Let Thief’s blunders be a lesson to Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

Fan and critic reception (our own included) of Garrett’s newest heist has proven to be a mixed but collectively despondent bag: Praise for its intuitive stealth mechanics, scathing ridicule for its countless technical failures, and a well-deserved chorus of laughter, hitting notes of both disbelief and genuine amusement, for its terribly inept AI. But among the fleeting silver linings and glaring pitfalls rests an equally detractive quality; one that, ominously, handicaps Thief’s only selling point: the tried-and-true stealth gameplay that the series is known for.

While it does deliver the satisfyingly cryptic and puzzling stealth gameplay that Thief fans wanted, this installment has also picked up the bad habits of current-generation titles along with its newfound eye candy. My guess is it saw Resistance 2 and Dead Space 3 smoking dime-store cigarettes in a back alley, flipping change in their black leather jackets, the poor, vulnerable youth. Whatever the reason, Thief insists on occasionally steering the player toward otherwise (and rightfully) untraveled and uncharacteristically action-y routes, and simultaneously fails to take full advantage of the skill and ability sets inherent in its design.


Little do you know, that's the floor. Guy's clueless at times, I swear.

Environment traversal and Garrett’s various gadgets are the greatest offenders, as both are dragged down by that most Uncharted-esque issue of seemingly countless paths and scenarios quickly boiling down to a single pigeon-holed route, often conveniently (read: insultingly) highlighted by garden-variety visual cues. This is only exacerbated by Garrett’s tendency to mistake railings for cliff faces, and the helmets of heretofore clueless guards for landing signals. But even putting technical hiccups back under the rug Square Enix apparently thought they were tidily hidden beneath, placing ostensibly stealth-based gameplay in a tight corridor is hardly a wise move. The same can be said for prodding players fond of stealth with confrontational approaches, since it turns our thief into a common burglar.

But all is not lost for this fumbling, bumbling tale of home invasion. It’s a head-on collision, sure, but not an unplayable one. Moreover, Thief has unknowingly demonstrated a number of design decisions that developers should avoid like The City’s plague as we pave the next-gen path. And no known game needs to take more notes than the recently announced Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, the latest Lord of the Rings title, developed by Monolith Productions.

Though slated for a late-2014 launch, Shadow of Mordor has held no punches in showing exactly the sort of adventure it’s driving at. To complement the epic canon of J.R.R. Tolkien’s thought-child, Monolith is aiming to introduce a truly evolutionary narrative. Not in scale or grandeur, but evolutionary in structure; a literally evolving plot, diverging, growing, changing with each decision made. Nemeses formed today may lead armies against you tomorrow, entire quest lines may be locked or created by your actions now, and each and every playthrough seeks to offer palpable agency to each and every player.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

"Who will be next?!"

As much as I’d love to laud Monolith for applying next-gen power to storytelling over networking or graphical endeavors; or contrast how closely their vision resembles the narrative structure Ken Levine reportedly closed down his studio to pursue, there’s a greater topic at hand. That same variance and diversity will also allegedly be applied to SoM’s combat, and as you may have guessed, the game will likely end up in the same vein as Thief. That and Assassin’s Creed, which it blatantly borrows from in the same way that Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 borrows from God of War.

What does it mean to develop, or indeed to play, a next-gen title? Is the importance on the visual fidelity, the resolution, how many pixels fit on-screen? Or is it about immediacy; to be able to instantly download and play a game or share your current adventure online? Or is what’s important the immense leaps in online functionality that have now become possible—the Destinys and Divisions of our time? Or should PlayStation 4 and Xbox One titles work to innovate upon the floundering storytelling capabilities of video games which have plagued the medium since its inception?

You’ll never guess which one I side with.

I’ll gawk at 1080p/60FPS and beautifully rendered land and cityscapes for a time. I’ll smile at how easily I can pick up and get into a game. I’ll undoubtedly love conquering and exploring the immense persistent online worlds that console MMOs have promised, especially alongside my equally eager friends. But that won’t distinguish this console generation from any other, no matter how great their strides—at least not for long. That’s novelty, and cute as it is, it’s not worth buying a system for.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

Spoilers: It was him.

No, it’s titles like Shadow of Mordor that will make a name for themselves, that will drive this console cycle toward invention and not just refinement. New platforms are about new possibilities, not prettier visuals. Providing a genuinely immersive world complete with as many options and approaches as you can think of, pulling on tricks and events now buried deep within your unique plotline, making full use of every tool you can see—not just those that shine, shouting “climb me”—is one hell of a possibility.

This is surely only the beginning, but the message remains clear: As they boast about the variance in their title and the options it holds, games like Shadow of Mordor mustn’t fall prey to the same restrictions that have held countless titles back, Thief included. It doesn’t matter how many options you brainstorm up if they’re not used well in-game, or how intricate your systems are if there’s no need to explore them.

We’ve had our massive open worlds. We’ve seen our forked paths, our diverging endings. But what good is an enormous world if scripted missions render it nothing more than a monolithic connect-the-dots puzzle? Forked paths? Forked paths are for sissies; that’s a true-or-false question. Moral dilemmas mean nothing if the only line is drawn between sainthood and cannibalism.  No, PS4 and XOne development should—and unquestionably can—yield true agency, in narrative and gameplay, in a way never before seen in this, a strictly interactive medium.

And that’s just too promising to see spoiled by guards who fail to acknowledge spontaneous combustion at their feet.