Backlog: All Those Who Wander edition

Guess which game we're still playing? Yup: Shadow of Mordor continues to fascinate thanks to its absurdly violent beheadings, but it's not an unequivocal hit within the Sasquatch crew.

For example: I'm 100% done with the game and only one Steam achievement away from completing the lot. However, I can't really call the experience anything other than "pretty decent."

Why? Because if you strip the brilliant Nemesis system away, Mordor is just a cookie-cutter Assassin's Creed with Arkham Asylum combat. That comparison is an amazing pedigree for a triple-A game, so good on Monolith for adapting the best parts of huge franchises. But adapting the stylings of such well-known predecessors comes with a cost.

In reality, all the praise claiming Mordor is the herald of true "next-gen" sophistication doesn't eliminate its greatest gameplay sins: tired, last-gen stylings of a wholly bland white-male protagonist, obsessive-compulsive collectible hunting and rinse-and-repeat sidemission tedium.

This week, Doug writes a tell-all on the dangers of Hell (à la Diablo III) while Nick empathizes with the Uruks of Mordor, whose education is so lacking that they only speak in Cockney. -- Aaron Thayer

Doug

On a crusade for loot

On a crusade for loot

doug-headshot-tiny-v2.png

I got a little lucky earlier this week. Thanks to a typhoon which went roaring through Tokyo and eastern Japan on Sunday and Monday this past week, my two-day weekend became a three-day weekend. And, in reality, what this meant is I had one extra day for Diablo III: Reaper of Souls on PlayStation 3. This game has stolen three-plus hour chunks of my life far too easily, but I keep coming back for more.

It feels like a short time that I’ve had the game but I’m already well into Act III, my current character is up to level 40 and I have yet to tire of ripping through mobs of Hell’s minions in search of better loot and another ding of the level count. Previously when I played the game on Mac, I used a monk; for this second attempt at the game, I decided to use a more robust character, so chose the new Crusader class. I don’t pretend to be a professor of Diablo class play, but the Crusader seems like a great supporting tank character. Many of the skills of the Crusader help allies (both to strengthen them and also to draw enemy attention their way), and with armor and skills which allow for easy health regeneration, it means I spend a lot of time wading right into the deep end and somehow making it out alive.

I guess it’s nice to have this tank style of play as a cushion, as a way to learn the game. Maybe in the future I’ll come back through and build a lighter character, maybe a spell caster or more of a distance character, but right now I’m loving getting up close and personal with enemies. All of the things that make Diablo III great in terms of building a character still shine in the console version, and the controls are great too -- I love rolling out of the way if the action gets a little too intense.

In other news, after a hot and heavy night of playing Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS with friends last Saturday, I decided to upgrade my 3DS to a 3DS XL. I had to go through the transfer process with my not-quite-perfect grasp of Japanese, but I made it through the other end unscathed, and I have zero regret for going through the process. I was worried the system would feel too big or the screen would look low-res against its smaller cousin, but that hasn’t happened. This is what the 3DS should have been from the word go. I still want to try one of the New 3DS systems at a store, though, and that may happen this weekend.

Nick

And there was much neck-stabbing within the land of shadow

And there was much neck-stabbing within the land of shadow

nick-headshot-tiny-2012.png

Mordor is a miserable place. If you’ve read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, seen the movies or, let’s be honest, listened to the entirety of Leonard Nimoy’s ballad, you know this to be true. With that in mind, I really shouldn’t have been surprised that Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor left me feeling depressed and drained at the end of each play session.

We find Mordor to be a nasty, ugly land filled with green sapient people who are, as best as I can tell, dug up out of the ground and quickly taught Cockney English before being shuffled out onto the frontlines of Sauron’s army. Yes, it’s crude, but it yields more egalitarian results than No Child Left Behind. (Ed’s note: Ohhhh snap!)

These orcs, or Uruks, which is another word for orc that sounds a little cooler and the game is quite fond of, are mostly harmless and so crass and uncouth as to be charming more than off-putting. They’re like that easygoing college roommate who was always a big hit at parties but couldn’t be bothered to put pants on most days of the week. And so they mill about their business, patrolling ruined buildings and drinking grog and gossiping bitterly about the military hierarchy. Orcs: they’re just like us!

Then there’s Talion: a forsaken human ranger, the player’s window into the game and the instrument of the demise of the entire orc race. The game immediately tries to paint Talion in a sympathetic light by gruesomely slaughtering his son and wife before the player’s eyes, and then he, too, is executed -- except he doesn’t die because an old elf ghost comes to live in his body. But early promises of a Jack Lemmon/Walter Matthau-like frenemy scenario are quickly dashed, as it’s revealed that ghost-dad elf is a humorless old buzzkill and Talion is almost impressively devoid of characterization. What follows is a buddy comedy, except they’re not buddies and they’re out to rid the world of its only source of relatability and comic relief: the orcs.

(Interestingly, or perhaps not, Talion’s voiced by voice-actor-du-jour Troy Baker, renowned for playing BioShock Infinite’s Booker DeWitt and Joel in The Last of Us. Where those two characters each had a distinct and articulate expression of their strengths and flaws through Baker’s performance, Talion is inscrutable. Maybe that was intentional; maybe the developers wanted players to feel free to “imprint” themselves upon the archetypal hero. Either way, it doesn’t work; Talion is a closed book, a charcoal rubbing of what could have been a person.)

I’ve sunk 15 hours of my life into this game, clearing more than two-thirds of all its content, and I keep waiting for that moment to click where I suddenly feel empathy for my character--and justification for his actions. Mass murder? Mind-control? Enslavement? Genocide? They’re all moral issues the game dances with ever so briefly, almost so you’d think they’re only mentioned at all for the sake of the world’s smallest ethics checklist. They’re rattled off like the terrifying slew of side effects in a prescription medication commercial. But inevitably, before any meaningful rumination takes place, a stray arrow from an enemy or the grumbling drone of your elf-ghost-dad-friend pushes the issue aside and that’s that. It’s like the game tries to assuage your concerns by saying: “It’s okay, player: they’re just orcs. They’re not people. Yeah, so maybe they’re victims too, but better they forfeit their lives to you instead of the Dark Lord, right?”

I’ve been wondering why there’s no mention of Lord of the Rings or author J.R.R. Tolkien anywhere in the game or its marketing campaign. I suspect it’s either an effort to distance this game from a long-running tradition of mediocre but unremarkable movie tie-in games or it’s a means to (at the request of the property holders) distance this incredibly violent game from Tolkien’s universe at large.

Regardless of the actual reason, here’s what I think it all boils down to: it’s because there aren’t any hobbits. Yes, you’ve got elves, dwarves, humans and more orcs than you could ever want to decapitate (one hopes), but hobbits are the crucial missing piece of the puzzle.

If you’re like me, you’ll gravitate toward the closest thing to a candid representation of humans in the game: the orcs. But when the player’s only options for interacting with these creatures is to either butcher or enslave them, that creates a schism between the player’s desires and what the game’s creators anticipated would motivate the player: apparently, the ability to be a powerful and faceless mass murderer with no relatable characteristics and a rusted moral compass.

Look at the original trilogy of novels. Look at the wildly successful movies. It’s not the humans that we latch on to, that we use as ciphers to project ourselves into the story. It’s the hobbits. Tolkien paints a harsh and unforgiving portrait of humanity in his works, but hobbits -- in my interpretation, at least -- represent what humans want to be. They’re kind, humble, simple, helpful, and they love food. Without hobbits, the entire universe of Middle-earth falls apart like so much shitty elven architecture.

So it is with Shadow of Mordor: an immaculate, polished, detailed, busy world that grants its player unparalleled powers to kill and dominate their foes with no reason to want to do so. Its fatal flaw is that it has no conscience. In other words, it has no hobbits. And as a result, there can be no empathy.