What a pleasant surprise! The best Assassin’s Creed game is not an AC game! Though considering the recalcitrance of Ubisoft to make ANY changes to the AC formula and in fact importing it into other games (see Farcry), it was really only a matter of time. However, Shadow of Mordor still left in a lot of weaknesses from recent open world games, while showing some progress in making them feel a little more alive.
The best way to describe Shadow of Mordor is AC with the combat system taken from the recent Batman Arkham games set in a universe with Lord of the Rings trappings. I say trappings because the storyline is pretty much an incoherent mess and the only other NPCs you encounter are orcs, I mean Uruks. You should really think of it as an orc-killing simulator if you want to get any enjoyment out of the game. Do not play this game expecting sweeping fantasy epics or you will be disappointed.
In fact the sequence of main missions would be a major fault in the game. It’s essentially a very long sequence of tutorials that locks a lot of the more interesting abilities until really late in the game. For instance you wont get the ability to brand orcs and thus make them part of your army until the second map, over halfway through the game. This tutorial aspect makes many of them feel a bit redundant or irrelevant; why am I hunting beasts with a dwarf as a main mission? Oh right, so they can unlock beast taming abilities. Said dwarf then disappears, seemingly having no other purpose except to unlock your skills. He doesn’t even show up in the end sequence.
There are of course the other mainstays of this genre: collectibles and minor quests strewn around the map for you to collect. However, they are clearly marked and there aren’t an enormous number of them. I actually did them all, which I never do in these games, hoping they might provide some kind of gameplay perk, but alas it was just for experience points. I guess there were a sequence of side missions where you free slaves (24 times, it got a bit repetitive) and in doing so the final mission kind of starts a rebellion and human slaves are a bit more aggressive towards their captors. The rebellion should have been handled much better with more consequences and more variation than just “free the slave” missions over and over again.
What has people raving about this game then? That would be the Nemesis system. There are two maps in the game each with an orc leadership hierarchy of captains and the warchiefs above them. Captains have a wide array of abilities and you can gather intel on them to find out their weaknesses and strengths. They can rise up the ranks based on your actions or you can remove them from the hierarchy. Occasionally they survive their murder and try to get revenge, though this is rare except for the one orc captain the game chooses as your arch-nemesis to haunt you throughout the game and returns in the final missions. They will even comment on how you killed them or they killed you.
It becomes a bit more interesting once you can turn orcs to your side. Now you can try to set up ambushes by turning regular orcs to your side and unleashing them. Or you can turn captains and protect them so they go up the hierarchy and become stronger. Now have them backstab warchiefs after ingratiating themselves and then said captains become warchiefs themselves. It all sounds very cool.
And it is. Except most of the stuff exists for no real purpose. The first problem is that branding has no limits and as such is always preferably to killing orcs once you get the ability. Second, what is the point of all these machinations when you can just go to the top of the hierarchy directly and brand the warchiefs? Part of the problem is that the game is too easy later on and as such warchiefs don’t need to be softened up for you to plow through them. If they were real terrors where you wanted a few captains on your side to even the odds it would work much better. Finally, the only reason to dominate the warchiefs is to unlock the final missions which are appallingly bad with one of the worst boss battles in recent memory and a non-conclusion to setup a sequel.
You see there is actually a paucity of content if you don’t like just killing orcs and playing with captains. Two maps that are devoid of interesting environments, a terrible set of tutorial missions and a bunch of collectibles is not much to sink your teeth into. Playing with the orc leadership is essentially the entire game and while it is reasonably fun I want a bit more impetus to actually engage the system.
If I were designing this game I would put limits on the number of branded captains you can have rather than being able to mind control ALL of them. Also no direct branding of warchiefs, Sauron has too much influence over them or some other mumbo jumbo. Now you actually have to protect and shepherd your small number of captains into a warchief role rather than just going for the head. Then I would let you do more interesting things with the warchiefs. First every warchief gets a stronghold on the map and you can use your warchiefs to invade other warchiefs’ strongholds. Occasionally have them invade your strongholds. Finally, make sure the main storyline has appropriate perks and consequences for your ability to manipulate the orc hierarchy. This would add a lot of motivation to actually play with the Nemesis system.
The other thing I would change is “missions” in general. These open world games like to make you go to a mission start area and then limit you to a small mission area or you fail. This is completely antithetical to “open world” and for most of the missions in Shadow of Mordor, it is completely unnecessary since the missions could just take place without any special setup. Rather than a free the slave mission, just put some damn slaves down and let me do my thing. Or rather than a beast hunt captain “mission” let me stumble onto the captain hunting a beast and do him in. This would give me more freedom and if I have a captain or other orcs on my side nearby I can actually use them. It’s a small change with an enormous shift in how “open” the world is perceived.
I guess what I am saying is that I hope the next game really builds off this because this felt more like a long tech demo for the Nemesis system. Now that everything is in place a sequel that really stretches it could be amazing. As it is, I 100% the game in about 25 hours and I enjoyed it, but a lot of that was built on false hopes that something more interesting would happen near the endgame.