Shadow of Mordor

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…

Some orcs about to meet their end in stab-em-up Shadow of Mordor.

Some orcs about to meet their end in stab-em-up Shadow of Mordor.

Combat Animations

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.

Control Hints

Shadow of Mordor gives useful control hints during fights, for example showing which button is needed to dodge an attack:

An example of a button hint during combat. I needed to press the space bar to dodge this attack.  I didn't press space bar, though, because I was busy hitting the screenshot key instead, and got killed.  Pro tip: bind screenshot to a mouse button.

An example of a button hint during combat. I needed to press the space bar to dodge this attack. I didn’t press space bar, though, because I was busy hitting the screenshot key instead, and got killed. Pro tip: bind screenshot to a mouse button.

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?

If you can't tell immediately if this indicates the left or right mouse button, the icon could be improved.

If you can’t tell immediately if this indicates the left or right mouse button, the icon could be improved.

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:

Mockup of improved mouse button icon.

Mockup of improved mouse button icon.

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.

Combo

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:

The combo indicator is the red "x5", far left.  But your attention is generally in the middle of the screen, where you target enemies, and where the button hints are shown (as here: the mouse button icon.  Is that left button or right button?).

The combo indicator is the red “x5”, far left. But your attention is generally in the middle of the screen, where you target enemies, and where the button hints are shown (as here: the mouse button icon. Is that left button or right button?).

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.

Bosses

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:

The screen showing the enemy bosses.  Can someone turn the lights back on, please?

The screen showing the enemy bosses. Can someone turn the lights back on, please?

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:

Mockup of improved display of bosses; lightened scene and added names.

Mockup of improved display of bosses; lightened scene and added names.

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.

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2 thoughts on “Shadow of Mordor

  1. I’m playing through Mordor right now, on PC, using Steam Big Picture Mode. This means using an XBox 360 controller, and it works very well.

    I’ve definitely noticed the boss issue you’ve mentioned, as having to scroll through every Urk is, um, irksome.

    I will say that while the combo number indicator is- as you point out- on the far left screen, the availability of a special move is indicated by your sword glowing. I’ve trained myself to wait for the sword to turn yellow, then press a combo button. I’m not sure if I’m missing anything.

    One problem that I consistently have is rembering which button is X/Y/A/B. There is nothing obvious and tactile about the button itself, and color coding doesn’t help me find the right one by touch. It would be nice if they had a picture of the buttons with the one to press highlighted.

    Similarly: I often see “X+A”, and don’t know if that’s at the same time, or one and then the other.

    But all that feels like I’m not picking. The game is great and plays very smoothly.

    Like

    • I didn’t know about the sword glowing; that’s actually quite a neat idea. But I guess I didn’t notice it by itself; I wonder if they actually mention it anywhere in the tutorial or loading tips?

      Like

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