When it comes to open-world games, I'm not the kind of player who tries to reach 100 per cent completion. But I recently booted up Shadow of Mordor again and discovered something shameful. I'd played 38 hours and hadn't even cracked 40 per cent. That was simply unacceptable. So it was back to Mordor for me.
Before I go any further, I should admit that I still haven't "finished" the game -- if you consider maxing out the percentage tracker in a game's starting menu the only true way to "finish" it. As of this writing, I've clocked 44 hours and 41 minutes in Shadow of Mordor. Apparently, those extra six hours and 41 minutes I put into it over the weekend were enough to bump up my progress quite a bit -- I'm now at 73 per cent. But I'm honestly not sure I even want to take this completionist quest any further. Because as I watched my percentage count climb ever upward over the weekend, I began to notice that my feelings for Shadow of Mordor were slowly but surely...changing. And not always for the better. Looking back over the notes I was taking throughout my journey, I could sense this change of heart in the tone of my own writing as well.
What follows is an outline of what I discovered -- both about Mordor and myself as a gamer -- as I set about my journey to hundred per cent my very first game.
Part 1: I love this game, so I don't want to stop playing it.
When and how being a "completionist" gamer became a matter of common parlance is an interesting question, and one that's probably the worthy subject of another piece entirely. But I'm guessing that developers started injecting more stuff into their games in an effort to respond to a specific request from players. A slightly cynical way to look at this would be to see completionism as arising from developers effort to add "replay value" to their work. But I see completionist tendencies and the focus on replay value as both arising from a common point of origin: people enjoying a particular game so much they just can't seem to get enough of it.
That's certainly been my experience with Shadow of Mordor. As I suggested in my review way back in September, this is one of the best games I've played in a good long while. And I say that in spite of the fact that I admitted being bored to tears with its main storyline. The fact that I saw protagonist Talion's quest to the end of its official scripted narrative is, on one very deep level, meaningless. There are much more interesting things to do in this game than follow his main story arch. My personal favourite is running around killing the many villainous orcs that make up Mordor's nemesis system. But as I played more of Mordor, I became increasingly confident in my knowledge that those guys aren't going anywhere. The board game-like display that represents their military hierarchy never stops shifting and repopulating itself. So, again, I kept coming back to that shameful sub-forty-per cent-completion-point. Was I missing something? There was only one was to find out.
Part 2: I'm seeing a lot of stuff I wouldn't otherwise.
Like many open-world games, the sidequests and challenges in Shadow of Mordor are broken into a few different categories. There are "Outcast Missions," which task Talion with freeing any of his fellow humans from slavery at the hands of Mordor's orcs and uruks. Weapon challenges, meanwhile, are exactly what they sound like: specific gameplay prompts that put you in a situation where you must use one of your three main killing devices (the dagger, sword, or bow) to complete a specific task -- i.e., kill a bunch of bad guys in a specific way.
And then there's the treasure hunting. Oh, the treasure hunting. Mordor has two types of collectibles: "Artifacts" and "Ithildin." Both deliver bits and pieces of Shadow of Mordor lore in addition to handfuls of various points that fill up different bars in the game's levelling system. These help flesh out the world of Mordor, story-wise. I only realised that the "partner" that the dwarven character Torvin kept referring to when speaking to Talion was actually his brother, for instance, once I uncovered a few relevant artifacts in Mordor's second map:
If it weren't for things like this "Blood-Stained Buckler," I would have sworn that "partner" referred to something else entirely.
Once I started paying attention to Mordor's collectibles, however, they also triggered some obsessive response mechanism in the deepest recesses of my gamer brain. I started combing through the game's world region by region in search of these virtual goodies, each tiny geometrical facet of the map glaring out at me as a reminder of what I still hadn't captured:
Every time I panned over to an untouched area of the map, I felt like I was looking down at a section of some floor I was about to take a broom to. Hopefully all these errant bits of fuzz and dust would be gone with my next sweep.
That probably makes hunting for collectibles sound a bit tedious. And, well, it is -- on one level. It's also more than a little absurd to run around a stronghold full of orcs who want nothing more than to kill you in search of a little trinket buried in a random nook or cranny of an enemy encampment. But at its best moments, what I like about how the treasure hunting works in Shadow of Mordor is that it pushed me to play the game outside of my comfort zone. Here's a screenshot I took while I was sneaking around the outside of one stronghold, for instance:
See all those bright blue and red splotches? Those are bad guys. Unless I wanted to get bogged down fighting wave after wave of orcs and uruks, I had to adopt a much stealthier approach than I normally have in Mordor. The game's collectibles therefore reinforced the sense that I was going behind enemy lines, in their own (occasionally silly) way.
That's when everything worked, however. A lot of other times? Well...that's when I got into to the far less pleasant part of my completionist quest.
Part 3: There's a lot of repetitive nonsense.
Aside from the weapon challenges in Shadow of Mordor, most of the extraneous material in this game functions in a single way that never changes. All of the Outcast missions I played, for instance, delivered the exact same challenge -- albeit on different parts of Mordor's two maps. Each began with three human slaves highlighted as my targets. Each of them was tied to a post somewhere, and it was my job to free them. That's pretty much all there was to it. It was like any other part of the game, except instead of killing my target I was pressing R1 to cut them free. Well, actually, I ended up killing a lot of orcs along the way too, so these extra missions really were just like like every other part of the game. I haven't met any additional characters through them yet, nor have I discovered any intriguing new facet of the game. I've just continued to receive a handful of new targets every time I accept one. The only thing that's helped liven them up have been the all-too-rare occasions when I run into an orc captain when I'm in the middle of trying to liberate some of my human brethren.
Out of everything I've encountered in Mordor, the Outcast missions have been the least imaginative parts of this game by far. By the time Sunday night wound to a close and I was still making my way through the game's second map to check off those little fist-shaped icons, it occurred to me that playing through this part of the game was starting to feel like more of a chore than anything remotely pleasurable. So why was I even doing so? Well, I don't have a good answer to that yet. But there's some deep, indescribable urge I still have to just see all of them through.
But remember what I said a moment ago: about how sweeping through Mordor's map started to feel like actual sweeping. Like, the kind with a broom. I might still be enjoying Shadow of Mordor more than doing actual household chores. But the reason the game has started to feel like a chore is because a lot of the extraneous activities really are just chores, plain and simple.
I mean, look at two of these last items I came across during my collecting this weekend:
A knife and...a basket fragment. Really? Even the description of the item says that this thing is "utterly unremarkable." Why on earth am I playing a video game set in one of the most visually and thematically rich fantasy worlds out there, and collecting pieces of a basket?
It was around this time that I decided I didn't want to make it to one hundred per cent in Shadow of Mordor.
Epilogue: My favourite parts of games are the hardest to quantify.
In my basket-fuelled frustration, I wandered off into a random pasture in Mordor and started picking a fight with the closest group of orcs I could find. A few minutes later, the oaf pictured above showed up. His name was Snagog Hot-Head. And, fitting oh so perfectly with his name, he has a flaming metal basket on his head. What a deliciously corny joke! Delivered at just the right moment.
Oh, Mordor, I remember thinking. This is why I love you.
And that's the thing: Shadow of Mordor may be remarkably familiar in some ways, and breathtakingly unique in others, but trying to "complete" every part of it has reminded me of something that holds true across the vast majority of games I play. The parts of Mordor that feel genuinely special to me aren't the ones that move the needle on the game's menu. It's the tense, combative moments I have fighting back and forth with the game's always colourful cast of orcs. As for the other stuff? The Outcast missions, the collectibles I pored over the map to find and gather obsessively this weekend? For better or worse, that stuff is just content. It's the part of Mordor that's easiest to measure, which is probably why I jumped almost 40 percentage points in a matter of hours anyways. But that doesn't make them the most enjoyable parts of this game. "Fun" is ultimately an indescribable sensation, I'd argue. And I don't mean for that to sound defeatist. Rather, I'm simply observing that I had a lot more fun playing through the parts of Mordor that counted for a much smaller part of my overall progress in the game than I did collecting all of the game's extraneous filler material.
I don't think I'm finished playing Shadow of Mordor, therefore. But I'm not going to feel quite so bad about not "finishing" the game anymore.