What I Learned From: Shadow of Mordor
Starting up a new series of blog things that will capture design thoughts after I’ve just completed (or near-completed) a game. It’s a good exercise to write things up and I’m hoping to get even more now, by making it public and potentially embarrassing. The process of spinning thoughts into a full, legible essay-thing will ideally refine my thoughts and aid my overall thought process. So! To kick things off, I’m going to tackle the recently-released Shadow of Mordor.
A lot of people praised this game for solid combat mechanics and an innovative “Nemesis” system that injected emergent elements with intelligent, persistent boss enemies. I would say the game only succeeds partially on both accounts, with the Nemesis system often being an afterthought and the basic mechanics lacking the sense of direction of the series it mimics.
After a few hours in the world, with most of the novelty worn off, the game starts to drag considerably, with the emergent bits lacking intrigue to go with the general mystery of what the core of the gameplay experience is supposed to be. The game features a good amount of stealth, but the effect of it is somewhat muted by the lack of punishment for breaking its rules. Combat is generally good, especially in the strongholds, but also possesses little threat after the mid-game point and starts to become as much a nuisance as a intriguing scenario.
The main story missions are forgettable in terms of narrative and unremarkable in terms of set pieces and design. This would seem strange but open world games often have poor stories and poor main-mission design. And so the attention naturally tends to the bounty of side quests and collect-a-thon gameplay, which Mordor does provide generous amounts of. These side missions succeed to a greater extent than the story, but they still contain no little undue frustration.
One particularly strange choice is that you have to run back through the enemy camp after failing a challenge mission (and of course there are lots of bugs and silly behavior which can accidentally trigger a failure), instead of the usual button prompt to retry. It made sense at first, as the game often keeps you rooted in the third-person control, but this small win was quickly overwhelmed by the annoyance of having to run through the same areas half a dozen times on certain missions. It doesn’t help then, that this particular flaw is aggravated by one of the game’s more unforgivable sins, a surprisingly dull method of traversal through the environments.
Traversal is secretly the most important main mechanic for any open world character action game. It’s why love for Just Cause 2 is so enduring, why Saint’s Row 4 feels worlds better moment-to-moment than Saint’s Row 3. For the two games that Mordor hews most closely to, it’s the grappling-hook-and-cape of Arkham City and the rooftop-playground-with-many-designed-routes of the Assassin’s Creed series. But Mordor has two main modes, one person running across fields or areas more designed for stealth and combat. It’s lacking the speed and joy of movement that the best games of its genre contain, and fast travel and the occasional animal to ride are little relief.
I would venture a guess that a lot of these problems come from the property itself, with Lord of the Rings not being an ideal fit for a small-scale open world. Especially without a horse! And that’s also why the game works best near strongholds , where you are moving less thanks to the stealth. Though, again, the threat in the hidey-stabby sections is often more of trying to fulfill some bizarre mission criteria and not having to run back to the start. Your character is just too powerful by the time stronger enemies start to appear, and the ability to just hide on roofs with no aerial threat makes even the strongholds feel relatively safe.
I don’t mean to sound overly harsh on Mordor, it is still quite an accomplishment, especially from a studio unfamiliar with this exact type of game. But I think it is conveniently emblematic of a certain trend of what you might call “maximalist design” in big budget action games. The player can have it all, buffet style, but most of it is junk food and there’s no strong direction to provide the player guidance to the good stuff. I think the team and the game would have been better off focusing on less. There are, of course, complaints out there about Mordor being short at 15-20 hours, which is frankly ridiculous. I think it would be a much better and longer lasting-at least in terms of replayability and nostalgia- game if it had cut about 30% of the game and spent that time figuring out how to actually tie everything together.
- It seemed a tad ridiculous to have my big strong killer dude running around collecting flowers but then I remembered what books this game was based on. The “buried junk” and “elven graffiti” collect-a-thon parts were less of a good idea, and I only ever felt pulled to pick them up if I was already close and waiting for a guard pattern to proceed. I get that I’m not really the target audience who might actually enjoy reading a lore, but as a big-time open world/character action game fan, it felt like yet another thing that took away rather than adding to my experience.
- It’s pretty funny that even just a couple months after release, I was able to change my character’s skin completely before even starting the game. I don’t really think the story would have captured me anyway, but it was impossible to take seriously after seeing the disconnect between the boring sad guy in cut-scenes and the woman I actually played as. This was best in the in-game scenes where the character on-screen was a woman but the voice-over was a man. All this nonsense came to a head when I played through the mission where I had to rescue that lady character in-game (what a surprise), leading to this gloriously silly moment:
The lesson would be to not allow for narrative-breaking bonus features until AFTER the player completes the game once.
- Maybe it’s more a problem with how I play the game than how it was designed, but I rarely found myself compelled to head off track from a main or side quest. Even in a game with emergent monsters and bosses and all those lovely fiddly bits, I still just wanted to head straight for the mini-map marker. Maybe it’s a user experience problem? Like maybe there just shouldn’t be mini-maps in third or first person games. I think I’d be okay with that.