Shadow of Mordor does something that I don't often see in triple-A games: it contextualizes the core gameplay in a way that makes it vastly more enjoyable.
It shares core gameplay mechanics with the Batman Arkham games - satisfying tempo-based bad-guy-hitting, broken up by story dumps and some voice acting.
In Batman, the primary context of your gameplay is the explicit written narrative delivered from the writers to you by voice actors including Mark Hamill's fantastic Joker.
Shadow of Mordor botches this context up horribly, with its written narrative draining fun and motivation out of the game.
But improving on the Batman games, Shadow of Mordor provides another context for progress through gameplay, one that reminds me of indie game Mount & Blade.
When all you have is a sword
Mount & Blade also features skill-based swing-and-block gameplay, but with more emphasis on timing and aim than Shadow of Mordor or Batman. More importantly, it lacks almost any written narrative at all.
However, its implicit narrative is strong. You have a weapon and a horse. You are surrounded by cities and nations with large armies. You may battle any robbers, armies, or cities around you, but you are one man and easily beaten.
The first time I played, I ran into a handful of robbers and instantly ran at them with my sword. I think I hit two of them before they beat me down, and a text block informed me that I had slaved under them for eight months before I escaped.
Recruit a few men, challenge a small group of robbers. Lose some men, gain some supplies. Make it to the next town to by food.
I was not driven by saving the world. The question was, could I survive? Could I thrive?
Oh hellz yeah I can thrive
Earning my way over many hours to be able to threaten a king's army was extremely satisfying. And judging from the success of the Day Z/Rust genre, plenty of other players share my compulsion.
This is the game that Shadow of Mordor has stumbled into: more than swordfights and collectables and exposition-by-cutscene, it gives you a world full of challenges that are not motivated by a written story.
As I play, Urak society constantly trains up new leaders to take me on. Many of them kill me. The writers didn't turn that grunt a mini-boss, I did by zigging when I should have zagged. Killing me gains him reputation and power, and puts one more opposing piece on a board full of them.
The captains go about their business regardless of me, or the written story. Left alone, they fight amongst themselves to gain even more power. Whether I level up by challenging the big captains or picking flowers is up to me.
Like Mount & Blade, Shadow of Mordor lets me claim that satisfying feeling of setting my sights on a foe and fighting until I can challenge and take them down.
But unlike any other action game that I remember, Shadow of Mordor brings a triple-A polish to that experience.
In Mount & Blade, I recruited unique named characters with their own strengths, backstories and relationships with each other. Ostensibly, they cared about whether or not I attacked certain factions, or whether I killed off merchant caravans. But my personal relationship with them never advanced beyond seeing them as "spear guy" "sword lady" and "archer dude".
Shadow of Mordor's bad guys are procedurally generated, but the attributes that the game rolls up for them are inescapably relevant. Not for their expertly-written backstories, but because they all relate directly to the NPC's ability to survive my attacks and kill me.
Calling someone a "beastmaster" and giving them a fur coat is all well and good, but when he one-shots the caragor that I send after him, I start to take their character a bit more seriously, even if it does boil down to a title and a bullet-point list of skills and flaws.
Shadow of Mordor also sets itself apart from the Batman series by extending the unique character generation to the nameless droogs. Batman had the luxury of fighting the same ten guys over and over, but I have to worry about whether or not this urak grunt is going to have the "toss me on my ass" ability when I try to flip over him.
Is it enough?
I haven't even experienced the gameplay feature that people seem to most enjoy - turning urak to my side to take position among the other captains. Check out Tom Francis talking about his crew to get a big grin on your face.
Unlocking that skill could keep me involved in the world for a while longer, but the trappings of the game do make it hard. Shamus Young's takedown of the written storytelling is accurate. The only enjoyable part so far has been the song Gollum sang about how he wanted to stab me.
As I level up, I have started to feel like I could probably take on most of the captains now. This removes a lot of the context that actually makes the game fun - I can understand why a no-upgrades run would be more rewarding.
Worst of all, I have to play a character who, unlike me, doesn't care about doing battle with challenging opponents, but only the wholesale slaughter of a race in some vague revenge fantasy.
In Mount & Blade my character was businesslike and effective, going toe to toe with other knights. Shadow of Mordor's Talion talks about his enemies with his nose in the air, and revels in gutting them.
Shadow of Mordor takes a step forward in turning open worlds into the sweet sweet crack that gamers want. They stumbled on a gameplay contextualization a step above what the other big-label games have been using (e.g. Grand Theft Auto's "isn't it sweet to steal any car and drive around really fast").
It's encouraging to see a big-budget game with great player motivation in its game world. I hope to see more publisher-funded titles trying to copy these ideas.