This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Shadow of Mordor.
If a developer announces their intention to adapt to video-games what is simultaneously a massive movie franchise and the croutons in the primordial soup of nerd culture, that developer should be treated the way one treats a man standing on the ledge of a tall building, because that is a perfect storm of drama they're letting themselves in for. You'll have the movie people on one side, concerned that you didn't render Gollum's left buttock in accordance with the style guide, and on the other the long-standing fanboys meaningfully sharpening an impractically large replica sword. It's like trying to put on an all-black nativity play for a fundamentalist Christian and a militant atheist, both holding megaphones. Oh I forgot, we're also introducing original characters as we dramatize an as-yet unseen aspect of the canon. Jesus Christ, Monolith, don't you understand you have friends who care about you and want you to live and release Condemned 2 on Steam, for fuck's sake?
Anyway, after all that, Middle-earth (HRUUH) Shadow of Mordor is quite good. Fucking anticlimactic, really.
Our setting is the mythical fantasy realm of New Zealand, more specifically the cursed land of Morrrrdorrrr, named when someone noticed that their house didn't have enough means of ingress, in the time after The Hobbit but before Lord of the Rings, I think, when the dark Lord Sauron isn't letting a little handicap like being a big flamey eye on a stick with no arms or legs stop him from establishing a power base in Morrrdorrr and building an army of orcs.
The hero is Talion, a human ranger so generic gritty protagonist that I fear my vocal cords will fall asleep before I finish describing him. His family were murdered and he's out for revenge, but his determination to beat his orc spitroasting record takes him down a dark path, and he systematically alienates every single friendly character he meets until they piss off and leave him to have all the angst for himself, and garglwarglarrgh.
He's also dead and being kept alive by a wraith who's wearing him like a flesh tuxedo and who acts as the grim emotionless foil to Talion's grim lugubrious angst. It's like Calvin and Hobbes, if Calvin was a piece of wood with a frowny face drawn on it, and Hobbes was another piece of wood with a frowny face drawn on it.
At least the orcs have personality, but they all come across as really insecure. "Grrrh, I just love killing stuff," they cry to fill every awkward silence. "All the alive things had better watch out 'cause I'm the best at killing stuff. You don't even know." And you just want one them to go "Could we talk about something else for one bleeding second? I was browsing an Otherkin forum last night and I've realized I'm actually a financial adviser from Dunstable, trapped in the body of an orc. So from now on, you should all call me Allan."
I find Shadow of Morrrdorrr to be kinda bad at exposition. I'm all for showing without telling, but you need to show me more than the equivalent of a 'previously on Game of Thrones' sequence before dropping me in the middle of Morrrdorrr, equipped with half a sword and most of a bear. I suppose there's this assumption with tie-ins and adaptations that the audience is already on board. But it was only by going over the in-game glossary after I'd finished the story that I gained a clear idea of what was going on and who those Cenobite-looking motherfuckers who made up the pivotal boss fights were. "Wait Yahtzee, I thought you said this game was quite good." Thanks for paying attention, voice in my head. "No worries Yahtzee, don't forget to kill the whores!" Alright, stop fussing!
Yes, the gameplay is what makes it, although I hasten to add that it doesn't do a whole lot new. It's a bit of Assassin's Creed and a bit of Arkham Asylum, asking to be assigned to the always ambiguous action-adventure archive. Urgh, apologies, I'm aiming to annul this alliteration annoyance. So it's your standard suite of stealth stabs (alright, pack it in!) combined with very Arkham Asylum-y counter-based combat against multiple attackers. The sandbox is a bit pokey, but is only as big as it needs to be and avoids the problem of tedious commuting. I feel motivated to do side missions for the extra XP because the upgrades actually make a difference, but you never feel overpowered throughout the campaign as the orc population density is higher than that of cum stains on your grandmother's parlour wall. And they can always overwhelm you with numbers, necessitating clever tactics. So yeah, it's almost nothing new, but regardless does everything right, and that's worth a golf clap.
There is one new thing though. The most powerful orcs in Morrrdorrr get to have unique names and special strengths and weaknesses that you learn from interrogating underlings, and knowing them is almost essential for taking them on. They also have a hierarchy, with warchiefs at the top and lesser captains competing to nosh their scaly bollocks for an advantage, and it's in a constant state of organic flux with randomly generated captains randomly feuding and getting promoted up the ranks. Each time you die, your killer becomes a new captain and everyone else reshuffles like a Labour cabinet with poor re-election prospects, and if you've made any kind of plans, then they're gonna be taking a monkey wrench in uncomfortable places. Not only does this keep you invested in not being killed (blimey, that was a weird sentence) but it creates an environment for organic storytelling. Random Orc 75 kills you and becomes Jorge the Cracksniffer, and now it's personal. You could track him down and stab him up, but then you find intel saying he's afraid of insects, so instead you wait till he's attending a family picnic, shoot down a wasp's nest and laugh as he cacks his pants in front of his dad. This manages to out-Assassin's-Creed Assassin's Creed, although that's not hard because in comparison most Assassin's Creeds are about as balanced as the arm strength of a professional masturbator.
Things get even more interesting later on when you acquire the power to brainwash orcs, after which you can fucking insert sleeper agents into the entourages of your assassination targets. But it's more than that. Once you have a sleeper agent in the hierarchy, you can help him gain power by intervening in his duels and hunting ventures, like a fussy mum coming to see the school play. And you'd be surprised how invested one can get in the career of a random orc, once you know his stupid name and that he likes axes and dislikes being set on fire, which is two more personality traits than most of the characters we're supposed to be rooting for. Shadow of Morrrgldorrglrglr is a solid (ugh) action-adventure unhampered by its generic go-nowhere yawnfest of an overarching story, because who needs overarching story when we can make our own, about an orc struggling to overcome his crippling addiction to being stabbed in the throat by meeeee.
- One thing to rule them all: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Gondor, contrarily, was named when someone noticed that the entrance to their house had mysteriously vanished
- Come Mister Talion tally me banana