Is Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor a Bit Too Similar to the Arkham Series?
I'd like to say right up front that Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is a fantastic game. I'm only about three quarters of the way through it at the time of writing this but so far I'm having a ball. As a Lord of the Rings fan, it's everything that I could have hoped for from an open world action title set in Middle Earth, albeit with a few darker elements thrown into the mix. It's by no means a game without its problems, especially on the Xbox 360 version where I've been dealing with graphical bugs around literally every corner and absurd loading times just to get out of a map screen, but once I got past that nonsense I managed to fall in love with it. The story is incredibly interesting, the gameplay is some of the most satisfying I've ever played and as a lore nerd I can't help but enjoy the copious amounts of it to be found throughout the world.
Despite the immense satisfaction with my purchase, however, I did notice something which has been bugging me a bit. Not necessarily in a bad way because, as I said, I'm enjoying the hell out of it, but something which is just sort of nagging at my mind and that I'm finding increasingly difficult to ignore.
It's by no means a rare occurrence for the developer of one game to spot a concept or mechanic they find interesting in another game then decide to put it into their own. Indeed, many of the best games ever made rely less on innovating on a wide front and instead taking a pre-existing concept and tuning it to perfection as best as they can. There's no good reason for this to be looked down upon (and it rarely is), nor is there reason to think that a title will somehow be less than it could have otherwise been had they not aped a few concepts here and there. I'm of the opinion that the old metaphor rings true, that progress is made by standing on the shoulders of giants. That being said, I can't help but wonder just how much one game can take from another before it becomes unacceptable.
The Arkham series has, in my opinion, created the perfect fighting system for intense, meaty combat in an open world action game. Why? Well, because it's simple. The freeflow combat system allows players who just want to button mash their way through the game to do so, should they wish, but also allows more advanced players to incorporate all of Batman's different gadgets into the fight. When done right it's seamless, beautiful to look at and exciting as hell to play. It's no surprise then that since Shadow of Mordor incorporates their own version of the freeflow combat system, that the combat found here is also uber satisfying. The thing that's bugging me about it, however, is just how similar it really is.
The actual controls behind the combat are exactly the same, which is perfectly fine, but the combat itself takes it a step further. Sure, this time you're flying back and forth in an impossible manner with a sword and cutting off peoples heads instead of punching them in the head, but you're still flying back and forth in an impossible manner while taking on 10+ enemies at a time. If it wasn't for the sword in my hand and the lack of martial arts, I'd assume I was just watching someone playing Arkham, really badly, never getting past the 5 or 6 hit combo when Batman starts whipping out the more showy maneuvers. It also happens to not be executed as well, though you certainly can't blame a developer for not implementing a feature as well as another developer who has already had three goes at it, in my opinion.
Combat itself isn't where the similarities end, however. Many of the skills and upgrades also border on being a simple copy and paste job. You can unlock the ability to quickly throw a knife, for example, with a later unlock allowing you to throw three in rapid succession, just like a Batarang. You can also build combos faster by going down the Ranger skill tree, unlocking the ability to boost the combo by two rather than one with a well timed strike or to reduce the threshold of a hit-streak from eight to five. Once that hit-streak is met, of course, you now have the option of finishing off an enemy in one fell swoop, stopping the chain but continuing the combo. Going down the the Wraith skill tree you find even more which remains mostly the same, like the Wraith Stun which serves the exact same function as Batman's cape; once an enemy is stunned you can unleash a flurry of rapid attacks which end with a finishing blow.
On top of all that you also have Wraith Mode, which is Batman's Detective Vision in almost every way. Activating it throws a blue filter over everything and highlights collectibles, environmental interactions as well as enemies and their captains. There are, occasionally, even those annoying little missions which require you to follow a trail of blood or tracks until you find what you're looking for; the difference being that in Shadow of Mordor you're given an unbroken bright blue path to follow instead of clues spread out every 10-20 feet or so. This not only makes it tedious but pointless, seemingly something else they just threw into the game because Batman did it and they already took the Detective Vision so... why not?
But it's not just the Arkham series that Shadow of Mordor borrows heavily from. The way in which you move around the world and climb buildings or cliffs is very reminiscent to the Assassin's Creed series. The climbing mechanics taken from Assassin's Creed will even come into play as you climb towers found throughout the world and 'reforge' them, revealing the surrounding map and the activities found within. I mentioned before that the combat was much less flashy than in the Arkham games and the reason why is because while you may move around like Batman, your combat style is more like Ezio's. I suppose that makes sense considering that you're now just a guy with a sword and not a master of every known form of martial arts, but I hope that you're seeing the theme here.
As I mentioned before, it's no rare thing for games to take concepts or mechanics from other games and you'd be hard pressed to find a modern title which didn't take from those who came before it. The question still remains, however, whether or not it's an okay thing to basically copy and paste so many mechanics and features from one game and put it into another game, changing nothing of significance. Is it an okay thing to do, ethically speaking? Should we be wary of games which take mechanics from others wholesale and provide little to no changes? Does Shadow of Mordor even deserve the praise it has received, from myself included, considering that you can cheekily refer to it as Batman: Middle Earth?
I'd answer those first two questions with a resounding... maybe? I don't really know if there is a right or wrong answer to those questions. On the one hand, this practice is so common place that it can simply be viewed as an essential part of modern game design, but on the other it IS a pretty rare sight (at least in my experience) to see a game in which the vast majority of the mechanics, including the accompanying intricacies, are taken wholesale from other titles. I can only speak for myself, and I do believe these first questions lead to subjective opinions rather than objective answers, but I'd quickly grow wary of video games if completely unrelated series within a genre as wide as action RPGs started to be the exact same experience with a different coat of paint. Especially when you take into account that as fantastic of a game as Shadow of Mordor is (save the absurd graphical bugs on 360), it doesn't actually do anything better than the original titles from which these mechanics were taken. I love beheading Uruks left and right but beating people to a pulp as Batman just feels overall better designed; climbing ruined towers so that I can drop down on slavers is pretty fun but I'd rather climb around the detailed, beautiful cities of Renaissance Italy.
Taking all of that into consideration, does Shadow of Mordor really deserve the praise it has received? Should I be seriously considering it as my Game of the Year even though there's probably two original lines in its coding? I think it's safe to say that it absolutely does and that I most certainly should. I feel that it once again comes down to a case by case basis as to whether or not someone thinks a game based heavily, almost exclusively, on the innovation of others is worthy of the same praise as those it takes mechanics from. There are arguments to be made for both sides of that coin, all of which being equally valid to one extent or another. Perhaps there are just too many variables which inform someone's opinion, variables ranging from their income to just how much they enjoy these types of games, to provide a definitive answer. Personally, I can't get enough of it; I'm already hoping that a sequel will come along in the next year or two that provides an even bigger, and hopefully more dense, world to explore. Monolith has shown us that they can make a legitimately great action RPG and the Captain system shows us that they're capable of immersing players in new, creative ways. That being said, I'd definitely like to see some more original ideas thrown into the mix. I'm sure that most people are with me when I say that I hope video games continue to expand ever forward rather than stagnate, every RPG becoming a sub par version of Assassin's Creed or every FPS being an even more generic version of Call of Duty. After all, if you're forced to play $60 over and over for the same, relatively unchanged experience, you're gonna have a bad time.
Does Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor get a free pass, just like most other modern titles, or are the similarities a bit too profound for you to ignore? Is there a borrowed gameplay feature in particular, if any at all, that you think remains just a bit too samey for you to accept? Are there others out there who feel the same about this issue or is this whole thing, in fact, a complete non-issue?