Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor surprised a lot of us, but should it have? Its gameplay formula is built for success, as has been proven by the games that used it first. It lets you scale walls and leap from atop colossal towers, arms spread outward (like an eagle?). You can jump between enemies to attack them with the press of a button (almost…”freeform”). It’s clear as day that Shadow of Mordor lifts its gameplay mechanics from games like Assassin’s Creed and Batman: Arkham Asylum. From the design of the environments to the animations themselves, this game is all-too-familiar. However, like another acclaimed series, Shadow of Mordor proves that creativity isn’t necessarily required to make a great game, and speaks volumes about gamers’ views on innovation.
Shadow of Mordor’s shameless recycling of established mechanics harkens back to last generation’s Darksiders, which borrowed heavily The Legend of Zelda, God of War, and Devil May Cry. Darksiders makes zero effort to hide those influences in its dungeon layouts and combat mechanics. Some items in Darksiders are carbon copies of Zelda items, like the Abyssal Chain, which is very obviously the Hookshot. The combat is smooth and weighty like God of War, but focuses on building massive combo chains and using the Chaos Form, a super-powered monster mode that takes cues from Dante’s Devil Trigger. Darksiders was unapologetic in cribbing from three beloved series and gamers lapped it up.
This brings up a very interesting point regarding the industry’s desire for innovation. It’s safe to say that risk-taking is rare in this business. Gamers are notorious for sticking to what they already like and companies usually bank on this to make money. But at the same time, gamers are dissatisfied with annual releases that are identical to previous installments. Despite being comfortable with what we like, we still demand something interesting and fresh with each game we buy. It’s a tug-o-war between familiarity and progression.
This is what makes Shadow of Mordor and Darksiders such interesting cases; they don’t really do anything particularly new, but feel refreshing in spite of themselves. Darksiders delivers a new spin on the Zelda formula by making the combat deeper and more involving. Shadow of Mordor’s Nemesis system turns the linear campaigns of its influences into an emergent war with the Orc NPCs. Neither game makes any effort to hide what it’s lifted, but subtle tweaks and clever integration of these influences make these shameless copycats interesting and exciting. Both games show that the only things you really need to make a good game great are a few clever formula tweaks and a lot of polish.