Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor – Lasting Influence and the Future of Tradition

Modern systematics behind stealth gameplay can be traced back as early as the NES era, and I’m not strictly referencing Metal Gear, here. Influential RPGs like Chrono Trigger arguably initiated the concept of sneaking around enemy territory to effectively ignore combat scenarios altogether. But it was never a necessary component to Chrono Trigger, which is a substantial reason as to why it worked so well in conjunction with the game’s mechanics. The player was given a choice whether to advance cautiously and logically maneuver past battle situations, or to duke it out with the imminent threats to further gain experience and level up the character. Either way, the player was presented a constant challenge as well as a choice to be considered which would greatly affect the progression of the game and the character(s).

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Fast forward years later to the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Now, I’m purposefully disregarding the mention of games which are heavily built around a stealth system — like Thief, Deus Ex, or Dishonored — for a reason: their stealth mechanics are too heavily emphasized and consequently the experience suffers for it. When too much focus is spent on pushing players to refuse combat situations, the level design becomes less balanced to fit the standards of both a straightforward action game as well as a stealth game, causing a miscommunication of genre between game and player. Whereas games like Chrono Trigger push for players to think differently about how to tackle any situation the game pits them in, most stealth games are too meticulously constructed to give the players any breathing room to experiment; ie. the decision to either sneak past combat encounters or face them head on becomes less a player choice and more of a scenario-based puzzle-platformer with minimal options to intelligently contemplate. Which is not to say this approach can’t be a good thing for stealth-heavy games; in fact, the three I referenced feature some of the most complex level design devised.

But to return to the discussion at hand: the Assassin’s Creed franchise has always programmed enemy encounters very well for a similar reason as to why Chrono Trigger excels at battle situations. When chasing across rooftops, collecting items/finishing side tasks/going on murder sprees/etc. local city guards and Templar enemies are constantly vigilant of your actions, posing a threat at all times and consequently forcing the player to consider the most secure and rational means of getting from Point A to Point B. An archer spots the player from another building and warns them to return to the ground immediately. As he draws his bow and the yellow reticule begins to fill with red, indicating an imminent combat encounter, the player must decide to heed the warning as to ignore a possible battle scenario or continue on and engage it, possibly inviting more enemies to appear and inviting damage to be taken.

This gameplay concept nearly mirrors that of Chrono Trigger’s — besides the accumulation of XP: in AC, the player may loot fallen enemies for currency as to level up the character’s health and tools at in-game storefronts — only one exists in a broader playing field (the latter). And the concept has since been replicated and expanded upon in subsequent years, most notably in the Batman: Arkham series, more modern RPGs such as The Witcher and Fallout, as well as recent open-world experiences like Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor.

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Shadow of Mordor represents a fascinating collage of sorts. Developer Monolith Productions clearly understands the heavy influence they have taken from the AC and Arkham series and set within their own product, for they make it clear through their hasty, though focused tutorial segments. In regards to pacing, SoM features one of the most impressive introductory sequences ever devised, instituting the gameplay mechanics through storytelling without overstating either. Playful bonding between father and son seamlessly transitions into a battle scenario with multiple enemies as to teach the player how to fight; a quiet scene in which the protagonist sneaks up on his wife to surprise and hand her flowers from behind turns sinister as the next finds him stealthily assassinating Orc pillagers, as to introduce the game’s stealth mechanics; providing plot setup and establishing the role of the protagonist as a heroic, reputable father/husband figure, while simultaneously establishing core functionality.

From the get-go, Shadow of Mordor is demonstrating the multiple choices which are available to the player as they continue their journey throughout the in-game world of Middle-Earth. A stealthy approach will keep the character out of direct combat with enemies whereas the fast-paced sword-fighting sequences shall necessitate quicker-thinking and sharp reflexes. But the beauty behind this system lies in the concept of delivering that choice to the player: will you battle head-on with enemies or cautiously work your way around them towards your ultimate goal? As Aaron Riccio states in his review of the game, “{W}hereas Assassin’s Creed locks you into memories that must proceed in a specific fashion, Shadow of Mordor actually embraces its open-world architecture, allowing you not only to determine where you’ll be facing off against the fearsome Uruk-hai warchiefs, but which orcs actually end up advancing into those positions.” SoM never directly asks the player how they wish to proceed, it only heavily implies the decisions they are given to make, and the world thus becomes more sentient because of it.

There are still battles which must be had: the Nemesis system nearly completely revolves around singular combat encounters; however, these reflect a typical boss fight more than any normal action sequence, and the flood of enemies further challenges the player as they attempt to focus on so many enemies at once (once again bringing to mind the Assassin’s Creed and Batman: Arkham series, respectively). Here, the “boss fights” still allow for tactical approach, as the protagonist is given numerous possibilities in which to engage the enemy. He can quietly sneak around an Orc battle camp, discover a captain’s numerous weaknesses by exploring the landscapes, even simply go all in and face the entire army head on (providing a tougher challenge yet also more reward, further evidencing the petite balance in gameplay options).

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This greatly brings to mind traveling the dungeons and landscapes of Chrono Trigger, cautiously maneuvering around enemies as to ignore combat, exploring towns to find out helpful information on how to defeat upcoming bosses, or perhaps grinding through each enemy encounter you stumble across in effort to gain some needed XP. It all works just the same, the only difference is the state of technological advancement: Chrono Trigger exists on a two-dimensional scale, SoM in the third. There’s also a beautiful simplicity to the mechanics which fuel Chrono Trigger, moreso than the overwhelming — however derivative — systems of Middle-Earth.

With time comes progress, evolution. Taking influence can often be confused for replication, but intensely successful experiences such as Shadow of Mordor appropriately define the concept behind strengthening the known and developing new ideas out of old techniques. While not a perfect game overall (the first hour or so certainly does hastily overwhelm the player with tedious information regarding the world; and the main story is almost too simplistic to carry any real weight), where SoM succeeds is in utilizing a familiar system, placing it within the contexts of a navigable environment, and establishing its very own unique and innovative systems to coincide with the traditions of its predecessors. Thus determines the lasting impact of Chrono Trigger as well as the lasting impact of Shadow of Mordor. For if the systems work right now as they have for decades since the dawn of RPGs, they will continue to evolve, be modified, and exist in whatever technological state of the future, as long as the familiar remains approachable and the innovative compliments the known.

Andrew Gerdes

Gamer, musician, writer, film buff, 'foodie,' aspiring baker, critic, intellectual self-reliant, optimist, health-obsessed kid who only wants to explore the infinite possibilities of artistic expression. Also, people tend to think I'm an all-around awesome guy

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