I bought my first full retail non-remastered PS4 game since Infamous: Second Son yesterday in a semi-impulse purchase of Shadow of Mordor. I say “semi” because while I always had my eye on it, current gen games are massively expensive and as the release date drew closer, I was beginning to wonder if I should bother. But the drought of proper full releases combined with the appeal of going out and buying a new game when I did not expect to was enough for me to cave into temptation. I have been far more frugal with game-buying these days and thought it was time to treat myself. Or, more accurately, get treated by my girlfriend. Yes, she bought me the game. The truth comes out. Maybe we should move on to my impressions after my 3-5 hours with the game last night.
Shadow of Morder is far better at being Assassin’s Creed than Assassin’s Creed itself has been since the second entry. Whereas Ubisoft’s cash cow has turned into an annual iterative beast more akin to a yearly sports game than the genre-defining inspiration that came from Assassin’s Creed II, Shadow of Mordor does not try to hide its influences and instead thoughtfully edits them, taking the good elements from the stealth-focused series and editing them with the sort of perspective that Ubisoft has not had in five years.
After a melodramatic opening that is almost impressive in how generic and awful it is considering the source material of the universe the game is working with, Shadow of Mordor then begins to do a great number of things very well. I was given full control of Talion with free reign of exploration of all of Mordor. Of course, being free to go anywhere does not mean it is a good idea to start doing so. Just like in Final Fantasy XII, players will pay for an over-confident stride into fully uncharted waters.
What Shadow of Mordor immediately does so well in addition to this, however, is creating the perfect balance of Talion’s power and helplessness. I felt very powerful with my new Wraith powers, but it became quickly apparent that rushing into battle would only work to my detriment. There were simply too many Ork, Uruk, and advantageous numbers and positions for me to assume I could hack and slash my way through every area. Shadow of Mordor emphasizes that the player has many choices of how to proceed, but that every method will be more successful if approached thoughtfully.
As I initially carelessly and brashly sprinted through Mordor, I was intercepted by two Captains; characters who wield local power, have exposed names and titles, and are capable of forming a history with Talion. I defeated them through simply melee combat, but the victories only built my confidence to a more dangerously high plateau and soon I would realize why I would have to become more humble to succeed in the game.
Once I started falling to Captains and their increasingly well-defended weak spots, I noticed that every death made things more difficult for myself. The characters who defeated me gained power and started rising in the ranks in addition to gaining confidence from having beaten me, not to mention their increasingly spiteful feelings of me and their knowledge of my capabilities. The system makes death enormously personal and there is something appropriately shameful about having been defeated by a low-level archer who gets promoted to Captain, defeats me as Captain, and then rises further in the ranks as I only watch knowing that his increase in power and influence is all due to my incompetence.
The stealth mechanics – especially after attempting recently to play more horrible story missions from Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag – are everything Assassin’s Creed dreams it could be. Shadow of Mordor understands that it is most important to make mechanics consistent and able to be mastered and after a few hours, I have a sense of the pace of the game despite still being a novice. I can see that my losses are my fault and I can see what I need to correct to improve in the future, even if I am not quite at that level yet. It becomes irrelevant that the AI cannot see a realistic distance forward because – as mentioned – the phenomenon is consistent and in proper alignment with the level design. Stealth is enormously useful and – unlike in recent Assassin’s Creed games – enormously fun and satisfying.
The melee combat represents a low-point of my experience so far. It is functional and a competent homage to the Batman Arkham games, but unlike with the stealth mechanics, there is not much more to it than well-executed imitation. Of course, Batman‘s combat holds up better than Assassin’s Creed‘s stealth, but – at least this far into the experience – I do not feel the same sense of skill-building that the stealth and strategy elements of the game provide. In the game’s defense, melee combat does appear to be something of a last line of defense, and as a last resort, the experience is quite fitting.
It is also refreshing that the side challenges are actually challenges. Unlike both Assassin’s Creed and Infamous: Second Son in which completing sidequests began to feel like level grinding without leveling up, Shadow of Mordor requires both the attention and skill of players like me who tend to avoid the main missions in favour of optional content.
Just like dying often can begin to feel hopeless as Sauron’s army grows in strength, numbers, and confidence, a good streak can turn the tables in the other direction. When I had taken out over five Captains without dying or moving time forward, the sense of hopelessness I had had earlier was replaced with hope. Maybe I would not be overwhelmed by an army that I only help to make more powerful.
Of course, that confidence once again turned into hubris and I went on a dying spree, but at least I deserved it every single time.
Shadow of Mordor is a very encouraging game so far. It is a logical progression of the open world genre in which the game is given a specific tone (one powerful Man/Wraith alone in Mordor to take on all of Sauron’s growing army) which is reflected powerfully in the gameplay. It is a way to give focus to a game with freedom and it works well. It exposes the laziness of the Assassin’s Creed series and it harnesses the power of the PS4 as a huge world loads easily, runs well, and looks great – even if it is obvious how much better PS4 games are going to look in a few years. Of course, this could all fall apart or eventually get old, but the reviews I have read indicate that the game is well-paced and knows how long to be. Which is extra good because I need to beat it before Dragon Age: Inquisition comes out and I have no more time left for anything in my life.