Warner Brothers has a new game coming this year entitled Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, where you play as Middle-Earth trying to escape the shadow of one of your constituent parts. You move the titular continent around the world, fighting enemy continents like Tamriel and Westeros. It’s a slow game, thanks either to the use of plate tectonics as a major gameplay mechanic or a need to fit in with the Hobbit movies. But except for the obvious scale and pacing differences of its lead character, the gameplay looks very similar to Assassin’s Creed.
So similar, in fact, that Assassin’s Creed developer Charles Randall called out the developers of Shadow of Mordor for outright stealing code and animation from the prior game.
Naturally, Shadow of Mordor’s design director Michael de Plater categorically denied any such theft, and he’s probably telling the truth:
We just wanted to do a third-person, open-world action adventure. And then now, just by the time you have stealth and melee combat and you're hunting guys behind enemy lines, the comparisons maybe come out at that point. It definitely wasn't something we were consciously going for.
This is difficult to judge. They’re obviously very similar games, but code theft is a damning accusation to make.
De Plater unwittingly makes a rather incisive point. When does an overly-familiar work cease to be a ripoff and become merely an entry in a genre? At what point do features unique to a single title become industry-standard conventions? Questions like these plague me for personal reasons on which I may expound in the future. Watching the gameplay video, it’s not just Assassin’s Creed that comes to mind; it’s also strikingly similar to the Batman: Arkham series (which is owned by WB). And come to think of it, it looks a little like the new Tomb Raider, as well…
Mechanically speaking, they're exactly the same game.
* They’re all third-person open-world games, with physical exploration a key element. Collectibles are everywhere and navigating environmental puzzles is often required to find them.
* They all let you upgrade skills and gear, sometimes enabling access to new areas later in the game
* They all feature context-sensitive close combat with elaborately-animated finishing moves, as well as ranged combat, stealth and gadgets.
* They all have alternate modes of vision that highlight important elements in the environment, termed variously Eagle Vision, Detective Mode, Survival Instincts, Wraith World.
* They all tell strong stories (Shadow of Mordor's is being written by a former Red Dead Redemption writer/designer) through unplayable cutscenes, which can be blown through or ignored at the player’s own pace.
These games have hit upon a successful Frankenstein of gameplay mechanics. There’s enough cinematic story to provide some narrative meat; enough combat to provide actual meat; and enough Metroidvania exploration and puzzle-solving to link into classic games and keep the brain active. This disparate mixture works surprisingly well, given the hotchpotch it reads like on paper.
It all reminds me of a 2003 University of London study into designing the “perfect” blockbuster movie, analysing what ratios of plot, comedy, action, romance and so on would make a story the most successful at the box office. The movie that followed the resultant recipe most closely was Toy Story 2.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this practice - these are all great games - but the repetition of the mechanics is starting to show. But is adherence to formula acceptable if it works? A formulaic but well-executed action flick, for example, can be a great time at the movies. Hell, every sports movie ever made hews pretty close to Rocky, yet the genre thrives.
Reviewers tend to place great emphasis on gameplay innovation, but perhaps we need to go easier on games that just do stock-standard really well - the Jack Reachers of the medium. Innovation is required to keep a medium advancing, but surely once a successful riff is hit upon, it’s okay to keep jamming on it for a while. It’s just a question of when to move on to the next song. Maybe it's time: Arkham Origins was met with decidedly lukewarm reactions, largely due to leaning on pre-established convention like me on Bill Withers.
At any rate, setting one of these action-adventure-third-person-exploration-combat games in a New Zealand visual effects studio (Weta are indeed involved) looks like a strong move. It’s gorier than its peers, it’s got Cockney orcs and ghost magic, and a feature called Nemesis where enemies remember you and behave differently if they’ve met you before. Hopefully there's an option to just be really nice to them, so they'll bake you orcish cupcakes later. Given the lengths to which the designers have gone on the violence, though, I suspect that won't be an option.
Middle-Earth: Shadow Of Mordor: yet another game devoid of cupcakes. Sad.