There’s no denying the anticipation for Middle-earth: Shadow of War, the sequel to the hit game Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor.
Amongst rumours and leaks, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment has announced that Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is in development from Monolith Productions.
On this week’s Pixels & Ink podcast, it’s the look back at 2014 to see which game ends up being the CGM game of the year. We shake things up a bit with some new categories, a new face, and a round table discussion of which games were the ones that stuck with us. You might be surprised to hear about which game emerges as our winner.
Before I start I should make it clear that, for the most part, I enjoyed my time with Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. I found Monolith Productions’ take on the world of the Lord of the Rings plenty fun. The combination of an excellent combat system, compulsive collectable hunting, and vast enemy variety offered by the uniquely named orc warchiefs made the experience of playing the game absorbing. Shadow of Mordor, free of any outside context, is pretty good. All the same: is it really one of the best games of 2014? Have our expectations really lowered to the point that Shadow of Mordor is a shining example of what videogames are capable of?
Maybe part of the excitement surrounding Shadow of Mordor is due to the fact that we haven’t seen many releases this year that have really shaken up the medium. Since January there have been a good deal of excellent titles, sure, but none of them have managed to generate the sort of widespread excitement that followed The Last of Us, Skyrim, or The Walking Dead. The launch of a new set of consoles seems to have drained the year of some of its most ambitious mainstream games, leaving behind a host of sequels and safe bets from series guaranteed to offer up good holiday sales. (A host of delays that pushed many interesting-looking releases into 2015 hasn’t helped either.) What this has meant, I think, is a real desire to celebrate something—anything—that looks halfway new and exciting.
[pullquote align=”right” class=”blue”][Shadow of Mordor] works well on a moment-to-moment basis thanks to pitch-perfect controls and excellent world design, but none of it feels in any way new. [/pullquote]Shadow of Mordor’s “Nemesis System” keeps track of the game’s enormous cast of orcish enemies by recording their internal power struggles and promotions within an ever-changing hierarchy. It’s a unique system that has been lauded since the game’s release as a substantial innovation. Unfortunately, it’s really the only part of Shadow of Mordor that elevates the experience beyond a rehash of Assassin’s Creed’s open-world exploration and the Batman: Arkham series’ combat systems. Talion, the player character, hops around Mordor climbing towers to reveal the landscape, chases down collectable items, and sneakily infiltrates enemy compounds in a way that is instantly familiar to anyone who’s spent time with recent sandbox games. His fights are completed with the mixture of rhythmic button presses, combo-enabled finishing moves, and acrobatic dodging introduced in Batman: Arkham Asylum and appropriate into a number of games since. All of it works well on a moment-to-moment basis thanks to pitch-perfect controls and excellent world design, but none of it feels in any way new.
The Nemesis System is, initially, great to poke at. There’s fun to be had in “branding” an orc before knocking off his boss to ensure a high-placed ally or nurturing a vendetta against the jerk who killed you and is becoming more powerful with each new combat encounter. But it ultimately feels shallow once the orc hierarchy has been exploited often enough to understand exactly how it works. At that point the sense of a living, breathing enemy population falls away and becomes little more than a series of chess pawns waiting to be manipulated—clockwork constructions that behave inorganically and predictably. The Nemesis System, as neat of a concept as it is, doesn’t compensate for the incredible sense of familiarity that comes from the rest of Shadow of Mordor. Aside from the gameplay mechanics, there’s a rote revenge plot and forgettable characters, a fictional background that isn’t compelling to anyone but pre-existing Lord of the Rings fans, and a setting that, while gorgeously rendered, is bland and unremarkable.
Despite its faults, Shadow of Mordor is a good game that manages to get a lot of mileage out of distilling many different tried-and-true open world gameplay systems into a single experience. But it’s basically the same videogame we’ve been playing for years now. That it has been received with such overwhelming positivity may be a sign of temporarily lowered expectations. In another year—one with a few more games that surprise audiences with experiences they’ve never had before—it would likely be the kind of title that’s recommended with caveats. It may have been held up as a solid example of how to pace and present an open world title, but criticized more heavily for its lacklustre parts. The Nemesis System would have been discussed as an interesting proof of concept that could be great if given further depth or featured in games with more interesting settings and characters. As it is, Shadow of Mordor seems like an inflated case of “right place, right time”—a good game held up as great during a fairly unexciting year of mainstream releases.
Balancing difficulty in games is difficult, or at least it seems that way. Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor has received some flak from players who say the game is too easy, but there is a difference between poor game design and subjectively disliking a choice. If a bass player is hitting a lot of wrong notes then they aren’t playing bass very well, but you can’t say they suck at playing bass because they’re playing reggae, and you don’t like reggae.
It’s easy to make a game challenging by stacking the odds against the player. Call of Duty: World at War on veteran difficulty was particularly good at this. I remember struggling through it by yelling at my television and throwing my controller (yes I was one of those kids). I reached the second to last level titled “Heart of the Reich” where players are tasked with storming the final bastion of Nazi defense, and to this day that was the stupidest form of difficulty I’ve ever encountered in a video game. Players must reach the Reichstag building through an infinite amount of Nazi’s. These goose stepping jerks would pour out from behind a wall, and if or when you finally found yourself behind said wall- expecting to find a portal from hell that perpetually regurgitates the same 10 guys you’ve been killing over and over again – you find nothing but another Nazi-vomiting wall 20 feet ahead of you. So you can try to clear them out but they’ll spawn just as fast as you can kill them and if you move out from cover to move up you just run into a surprise party with the grenade family who have brought a few hundred of their bullet friends. That’s as far as I got because at that point it was either stop playing or be prepared to buy a lot more controllers.
I don’t consider this bad design because it frustrated me though. It’s bad because it makes success reliant on chance and exploitation rather than a proficiency in the game’s mechanics. It opposes what the game is trying to accomplish. I don’t know what Treyarch’s intentions were with World at War. Maybe their goal with the veteran difficulty was to simulate the often futile nature of combat in the Second World War, but that would be very inconsistent with the tone throughout the rest of the game so I’m going to chalk that particular part of an otherwise great game to lazy design.
There are almost as many ways to approach this problem as there are games. A lot of RPG’s, for example, scale the difficulty of enemies with the level of the player, but this too is done in different ways and to varying degrees of success. It was particularly frustrating when that scaling was done in chunks as opposed to gradually. The dungeon rats you’d fight at level one, for example, would be a pain, then by level four you’d feel stronger as they became easier to kill and at level five everything would scale up and they’d get harder again. Systems like that make you aware that you’re playing a game and cause players to exploit the system in their favour.
The biggest problem with this approach is it almost removes any sense of player progression. Players feel their strength increase as they level up and then all of that becomes quickly undone as enemies become instantly and, what seems like, arbitrarily, harder. The ability to power up or level up your character throughout a game is mechanic found throughout a number of genres, but more often than not, in my experience, it doesn’t transpire into a real sense might by the end of the game.
A goal of the team at Monolith with Middle-Earth: Shadows of Mordor, was to create a player progression that ended with that player feeling very powerful, like the kind of person who could destroy an entire army single-handed. The evidence for this is in the late game abilities you get, the story the game tells, and the words at least one designer. In an interview with Game Informer, the Director of Design, Michael de Plater, mentions the types of player motivation the team focused on. He talks about one of these being “making you feel extremely powerful in terms of how much you can actually dominate and manipulate your enemies, and the world.” That was one of their objectives when designing the game and unless you are in the camp that was seriously frustrated with the combat I think they succeeded.
I think where Monolith may have failed its players is in the lack of difficulty choice. At least with World at War there were difficulty options. In Shadow of Mordor there are ways to remove the icons that warn you of an incoming attack, but that doesn’t require you to become better at the combat, just better at identifying the enemies who are telegraphing their incoming attack. It is possible that difficulty options were in the game and then later taken out. In a Reddit AMA de Plater mentions that during demos the team would lock the difficulty to easy, but there has been no confirmation of this.
The difficulty with difficulty is that games are subjective and everyone is going to approach them with their own experiences and opinions. Some people seem to want everything to be Dark Souls, and although they handled this issue really well I’m sure there are plenty of people who have no interest in that style of game. I find it refreshing that Shadow of Mordor embraces the idea of making the player feel powerful, and maybe that’s not the game you are interested in but it doesn’t make it a bad game.