2014 was a tumultuous year overall for video games. An unsettling amount of games released in buggy, broken states – quite frankly unprepared for release. And yet they were released in poor shape anyway, shaking the faith of gamers worldwide and testing the limits of their patience. Despite the emergence of a nasty trend that will hopefully stop after all the negative backlash it received, 2014 was still a time when great games appeared. The best, in my opinion, was one that took me by absolute surprise: Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor.
Before singing Shadow of Mordor’s praises, I’ll describe what disqualified other contenders from being seated upon the golden throne. Destiny’s first-person shooting gameplay and clever end-game raid mechanics are all top notch, as was to be expected from the creators of Halo. But the game still feels somewhat barebones, too grindy and overly reliant on luck, the so-called dreaded RNG. It’s a definite work-in-progress with bright prospects, and I’m confident Bungie will refine the MMO aspects of this shared-world shooter in time. But as it is now, Destiny is far from GOTY material.
Halo: The Master Chief Collection is an undeniably incredible value: $60 nets you four excellent shooters complete with their campaigns and revitalized multiplayer renditions, and Halo 2 is even revitalized by new HD graphics. However, the first several weeks from launch, the game suffered tremendous multiplayer connections issues, preventing players from going online to relive nostalgic memories or diving into their first chaotic Halo smosh pit. Either way, it’s disappointing to see such issues plaguing a triple-A title, especially one as prolific as Halo. Surely they expected millions to flock to the online services in this game at launch – but they were evidently not prepared enough. A game with such a catastrophic release could not hope to claim GOTY 2014.
Assassin’s Creed: Unity was so immensely buggy on release that developer Ubisoft ended up releasing the first DLC for free, and giving customers who already bought the DLC Season Pass an entirely free game from their catalogue. Their desperate, but appreciable act to retain goodwill among gamers shone through, but the incident itself is a no-brainer as to why the game is not GOTY.
As for Far Cry 4 and Dragon Age: Inquisition, both are excellent games and likely contenders for GOTY. However, I have simply not played enough of either (yet) to render due judgment, unfortunately.
On to Shadow of Mordor. It should be noted that the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions of the game are both graphically and mechanically inferior to the Xbox One, PS4 and Windows versions. Don’t bother with last gen.
Immediately, one of my favorite things about the game is how it has its own self-contained story, despite taking place in J. R. R. Tolkien’s high fantasy universe which also is the setting for Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Mordor could have easily parroted characters and plot points from either of those already popular franchises, but they chose a more original route, which is to be applauded. With Warner Brother’s blessing, Monolith Productions created their own plot set in between the timelines of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.
Talion, a ranger of Gondor, guards the Black Gate of Mordor. The gate is assaulted by orcs led by the Black Hand of Sauron, and they ritually slay Talion and his family. Talion is denied death, instead merged with a ghostly wraith and clinging to the land of the living. The wraith, though clearly powerful, is unsure of his own identity, so he and Talion scour Mordor in a dual-layered quest to exact vengeance for Talion’s family and to identify the wraith. Even when killed, the wraith’s curse returns Talion to life. Troy Baker turns in yet another stellar performance as Talion, while the rest of the cast performs solidly to match.
To put it simply, Mordor merges Assassin’s Creed-level exploration and movement with the Batman: Arkham series’ style of quality combat, resulting in a product with exemplary gameplay. Combat is split into three categories, each defined by one of Talion’s weapons: dagger (stealth), bow (ranged) and sword (direct combat). The stealth is simple and effective, augmented by Talion’s wraith abilities which allow him to attract enemies closer to him by having the ghost toy with them a little. When taking an enemy unawares, Talion can silently dispatch of them, or can viciously brutalize them with repeated dagger stabs, frightening nearby enemies into running away.
The bow is handled by Talion’s wraith. When aimed, a resource called Focus can be spent to slow down time to line up powerful headshots. But arrows aren’t the only thing this bow can fire – an unlockable upgrade grants an ability where Talio instantly teleports to an enemy when he shoots them. He can either knock down or outright decapitate foes upon reaching them.
Lastly is the sword, which will likely see the most use throughout the game. Combat is reminiscent of Batman’s freeflow combat style, where Talion can bounce from enemy to enemy and slice them apart, building up a combo gauge. When the combo gauge reaches a high enough number, 8 by default, Talion can unleash a brutal instant-kill execution, among other useful special attacks. Of course, Talion can also counter enemy attacks with precise timing. Like Batman, he can vault over enemies to reposition himself, and has an attack that stuns enemies (using his wraith to punch foes instead of a cape to stun them). Stunned foes, again like Batman, can be struck with a special flurry complete a unique combo ender. Seems like Warner Brothers may have asked Rocksteady to lend Monolith a few combat design tips – an excellent and practical decision.
The game dons the open-world moniker, but unlike some games, this designation is not a curse. The folks behind Mordor rightfully reined in ambitious open-world design that leads to much sparseness in favor of smaller, denser spaces. The two in-game zones, while not the hugest by any means, are tightly packed with varied locations and well-designed enemy strongholds waiting to be infiltrated. The main story quests makes use of many locations on the maps, as do the plethora of varied side missions that range from forging the legends of your individual weapons by using them in specifically designed encounters to hunting specific wildlife in Mordor.
Last but not least is the innovative Nemesis system, which Shadow of Mordor can proudly proclaim to be the originator of once every other game down the line copies it (this is very likely to occur). It’s that good. Strong enemies known as Captains of Sauron’s army are equipped with random traits and personalities that allow them to interact with Talion in unique ways. Whenever Talion encounters one on the battlefield, the action pauses briefly as the Captain locks swords with the protagonist and gives a one-sided exchange of endearing, yet threatening, one-liners. Unless killed immediately (a mostly difficult feat early on), the Captain will remember what happens between him and Talion. Talion injured him enough for him to flee? Their next encounter will involve the Captain expressing his desire to erase his shame by defeating Talion this time. The Captain kills Talion in combat? He gains a power up and rises in the ranks of Sauraon’s army – and the next time the two meet, the Captain will brag about his accomplishment, boasting how he has killed Talion once and can do so again, a statement somewhat backed up by his newfound power and position.
In short, the Nemesis system provides randomly generated enemies that are more expressive, interesting and compelling to fight than your normal run-of-the-mill goons. Gameplay-wise, each captain comes with a set of strengths and weaknesses. One, for example, may be weak to stealth attacks and can be instantly killed by one. However, in direct combat, he may do obscene amounts of damage to Talion, swiping 50% health in one stroke, and can be immune to combat finishers, a usually very effective means of chopping off chunks of their health. These dynamic traits combine to make each Captain a threat that must be properly assessed in order to fight effectively.
The rewards for defeating Captains are lucrative. They drop runes that augment Talion’s weapons in revolutionary ways – such as allowing him to regain health after draining an enemy’s soul instead of just soul arrows, or extending slow motion duration with the bow by twice the length.
In the end, perhaps what makes Shadow of Mordor so great and contrasts it from many other games of 2014 is that it feels like a complete, total package. It feels as though it’s packed with exactly what the developers wanted it to be, unlike other buggy games released in the year that felt incomplete, rushed, or shipped as a buggy mess. For any fan of high fantasy, for any lover of open-world adventure and stellar combat, for anyone that plays games, I cannot recommend Shadow of Mordor enough as it is. I call it my Game of the Year 2014 with ease.