Balancing power between the game and the player is a difficult concept. If the game is too difficult it can come across as unfair and as such, may lead players to put down the controller rather than master it. If the player is too powerful, the player puts down the controller because the sense of challenge of missing thus rendering the game impotent. Balancing power between the player and the game thus becomes an essential component of balancing between the fun and the challenge; without the difficulty, Super Meatboy would have never been the same and without the fun, your favorite game may have never found its way into your backlog.
Therefore, it was initially refreshing to see Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor defiantly set the balance from the start by making the player the weaker force. The Orcs rule the land of Mordor through the violently chaotic Nemesis system. Succinctly, the Nemesis system comprises the highest ranking members of Sauron’s army but it also injects each Orc Captain with a personality, unique name, rank and varying sets of abilities. To make the game even more challenging, Orc abilities can range from annoying, debilitating or devastating (and sometimes all at once).
One of the more memorable moments I had playing Mordor was during the first half of the game. I was in a stronghold when I spotted an Orc Captain walking alone. I didn’t have any Intel on him (essential for identifying enemy attributes) but having stealth killed a few Captains by now, I was fairly confident I could kill him without difficulty. I dropped down, knife out but instead of killing him in one-hit, he threw me off and called for reinforcements. He was immune to stealth attacks and due to my weakened starting state, I struggled to fight him off. More and more Orcs began to pore in but I managed to kill him. As I turned to face the grunts, another Orc Captain appeared. He promised to kill me quickly then stuck me with a poison arrow. Health diminishing by the second, I admitted defeat and ran.
At this point in my game, the balance of power was squarely in favor of the Nemesis system. I didn’t have enough money to buy any Attributes (stat enhancements): I had only basic weapon Runes (augments for enhancing abilities): and I was still on the first, maybe second tier of the Talent Tree. The only weapon available to me was Intel; I set out and interrogated a grunt for Intel. After discovering that the Orc Captain was weak against stealth, I tracked the Orc to his new stronghold and subtly made my way in through the roof; it was tense and I was afraid any misstep would reveal my position and force me to run away again. After luring some orcs away from a ledge, I discovered my target walking below me, giving some sort of motivational speech to his troops. I waited for him to move into position and then I stealth attacked him, brutally dropping on top of him, savagely slicing him open and tearing the life from his flesh. His troops panicked and ran; I created a distraction to cover my escape and then ran right out the front gates, deliriously proud of myself for circumnavigating my inherent weaknesses and taking advantage of his.
Sadly as the game progressed, this experience never happened to me again. Although I killed plenty of Orc Captains throughout my playthrough, by the end of the first half I never had as much tension (or even subtly) attacking a stronghold. This is because the balance of power between the player and the game not only created the challenge but also intrinsically created what was fun about the game. Being weaker and forced to acquire Intel to plan my assassinations drove my gameplay experience, causing me move swiftly but silently, attacking methodically not spontaneously.
Optimally, Mordor would have kept this balance of power throughout the entire campaign but (I think) because of the Nemesis system, the game had to compensate me in some way. To do this, Mordor provided me with the ability to purchase new Upgrades (abilities like Executions or Stuns). Getting stronger however, would mean earning Power Points to unlock better abilities and it’s at this point that I began to skew the balance of power in my favor, Nemesis system be damned.
Power Points are earned by completing Power Struggles (assassination/disruption missions). As I began freely clearing the map of Orc Captains, I assumed that at some point the game would stop me and force me to complete more story missions before letting me unlock the best abilities. What I didn’t expect was that due to the self-sustaining nature of the Nemesis system (and the facts that Orc’s really enjoy killing each other), new Power Struggles were constantly populating my map. Before I had even reached the midpoint of the game, I had access to the final tiers of Upgrades, several Attributes and a sizable collection of Runes for my weapons.
Within the rules of the game, this might not seem so unbalanced since the overall goal to Mordor is killing Orcs (did I ever). The problem though is that the unlockable Upgrades (particularly the Ranger Upgrades) are pretty damn devastating. One of the first that can be unlocked is the ability to perform an executions (a one-hit kill) after every eight consecutive hits: this can be further enhanced by unlocking the “Critical Strikes” skill which give you triple hits on well-timed attacks: “Vault Stun” which allows you to jump over and stun enemies: “Resilience” and “Blade Master” which lower the threshold for Executions and require two hits to break your combo streak: and finally “Double Charge” which allows you to perform two Executions for the price of one. Combined, all of these abilities will often let you lock enemies into an endless combo state where they have no choice but to die.
After reading all that (and seeing it!) you almost feed bad for the Orcs. Keep in mind too that these are just the key Ranger Upgrades not all of them and I have not taken into account the rapid, battlefield-changing abilities of the Wraith Upgrade tree. However the Ranger Upgrades alone allowed me to dominate Sauron’s army. Strongholds were no longer an obstacle to overcome deftly in fear of being overwhelmed, but rather an opportunity to run through like scythe. Even if Orcs came clad in armor, wielding two swords or a shield, my lower Execution threshold combined with my rapid ability to acquire a hit-streak mixed with Double Executions allowed me to weave a path of targeted destruction straight through the most dangerous foes with ease.
If the Mordor had stopped here with only Upgrades to strengthen your character, I think it would have been able to retain a semblance of its initial challenge. But with access to weapon Runes like increased weapon damage, reduced melee damage, arrow and health recovery during combat; as well as purchasable Attributes to increase your character’s total health, arrows, Focus (bullet time) and Rune slots, Mordor becomes less about tactics and agility and more about brute strength.
Although I still consider Mordor to be one of the best games I played this year, it’s rather unfortunate that the challenge falters so significantly. One of the first reviews I read about Mordor spoke about how the player’s death increased the enjoyment of the game because not only would the Orc that killed you level up but they also gained a rank, new abilities and became a special “revenge” target for you to seek out (they also verbally reminded you of your death – cheeky bastards). In addition, all Power Struggles would naturally be resolved, dead Orcs would be replaced with new living Orcs; essentially, a different world would be waiting for you to respawn.
Because of the way that the balance of power can be skewed so heavily in the player’s favor, I never saw “that game.” My entire gameplay experience changed before I had even seen the second half of the game. Whereas I once spent all my time sneaking into Orc strongholds, rattling Intel out of grunts, planning and then coercing my victims into scenarios designed to take advantage of their weaknesses; I eventually ended up running directly through the front gates of Orc encampments, brazenly drawing out every Orc within shouting distance. Where I started out killing Orcs individually, rationally, I ended up in a game where I willingly leaped into a crowd of Orcs and almost always walked away from every encounter with full-health thanks to all of my augments.
On the one-hand, it can be argued that it’s my fault for leveling up so fast; I could have paced myself and perhaps focused more on the story. But on the other hand, that’s like saying I shouldn’t have collected so many “1-Ups” in a Mario Bros. game. The balance of power for any game is a difficult concept and although Mordor starts off with a genuinely challenging base thanks to the Nemesis system, the Upgrades provided by the game force the player to become an unstoppable battering ram of death (had I been given the option, I could have killed Sauron and saved Frodo the trip). And while the point of Mordor is about retribution, it didn’t have to come at the expense of taking the violent, tense and ultimately exciting world of Mordor and degrading it to a murder playground where the only enemy strong enough to kill me was carelessness.
P.S. Don’t even get me started on the Graugs 🙂