Shadow of Mordor: Building a Busy Game

I’ve said before that I don’t do reviews – and I maintain that position. There are too many videos on Youtube explaining why X game is awful or has the worst level design or why the designers are stupid, and they all seem to be run by the same patronizing white male who’s way too impressed with his very small range of technical comprehension. That said, I’ve reinstalled Shadow of Mordor recently, and it feels very thin. I wanted to talk a bit about some of the elements that feed into that. 

As a bit of background, I’ve just finished a playthrough of Arkham Knight, and I’ve re-bought Arkham Origins. I’ve played Origins on PS3 before, but I wanted to try it on PC, so I’m back into it, and, uh, it’s not great. But compared to Shadow of Mordor, it feels jam-packed full of crazy fun treats. There’s a few elements that I think contribute to this feeling.

Firstly, Arkham Origins is much better at introducing things. The pesky Riddler has a bunch of cell towers that are blocking blah blah blah, and you have to break into them. This is all wrapped up in a narrative: you’re flying somewhere in the Batwing, but you can’t get there because the cell towers mess with your plane or something, so you jump down to take out the cell tower, and you get a call from Riddler. The whole thing is a bit silly, but it’s clearly attaching a set of gameplay events to a character and a narrative and giving you a reason to go and complete the missions.

Contrast Shadow of Mordor. There are two sets of collectible items: wall sigils, and hidden artifacts. The wall sigils are scattered around the environment, and you have to find them with your wraith-vision or whatever it is. When you collect one, the game jumps to a picture of a door, and part of the pattern of the door is filled in. What’s going on? Why are you collecting these things? What’s the relevance of the door? These things might be established later, but they aren’t grounded from the outset in a clear narrative. The same goes for the artifacts – they’re relics from people who used to live in Mordor, or from slaves who live in Mordor today. There’s not really an overarching motivation to go and get them – they’re just sort of points of interest. Contrast the feathers in Assassin’s Creed 2 – you collect them because your brother asks you to. Or consider the Riddler trophies in any Batman game – you collect them to beat the Riddler. You as player are given these motivations for a task from the outset. But in Shadow of Mordor, that’s not really the case.

A second factor is the relative paucity of things to do in Shadow of Mordor. There’s the Nemesis system, which I’ve talked about glowingly in the past. Wait – hang on, no I haven’t. Have I not written about the Nemesis system? How the fuck have I not – okay never mind. The first time I played Shadow of Mordor, I loved the Nemesis system. Anyway. Set that aside for now. Here’s the full list of things to do in Shadow of Mordor:

20 story missions
24 side-quest missions about rescuing slaves from orcs
30 weapon-training missions
10 pick up flowers challenges
10 kill a number of specific animal challenges
32 sigils to pick up
42 artifacts to pick up

And here’s the list for Arkham Origins:

14-ish story missions
7 side-quest villain story arcs comprising 44 separate encounters
36 challenge arenas, training skills like the sword-challenge missions above
7 comms towers to unlock
70 Riddler relays to destroy
200 Riddler data packs to pick up
20 Anarky tags to collect
8 Cyrus Pinkney plaques to collect
plus all the random optional ‘Crimes in Progress’ events

So Arkham Origins has over four times as many collectibles. More isn’t always better, to be sure, but it does mean that there’s always something interesting in the immediate environment. Origins also has more side-quest missions, and they’re much more diverse than the ‘save this slave from some orcs’ side-quests in SoM. It has less story missions, although the numbering of story missions is a little bit arbitrary, because they aren’t necessarily of equal length. For example, in one early Shadow of Mordor story mission, ‘The Slaver’, you have to 1) identify the orc leader by looking around with your wraith-vision, and 2) kill him. That’s the mission. Oh, and you can kill some archers as a bonus objective. But that’s the length of the mission. Contrast Arkham Origins, where story missions can take anywhere between ten minutes (Coventry Tower, say, where you have to take out three gunmen, complete a crime scene, and unlock the first Riddler tower) and thirty minutes to an hour (The Final Offer, say, where you have to navigate through Penguin’s wrecked old boat, fight a bunch of dudes in several different encounters, and deal with two boss fights, one of which, admittedly, is a joke fight). The mission referenced from Shadow of Mordor isn’t necessarily a freak outlier either – the ‘Black Captain’ mission consists of a fight against one boss enemy with constantly respawning waves of Orcs; ‘Climbing the Ranks’ consists of killing one Orc Captain and his crew to save Ratbag, an ally (sort of); and ‘The Warchief’ requires you to kill two Berserker Orcs and one Orc Warchief. Story-heavy missions are few and far between. Arguably the Nemesis system creates its own little side-quests, but we’ll talk more about that next week. I have more I want to say on the Nemesis system, and there’s not enough room at the tail-end of a post.

Thirdly, then, Arkham Origins has more diverse forms of navigation. I’ve been writing recently about methods of travel in the Arkham games – how gliding works in relation to walking on the ground, and how the Batmobile changes that dynamic. In Shadow of Mordor, you’re only allowed to move along the ground. There are heaps of Orcs dotted around the place, similar to the thugs in Arkham Origins, but Origins lets you grapple up and away, and lets you just glide over them in the first place. There’s no parallel in Shadow of Mordor: you’re always just running along the ground. Sometimes you do move into more heavily populated areas – fortresses, this sort of thing – and those are probably some of the most interesting parts of the game. There’s a vertical dimension, you can move along rooftops instead of the ground, it’s not all just mud everywhere – they’re interesting environments. But Shadow of Mordor limits them to specific locations, while Arkham Origins is set in a city. It’s consistent for Shadow of Mordor to design the environment in the way it does, and I’m not really blaming it for anything. But it feels like a thin game, both in terms of navigation and in terms of the other points raised above. I was hypnotised by the Nemesis system on my first playthrough, but now I’m realising that there’s really not a lot on offer.

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