Remember when games based on movies used to always suck? If you answered yes to the proceeding question, then you’re obviously forgetting about Goldeneye, The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, Spider-Man 2 and a few more. Either that or you never played them, in which case…. I’ll stop being such an arse. Still there’s no denying that, more often than not, movie tie-in games have been monumentally crap.
However in 2014 there was something of a disturbance in the force. Not one, but two, killer games were released that just so happened to be based on extremely popular and iconic movies. One of them was the terrific Alien Isolation, and the other was something of a dark horse; Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor. Be honest with yourself; if someone told you that there was a new Lord of the Rings game coming out, one that stripped away nearly all of Tolkien’s universe and zeroed in exclusively on Mordor, and that this game was more or less a glorified Assassin’s Creed clone, you would hardly have been pissing yourself with anticipation. Add to that a bit of pre-release controversy, when it was revealed that YouTube critics were only able to get review copies of the game in exchange for agreeing to a restrictive and downright shady contract, which necessitated that they be positive about the game whilst glossing over any potential flaws, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that Shadow Mordor should be sent back to the fiery chasm from whence it came.
Well to the surprise of basically everyone, Shadow of the Mordor did not suck. It was actually very good. In fact I’ve found myself somewhat addicted to it. Not in the stable “I binge watch Netflix”, normal people sense of the word, but in the “I have a bucket underneath my desk solely designated for the collection of urine” sense. So what is it about the game that’s so enthralling? Is it a rich, epic world ripe for exploration? Well, not really. I mean it’s ok. It’s a bit small. And all that’s there is a load of enemies to kill and some collectibles to horde. So is the appeal to be found in a deep, immersive story filled with complex characters? I’m going to be perfectly honest, I’m drawing a blank trying to remember exactly what it is that I’m supposed to be doing. I’m fairly sure it’s something to do with avenging my dead family, but don’t quote me on that. I’m not certain because I’ve been too busy hunting down an Uruk Captain who made me look like a right knobhead the last time I saw him.
Yes, as literally every review on the planet has emphasised, the real draw here is the game’s exciting nemesis system. For those of you who don’t know what it is, the nemesis system is an innovative feature which tracks a number of specially tagged Uruks who lead the other enemies in battle. These leaders have different strengths and weaknesses, which can be found out through various means and can then be exploited to your advantage in combat. But it doesn’t stop there. Each Uruk is a unique character that grows as the player interacts, or doesn’t interact, with it. Make an Uruk retreat and the next time he’ll be more aggressive to reassert himself. Fail to prevent an Uruk usurping another and he’ll be promoted and rise in power. Throw an enemy into a fire and he might want revenge on you for his new disfigurement. This essentially allows for the player to create their own much more interesting narratives, as they form individual dynamics with each leader. The system develops even further in the later stages of the game, as you unlock the ability to “brand” enemies, turning them into a kind of sleeper cell agent.
Pretty much all of the attention that the game has received has been focused on the nemesis system. It’s the game’s clear USP. However don’t take for granted the tight, fluid fighting mechanic; a riff on the Arkham games for sure, but one that’s handled really well. Similarly don’t ignore the punchy stealth gameplay or the detailed design. Still there’s no two ways about it, the Nemesis system is what Shadow of Mordor is all about. So it’s crucial that it’s well executed and that it’s more than just an experimental gimmick. Thankfully this is the case. It’s a nuanced, complex mechanic that never gets old. In that sense the game becomes almost infinitely replayable without the need for much scripted content. As a result you could end up just going round and round in circles without really ever getting anywhere, but without really ever getting bored. Hence the disproportionate amount of time I’m currently sinking into dealing with fictional rivalries.
Now if you’ll excuse me I need to empty out my bucket.