There’s a trailer for an upcoming game that everyone’s been talking about. (I know. What a shock!) It’s an eight-minute walkthrough for Monolith Productions’ Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor wherein the protagonist—a ranger by the name of Talion—shows off his Wraith-like abilities by peering into the nether, controlling simple minds, and racking up a body count higher than the actual The Lord of the Rings movies.
It looks cool. Correction: it looks super cool. It captures much of what makes the battles of the films so cool, which is to say it makes the heroes feel powerful and the big bad guys commensurate, ensuring that victories feel worthwhile. The literal balance isn’t right, but hey, this is a pre-alpha build. And besides, it feels right. I mean, I’ve never sliced the head off of an orc, but I imagine it feels pretty good after slugging it out with him with sword and shield.
The crux of the trailer is highlighting the fact that every single playthrough of the game will be unique. Major enemies (and there are a lot of them) each have their own memetic interpretation and physical reminders of past events in the world. For instance, it could be as obvious as Orthog Troll Slayer having burn scars from Talion and his last fiery encounter, but it could also mean Ratbag’s career path goes down a different path, leading us to find him in one place instead of another.
It’s called the Nemesis system and seems pretty slick. Given that this is a game from Monolith, I have no small amount of faith in the game following through with the words of its marketing. We do have the results of F.E.A.R. and Condemned to back it up, so a modicum of respect is appropriate. Even their last Tolkien outing fared pretty well.
The strange thing is that bits and pieces of the trailer (once you get past the highfalutin talk of dynamic, persistent, and determinant world interactions) feel just a bit…off. Perhaps just a tad too familiar, so much so that they actually seem too foreign to work. In reality, those moments of discontent—those moments where you try to recall something on the tip of your tongue while the answer hops away—are too familiar.
That’s because they are too familiar. It combines nearly every pillar of every successful franchise in the past few years into a single game and applies its own layer of specificity (which, obviously, is the most important part, but we’ll get there later). Talion can climb around on just about any piece of the environment, moving around the world like a Nathan Drake. He strikes with the speed and ferocity—and single-buttonness—of Batman in the Arkham series. Then his Wraith vision gives him Assassin’s Creed-like insight into any given encounter.
Each of these pieces has been previously adopted into other games as well, perhaps for similar reasons. Jumping and clambering about ledges and walls and conveniently placed ropes, we get hints of Tomb Raider as well, the bounciness of Croft and Drake’s collective climbing abilities noteworthy and inhuman in every regard.
The Arkham implementation of combat has been shoehorned into so many varied titles from Captain America: Super Soldier to The Amazing Spider-Man. Quick, one-time button presses that directly correspond to attack and defense, and each one as a response to an immediate need.
Detective vision has been the bane of many game critics’ existence. Named as such after the Arkham version as well, its origins go far deeper. Assassin’s Creed‘s Eagle Vision accomplishes the same thing, and The Amazing Spider-Man actually has something similar. Dishonored does it, too. But it’s a fine line between an addendum ability thrown in at the end of production and one that is finely integrated into the experience. Not sure where Shadow of Mordor lies yet.
It’s very clear, though, that outside of the open world of responsive and unique enemies, Shadow of Mordor is really an amalgam of past mechanics du jour. It seems to have looked at a Rolodex of successful franchises in the past five years and said, “We’ll take one of each of those.” Once the initial amazement faded, a lot of ire of the trailer began to surface for this exact reason.
The thing to remember, however, is that it’s the particulars that make something work or fall apart. You know, devils and details and all that. Take a look at Resogun, one of the best games from last year. It was, without question, a simple cocktail of bullet hell games, Defender, and its own past amalgam of old school tropes Super Stardust HD.
It worked precisely because it combined all of those familiar elements in such a specific way. Like a surgeon, it cut out laser-level portions of things you’re accustomed to and then like Frankenstein, stitched it all together into something new. It’s the same reason why you can take flour, butter, and eggs and end up with either a bunch of great pancakes or a ruined Sunday brunch. It’s the particulars that matter.
Of course, the argument of familiarity is also an authentic one. A lot of resources obviously went into the whole Nemesis system; it’s not easy creating an open world that wholly responds to player actions like that. It’s pretty easy to cobble together proven successes when you run out of time to gin up something entirely original.
But that is also a cynical way of looking at it. The auteurship involved in mold individual corners of a simple box elevate or degrade it either to art or a travesty. We are, after all, all just lumps of carbon and water; what makes any of us better than another? The details, of course. That’s where all the devils live, after all.