Monday, February 16, 2015

"Shadow of Mordor" is one of the best of its genre

By this point in my life/gaming career, I've played all the "Batman: Arkham" games and even "Sleeping Dogs." I'm a huge fan of open world/action games, especially the ones with the free-flowing combat system that the former series pioneered. So while waiting for "Batman: Arkham Knight," enter "Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor." As the name suggests, it's a game based on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. I've definitely been a fan, but I cooled down on the high fantasy since it was almost a good 10 years between the release of the first "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and the new "Hobbit" movies. I'm still not quite the fan that I was as a junior high student, but I definitely appreciate the franchise. Digression aside, Tolkien's world is actually a perfect setting for a game similar to "Batman: Arkham" or even "Assassin's Creed." In fact, I'm not sure why one wasn't made until last year. Oh well, better late than never. Oh, and this one stands tall as one of the best of the genre.

Set between "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings," "Shadow of Mordor" tells the tale of Talion, a ranger (like Aragorn), stationed near Mordor to keep an eye on the place. Smart move from the higher ups in Gondor, since Sauron could potentially make a comeback anytime he wants. One fateful day, the garrison gets overrrun by orcs commanded by three of Sauron's top lieutenants. The rangers hold out, but everyone ends up getting killed, even the families of said rangers. Technically, Talion dies, too. That is, until an elven wraith (who was summoned by Sauron's lieutenants) picks him as a host body and brings him back as sort of an undead warrior. It's kind of like T'Zarkaan and Malus Darkblade from "Warhammer." So then they team up to take down Sauron, one orc at a time.

At first glance, the gameplay in "Shadow of Mordor" is extremely similar to those two open world action game examples I cited at the beginning. You dish out damage, and you get to counter attacks. If you've even picked up a "Batman: Arkham" game, you'll feel right at home. The only difference here is that you actually get to kill your enemies, since Talion isn't exactly Batman as far as morals go. At a certain point in the game, you actually get to charge your sword and perform insta-kill executions when you get to a high enough combo. Those animations never get old. The movement controls are also like every other game in the genre that has come before it. But that's where the "Batman: Arkham" comparisons stop.

What is done differently here is something that is truly revolutionary as far as games go. Enter the Nemesis System. Rather than going for the no innovation route that "Batman: Arham Origins" went down, the people at Monolith did something that no other game has ever done. The Nemesis System isn't something I can really describe in one sentence. I'll just describe it like this. Ok, imagine you screw up in a game, and one of the enemy mooks kills you. Now imagine that for killing you, said mook gets a promotion and becomes even more powerful than before, essentially becoming a mini-boss. Oh and every time you encounter this mini-boss, he remembers you and trolls you for not killing him. That's a nemesis orc. Any nameless mook that kills you can get promoted to captain and become more powerful the more times he kills you. Having enemies that actually come back to haunt you adds a layer of dimension absent in most competitor games along with a potentially endless cycle of gameplay content.

The Nemesis System also adds an element of strategy that none of the rival games have. See, each of the orc captains and warchiefs (the 5 orcs in charge who play a vital role in the campaign) have their own strengths and weaknesses. One orc might be killed by you sneaking up on him and delivering a stealth kill while another may not even be damaged by your regular attacks. No two nemeses orcs are the same. Having such an imbalance between enemies may come off as frustrating at times, but that's exactly what makes this experience so compelling. As such, it definitely pays to collect intel before you go fighting one, so you can know exactly what you're getting yourself into. I mean, you can choose not to, but the game will be a lot harder that way. And this is where "Shadow of Mordor" shines: in its freedom to choose whether you want to do it the easy way or the hard way (which often ends up becoming the very VERY hard way depending on the orc's strengths and weaknesses).

Another thing you can do is control the minds of your enemies, known in the game as "branding." You don't get this ability until roughly the second act. It's an ability that can be the difference between having a manageable time and having a really bad time in the finale, without giving away too much. It's a lot of fun to brainwash enemies under your control and have them do your bidding for you. Of course, you can technically choose not to, but it makes the game during the second half much harder and less amusing.

While some of the gameplay mechanics aren't new to the genre, the Nemesis System and branding make "Shadow of Mordor" stand out in a genre that's starting to get crowded.


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