I leapt from an invisible tower and immediately observed a group of Uruks slave driving some people on top of a cliff. This followed an extremely well done tutorial sequence that had enough emotional weight behind to make me invested in the characters early on and said emotional weight meant I was in no mood to be trifled with.
I dispatched of the Uruks with relative ease and within 5 minutes I was in the middle of a camp engaging 4 captains (the “mini-bosses” of the game) who had come together to talk about the weather, complain about their respective bosses, trade human slaves in a poker game or whatever other activity they engage in in their down time. One of these captains, “Rash the Angry” killed me mid-battle and proceeded to laugh in my face about it.
As a man of principles, I could not let this stand. But since there was a quest marker pointing me to a story mission, I thought I would check that out first and exact my revenge later.
This is my super long-winded way of saying that in the first 20 minutes of playing Shadow of Mordor, I had done absolutely nothing, yet I had made enemies, freed slaves, observed patrols, fled from battle, tried and failed to exact revenge, been laughed at for trying and failing and had a blast the whole time. That is, in essence what Shadow of Mordor is all about. Yes, there is a story, but it is never forced upon you or blocks your progression. There are some abilities that are unlocked as part of the story, but they only add to the fun rather than impede you for not having them.
At the heart of Shadow of Mordor, the thing that makes the encounters with enemies so much fun is the <em>Nemesis System</em>. (A feature that will not be included in the previous gen consoles after already being delayed due to technical limitations) but one that makes the game stand out among so many similar titles that flood the marketplace.
The system is designed so that when you face an enemy, that enemy then remembers you the next time around. It’s strengths and weaknesses (which you can learn by interrogating certain specific enemies or freeing certain slaves) change based on the moves you use on him or the method you use to kill him. For example, I decided to pursue a Captain named Borgu Jitters. I had determined his weakness by saving a group of slaves, that told me that he was vulnerable to stealth attacks.
I had unlocked the ability to stealth kill enemies from above, so this was how I was going to deal with Mr Jitters. I snuck up on him, crept across a line of rope above him and plunged down on him killing him in one shot. I then proceeded to be killed by some of his men but that’s beside the point…
Later on in the game, I encountered Borgu when I was going after another captain. This time he was invulnerable to stealth kills, ranged attacks, and could only be killed by actually engaging him in a fight. These enemies are not to be messed with, and this is just one example of the Nemesis system making enemy AI smarter than any other game.
It isn’t perfect though. There were a couple of occasions where I had fought an enemy before and he had retreated from me, and the next time I met him, he acted like it was the first time. Whereas other times when enemies retreated, they brought it up the next time we met.
Outside of the Nemesis System, there are a number of other problems with enemy AI . Stealth is pretty good most of the time, but lacking a challenge. I often found that I was able to sprint right up to an enemy from the front, and there was a 3 second window after he had detected me where I could still execute a stealth kill.
We also need to talk about the patent infringing elephant in the room as well. There has been a lot of talk of Shadow of Mordor taking some liberties with mechanics and ideas from the Assassin’s Creed franchise, specifically Assassin’s Creed 2. There are certain things in the game that do look quite similar such as the Leap of Faith from the Forge Towers having the same animation as in AC2 and the climbing and sneaking across ropes and planks looking very similar but apart from that I don’t really see anything else. And these are such minor things, that I really don’t see what all the fuss was about.
However, Assassin’s Creed isn’t the only franchise that Mordor takes “inspiration” from. The combat system, while great in its own right bears a striking similarity to the Batman series, even going as far as having the same buttons performing the same actions as those games. If Square was attack and Triangle was counter, that would be fine on its own, but they use Circle for Stun, and Stun is used to take down larger enemies while jumping behind shielded enemies is the only way to dispatch them. It’s hard to overlook, especially when Batman’s combat feels a lot more visceral and fluid than Mordor’s. If you are going to copy something, it would be a good idea to at least make it as good if not better than it.
These things aside though, Shadow of Mordor is great game that is just shy of excellence due to some questionable borrowing, sad to hilarious glitches, tedious follow missions and a final boss that makes Deus Ex Human Revolution look like a master-class in boss fight design!
I put 30+ hours into the game and I do not regret one second of it. If this month wasn’t jam packed with new releases (look out for my Alien Isolation and The Evil Within reviews this month also), I would happily spend another 30 hours just going after captains in new and different ways, some of which I won’t spoil as they are too fun not to discover on your own. The Nemesis systems alone elevates this game above the standard hack and slash RPG types and is a system that I would love to see in future games. Just imagine a Batman game where the Nemesis system tracks Batman’s entire rogue’s gallery and they are constantly coming up with new and interesting ways to take you down.