Experienced Points

Experienced Points
How Shadow of Mordor is a Poor Man's Batman: Arkham Game

Shamus Young | 28 Oct 2014 15:00
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Experienced Points Shadow of Mordor

Last week, I complained about how Shadow of Mordor botched the tone of the books. So what about the gameplay?

Shadow of Mordor is a rough copy of the Batman: Arkham series gameplay, so in order to see what Mordor gets wrong we need to figure out what Arkham does right. To talk about this we need to talk about mastering systems. From here on out, when I say "Arkham" I'm talking about Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City. (Let's leave out Batman: Arkham Origins for now, since that game also fumbled a bit on the combat.)

The thing is, it feels really good to master a game's systems.

In a shallow (single-player) shooter, you mow down mooks and your health regenerates in cover. You get a checkpoint save every couple of rooms. The enemies use hitscan weapons and are programmed to miss some percent of the time. It's impossible to get through a fight without getting hit at all, because that's all controlled by a random number generator. (Or if not impossible, then very unlikely, and controlled by randomness and not skill.) All you control is your aim. Once you're good enough to blow the bad guys away without getting killed, you're as good as you need to be. Sure, you could practice one-shotting guys, never missing, and shooting while on the move, but the game won't reward you for it. It won't even recognize that you did it. At the end of the fight you'll still have full health and all the bad guys will be dead. Why spend hours honing your skills to improve, when it won't result in a better outcome?

Contrast this with Batman: Arkham Whatever. Arkham uses a fight system where you hit foes to build up a combo. Every time you hit a foe, the combo meter goes up. Guys in body armor need to be stunned before you hit them, or you'll break your combo. Guys with shields need to be jumped on, or you'll break your combo. Guys with stun sticks have to be attacked from behind, or you'll break your combo. If you miss, or run away, or get hit, or make some other mistake, then Batman stumbles slightly and the combo is broken.

The first time you control Batman you'll be a bit of a clumsy oaf. You'll struggle with getting hit, missing, pushing the wrong button, and so on. You'll still get through the fight, but that post-fight score is there to let you know how you did. As you play, you'll see those numbers get higher and you'll see Batman do more impressive moves as you master the game's systems.

The important thing is that the game recognizes mistakes. You've got the sound of getting hit, the loss of momentum, the slight cringe as you see BATMAN make a mistake, and the loss of your combo meter. That's the game gently slapping you on the wrist, letting you know you just made a mistake. You didn't get hit by a random number generator. That mistake could have been avoided.

On top of the twitch combo-meter based gameplay you've got this lightweight strategy game where you have to juggle foes. You're punching guy A in the face and he's about to go down. B is stunned and not a problem for the next few seconds. C is running for the gun cabinet and you need to stop him before he arms himself. D is moving in to strike you. You knocked E to the floor a second ago and he's just now standing up. So you probably want to finish off the guy you're hitting and counter the incoming punch, which ought to fill your combo meter and let you use your insta-knockout move on C.

Or whatever. The point is that as you get better at the game, the combat problems become more complex and varied.

In the hands of a skilled player, Arkham's Batman is an amazing thing to see. It's like watching a choreographed movie fight scene. It's glorious. Batman will clean out the room, disarming guys, knocking dudes out, backflipping, throwing batarangs, and generally looking awesome without taking a scratch.

The point is that better play results in better outcomes. The game gives XP for flawless performance. It gives XP for taking on large groups. It gives XP for using lots of variation. And skilled play results in you looking more awesome. All of these encourage (but not force) the player to pursue full mastery of the mechanics. There's always room to improve. This gives the system depth and replay value.

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