This is a really unusual game, but only in that you wouldn’t expect to find a really dynamic mechanic in what is otherwise such a publisher-safe, Triple-A standard-fare, Assassin’s Creed knockoff. The idea of having the foes in the game act within this semi-permanent Orc hierarchy that you can totally stop at the source lends itself more to a kind of shorter game that you replay indefinitely, which is probably why it feels like something out of an indie roguelike instead of what it is. It’s also probably why you’re made to conquer the ranks twice, and then twice more in the DLC, padded out with tedious collectible hunting and the occasional bad escort mission.
For whatever publisher-friendly reason, they couldn’t just completely focus on the good stuff they had and build some kind of FTL-like replayable challenge game out of it. Something where you’d ramp up the difficulty across multiple runs as you also gathered higher-tier runes by trying to accomplish objectives with the runes you unlocked last time.
Instead there’s a secondary “Trials of War” challenge mode, which is better than nothing, but only insofar as you get to do the good part of the game some more, assuming your patience for it hasn’t totally worn thin. It’s like skipping the story and other bad stuff, like the cheesy boss battle against a giant troll, where you roll sideways as it idiotically charges forward and then hit it while it’s stunned. You know the one I’m talking about: you’ve already beat that boss eight million times. Even if you’ve never heard of Shadow of Mordor.
But the challenges are largely pointless as they are. Try to kill some guys within 40 minutes. What does that mean? Maybe a lot of luck; running around in circles in an Orc captain’s designated zone until you can finally see his red ass in Wraith mode. Then you either get a pathetically easy kill (which might be fun), or the enemy has resistances to everything and no fears, so you just gotta do a terrorize move to make his underlings flee, and then do the one sword combo that damages everybody, over and over, until he’s weak enough to be grabbed, or he dies. That’s not so terrible by the expectations of the story campaign, but it isn’t interesting enough to draw people back to the captain-hunting parts in Trials of War. I don’t need the captain fights to be Dark Souls boss battles, but dropping the QTEs and making combat a little less all-or-nothing would be a good start. Do some more stuff with strategic troop deployment. I occasionally got intel that certain captains would be rattled by the appearance of a specific rival Orc they hated, but I never really got to see that stuff. That could be another direction to take things in: taking people out in an order that lets you strategically exploit them more along the way. Or getting them to help you in very limited circumstances without mind control, because of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” type stuff, like with Ratbag in the story missions, but more dynamically.
Plus, even in the Trials of War section, you still have to start “missions” to attack certain targets, which clean the map of anything already on there. Logistically it makes things pretty simple, but it limits your ability to really try to break the game in the sort of way great games always allow, like luring a giant monster into the enemy camp before the fight breaks out. If you can fail a mission because you tried to walk over to something you wanted to interact with, and the game scolds you for going off the path, someone’s made a sequence of terrible design decisions.
There’s still a lot that’s appealing about the Orc captain mechanics. Enemies have names and personalities, even if you haven’t had the chance to learn them yet. A grunt kills you and suddenly you find out he has a name; he’s been promoted. He mocks you for having lost to him the last time around, which is an incredibly interesting thing to do with player death. Rewinding time whenever you fail something just isn’t fun. Shadow of Mordor shouldn’t have even had story missions.
The stakes could’ve been higher, though. It’s an easy game. You can advance time through death as much as you want. It’s not XCOM. The enemies aren’t going to get trolls with laser cannons mounted on top just because you died so much that you ended up in the month of Girithron. Thing is, you probably won’t die that much anyway. The game threw some captain at me at the end of the campaign and told me to fight my “nemesis”. I wasn’t sure if I remembered the guy. If he’d really foiled me all across the game, it would’ve meant more to see him there. I will say that it was oddly satisfying to nurture and protect my enemies until they were at max level so I could get better runes from killing them. If the sequel wanted to go all-out in a Harvest Moon: Orc Farmer direction, I think I’d be decently happy with that game, too.
There’s always more to complain about. The controls were awkward. Mashing two of the controller’s face buttons to do a special attack was awkward and unreliable. You’d be lucky to get the right guy with an auto-targeted grab. Getting up or down from a ledge could be frustrating. And the “going into the Wraith world” thing could have been a lot more than just a batman detective mode. It should have been your stealth, in place of your weirdly effective crouching.
But I can come away somewhat positive about the experience: after so many games where you can honestly feel a kind of malaise in dealing with an enemy who can hold you up for a while but isn’t worth killing at all, because you know they’ll automatically respawn when you turn the corner–Batman: Arkham City to name one clear offender–it feels nice to simply look at a list of 25 ugly dudes, mind-control them, and keep them from being easily replaced.
Plus you’re a ghost who can warp behind a sentry and suck the life out of him like a vampire, so that’s kind of neat too, I guess.