Get used to it.
See those Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings/Hobbit movies, right. Thing is, we sort of think we should like them, to the extent that we went to see every one of them in the cinema up to and including Hobbit 1. Last year - the year of Hobbit 2 - was the year we finally admitted to ourselves that we did in fact not like the Lord of the Rings movies, because we simply couldn’t bring ourselves to care about characters who don’t speak like real people, and who live in a world so saturated with CGI it’s probably polluting the rivers.
Why do these films all have to look the same? Can't we have some characters - just to mix it up - who don't wear natural fabrics, wave swords around, and go on quests? What about introducing a sci-fi cowboy called Honk Williams, who just stands in the back of scenes, waving and farting?
Anyway. It's a shame, because as terrible teenagers we were - for our sins - Dungeons & Dragons fans, and we don’t mind the occasional cod-Tolkein fantasy gaming universe. That said, we do struggle to maintain interest with characters called things like Keldroth Brannockspur and Merrioc Funtsplatter, who wander around saying stuff like “’Tis the season of The Changing Season. My people – The Ancient Elder Old Ones – call this time The Time of the Awakening Time. We must find the Sceptre of Tranquoth before Grellis the Angry invokes The Incantation of Prrrrrrth”.
FRENCH AND SAUNTERS
So, we sauntered towards Shadow of Mordor with not inconsiderable trepidation, expecting more of the above. Suffice to say, it didn’t exactly buck expectations: there’s a ton of potentous guff in here. You'll find yourself playing a half-ghost/half-ranger guy, seeking his revenge on fire-eyed monoclops Sauron for some boring indiscretion, by running around a corner of Middle Earth, slaughtering orcs.
There's a lot of cod-historical detail and backstory, but - mercifully - it's pretty optional. If you just want to play this as a fantasy hack 'em up - you can do that.
On the ground, we're in Arkham Asylum, or Assassin's Creed, or GTA or Far Cry territory. You can upgrade your dude – armed with sword, bow and dagger - as you play through the usual mix of campaign missions, side-quests, and collectibles that seem to be a part of every open world game. It's all well and good, but - please, sir - can we find a new way to overstuff our games now? At first it was surprising and felt like value for money, but like someone filling Christmas crackers with boiled mince every year, it's starting to lose its appeal.
The action is solid - you can get into a pleasing rhythm (the original rhythm of the night - oh yeah!) as you chop off orc heads and limbs, or puncture them with arrows.
Or if being a filthy sneak is more your sort of thing, you can stealth it up, or utilise various methods to induce terror in your cockney foes, from gutting them in front of their friends, to dropping some wasps on their face. So far so seen-it-all-before.
However, the thing Mordor does which is completely original is that you play through your own unique storyline, using its so-called Nemesis System. Sort of. Ish.
I mean, you still get the portentous, but mercifully brief, cutscenes, which we struggled to stay engaged with, but beyond that… senior orcs have their own names and ranks; if they kill you, they not only rise through the ranks, but they remember you when you return to life and face them again. You can build up rivalries, and develop your own personal grudges. Just like in real life!
Better still, midway through the game you can sort of possess orcs, and get them to fight by your side, or send them off to engage in battle with their superiors – causing instability in the ranks. This subtle strategy system works brilliantly, so it’s a bit of a shame that it arrives relatively late in the game. It's the one element that really makes this stand out from being yet another mostly pretty, if not outstanding, "sword and sorcery" quest-type thing.
Perversely, something which arrives too quickly is your character’s near-omnipotence. You seem to get very, very powerful very quickly – and all challenge disappears. Thankfully, the game mechanics remain enjoyable enough to persevere with – even if the early stealth option seems rendered obsolete by your all-consuming ability to take down an entire army without breaking a sweat.
Still… for all that, it says something about Nemesis that we’re curious to see a follow-up. There's lots that Shadow of Mordor does right - far more right than wrong. But probably the most right thing it does right is that it absolutely defies expectations. Well done, Shadow of Mordor. Well done. You are that rare thing in the world of Middle Earth: something we never had to pretend we didn't hate.
SUMMARY: Looks uninspired, but - oh! - somehow succeeds in being anything but. We want more - especially more challenge next time, please.