad guys.

There’s a little more nuance to it, but that’s pretty much it. And at least it doesn’t break Lord of the Rings lore too badly.

But really, the systemic fun of the game’s brawler combat and random generation are the stars here, like Diablo III.

Monolith has clearly hoped that you’ll be engaged enough by the actual fun of playing with the game and messing with its AI that you’ll forgive the slightly bland world design and the ho-hum story.

I’m not sure if I’m fully there yet, but there’s no denying that the systemic complexity is impressive, and I always have some concrete goal to shoot for. It’s just a little weird that those goals are driven by filling up bars in the menus and not by trying to see the next chapter of the story.

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This is roughly 90 percent of what you’ll be doing in this game when you’re not exploring menus.

FINAL THOUGHTS

I’m enjoying my time with Shadow of Mordor 3 years after release. It still looks great and its Batman combat is really fun.

I like brawlers and I like systems and I like Lord of the Rings. So this game is seemingly made for me.

I just worry that it’s all a little too bare. Monolith has made no attempt to cover up the systemic and mathematic complexity of their game with anything more than a fancy menu treatment.

If you’re not a fan of navigating elaborate menus with swooshing sound effects, you might loathe this game.

If you’re the sort of person that thought one of the best things about Dragon Age II was the fun noises the menus made, this game is right up your alley.

You can find my work here on Medium, and over at www.worldbolding.com. I’ve been neglecting that site recently while in rehearsals for a play I’m doing sound design on, but it’s coming back soon. Thank you for reading.

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I do radio voice work by day, and write by day and night. I studied film and production. I love audio, design, and music. Also video games.

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