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Monday October 6, 2014 6:16 am

Is being too good at Shadow of Mordor robbing me of a better experience?

shadow of mordor review

There were any number of reasons to be excited for Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, which launched earlier this week. For myself and many others, it was the Nemesis system--which promises unique enemies and emergent gameplay--that was the most exciting aspect of all. And while it's certainly an intriguing feature, I can't help but feel I've been missing out on it for basically being too good at the game.

Until reviews started to hit the web, I was very cautious in being optimistic about Monolith's first-ever Lord of the Rings game. For being such a major franchise, quality games based on it have been few and far between--something that's especially surprising considering its renewed popularity following the release of Peter Jackson's movies. Once I heard the almost-unanimous praise from the reviewers I trust, I was onboard. I was ready to finally play a LotR game that was a genuinely good game, not another passable one that I accepted because it happened to make use of one of my favorite franchises.

And so far, that's proven to be the case. I adore its smooth, Batman: Arkham-esque combat, and the brutality of it feels more fitting than that of past LotR games. It takes liberties with its story, but not in a way I find objectionable (and I love all the nuggets of Tolkien backstory I never knew or had forgotten about). Just as importantly as all that, given that you're playing as a ranger who should be capable of fighting countless enemies at a time, I feel like a real badass because of my ability to take on so many Orcs at once.

And that is, in a way, the source of my problem with the Nemesis system. This system makes it so that each enemy has his own rank, personality, strengths, and weaknesses. Those who escape from an encounter with you--either because he runs away, you run away, or he kills you--are promoted, and future encounters with them will play on your personal history. Maybe an Orc now has scars you left him with, or perhaps he'll mock you for having run away from your last battle. On top of all this, there are power struggles in the Orc ranks that allow for additional fluctuations in who gets promoted and who lives or dies.

For any of this to happen, you need to fight enemies who manage to survive through one of the aforementioned ways. (There's also the possibility that an enemy you think is dead comes back, but if you perform an execution on him, this doesn't happen.) In other words, the Nemesis system getting to do its thing is contingent upon you struggling in some way, and that hasn't been the case for me very often.

This isn't to brag about my skills. I frequently mess up my timing in combat, ruining otherwise solid combos. I'll mistakenly hit Triangle instead of X to avoid certain types of attacks. Too often, I'll instinctively perform an execution when I mean to use an ability that knocks back nearby foes. But it's been a very small number of times where a regular enemy has killed me and been promoted. Ever fewer are the number of instances where I haven't killed a Captain or Warchief I've come across.

That means I've only seen the Nemesis system in action for myself a few times despite having played for quite a few hours. I effectively feel like I'm being punished for being good, as I'm missing out on a key component of the game--the thing I was looking forward to most--because I'm relentless in combat. I've had someone suggest I should let enemies escape so that I can experience the Nemesis system, but I shouldn't need to do that. Maybe the game will get harder as I get closer to the end. In the meantime, I wish enemies did a better job of facilitating the escape of their leaders or ensuring that I need to run away. I wouldn't even mind dying more often, as there's very little penalty for death beyond empowering the Orc who kills you.

What few times I have gotten to see a Nemesis-powered encounterer have been memorable, if slightly more modest than I expected. When you bump into one of these enemies you've previously confronted, there isn't the degree of significance paid to the moment as the trailer above would suggest. Aside from some reference to the past, the fight itself is not much different than any other--I wail on him until he's dead and then move on with my day.

In theory, Nemesis is one of those truly neat, far-too-uncommon concepts that makes me feel like the next generation of gaming has actually arrived. There aren't many games I've played in the past year that can claim to have anything on par with it in terms of sheer coolness, and my fingers are crossed that other developers aren't shy about co-opting the idea for their own games. I'm also hopeful that Monolith turns Shadow of Mordor into a series, which would allow for it to refine the Nemesis system into something that can more fully realize its incredible potential.



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