Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor put to the test - In the shadow of Ubisoft

Author: Jochen Gebauer
Date: 2014-09-29 17:20:00
It would be unfair to call Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor a cheap Assassin's Creed copy in the test. Because it is really not cheap.

So the job of a review is to answer one question: should I buy the game? Seldom, however, has the answer been as simple as it was in the case of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor . Yes, you should buy the game - if you liked the younger parts of the Assassin's Creed series, Far Cry 3 or Watch Dogs . Those open-world games that for the most part follow the carefully cultivated Ubisoft formula: a game world in handy sections with neuralgic points that "reveal" these sections and unlock additional activities; plus a hero as an avenger and assassin running parkour, as well as fights that are essentially limited to pressing the right button at the right time.

It is undoubtedly a successful formula and Monolith ( FEAR ) cannot be blamed if Mordor's shadow makes such extensive use of it that the game could with some justification have been called Assassin's Creed 5: Middle-earth . After all, these are tried and tested elements and they don't suddenly work worse just because the packaging says a different developer. But you also have to say that Mordor's shadow feels like it has been played before - especially since the only real personal contribution (the so-called nemesis system) does not work properly and the story makes far too little of its rich source.

Story as a job creation measure

The action takes place between the events of the little hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The focus is on Talion, a ranger from Gondor. His family is slaughtered by Sauron's henchmen at the start of the game, Talion survives the bloody ritual for reasons that are not clear at first, but suddenly has to share his body with an ancient spirit. Both Spirit and Talion seek retribution.

And so begins a classic story of guilt and atonement, which does its job, but rarely surprises and never even approaches the complexity of the original - or its finely drawn figures, for that matter. Talion remains pale and one-dimensional until the anti-climatic finale, the few supporting characters could all be called "action engine", and the total of 20 story missions are only barely held together by the paper-thin plot.

Sometimes even the authors don't seem to know where the story journey is going to go. For example, in a thoroughly amusing series of missions, we install an opportunistic and incompetent orc as warlord over Mordor - only so that the plot exposes him a little later as a pure job creation measure with a break clown function by catapulting him out of the story without fuss. Talion's reaction? None.

In terms of atmosphere and content, Mordor's shadow lives exclusively from work and the universe of Tolkien - if one were to tell the same story with the same characters in a newly conceived world, it would be banal, even irrelevant. The game experiences its best moments when long-established characters like Gollum make their appearance. In those missions in which the little guy plays a leading role, it becomes painfully clear how interchangeable the rest of the cast actually is - and how much potential a game in the Tolkien universe would have if it really made use of this universe.

Who does not know that?

Mechanically, however, Mordor's shadow works flawlessly - which is due not least to the fact that the developer Monolith takes virtually no risk at all, but takes almost all elements from commercially successful models. Climbing, for example, is not just reminiscent of Assassin's Creed - it feels exactly like that, right down to the animations, the assassinations from above or below, and those awkward moments when we shout "not up there" or "not down there" .

The fights, in turn, are a latently sluggish version of the free-flow fights from the Arkham series. We hit with the left mouse button, with the right we counter and with the help of the keyboard we evade or jump over particularly strong defensive opponents. A combo counter is also running, which enables special maneuvers such as executions. The intuitive and freely assignable mouse and keyboard controls work surprisingly well. Aiming with a bow and arrow, but also the interspersed combat mini-games, are far more precise than with a gamepad.

Sneaking, on the other hand, cannot hide its Far Cry roots, cones of vision show the direction in which the guards are looking on the minimap, we are invisible in the bushes, opponents can be attracted, and if there is a cage with an angry animal in it, we shoot it Unlocked and trigger a bloody hullabaloo.

All that's missing is a bullet time feature, do we hear someone speaking? But that's not missing at all: we pull out the bow, then the action runs in slow motion, and we can distribute headshots to our hearts' content - at least for a while, because this mode costs focus, another element that should look familiar to regular players. Incidentally, we can increase the focus as well as our life energy or the maximum number of arrows in an upgrade menu, and over 30 skills can be unlocked as the game progresses.

As I said: It all works flawlessly, the formula is undoubtedly fun - but there always remains that dull feeling of having played it all several times and sometimes with a much more exciting story around it. And in a more exciting world: the two vast areas of Mordor's shadow look pretty, are full of sideline activities and can be easily traversed by fast travel, but rarely awaken the feeling of a living, breathing game world. Which brings us to the Nemesis system - and a good idea that unfortunately doesn't work in practice.

Imagine it's a power struggle and nobody cares

This nemesis system is supposed to represent a dynamic power structure that changes constantly in the course of the game - also through our involvement, of course. At the beginning of the game, random Ork and Uruk leaders are generated, each with its own name and individual skills. If we kill a leader, a power vacuum is created that sooner or later will be occupied by a rival. If, in turn, we are killed by a leader, then his influence increases and he climbs up the Mordor career ladder.

In addition, the leaders also compete with each other and with each other, so challenge each other to duels, recruit new followers or go on the hunt for particularly nasty creatures in order to increase their reputation. At least in theory. In practice, the supposedly dynamic system is a very static one. If there is a duel, for example, a corresponding marker appears on the map and nothing happens until we activate this side mission manually - or alternatively die somewhere or push the time forward at the push of a button, then all currently "active" power struggles become automatic calculated.

The crux of the matter: All of this is playful only insofar as we increase our power value to intervene in the internal orc quarrels, which in turn opens up new skills when a certain threshold value is reached. That means: which orc wins a duel, which Uruk climbs up the hierarchy or which leader increases his reputation - it is completely irrelevant, the game just pretends that it matters.

In fact, the whole system only serves as a gatekeeper: If we want to unlock the strongest skills in the game, then we have to take part in a certain number of these power struggles - even if we literally do nothing at all, even as a silent observer we get the advertised points . If the system weren't fundamentally linked to skill progression, it could simply be ignored. With one exception.

Caliph instead of the caliph

Very late in the story, we gain the ability to control orcs by branding them. We can single-mindedly let a leader branded in this way climb the career ladder to become a warlord - and we have to do that five times, otherwise the story will not go any further. So we grab a suitable candidate (ideally he can fight, is partially immune to damage and does not piss his pants with fear if a wild animal yaps somewhere) and accompany him on his intriguing, externally controlled path to the caliph instead of the caliph .

This is real fun because this is the first time we're building an emotional bond with the nemesis system. Contrary to its name, Purgash the Destroyer may be a little sausage and yet piss its pants in fear if a wild animal yaps somewhere, but damn it, it's our Purgash the Destroyer. By the fifth time at the latest, the same path to the top of the Orc is tiring, especially since there are only a handful of different mission types for the power struggles and we now know them by heart.

Why, of all things, the most original element of the whole system is only introduced at a point in time when conscientious players have long since ceased to need power points, remains a mystery. But it still makes it clear how much potential lies dormant in the Nemesis idea - potential that Monolith unfortunately only partially exhausts.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the game's final battle. Here we meet our own nemesis, presumably the leader who killed us more often than anyone else in the last 30 hours. Just stupid we haven't the slightest idea who the hell this guy is. We have the slight suspicion that it could be that orc who pissed us off 28 hours ago, back when we weren't quite sure how the Nemesis system works - but sure, no we are not sure.

Who is the boss?

The fact that at the end of this review, despite all the criticism, a score of 82 points is an expression of an organic game flow. Mordor's shadow is neither new nor original, but it plays well, very well in fact. The wheels mesh neatly, the flying change between parkour and sneaking, for example, is so wonderfully done that one involuntarily wonders why Assassin's Creed hasn't got it on the chain until today.

In addition, the game avoids the typical cardinal error of modern open-world titles: Although it is never suspected of being a Dark Souls, it also rarely feels too easy, more than once we have caught ourselves with To put a clenched fist in front of the screen because a carefully planned assassination attempt worked perfectly. Archery is also popular: Both the focus and the initially available amount of arrows are so tight that we use resources sparingly, but then feel wonderfully overwhelming for a short time. And get noticeably stronger with every upgrade.

However, some annoying blunders in detail have crept in. For example, why can't we just restart a mission from the last save point? With story missions this happens automatically when we bite the grass, however, we have to consistently start all over again - which would not be a problem if we didn't have to go back to the starting point.

Speaking of awkward: why can't we controlled orc leaders simply use the Nemesis menu to command? Instead, we have to look for them manually, which makes neither much fun nor much sense when they are lounging in the middle of an orc fortress and apparently do not want to tell their supposed subordinates who is actually the boss here. After all, in contrast to Ezio, Altair or Connor, Talion doesn't have to look for a haystack when he feels like jumping from a tall building without complications. It's amazing how comfortable that feels.

No Andy Serkis - still great

The game does not show any nakedness in the staging. Well, almost none. You can see from him that the same engine has to run on the Xbox 360 and the PS3. Which does not mean that Mordor's shadow is ugly, on the contrary: The second area of the game - the Nurnenmeer - with its lush green landscape and the rugged cliffs on the coast is as picturesque as it is impressive. The impressive foresight as well as the beautiful lighting effects comfort over the muddy ground textures.

The region around the Black Goal, on the other hand, remains strangely interchangeable, we are happy when we can finally leave it after about half of the game. The dreary brown strikes the mind without conveying the sparse but majestic decadence of the Peter Jackson films. In return, the cutscenes are well done, especially the flashbacks (we won't reveal more for spoiler reasons) and are reminiscent of the wedding of the square games with excellent near-film sequences. The only downer: hero Talion tends in some scenes to look terribly perplexed from the laundry, even if the script is currently providing a different emotion.

However, Talion sounds very pleasant, in the English original Troy Baker (Booker deWitt from Bioshock: Infinite ) interprets it with emphatic restraint, the German voice (Connor from Assassin's Creed 3 ) also does its job very well. The show steals Gollum again, incidentally not spoken by Andy Serkis in the English version and still great, in the German version, Andreas Fröhlich takes over the "original voice". The soundtrack remains subtle but atmospheric and underlines the battles with a subtle feeling for the aesthetics of the rhythmic free-flow action.

No corner, no edge

After around 30 hours and almost all the side missions completed, it is both very difficult and very easy to recommend this shadow of Mordor. Very easy, because the game works, because the sum of its individual mechanical parts comes together to create an entertaining pleasure, because the corners and edges are kept within manageable limits. Very difficult, because it does not have the courage to rough edges, because, like Destiny, it is a game that screams "I am Triple-A" - but at no point gives the impression of being made out of passion. Mordor's shadow stands for the modern open world game: It is a formula, a successful one, but a formula nonetheless. The exciting question is: do we want a formula?