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Is Shadow of Mordor Too Hard?

The other day I sat down to play Rayman Legends, which at its most fundamental level is a video game about running from left to right. There’s more to it than that, obviously; sometimes Rayman needs to jump over things and sometimes he has to punch them, but the core goal is almost exclusively sideways progression.

As is often the case, my girlfriend of several years was in the room at the time, busying herself trying to ignore the fact that the father of her child was sat on the couch in his pyjamas, at noon, being suspiciously excited about playing a game which is ostensibly aimed at kids. But given that she grew up in a household with two older brothers, she had heard of the character and showed more interest than usual in what I was doing. After the opening cutscene and subsequent title screen, to my astonishment she asked if she could play.

To say she was bad would be unfair. She wasn’t bad; she was completely and utterly clueless about what was going on, how anything worked, or what the point of any of it was. “You need to go right,” I offered. She looked up from her experimental prodding of the controller and threw me a look of sheer frustration. “Why do I need to go right?” she asked. I shrugged, somewhat stunned at how unintentionally astute that question was, and then I watched her trot straight up to an enemy and immediately get killed. She was gripping the pad so hard her knuckles were white.

I strongly suspect that her frustration wasn’t a result of her in-game death – Rayman reappeared immediately afterwards, still anatomically-lacking but otherwise unharmed by the experience – but rather of how obnoxiously complex video games are to someone who hasn’t assimilated their language over several years. She’s seen me play countless games sat on that couch, and while I often struggle with, say, Veteran difficulty in Call of Duty or acing the combat trials in the Arkham series, I make the actual act of playing look pretty easy. But it isn’t. Video games are inherently hard. And the only way to learn and to be able to play well is to be constantly punished, over and over again, until you get better.

I love my girlfriend very much and I know she isn’t stupid or mentally handicapped, but as I sat and watched her play that game she seemed to be both. And I, someone who has played video games for literally as long as I can remember, was in no position to help. I tried to offer sagely wisdom along the lines of, “press the A button to jump”, but that wasn’t the kind of information she needed. This wasn’t just unfamiliarity with the controls, but unfamiliarity with the entire form. “Do I move this stick thing at the same time? How high can I jump? I don’t want to land on that man. Why can’t I just go left?” Every piece of advice I offered prompted more and more questions, and I realized neither of us had the time or patience to continue.

The reason this story is important is that it highlights just how little tolerance for frustration most people have, and also the huge gulf in knowledge and skill between a non-gamer and, if you’ll pardon the term, a “hardcore” gamer. While this is to be expected, it nonetheless draws attention to the breadth of experience between these two extremes. Everyone who considers themselves a gamer – and that’s a term which is nebulous at best – falls somewhere inside that range; they all have different degrees of knowledge of and skill with video games and their systems, not to mention varying core playing philosophies which dictate what games are and why they matter to that individual.

For the most part, the aim of a designer is to create a game which is accessible to the largest possible slice of that potential audience, in terms of both their skill level and how well their personal needs are accommodated. We all play games for different reasons and our favourites are usually, like most things in life, those which give us what we want. Some people seek only the catharsis that comes from inhabiting a world outside of our own; others like to experience a story and its characters above all else; still others just want to play with the mechanics on offer and have fun doing so. None of these things are bad or wrong, but they all rely on actually being able to play the game in question without being constantly, violently savaged by it.

On the other end of the spectrum are those who value challenge above all else. Which, again, is not any less valid a reason to play games. But the difference is that challenge has the power to actively prevent people from enjoying any other aspect of a game. You can ignore a narrative and still have fun with the mechanics. You can put up with mechanics in order to enjoy a story. But if you can’t play the game because it is too challenging for you to progress, then you’re stuck. Your only options are to stop playing, or to play long enough that you develop the necessary skills to make it through to the parts you want to see – something which most people aren’t prepared to do.

This is why difficulty settings exist. “Easy” is there for people who aren’t interested in being challenged. “Hard” is there for people who are. This is by no means a perfect system (there are countless examples of games that aren’t “easy” or “hard” enough, whatever setting you choose) but it works well enough that there’s no real reason all games (at least, those which are even remotely skill-dependent) shouldn’t include it. Nobody loses in this scenario. You pick whichever difficulty setting you feel most comfortable with, and ignore the others.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor has no difficulty settings. And it’s tough. No, not the Ninja Gaiden kind of tough that has you breaking controllers and ripping out chunks of your own hair, but certainly tough enough to cause severe problems for gamers who aren’t used to being pushed around.

Is this a problem? Well… yeah, it kind of is. Perhaps it wouldn’t be if Shadow of Mordor was a different or worse game. But it’s not. It’s a very good, big-budget, widely-advertised release developed by a more-than-competent team and published by one of the biggest interactive entertainment companies in the industry. More importantly, it’s an adaptation of what is not only one of the biggest movie franchises of all time, but also one of the very cornerstones of “nerd culture”. The Lord of the Rings has legions of obsessed devotees who will queue for days just to gobble up anything which exists within the already unnecessarily complex universe of Middle-earth. And, given that one of the primary selling points of the game is that it slots neatly into the established canon and has a ton of world-building lore, they’re almost certainly going to be interested in Shadow of Mordor.

An audience so ludicrously wide and diverse has to include gamers of all sizes, shapes, backgrounds and skill-levels, which means that a significant portion of that audience can’t possibly have the necessary ability to see Shadow of Mordor through to its conclusion; still fewer with the kind of patience, time and tolerance for bullshit required to actually develop that kind of ability. What happens to those guys? In most cases they never get to see the end, or enjoy the things they were hoping to. In others, they have a distinctly terrible time, and immediately jump on forums to shout about it. In both cases, nothing valuable is gained. The game itself becomes surrounded by an unhelpful, unfair discussion, and the actual players miss out on all the stuff that’s great about it. All of which could easily be avoided by the inclusion of simple difficulty settings.

I’m one of those rare video game critics who plays the majority of games on their hardest settings, and I still found Shadow of Mordor to be a bit obnoxious. Not that the actual gameplay mechanics are in any way broken – they’re really a blend of Assassin’s Creed’s parkour and the counter-based, rhythmic combat of the Batman: Arkham games. It all works perfectly well. The problems lie in how the game is structured, and in how it fails to give you the space necessary to learn its systems without potential long-term repercussions.

Most of this is the fault of the Nemesis System, which is at once both the game’s most interesting and unique feature yet simultaneously it’s most punishing and frustrating. It works thusly: Sauron’s Orc army has a hierarchy, roughly comprised of nameless Grunts; bigger, tougher Captains, who have a name and randomly-generated sets of specific strengths and weaknesses; and finally Warchiefs, who are the local equivalent of bosses and tend to keep a few Captains around to function as bodyguards. The point of Shadow of Mordor, largely, is to dismantle, infiltrate or otherwise fuck this whole thing up, either by killing Captains and Warchiefs or – later in the game – brainwashing Orcs and inserting them into the ranks as sleeper agents. It’s all rather lovely, actually. The whole thing feels totally unique and presents lots of opportunities for organic storytelling.

What it also does is react to the actions of the player, as the system is tailored to remember interactions with specific types of characters and then adjust the manner in which those characters react to the player throughout the rest of the game. So if Talion (he’s the hero in this one) takes down a Captain with fire, for example, when that Captain reappears further down the line he’ll more than likely hold a grudge, but also a weakness to or fear of fire – which can be used to exploit him. Problematically, it also works the other way around. If Talion is killed, whoever did the killing will be promoted within the hierarchy, and will subsequently become much more powerful.

So this system punishes the player’s failure not by punting you back to a checkpoint or stripping you of some in-game currency (which are the traditional ways of doing it that gamers are accustomed to), but by actively making the game harder. That’s very unusual, so much so that I can’t actually think of another game which does it. So when you die – and you will die, because as we’ve established the base difficulty level is way above average – you do so secure in the knowledge that you’ve made the whole game more challenging as a result.

I found that to be really frustrating, and I can only assume that a more novice player would find it to be near-intolerable.

Shadow of Mordor also places a strong emphasis on RPG-style character progression, and the map is littered with all kinds of collectibles and ancillary side-quests which allow the player to accumulate experience and money. That stuff, in turn, can be invested in making Talion more powerful and resourceful. So the logical suggestion would be to spend some time nipping back and forth across the map in order to learn new skills and beef up your survivability. Which is a good idea – or at least it would be, if Shadow of Mordor didn’t also have the Far Cry problem.

The Far Cry problem, put simply, is when enemies milling around the open world attack the player at random. This starts with maybe one or two bad guys who are easily dispatched, but then typically involves another group who turned up to investigate all the commotion. And then another group. And another. Pretty quickly the player is in a huge, drawn-out battle with an entire army, when all they wanted to do was move from one place to somewhere else.

It’s very, very rare that you will fight just a small group of Uruks in Shadow of Mordor, and if you do there’s a good chance it will end up escalating into a Battle of Five Armies-type deal anyway. Usually the best course of action in this kind of scenario would be to let yourself get killed. It’s like in Grand Theft Auto when you accidentally trigger a four-star police chase when all you’re trying to do is solicit a prostitute. You allow yourself to get busted, take the paltry financial hit, and head on back to the corner. In Shadow of Mordor you have no such liberty. If you get killed, you know that the enemy on the other end of the sword is going to reappear further down the line; bigger, stronger, and more eager to whoop you again just to prove a point.

I should stress here that for a lot of people (maybe even most) this kind of thing won’t be too much of a problem. In fact, they’ll probably consider it to be the game’s best aspect by a significant margin. And in many ways it is, because it facilitates truly emergent gameplay and storytelling. I spent an inordinate amount of time in my game setting up elaborate sting operations to ensnare Hork the Bloated, who continually showed up at the most inopportune moments to stab me in the back when I wasn’t looking. He was quite literally my nemesis throughout the entire game, and I hated him more than any other video game character I can think of. All of which made it incredibly satisfying when I was eventually able to give him the Manchurian Candidate treatment and send him back into the fray to do my bidding.

That’s the thing though. So many players will never be able to experience these awesome aspects of Shadow of Mordor because of how demoralizing it is to be constantly mobbed and stabbed to death every time you try and skip across a field. And while it’s all too easy for elitist dicks on forums to suggest wonderful solutions like “get better, noob”, the reality is that people are all different and for some that isn’t an option. Nor should it have to be. If someone wants to come home from a hard day’s work and unwind by visiting Middle-earth for a spell, they should be able to do that without having to read the fucking Silmarillion. And they would be able to if Shadow of Mordor included an “easy” mode. That’s honestly all it would take.

So yeah, Shadow of Mordor is too hard. Maybe not for me or you, but for a lot of people who would really enjoy it and just aren’t able to. Whatever you may like to believe, this hobby of ours isn’t just for you – it’s for everyone. And when a game comes along that really does deserve to be enjoyed by everyone, there’s nothing wrong with pointing out the fact that in many ways it can’t be. So try and remember that we’re not all the same, and that we shouldn’t be treated as though we are. Really, you’ll feel better for it.

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