Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor (I’ll just go with “Shadow of Mordor”) was released last year to great acclaim, with praise for its polished combat and novel boss system. Shadow of Mordor has you running around an open world, killing a lot of orcs. Sometimes you sneak up on the orcs and stab them, sometimes you teleport in front of them and stab them, sometimes you jump on them from above and stab them, sometimes you stay back and loose a few arrows instead. Its combat, and the variation between the boss enemies, mean that it stays interesting and compelling. But does its interface deserve praise, too? It’s definitely good, but I still have some suggestions for improvement…
One feature shared between games like Shadow of Mordor, Arkham City, Assassin’s Creed, KoTOR and others is that your character pulls off amazing animated combat manoeuvres at the click of just one button, and multiple attacks chain seamlessly together. The combat in Mordor and the Arkham games (being almost identical) is wonderful. You sit there clicking your mouse like a madman and your characters does Cool Stuff. It’s classic games-as-power-fantasy, executed excellently. The controls aren’t complicated, and the attacks automatically choose the likely opponent in the direction you are facing, so you rarely end up slashing into thin air. This smoothness gets to the heart of the game: choosing which opponent to strike next, building your combo, and dodging enemy attacks. Even though Hearthstone and Shadow of Mordor seem like quite different games, a great deal of enjoyment of both derives from the satisfying animations that result from your actions. Click beneath to see a video of combat:
(Warning: the game is 18-rated, and very violent.)
Timing Is Not Key
It is always jarring in games when you are flowing nicely — running around the landscape, driving along a road, or slashing away — and something interrupts that flow: you run into a hard to see clipbox in the scenery, glance your car against a pole, or slash in mid-air. One approach to the controls in Mordor would be to make forming chains of attacks hard, requiring good aim and good timing. Mordor (and the Arkham games before it) don’t do this: any enemy that you are roughly facing is automatically picked as a target, and the slashes do not have to be well-timed to connect. So you rarely get a jarring interruption in your combat flow. Instead, enemy choice (at a strategic level) is important to build your combo, and it can be built faster with well-timed attacks. So lazy button-mashers like myself can still get an enjoyable game, while more proficient players can get through fights more easily.
Shadow of Mordor gives useful control hints during fights, for example showing which button is needed to dodge an attack:
I like these kinds of hints a lot. I often play games in bursts, maybe a few hours on one day but then a week passes before playing again. In some games I end up googling for the controls, having forgotten them. Mordor gives control hints all the time, which helps a lot, e.g. when attacking (above) or stealthing. The only place where they fall down slightly is the icon for mouse buttons. Look at this symbol — is it indicating to press the left button or right button?
It’s referring to the right mouse button, being the one that’s black where the rest of the icon is white. But my inclination is to read it as indicating the left button, because it’s white and generally the game has a dark background. The potential confusion shows that the icon could be improved; I would have gone for this:
This is splitting hairs to some extent, but I saw that icon repeatedly throughout the game, and it still confused me after 10+ hours, and thus made the quick-time events (press left button now! Or is it right?) unnecessarily harder.
As you land more consecutive hits in combat, your combo indicator builds, and after a certain number of hits you can perform special moves. But in the interface, your combo meter is far left, while the aforementioned button hints appear centrally (and this is also where you target enemies). So you have to split your attention between these two things while fighting:
With a large screen, those two things can be quite far apart, and you need to monitor both while fighting. Much better would have been to overlay the combo indicator in the very middle of the screen, as is done with damage and status indicators in World of Warcraft, or to move the combo indicator to the top-centre of the screen.
Mordor’s distinctive feature is its boss system. Scattered throughout the world are procedurally-generated named bosses. You can interrogate other orcs to learnt their weaknesses, and then track them down to challenge them. A special boss screen shows the tiers of bosses, who over time get killed (by you, or each other) and get promoted to fill vacant slots:
This screen suffers from a few problems. Firstly, they are using dark/light to indicate unknown bosses. Maybe it’s just my gamma, but “light” is not very light! Can you tell on the above screen which bosses are dark (unidentified) and which are light (identified)? It’s even a bit hard to tell how many slots for bosses there are (especially with those figures in the background), but the circles on the ground at least help to clear that up.
Coupled with this, usually you want to look up a specific boss by name, either because you’ve just read about them in the quest description, or because you just ran into them, and have paused the game having just begun a fight with them. But this screen offers no way to look them up other than by scanning across all of them individually.
All these problems would be easily fixed with an overlay for their names, and lightening the scene generally:
Like a lot of Mordor’s interface, it’s actually pretty good as-is, but could benefit from just a few tweaks.
And As For The Game…
Shadow of Mordor’s combat is almost identical to the Arkham games, which I’m fine with as they were great fun. The bosses system is a nice addition, and the length is good. I could live without the creature-hunting parts (or at least make them optional), but overall I really enjoyed the game.
Review note: I played Shadow of Mordor v1951.6/v1951.11 on PC in March/April 2015.