How Shadow of Mordor is a Poor Man’s Batman: Arkham Game

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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Dark Souls

It’s worth noting that Dark Souls also recognizes skilled play. The difference is that Dark Souls uses negative feedback (death) while Arkham uses positive feedback (the combo meter) to let you know how you’re doing. Dark Souls demands skill, while Arkham simply encourages it. In both games flawless play is theoretically possible and really impressive to watch.

Shadow of Mordor breaks this by simply ignoring some mistakes. You can hit a shield guy right in his shield (an error, since he shoves you back and takes no damage) without breaking the combo meter. You can run around for a couple of seconds without breaking the combo meter. You’ve got a bow that will let you effortlessly take problematic foes out of the battle without learning to fight them. You can even acquire a power that will let you keep your combo meter after you get hit.

Note that I am not complaining that the game is “easier”. I have no problem with making a game more accessible to a wider audience. In fact, I’m strongly in favor of that. I love games that are welcoming to newcomers and can gradually ease them into the skills needed to enjoy this hobby. (Most people greatly underestimate just how much skill and experience it takes to make sense of a AAA game.)

If the developer wants to make the game fun and empowering, then I’m all for it: Give the player a massive health bar. Have the foes attack slowly, and give the counter prompts a long duration. Ramp the foe types up slowly. You can absolutely make a deep and skill-based game that is enjoyable for newcomers.

But this is not what Shadow of Mordor does. I don’t need the game to kill the player for making mistakes, I just want it to recognize when you don’t.

The game buries you in mechanics right from the start. It teaches you combat, stealth, and bow attacks within a few minutes of each other. It piles on complexity without making sure you’ve got the basics. I was fine, but I know this is likely to be overwhelming for newcomers. I’m sure they’re just assuming that “everyone” knows the Arkham combat, which isn’t remotely true and not an excuse for having a game with a bad tutorial. How many people will pick up this game because of the Lord of the Rings name and find themselves hopelessly lost?

Batman arkham city

In any case, the systems of Mordor are broken because they no longer recognize perfection. You can just mash buttons and kill stuff. And if that’s all you want, that’s totally fine. You can play Arkham games that way too. But Arkham tracks and recognizes improvement, while Shadow of Mordor mostly focuses on empowerment. It might seem like a small change, but I find it very unsatisfying to blunder my way through a fight, make mistakes, and still see my combo meter cranked up. The game tells you you’re perfect when you don’t deserve it. It blurs the line between “good enough” play and “exceptional” play, thus taking away a big part of your incentive to improve.

The game also messes up the strategic aspect of the game by zooming in for over-the-top blood-spurting kill moves. You’ll be tracking the movement of a half dozen foes and planning your actions several seconds in advance, but then you kill someone and all of a sudden the game takes away your view of the battlefield so you can watch a decapitation animation you’ve seen dozens of times already. When the camera pulls back out, the positioning has changed and broken your flow. (This is on top of the fact that the camera is a bit dodgy to begin with, and frequently ends up stuck behind scenery.)

So the game is too sloppy for rewarding high-level play and too unwelcoming to newcomers. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad game or anything. I had fun with it. (Although the quicktime events can kiss my ass.) It’s a fun if disposable bit of visceral power fantasy.

Just like they used the Tolkien license without understanding what made Tolkien popular, they swiped the Arkham combat without understanding why it worked so well. Shadow of Mordor isn’t a horrible game, but it is horribly cynical and much less than the sum of its parts.

Shamus Young is a programmer, critic, comic, and crank. You can read more of his work here.

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