Mordor casts a shadow over the open world genre

Open worlds are dynamic. Sometimes they live and breathe. Occasionally they are systemic. Their stories and incidents are emergent.

That’s what the voices say, from stages and in trailers, but the pictures tell a different tale. Anthem‘s big reveal felt like a series of echoes rather than a glimpse of the future, Assassin’s Creed: Origins is sprinkling loot and stats across Egypt, and even Metro has sandbox ambitions now that it’s making an Exodus to the surface. But what we’ve seen is more scripted than the teleprompted speakers at one of these E3 press conferences.

Putting the witty, system-led smarts of a Middle-earth: Shadow of War video on the same stage as the rest almost seemed cruel.

They’re important, words like ‘dynamic’ and ‘systemic’. They suggest precisely the sort of unexpected overlap of rules and behaviours that are unique to gaming. It’s entirely possible that Anthem’s ferocious storms will have a real and unpredictable impact on play sessions, or that Assassin’s Creed will meaningfully connect its larger world to the tighter focus of its scouting and stealth missions, but no other game shown so far this year has been able to communicate the genius at the core of its design quite as efficiently and effectively as Shadow of War.

That’s partly because the Nemesis System is a known concept. It’s also because it’s a brilliant concept and one that developers Monolith are expanding rather than simply iterating on the foundation. Cut an orc in two and he might be fused back together, half-orc half-machine, and then he might hunt you across the map. Beat him again, in his Robostrop form, and you have three options. Kill him, shame him (reducing his level) or break him, forcing him to become an ally in the war.

And what a war it is. At times it’s as if somebody bolted Total War or Mount and Blade onto Shadow of Mordor, and while the tactical depth is probably more paddling pool than Mariana Trench, it’s the interlocking of ideas that’s so appealing. You build an army by making enemies, watching them grow in strength, getting to know their character and traits, and then beating them into submission.

Everything begins with fisticuffs and threats, but from there on in all bets are off.

After Shadow of Mordor’s release, I had lots of conversations about the Nemesis System, and where it might fit. I was convinced it’d be copied in everything from a Rocksteady Arkham game (still holding out hope for that) to an urban GTA-like, or maybe even Red Dead Redemption 2.

In fact, my main frustration with Mordor was that I loved the system but didn’t care all that much for the setting. Fantasy, broadly speaking, isn’t my preferred genre, and the sheer grimy orciness felt more like watered down Warhammer than Tolkien, and ended up feeling a little vague, tonally. I’m wondering if I didn’t give it a fair chance now though, because either the humour has become much stronger, or I was being a grump last time around. It’s charming, which is something I didn’t expect to be saying about a game that features this many decapitations and disembowellings.

There was a moment when I thought Anthem might be similarly charming. It’s a multiplayer game and the trailer has two characters chatting to one another. Because the voices were professionally recorded and written rather than genuine in-game chatter, I’d assumed they were the voices of the actual characters rather than the people supposedly playing those characters. They exchange compliments about new pieces of gear and cosmetic changes to their Javelin powersuits, and that seemed like a fun way for these Freelancer mercs to alleviate the stress of the job. And then one of them mentions a friend “needing the XP” from a zone they pass by.

Would it be brilliant or obnoxious if characters in the game talked about getting XP and grinding for lootboxes? I’m tempted to go with brillant – or maybe just ‘quite good’ – because it’d give Anthem a distinct voice that was otherwise lacking.

It wouldn’t give it an equivalent of the Nemesis System though. Systemic, emergent, dynamic, living, breathing. Big words for big games. Only one game at Microsoft’s big event showed that it’s confronting the meaning of those words head-on though, and that’s Shadow of War.

Or maybe we should be talking about Rare’s Sea of Thieves in this context as well, but that shall have to wait until later in the week.

27 Comments

  1. DanMan says:

    I liked the 1st one but didn’t pay much attention to this one until recently. The more I hear and see of it, the more I’m intrigued though. I liked the casual, witty, psychopathic banter of the ork (or whatever they’re called) in the last trailer. It’d be great, if they can hold that up throughout the game.

    • Doctor K says:

      Orks call people gits and go “Waaaaagh!”

      Orcs only accomplish things in the backstory and don’t ever kill anyone important (other than that fellow who got hit by a few arrows in that one movie)

  2. Stevostin says:

    Where’s the bloody video ?

  3. aircool says:

    I love the first one so much that I can actually forgive it’s occasional control quirks. I’m not a button mashing ninja, so I found it quite challenging (although the Dwarf was annoying and a bit rubbish). The Trials of War make an enjoyable challenge to pass time, anything from fifteen minutes to a few hours.

    I wish there was more stuff to buy with the in game currency as my map is littered with hundreds of low value runes which I haven’t bothered to pick up.

  4. GenialityOfEvil says:

    The people talking in the Anthem trailer were scripted “player conversations”, hence the talk of XP and lootcrates. Have you learned nothing from Ubisoft? This has been an E3 trope for years.

    • Snowskeeper says:

      “Because the voices were professionally recorded and written rather than genuine in-game chatter, I’d assumed they were the voices of the actual characters rather than the people supposedly playing those characters.”

      He knows.

      • GenialityOfEvil says:

        You might want to read that last bit again.

        • SanguineAngel says:

          … you mean “rather than the people supposedly playing those characters.”, in which he initially didn’t realise but then did?

          OR “Would it be brilliant or obnoxious if characters in the game talked about getting XP and grinding for lootboxes?”? In which he discusses a what if scenario therefore clearly understanding this isn’t the case currently

  5. Raoul Duke says:

    I quite liked the first one, but found it rather repetitive, both in terms of the bigger picture (go here… kill a bunch of orcs… repeat) and the actual combat, which suffers from Batman-itis – basically just a super long series of quicktime events. The nemesis idea is good, but it would be nice if it was a bit more organic and less reincarnation-based.

    • sweenish says:

      Yeah, I only half-get the love the first game garners.

      Combat is either stupidly easy or overly frustrating (2 extra captains showing up, one of them a nigh invincible reincarnation about half the time, and no warning of incoming projectiles) [in either case, not nearly as good as Batman’s], the story so far is meh, and the Batman-itis is apparent throughout.

      On the totem of WB IP-based sandboxes, I place Mad Max above Shadow of Mordor, given equal playtimes of both. I hate the idea of constantly reincarnating bad guys that get that much closer to invincible, basically forcing me to activate the 20 seconds of combat finishers every time I encounter them.

      So, unless I’m absolutely jonesing for yet another sandbox, I will likely pass on this sequel.

      • Dewal says:

        Most big ennemies can be one-shot if you find the right way (fire, beasts, bees, arrows…and all). Most of the time the best answer to another boss popping would be to run away and come back with the proper counter. If you expected to kill all the bosses with your sword, it’s normal you had a hard time.

      • LexW1 says:

        Re: stupidly easy or very frustrating, how much of it did you play? I felt like that early on, but for most of the mid-game, once I had a decent number of abilities, particularly to get my health back, it went from “frustrating” as some beggar turned up and crossbow’d me, to “exciting” as I knew I could survive if I played well, especially if I had a fallback plan, or an escape route or the like. I started thinking much more dynamically about what was going on, being much more aware. Where at the start, it barely mattered – I didn’t have tools to execute such an escape or backup plan anyway!

        Then, unfortunately, you sort of cross a threshold of power, and it all becomes increasingly easy, and the game gets a bit less fun – luckily you’re probably fairly near the end by then, but it is sad.

    • Marclev says:

      go here… kill a bunch of orcs… repeat

      Thank you for this, I was wondering if it was just me!

      According to Steam I played it for 6 hours. What I remember is getting bored and not finishing it, because after a while the gameplay becamse so formulaic and unvaried.

      No interest in further investing in the franchise as a result.

      • LexW1 says:

        If you only played it for six hours, you didn’t get to where it gets good.

        Most of the first six hours is learning you most basic abilities, and doing the early Ratbag/Gollum missions. You don’t have good ways to execute plans, or do anything clever or interesting, because they’re just not in that bit of the game.

        You can feel free to blame the game for that, and you’re right to, but the reason other people feel differently is that they played past the beginning.

        Once you get an actual bunch of abilities, and start facing orcs with more serious abilities, in trickier situations, the game becomes vastly more engaging, and you ability to make decisions and force situations increases hugely. It is, in the end, about killing orcs, in the same way Doom is about shooting demons, or Batman is about punching baddies, or the like, but it’s a good game.

        Sadly it becomes more dull at the end as you just get too many abilities and the difficulty plummets.

      • SanguineAngel says:

        Hah, yeah I remember playing it for something like that and getting a bit bored and thinking I must be getting a fair way through the game.

        Only to discover a short while later that I had only just been doing the FIRST part of the game and suddenly the whole game opened up into something far more varied.

        Partly I think the pacing was off but partly I also think I had so much freedom to start (a good thing) that I didn’t realise I was missing out and was doing my own thing for so very long thinking I had apexed.

        • Raoul Duke says:

          Implicitly, then, that’s just bad game design, isn’t it?

          A game shouldn’t take so long to show you what’s interesting about it that players are giving up on it before they get there…

  6. Ghostwise says:

    I’m fairly sure that a half-orc, half-machine person would be a cyborc.

  7. Sin Vega says:

    I still want Shadow of Hodor

  8. SP1041TKE says:

    Interesting that of all the potential ways for people to implement Nemesis system it looks like XCOM may be the first to really copy it with War of Chosen! So stoked for that.

    • LexW1 says:

      Is that what War of the Chosen is doing? I wasn’t able to really tell at all from the trailer, beyond that there were new classes.

  9. dkfgo says:

    I’m not sure how I feel about the first game. I played it for around 30 hours I guess, so it definitely wasnt bad. But it got really repetitive indeed, in every possible sense.

    It brings so much new (and painfully obvious non tolkienesque) lore that it gets to the point where you have to wonder if it would do better with its own setting.

    I think it also makes the orcs too funny, too caricatural. Its like they are aware of how ridiculous they are.

  10. Captain Narol says:

    One Ring to rule them all, and in Darkness bind them, in the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lies.

  11. gravy1958 says:

    I’ve only played 250 hours in Mordor so it’s a bit early for me to form an opinion ;)

    Some people like it some people don’t oh the controversy, shock, horror.

    Spending a lot of time in forums lately, I have come to the conclusion that every single person in the world knows exactly how all games would be so much better…. provided they were made to their own style…. the strange thing is… none of them are devs :D