Finished Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor on PS4 yesterday. All in all I liked it and had a lot of fun playing it but it's quite a mixed bag and riddled with seriously weird design choices.
So at its core it's a clone of Assassin's Creed and the Arkham series which seems like a pretty great match for the Lord of the Rings universe but it has a seriously weird and misguided obsession with orcs. It's orcs everywhere. You make your first jump off one of the towers (where you start and always continue the game) and there's orcs in each direction. You go further and there's more orcs. To the North there's a small orc encampment, in the East there's a large orc encampment, in the South there's a medium orc encampment, in the West there's another orc encampment. And between these orc encampments there are smaller orc camps and orc patrols. I kid you not, it's like the whole world is one big orc camp. And there's not just standard orcs, oh no, there's orc captains and they fight each other for power. They are quite developed and have different traits, they aren't just bosses, their motivation and activities are simulated in detail, you may encounter them just walking around in the world or you may have missions involving them. And if they die they are replaced by new orc captains. At the top there's orc warchiefs, particularly strong orcs that require you to do missions if you want to get rid of them. You can kill orcs stealthily, you can kill orcs with your bow, you can kill orcs in open combat but kinda all you do is related to killing orcs. There's also side missions that mostly involve killing orcs in a specific way. Until you get the ability to convert orcs when the game gets even weirder. It's a welcome change from the orc killing but also kinda messes up the orc killing that the whole game is about.
This is the point where I'd like to say something like "of course I'm oversimplifying things" but that would falsely trivialise the game's orc-centricity. There's of course a story, there's some other beasts like weird mountable cats, ghuls and garg... grag... evil giants and you run into the odd non-orc character but the point is that at its core the whole game revolves around orcs and the problem is that orcs just aren't interesting enough to be pretty much the only topic of a game and frankly the fact that the game is set in a universe which has so much more going for it only makes matters worse. And I mean, sure, they tried making the orcs more interesting through this "nemesis" system where the game dynamically creates orc leaders that engage in dialogue when you encounter them (and some of the stuff is just awesome, e.g. how orcs will accurately reference stuff from previous encounters or comment on how they will have it easy to finish you off because you are currently at low health - more games need this kind of stuff!) and have different character traits but let's be honest for a minute: an orc remains a stupid, evil, backstabbing, barbaric creature that lusts for power and nothing more. Also one particular orc that appears in several story missions is just another example of a typical, if particularly incompetent, orc. And while the whole nemesis system with the simulated activities of the orc leaders and their power struggles is kinda cool, at the end of the day you just have to ask: why? What does this system really contribute to the game that a simpler and more traditional boss system wouldn't have? It's a decent sales pitch, that's what.
But let me say something other than "orc" for a minute: the combat system is pretty great and satisfying, as is the stealth gameplay. I had lots of fun climbing, sneaking around, shooting my bow and slaughtering bad guys. Each of the side activities was fun because all the actions you have at your disposal are just fun to use and you unlock a crapload of pretty cool abilities like being able to just look at an enemy and teleport to their position, thereby cutting their throat, or causing gigantic fiery explosions by shooting at camp fires. Utterly awesome. But other than that there's pretty much nothing. For instance, there's basically no aspect of exploration or adventure in the game. You can instantly move freely around the first map and there's literally nothing noteworthy to find anywhere, the first map even lacks any visually notable places as pretty much the whole place is that brown battlefield / camp. It gets a bit better on the second map which has a stone fortress and a fishing village and gorgeous grassy plains but again, there's no exploration or adventure there, it's just places with differing concentrations of orcs and soon enough you're powerful enough to survive almost anywhere. And I've literally never seen a sandbox game where, I kid you not, pretty much any point in the world can be reached in less than two minutes and there's no hard-to-reach places that hide remotely interesting things. I know that it's not an RPG but it would have helped if there had been at least some places that aren't orc camps and where you may encounter other characters. In the story and many of the side activities you support human slaves who rise up against the orcs but that doesn't really go anywhere and the slaves don't have a camp of their own. Later on you visit some kingdom that needs your help but you never actually visit that place, you only see it in cutscenes and actually only a single throne room, you don't even know what that kingdom really looks like. The most interesting thing going on is a pretty meaningless subplot where you help a dwarf hunt down a particularly nasty creature but that kinda has literally no relevance to the actual story and doesn't take long to complete.
So... a very weird game. I enjoyed it a lot because the AC/Arkham-inspired core mechanics are just very fleshed out and fun to use and some of the places in the game are visually stunning (at least by day, at night it's all very samey). Also: this has got to be the only game ever (well, besides its sequel, I guess) where mounts can climb up buildings and shit which is just mindblowingly awesome. But one can't help but wonder how they managed to turn a LotR-themed sandbox game into one big orc camp where you do pretty much nothing but slaughtering orcs.
Oh yeah: whoever decided to make the final boss fight a few QTEs deserves a punch in the face.
Post edited February 17, 2018 by F4LL0UT