So you probably know that I queue my posts well in advance. I’ve built up a bit of a backlog recently, which means the publication schedule doesn’t necessarily reflect what I’m playing week to week. But I did play Shadow of Mordor recently, which is why you got a couple posts on it in June. And I’ve also been playing Shadow of War, its sequel, which – well, that’s why we’re here. In the earlier posts, I criticised Shadow of Mordor for being a bit of a hollow game. Not enough to do, I said, even with the Nemesis system. But Shadow of War? Ho-ly shit. Love it. Let’s talk.
So what we’re going to do today is a direct comparison between the two games. I’ll mention a complaint from the Mordor posts, and show what War has done about it. I’ll also call them S1 and S2, because SoM and SoW don’t scan easily. It’s hard to remember which one’s which. I’m quite smug about this post, actually, because every point I raised has been addressed and the result is really stunning. So!
Complaint #1 – Shadow of Mordor feels empty
This is resolved in S2. I don’t have hard numbers, because I haven’t finished the game, but my gut instinct is that there’s not necessarily all that much more to be doing in S2. The difference, I suggest, is that they’ve gone from two regions to – what, five or so? And I reckon each region is smaller than the two in S1 – but there’s five of them, so it’s probably bigger overall. What’s more, the compactness of each region means it feels less empty even if there’s only the same amount of content as in S1. The smaller space means there’s always one or two things nearby, and really that’s all we ever wanted.
Complaint #2 – Shadow of Mordor doesn’t contextualise sidequests well
This is resolved too. In the first game you would pick up artifacts around the environment and they were just kinda… there. In the second, there’s still just artifacts lying round everywhere, but there’s a little narrative hook. One of the characters says ‘Oh they’re destroying our heritage what a shame’ and the protagonist decides to try and preserve cultural artifacts. Boom, narrative justification. Easy. Well done.
Complaint #3 – Shadow of Mordor has stupid bullshit story missions
Tick that issue right the fuck off. S2 has legitimate plot development that affects the world around you. Isn’t that crazy! I’m very proud. Also, though, I called bullshit on S1 story missions that were basically just ‘do this one part of the Nemesis system’. Kill a captain, or whatever. These types of missions still technically exist as narrative-heavy tutorial missions in S2, but they don’t take up over 20% of the so-called story.
Complaint #4 – Shadow of Mordor has boring travel
This issue is slightly more complicated, but still a really interesting resolution. I do think that the travel was boring in S1. Partly I now suspect that’s because the regions were so fucking huge – so the issue is already lessened in S2. However, last time I pointed out in my comparison to Arkham Origins that Batman can fly. That is, Batman doesn’t have to engage with every bad guy or group of bad guys that he comes across. He can grapple up and fly off and he’s basically free. S1 didn’t have anything comparable, and so you ended up just awkwardly running through groups of Orcs and dragging them all halfway across the map. S2 has a couple interesting solutions to this problem. First, as I said, regions are smaller, so travel time is reduced, but also the terrain is more varied. Check this shit out:
I mean just look at that varied terrain height. Yes, S2, this is the good shit. Varied terrain means more opportunity to break line of sight so that the Orcs give up. Compare with terrain in S1:
Yeeeeah, you go hide behind that boulder, Talion. They’ll never figure out where you are. But there’s also a third thing. S2 gives you a little speed boost. They have something comparable in S1, where you can increase your speed after vaulting over an object on the ground. It’s a nice idea, but as suggested by this screenshot, THERE IS NEVER ANYTHING ON THE GROUND. S2 keeps the mechanic, but also allows you to start elf-sprinting or whatever by scrolling your mouse wheel up – so it can be manually activated at the minor cost of Focus. Suddenly you can outrun the Orcs, which means the lack of Batman-gliding isn’t as much of an impediment. There are other ways to avoid the Orcs.
Complaint #5 – The Nemesis system is cool but it never gets utilised if you’re good at the game
This is resolved with one deft little addition: difficulty levels! In my post on the Nemesis system, I said it’s a cool idea, but it gets neglected if you’re good at the game. The Nemesis system is based on the idea of Orcs coming back for another fight, and if you just kill them immediately, that never happens. S2 deals with this in a bunch of super interesting ways, the most obvious being the introduction of difficulty levels. I’d suggested difficulty levels myself, so I peed a little bit when I actually saw them being used. And then I pushed the difficulty right the fuck up, and now it’s super hard and really fucking good.
There are also more pronounced opportunities for the captains to escape. If an Orc has the ‘Last Stand’ perk or whatever it is, you go to kill him and get a QTE. If you miss it, he punches you and fucks off – and he doesn’t just walk off behind you, he vanishes completely. You can’t just turn around and go after him – the encounter is reset. This is great! It gives more room for encounters to happen a second time round. There’s also similar conditions for captains fleeing side-quests. I’m not totally sure how this works, but I’ve seen side-quests where you go to kill a captain, it says that he’s fleeing, and then you go to a post-mission analysis screen where you’re rewarded for making him flee. And when you close that screen, he’s gone, and that’s it. You don’t get a chance to hunt him down. I have seen others where they stick around afterwards though, so I’m not totally sure how that’s all programmed.
Similarly, lots of the details that we’ve already talked about feed into this topic. Smaller regions means it’s more likely for some random asshole captain to stumble into your ambush and join the fight against you. There’s still the same, like, 18 or so captains in each region, so they’re more densely populated. Also, the fact that there’s five regions means even if the system is a bit under-used in one region, you’ve got a bunch more chances to try again.
I have more to say on the Nemesis system, but we’re out of time, so I’ll have to save it for next week. I think it’s… it’s an awkward amount, maybe like 650 words. Too much for here, but maybe not a full post on its own. I’ll see what happens.