Why do open world games never quite live up to their promise? Part treatise on old-fashioned notions held by gamers and developers like that hold games back, part excuse to show off a small selection of my favourite orc decapitation shots taken in photo mode, this piece sort of answers that question. Warning: gratuitous orc violence contained within. If you’re reading this Uthrik Black-Heart, I wouldn’t click continue if I were you.
Everyone knows that hoary old adage, ‘talent borrows, genius steals’, right? Well, Shadow of Mordor certainly has a lot of other people’s ideas on show – but when I first booted it up I felt more inclined to describe Monolith as criminals than geniuses. Everything is immediately familiar. The combat system isn’t *like* the one used in Arkham Asylum, it *is* the one used in Arkham Asylum, with Batman’s ‘no killing’ shackles removed so our hero can gleefully lop off heads to his hearts content. Then there’s what amounts to a detective mode, used just as it is in Arkham to highlight enemies and follow footsteps in the handholding moments between battles in the plot missions. The fights with the giant, terrifying Graug’s are pretty much the initial fight with Bane from Asylum as well. Admittedly with Monolith being under the same publisher as Rocksteady this is perhaps not so much thievery as popping around to borrow a cup of sugar from the neighbours and getting them to lend you half their power tools while you’re there. They don’t stop at in-house copycattery though – they’ve obviously taken a late-night trip over to Castle Ubisoft to heist their treasures as well. The free running and the method of using towers to unlock chunks of the map (and the sidequests therein) is very much from Assassin’s Creed. The strongholds with the reinforcement-rousing alarms to be raised and animals to unleash from their cages to fight on your side are taken straight from Far Cry 3/4. They aren’t the first to rip a few pages from Ubisoft’s playbook (and it’s not as if that’s a book free from plagiarism itself) but at first glance it’s hard to find anything new to get excited about in Shadow of Mordor. But then this is the way of AAA games, particularly third person action games it seems – whenever a new IP arises it seems to be a bricolage of whatever is successful at the time. I suppose this isn’t unique to gaming either – how many movie studios are trying to make their blockbusters as Marvel or Hunger Games-esque as possible now? And let’s face it, all these micro-systems tend to get half inched for a reason – they worked so well in their initial environment and casual players can easily understand them. Why dream up a new system when there’s a perfectly serviceable one ready-made? To Monolith’s credit they’ve at least had the dignity to lift and implemented these ideas with care. So it may be a brew full of other people’s ingredients but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t taste good. It all adds up to an undeniably fun knockabout sandbox.
However in copying the successes Monolith also brought with them a lot of the flaws. The trouble with sandbox games has always been where the actual meat of the game lies. In the vast majority of cases there’s a central plot to tackle amidst all the free roaming fun, and Shadow of Mordor is no difference. Let’s be fair to Monolith here – it’s a tricky thing pull off, writing something worthwhile in one of these licensed, but not based on the original texts, videogames. The goal is to make the conflict at the heart of the story feel important enough to carry a plot for 10-20 hours whilst handicapped by being unable to include anything significant enough that it might change the established cannon. Shadow of Mordor, to be fair, just about treads the line – the only recognisable character from Tolkein’s text, Gollum, is involved in a way that just about makes sense, although it does stretch credulity once or twice. The cutscenes have all obviously had a bit of money thrown at them – they’re suitably cinematically rendered to fit into the world of the films with the music and sound design appropriately epic and sweeping. It goes out of it’s way to try and feel weighty and substantial. But really the overarching revenge story isn’t particularly interesting, nor is the back-story of the mysterious elven spirit who’s fate has become entwined with your own. Lord of the Rings has never really had much room for interesting subtext or gray areas between the good/evil binary, which makes the story writing a little restricted. They do manage to fit in a brief flirtation with an interesting idea about former slaves-as-revolutionaries/terrorists, and whether leading them to fight against an enemy they likely cannot defeat is justifiable. Since this takes place between the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings we know none of the inhabitants of this land just outside Mordor are going to live happy lives, which leaves them with the choice of a brutal death or life in slavery. In the brief moments it’s raised it toys with the idea of their being something more complex than good vs evil at work, but that doesn’t last long. Before you know it the plot goes back to happily ticking along – with none of the story missions being as interesting as the scenarios you can tee up yourself. And that’s the problem in a nutshell – as much as they try to make it all feel important (and admittedly find a previously unexplored niche in Tolkein’s mythology to exploit) it suffers from a disconnect with the actual game your playing – the plot, for all it’s bluster, feels like a bolted on afterthought. In some ways it’s like Far Cry 3. Both games feel like great game worlds in search of a game – though whilst that game grasped at profundity and fell short this one barely even musters the energy to try. And both seem to succeed almost to spite themselves, when they ditch the formal story mission format altogether and leave you to your own devices.
(Also a word must be spared for some of the dialogue – at one point ghost-elf guy actually says, “there can be only one lord of the rings.” Seriously. Whoever wrote that probably felt really smug about it too.)
That’s the trouble with sandbox games in general, the need to implement a linear narrative in the midst of an inherently non-linear set up. Shadow of Mordor’s saving grace (not to mention the one and only original idea in the whole of the game) may be the best thing about it, but it also has the unintended side effect of throwing that problem into sharp relief. That one idea is, of course, the much-lauded Nemesis system. For the unfamiliar the Nemesis system works like this: the orc army you’re fighting has a heirarchical structure, with a number of captains roaming the wilds and above them Warchiefs at the top-level. The actions of the orcs can see them killed or level up in the same way the player does, gaining new attributed and abilities, and moving up the pecking order. They do this either in ambushes or duels between themselves, or prestige earning activites like gathering recruits or enduring trials. Or by killing the player. You can get involved in these tasks, making sure a duel sways in a particular direction or just taking out everyone involved. Or they can be left to it. And that’s the key to what makes it brilliant – if you don’t get involved the politics goes on without you. Alliances will be made, backs will be stabbed, the weak will grow mighty and the mighty will fall. All of these ranked members are somewhere on the map to be found at any time in the persistent world, so you can hunt and challenge or assassinate anyone but the Warchiefs, (who must be coaxed or taunted into battle), any time you want. If you beat them but leave them alive they’ll come back bearing the scars, remembering the manner of their defeat (for example if you defeat them riding the game’s vehicle beasts, Caragors, they will mock you for requiring it’s help in fighting them) and wanting revenge. If you run they will throw your cowardice in your face the next time they see you. If they kill you they will gloat about their victory. This leads to the map becoming full of enemies you become familiar with and find yourself getting attached to or bearing grudges towards. And because they are constantly wandering the map you never know when you might stumble upon an old foe – when you invade a stronghold and allow the orcs to sound the alarm you never know which members of this motley cast might come along amongst the reinforcements. This adds a new dynamic to the often empty feeling open world – and perhaps points the way to even greater things to come.
Taking out the Warchiefs, manipulating the army, in whichever way you see fit – this is where it comes into its own. You can engineer things as you see fit if you’re careful enough – whether you wish to make things easy for yourself or purposely stack the odds against you. It’s this freedom that is the games major strength but it also hinders its attempts to tell a story, as the one you’re writing becomes much more interesting than the one the game seeks to tell. And neither of them really interact with them in any way. Whatever you do, the story will stay the same, oblivious to your actions. It’s basically a short movie within a game with each mission being a few simple tasks you must complete to get to the next scene. As much as the idea of interactive cinema sounds appealing if it amounted to having to complete a jigsaw before you got to see who’s face Captain America was going to punch in next there wouldn’t be many praising the innovation.
Sandbox games often run into problems when directing the player through its narrative. Even the undisputed heavyweights of the sandbox genre, Rockstar, have always had problems with this – though they made strides throughout the last generation with GTA IV and V and Red Dead Redemption they didn’t quite find a solution for the problem of integrating a linear story into a game that prides itself on its non-linearity. Monolith Productions utilise some of the solutions that Rockstar have come up with – the travelling across the map to the next quest being an excuse for expositionary dialogue for example, which works well when you have well written characters (like the dwarf hunter Torvin here) but not so much when you have to do it so very often as you do in GTA/RDR. Having the same plot points hammered into you on every car/horse ride inevitably gets tedious. Monolith also repeat the bigger problems Rockstar have yet to overcome – in padding out the story and the big set piece events to an acceptable single player game length they’re forced to add bits of the story as well as blatant filler side quests that are essentially dull mini games – kill X number of Y, find A and B over in the C, escort D to the E etc – things people often tolerate rather than enjoy. This unavoidably funnels the freeform action into areas it doesn’t need to go. The great thing about the sandbox is that you can play how you want – go stealth or all out action, study your options with care or throw yourself into the fray and rely on your instincts to bail you out. Being forced into the middle of a large brawl or insisting you play it stealthy and then penalising players for not following instructions runs contrary to the promise of the ‘sandbox.’ When I was a kid in the sandbox I’d have had way less fun if someone had stood over my shoulder saying, “no, I told you to build a pyramid” and kicking over my castle every few minutes.
You would think that by now, in games where so much is made of the freedom the player has, the length of the main plot would be an outdated currency. But we still talk about a game lasting X number of hours and judge it’s worth as a full price title accordingly. All this does is force developers to cram as much into a game as possible to make the consumer feel like s/he’s getting a good deal – but even in a linear experience would you not rather have 5-8 unforgettable hours over 8 good ones and a whole load of extra stuff to wade through to get to the next interesting bit? Surely this is wasting both the developer’s time and energy as well as our own? This way of judging the value of a game is doubly pointless in an open world game where, ideally, the limit is the player’s imagination in exploring the possibilities of the playground they’ve had built for them.
The other big problem with shoehorning a straight story onto an open world is what more high-falluting games writers have come to call, “ludonarrative dissonance” – that feeling when the character you’re ostensibly playing as does something that contradicts everything you’ve been doing in the game. The writers may have wanted the protagonist to be a noble yet tortured soul but you might have been playing as an absolute bastard – and watching him do something you wouldn’t tears you out of the experience. In having the ‘cannon’ direction the protagonist takes forced upon you regardless of the game you’ve been trying to play often leaves the player ending up feeling like a transplant patient rejecting the alien organ they’ve had implanted in them. It feels jarring to be told who your character is rather than defining them for yourselves.It’s an example of an outdated way of thinking of games – a lot of the old ways of doing things feel like unnecessary baggage here. Another instance – how many great boss fights can you remember in open world games? Boss fights were necessary punctuation when done well once upon a time – at the end of a level they’d test the skills you’d learned and any new abilities you’d picked up to the limit. In a world without levels they do little but work at distinguishing the important bad guys from the rest of the chattel. Deus Ex: Human Revolution was the most famous lowest ebb of the last generation. It’s sad that Shadow of Mordor has set the bar so low for this one – there are few boss battles bit none of them distinguish themselves at all, and the final two big bosses are defeated by quick time events. Quick time events. There isn’t even a fight beforehand. Which is unforgivable. As games like Vanquish, Bayonetta and of course Dark Souls have shown there is still very much a place for a boss fight in modern gaming – but in sandbox games they become more of a nuisance than an anticipated climax. Compared to the difficulties you find yourself in when fighting the Warchiefs, finding yourself vastly outnumbered surrounded by captains with different strengths and weaknesses and being forced to adjust your tactics accordingly, trying to separate them and pick them off one by one or braving an all out assault, fighting the games Big Bad is a massive anti-climax.
That’s not to say there isn’t room for the old ways – a linear campaign with these old tropes is still possible and often incredibly enjoyable but in instances like this they feel like security blankets for developers worried about alienating a core audience by actually giving them a world and saying, “go play.” The nemesis system feels like a step forward – it gestures tantalisingly towards a time when emergent gameplay and open worlds become the storyline and not an added bonus for the player and a hinderance for the story-teller. The other way of keeping things fresh – fully procedurally generated gaming – is big in indie gaming but AAA developers seem unwilling to give up the reigns to chance, which is understandable with such huge budgets at play. But they’re only one way of ensuring a unique experience and giving good reason for cutting down on these old, worn out tropes – the Nemesis system shows that you can create a fixed world and give people the tools to make vastly different experiences out of it. Imagine it taken further – a game where choosing which member of an organisation to fight and how is the game rather than going to a mission start area and following a script, a little like what Realtime Worlds attempted with Crackdown but with the ability to allow players to develop relationships of sorts with their foes. Imagine the orc army replaced by the mafia, or a samurai clan – infiltrating and taking it down as you see fit. Or imagine two armies/organisations evolving in their own way and the player being a Yojimbo-esque character playing them off against each other, doing jobs for either of them as you see fit, influencing and even dictating the political landscape of the criminal underworld. Games like Watch Dogs, Mafia, Sleeping Dogs, Far Cry 2 etc etc have promised such freedom but never quite delivered, instead plunging the player into a linear story with the false promise of an open world around them. A path towards that promise being realised feels like it’s being paved.
The Nemesis system feels a tentative first step down this road, in providing genuinely unique experiences within an open world not as a bonus but as the main meat of a game. I’m hoping we’re going to see a lot of developers build on that and create open worlds with genuine emergent gameplay and unique stories being told by the players actions rather than a scripted ‘main quest’ poorly stitched on, that feels like a chore and entirely detached from the part of the game people actually enjoy playing. Shadow of Mordor may well be remembered as an important milestone down that road more than a great game in its own right – for as fun as it is it is a little shallow, it’s finest achievements being more fascinating glimpses into possible futures than great game mechanics in and of themselves. If it wasn’t out so early in this generations of consoles lifespans, and at the end of the traditional summer AAA gaming drought, it might not have gotten half the attention it has. And if it wasn’t for that one idea it would certainly be forgotten just as quickly as it snuck up on everyone and announced itself as a contender late into it’s development span. They’ve added some plot mission free game modes in the DLC that’s followed, suggesting they’ve at least realised where it’s strength lies, but it doesn’t quite go far enough. They’ve got some great mechanics there but they’re entrenched in that Ubisoft template. It’s a blueprint works for Ubi so well it’s a no-brainer for developers to hitch their trailer onto the bandwagon that has seen Assassin’s Creed make so, so much money. But I’d argue that making everything into that easily replicated year-on-year style is holding big budget gaming back. As a business model it’s genius, but the formula is long past stale. Shadow of Mordor suggests there may be a better way. I just hope we don’t have to wait too long until someone takes the idea and runs with it, a developer who has the bravery to give their game over to the gamers and not try to hold their hand through another experience they’ve had a thousand times before. If they do we could be on the threshold of something special.
Aside: Photo mode needs to be implemented in all games from now on. Though it breaks up the game if you’re not careful, easy as it is to succumb to the temptation to freeze frame whenever anything exciting happens, the potential to capture perfect gaming moments to frame and keep however you wish is fantastic. Also it makes doing screenshots for reviews by amateur gaming bloggers a lot easier.