Dead Weight – Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor

They await your embrace. Staring idly into the distance, their hands dawdle at the menial task before them. Crouching low like a cat about to pounce, you eye your target, pupils dilating in anticipation. Trepidation conflates with excitement, and your emotions jitter as if you’re undergoing a state change. Oh so carefully, you pitter patter forward on the lightest of steps, your target merely breaths away. And just like that, you lurch forward, snagging them tightly in your arms before planting a loving kiss on their neck. This is Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor’s stealth tutorial, teaching players the techniques as they approach their soon-to-be deceased wife with a heartwarming bouquet. Imprinting this memory on the player at such an early stage feels trivial, it’s a novel inversion of the typical tutorial. The moment lingers though. Like a gas station burger at the start of a road trip, it sits in your stomach, a constant sense of dissatisfaction at odds with the sense of joy you feel on the road. It permeated the experience, feeling like an albatross around the neck of a game that worked best when it embraced the manic over the mainline.

After stealth is used to kiss your slaughtered spouse, it is forever after used for covert orc obliteration.

Shadow of Mordor fancies itself a revenge tale, one where a cardboard cut-out of Aragorn, named Talion, traipses through Middle Earth. His journey is predicated on avenging the death of his wife and son, and he’s returned from Purgatory by a ghastly ghost-elf spirit named Celebrimbor, who’s equally trapped in this hellish reality and inhabits Talion’s body. Orcs have overrun the land, and it’s his job to stop them.

One of the first impressions of Mordor is how limited the world feels the instant you step on the ground. It’s a blase blanket of dullness the size of a Wal-Mart Parking lot, just expansive enough that getting to your car feels like a drag, but close enough that you can still spot your destination in the distance. This has been one of my major issues with any expanded Lord of the Rings stories in general, the world doesn’t feel like it has any extra room to breathe. Everything still seems to revolve around the central Tolkien novels, and while it’s prudent to keep a universe from spiraling into incomprehensible canonical forays, this world feels like its glass walls have turned to diamond in the interim.

Courtesy of TechnoBuffalo

Courtesy of TechnoBuffalo

Meanwhile, Talion spends much of his time trying to find out the history of the ghost-Elf named Celebrimbor that co-habitates his body. Unsurprisingly, that story also winds up tying back to the central LOTR tale surrounding Sauron and the One ring. All the while, Talion rarely mentions his family, but his lone connection to his past life comes in a happenstance stumbling upon an ex-compatriot of his who went rogue. They have little rapport, and their embattled history feels like an issue that would fall by the wayside when the entire human race is crumbling around them. Ancillary story issues stack like Jenga blocks covered in petroleum jelly, and they come to a head with the introduction of Gollum as another key cog in the story’s central mystery. The presence of such overt canonical tethers feel like stuffy safeguards, their insertion only muddling the simple tale Monolith is trying to tell. The overwhelming collection of these mainstream ties can smother a title that actually found a way for players to create their own revenge tales on a scale far grander than Talion or Celebrimbor’s pursuit of Sauron.

Monolith’s Nemesis sytem allows players to manipulate the orcs in this world by targeting specific ones, slaying them, conquering them and eventually commanding them. As the player defeats those orcs, new ones step up to take their place. The opposite works as well, as any orc who defeats the player increases in power, improving their place in the orc hierarchy. What makes it more unique is its sincere lack of self-seriousness. Orcs will readily comment on the fact that they recall slaying your puny human meatbag body before, and how they’re prepared to strip your dignity even further. Some orcs also return from the dead, sporting gnarly scars and sometimes bags over their head to cover their grotesque appearance. Who knew they were so vain?

But Mordor has an Orc problem, and they’re prone to suffocating the player at points. Small skirmishes balloon to widespread battles within minutes, as any new Orc passerbys join the scrum like Urukhai to a freshly slaughtered goblin. Those types of amassing battles may bludgeon home the bleakness of one’s situation, but it can make missions that require the pinpoint assassination of one particular orc nearly impossible. Even if you manage to take down the legion surrounding him, don’t worry, there’s another patrol of 20 orcs just waiting to take their place. These belt-loosening battles have a shelf life, and after the twelfth time of trying to take down Goober the Monstrous, I pined for the simplistic counter-immediate kill of Assassin’s Creed days.

Courtesy of Amazon

Courtesy of Amazon

Creed is a useful comparison in this sense, since the exploration and side missions feel like the most enjoyable components of this Mordorian Madness. Shadow of Mordor borrows heavily from other games, as is the case with most open-world grab-bag games nowadays, but they make no bones with the comparisons, even using tower scaling as the impetus for opening more of the map. They stop just short of having Talion dive off these structures making an eagle sound, although his graceful falls look eerily similar. What they do instead is take out any of the artificial craft that’s grafted into Creed. Talion doesn’t linger seeking out the next small crevice to place his hand, he flies up flat walls like it’s nothing, and Monolith’s decision to ensure scaling and movement would be a superhuman strength rather than a realistic portrayal works well when fleeing or maneuvering around Orc strongholds. These additions bleed right into some of the side challenges that task players with performing a particular number of kills with a weapon to earn upgrade points. The carnival game nature of them provide a refreshing break from the gray seriousness of the story, and steer players directly into the skid of this game’s most pleasurable mechanics, stealth, exploration and the bow. Oh and that bow, with its willingness in slow-motion mode to allow for instant kills. It truly is the best part of Shadow of Mordor.

Monolith’s novel nemesis system provides a deep, system-based revenge tale for those seeking a player-based emergent storytelling more satisfying than the one they penned, but it’s impossible to escape the trappings of a world whose only fleshed out new character is an orc named Ratbag who’s hell-bent on revenge. Shadow of Mordor weaponizes other open-world game systems with an ease of maneuverability welcomed in this hostile territory, but fails to engage the player beyond that surface level excitement. That stealth kiss of your wife in the beginning feels like a misnomer the more you play, as any level of intimacy with anyone in this world is shredded to pieces. If I could’ve just once, snuck up on old Ratbag and planted one slobbery kiss on those seaweed, emaciated cheeks, Shadow of Mordor would’ve at least made me feel something.

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E3 and the Specter of Iterative Hardware

Prior to E3, Microsoft and Sony looked like the Hans Brinker’s Dutch boy sticking his finger into the dyke fruitlessly. Leak after leak spilled out of the companies, to the point that presentations were devoid of many surprising moments. Leaks are yearly occurrences now, but this year’s news that both companies were working on iterative hardware steps for this console cycle felt more significant than any trailer leak. Indeed, the knowledge the current consoles would soon be stepped over like AI on Tyronn Lue tended to hang over the entire proceedings.

Microsoft’s presser followed the same format they’ve used the past two years, cut the corporate speak to a minimum, tout their first-party and exclusive games as much as possible, throw in an indie sizzler real and reveal your latest online features. It’s tried and true formula, a far cry from the old days of sales figures and droll 3rd party demos that have flitted over to their publisher’s press conferences. Nonetheless, they kept any mention of their new Project Scorpio console until the every end of the conference. Presented as a console meant to allow developer’s to harness the full potential of their skills, the bravado with which they presented the new console made it feel more like a moonshot than a box with lower specs than the newest PCs.

Their presentation made it feel like it was flown from the future, (RIP to using Marty McFly in 2015 as a reference for any future jokes) bandying about technical terms like GPU and teraflop as a way to pander to the NeoGaf gamers who care about that while wowing casual viewers with developer testimonials. They’ve created a black box (and it will absolutely be black) that at this point feels next-gen even though they’ve tethered themselves to the current console cycle. Many people know that its specs aren’t as powerful as the latest PCs, but by claiming it’s the “most powerful console ever”, there’s a large segment of gamers that will buy into that. The real issue is that they can’t abandon the current install base of Xbox One owners, meaning that their decision to have new hardware looming in the distance casts a foreboding shadow over every game with a release date, every game in development that’s gone dark, and more importantly, almost every game at E3.

On the other side of the aisle, Sony rests atop the console plastic throne, grinning at every opportunity about the PS4 as one of the fastest selling consoles of all time. They’ve won this generation. But they’ve also chosen to create an iterative project in the Playstation Neo, a sort of Playstation 4.5 that is rumored to allow 4K gaming and assist with the launch of their VR headset. This seems incredibly silly to split a console audience that’s already shoveling their money into Sony’s coffers, but that’s another topic altogether, it’s more interesting to look at their hush-hush roll-out approach in contrast to Microsoft.

Prior to E3, Playstation CEO Andrew House acknowledged the existence of the Playstation Neo, while deflecting any further comments by stating that it won’t be at this E3 because they want to focus on the games. A smart approach, to be sure, a laser focus on the ability of a console to play games is what’s gotten them ahead this cycle. And focus on games they did, their presser was like a pre-set Youtube playlist of new trailers with the least amount of corporate gobbledygook I can remember. However, that also leaves the announcement and association with games in development strictly under the speculative umbrella. Assuredly, they will announce that all games on the Neo will work on the PS4, bifurcating an install base during a time of prosperity is lunacy, but it still means at some point the transition will come, and games will start to include features only available on the more powerful console.

The rapid progression of technology is making these sort of shifts inevitable. It’s remarkable the previous console generation lasted so long. The peculiar part is that I recall lots of rhetoric around gamers having to get used to longer console life cycles, as hardware companies worked longer to break even and awaited new technology to reach an affordable price point. Yet three years later we’ve already reached one of the shortest console life cycles ever. The Wii U is a torrential failure, with the NX already moving in as a swift replacement. The Xbone already has a slimmer model, and it’s older brother is only a year and a half away. Meanwhile, even Sony’s runaway success is being shoved aside to show off their shiny new toy.

Getting gamers to warm to iterative hardware jumps mid-lifecycle will be a steep learning curve. Nintendo has already started the practice by releasing an insufferable amount of ways to play their handheld games, and splitting their install base with the New 3DS. Those carry smaller price points though, and something people have gotten used to over years of remodeled, rejiggered Nintendo handhelds hitting the market. In the console community though, this is a dramatic shift. Even if it’s standard practice in other tech like phones, Sony and Microsofts’ PR teams have their hands full positioning these new consoles to get buy-in from gamers. Microsoft is already on the clock, Nintendo stopped hitting snooze around a year ago and Sony will begin their timer to the next-half-generation soon.

During this lame duck period, most of the games shown off at E3 already have the stench of console neglect hanging over them. Many of the games revealed will come out on these current consoles, but it’s an assurance that many developers are already working on the next model of the game to come out on Scorpio over Neo. Nintendo’s new Zelda is a prime example of this, but at least that is being released on both consoles concurrently. One can presume that a number of games already released earlier this console cycle will get remastered editions on the new console too, making an even more egregious recycling system than how current remasters are handled. It will also force developers to test their games on multiple systems, adding more hoops to a production process where 80 hour a week crunches are just a part of the job. No matter how excited the games unveiled during E3 might have been, it’s impossible to ignore the looming shadow of new hardware. People will still flock to pick up consoles this fall, but rest assured there’s an annoying voice shouting, “Hey, listen!”, reminding them that in less than a year their purchase will be outdated.