Friday, August 14, 2015

Reviewish: Shadow of Mordor

Shadow of Mordor was a console/Windows open-world game that came to linux recently, where I picked it up while on sale.  Premise: ranger back from the dead runs around Mordor killing orcs, freeing slaves, and disrupting the power structure of Sauron's armies.  Promising!  My feelings on the implementation are mixed, however.

Tonally, it's intended to be fairly dark.  Your character and his family are killed during the opening sequence (look, it's not a spoiler if it's in the opening sequence).  You find yourself surrounded by slavery, executions, and orcish brutality in a grim landscape while music with lots of drums and minor chords plays.  Driven by a quest for revenge for a family you (the player) barely knew, you soon descend into a sea of senseless violence against a transient cast of orcish captains.  Your only meaningful relationships are with these foes.

In practice, it goes so dark that I found it hilarious.  Nihilistically comedic.  The orcish dialogue is one of the best parts of the game.  The combat system is an inversion of all good sense - even when they have you surrounded, the orcs only attack you one or two at a time (providing you with opportunities to parry).  The safest place to be in combat is right in the middle of a huge group of melee enemies, so that archers on the edges of the battle will inflict friendly fire rather than hitting you (also walls interfere with your camera control, so fighting with your back to a wall is a good way to end up dead).  Vaulting over enemies in melee is actively encouraged by the combat system.  The end result is something that some might describe as "epic" or "badass", but that I think would be well-served by a Benny Hill soundtrack.  The choice of minor-key music superimposed over such silly combat just makes it funnier!  The stealth system is similarly amusing - you can backstab and kill an orc in mid-sentence and the rest of his patrol won't notice.  Repeating this process lets you wipe a moving group of almost arbitrary size, provided that they don't turn.  Resource management is purely tactical; if you're willing to disengage from combat, recovery is instantaneous via fast travel.  The one-liner introductions from the orc captains vary between cringeworthy and genuinely funny, and the fact that they sometimes come back from the dead with their skulls held together by enormous spiked metal plates (and they complain about it) is also moderately funny.  I actually got a little sad when some of the orcish captains I'd killed a couple times stopped coming back, and then I laughed, because this is a game about killing orcs and here I am being sad about having killed an orc (again).

Those captains are arguably the best-developed characters in the entire game.  You get to know the things they fear, the things they hate, who their rivals are, what drives them to acts of unspeakable cruelty.  And those traits all matter, because they make them easier for you to kill (not that most of them are all that hard, but sometimes they matter).

An assassin's dilemma; if you can predict your target's actions perfectly, you must have a perfect simulation of your target running inside you - you have become them, subsumed them.  If you do not hold them in the deepest contempt, if you bear them any respect, you must feel a little emptiness at snuffing them out, as your inner simulation becomes a 'ghost'.

But perhaps I am not cut out for assassin work.

In any case, this is not the hard-bitten, combat-as-war guerilla warfare and political hierarchy manipulation simulator that I was hoping for.  It is fun when met on its own terms, if you get it on sale and take it for what it is (playing while inebriated might help), but it does get pretty repetitive pretty quickly, and the controls make it very clear that it's a console port (everything is contextual and overloaded, and you can't separate the multiple functions of each key).  The graphics are OK I guess.

To return to a point relevant to tabletop gaming, this (combined with my recent reading of War of the Flea) has me thinking about Midnight again, particularly as regards infighting among the orcs.  More to follow.

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