Commuting Cognition: Middle-Earth: Shadow of War

What is this?

I’ve never been a big mobile game player, but I ended up working in a mobile games company (opinions are my own etc), so I’ve been trying to expose myself to more games in this market and attempt to gain an ever-better understanding of them. One of the ways I’ve been doing that is in trying out new games, seeing what they do wrong and right, and try to draw conclusions from them that I can use in the future to make our games better. One of the resources I’ve been using for this is TouchArcade (not sponsored), and their columns listing the new iOS games of the week.

This resulted in me playing a lot more new games during my daily bus rides, but I also feel the need to discuss them somewhere and keep a log of my thoughts instead of just internalising them. So, Commuting Cognition. These will be brief, bus-ride-long thoughts on these games, and should be seen less as reviews and more as first-impression brain dumps. They also may not be daily, depending on how full the bus is that day.

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Middle-Earth: Shadow of War

Shadow of War looks like an Idle Heroes at first, but it’s actually a lot deeper than what you’d expect out of a 100 MB game.

The game starts off with your units moving forward and attacking on their own, as you may have grown to expect. You can tap on each unit to use their special ability once it’s charged, also standard, but once you learn that you can double-tap on an enemy to focus fire on them, or once you learn that you can drag units to move them away from danger, then it starts feeling like more strategy will be required.

Unlike most games of this type, where your special skills just deal more damage, one of your characters has a taunt skill that draws damage away from your other units and another is able to heal them, both of which felt relevant and necessary very early: the game doesn’t pull any punches and after a few levels i was already starting to feel a bit overwhelmed, eventually ending up being wiped out.

After dying and returning to the main menu, to see what i could do to improve my party, i noticed there were some unclaimed rewards from completed quests and achievements. One of them was a new character, which i promptly added to my team, and that was enough for me to clear the level where i’d previously died. Now, this was clearly an intentional flow, but, because you weren’t explicitly guided (read: forced) through it, it ends up feeling like you got through the ordeal on your own, which is really empowering. Very sneaky, very clever design.

After clearing that level, the tutorial then guides me through the process of upgrading my characters and skills, ensuring i have the tools to survive the next few levels. The systems are many, but they never felt overwhelming to me the way something like Game of War does. I think this is because the tutorial doesn’t *explicitly* force you through every single option in sequence; it teaches you several key aspects, but leaves many others to your discretion which you’ll eventually end up exploring because you’ll be *implicitly* forced to improve your party in order to progress. We give a lot of importance to guiding players, but we should keep in mind that there is such a thing as too much hand-holding.

Now, there’s far too much here that i could cover in a couple of bus rides. The branding system gives you the option to either recruit orcs you defeat, allowing you to summon them in future battles, or kill them outright in order to collect extra loot. Recruited orcs can go on quests or fight in the pits in order to level themselves up. In addition, there’s a whole strengths/weaknesses system like in the original game, where you can scout ahead to know the particular traits of each boss you’ll be facing (such as being immune to stun, or being dealt extra damage by Dwarves). There also appear to be social features like guilds and the like that i couldn’t access, and likely many more.

All in all, this is an extremely deep game that requires a lot more strategy than you would assume at first glance. And it all fits in 100 and so MB. Have i mentioned that? No huge extra downloads, as far as i could tell. How is it so small?!

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