Shadow of Mordor is one of the best games I played this year. I had high hopes for Lord of the Hunt, its first major expansion, as a result. "New monsters!" I thought. "More nemesis orcs to fight, some of whom ride on top of the new monsters! What could possibly go wrong?" So many things, apparently.
Lord of the Hunt, which came out yesterday for the PS4, Xbox One, and PC versions of the game, brings a lot of great new ideas to the table. It adds a few "story" missions to the game that are mostly unrelated to the main story, plus some new collectibles and hunting-based challenges. But the meat of the DLC is in the gross new monsters it adds to Shadow of Mordor: variations on the original game's lion-like caragors and the ogre-ish monstrosities known as graugs. Better yet, the orcs that so many gamers fell in love with this fall would be able to ride these vicious beasts into battle the same way Talion could, thanks to the addition of "beastmaster warchiefs." Mordor protagonist Talion gets a few extra abilities in turn, allowing him to control the world's wonderfully grotesque wildlife by, say, riding atop a graug and forcing it to projectile vomit at bad guys like a bilious mech warrior. Or mind-controlling hordes of the zombie-esque "ghuls" to glom on his foes.
Again: all of that sounded amazing in theory. Just adding two monsters, a handful of extra Talion powers, and some additional orc warchiefs seemed like more than enough to breath new life into Mordor's already excellent "nemesis system"—the intricate web of ever-evolving bad guys you fight in the game. The DLC's ingredients could add an extra dash of something or other to the game's wonderfully chaotic mixture, one that fans have been hungry for for a while now.
They could add a great deal to Shadow of Mordor. But they don't. That's the whole problem. For whatever reason, Mordor developer Monolith Entertainment keeps all the new goodies from Lord of the Hunt sealed off from the rest of the game. Rather than adding the monsters to the main story, you can only access Lord of the Hunt as a standalone campaign through the game's main menu. See here:
I switched back and forth between the primary "story mode" of Mordor and Lord of the Hunt several times to see if something, anything, was shared between the two. As far as I can tell, the only thing that carries over into the original game is Talion's new "beastmaster" skin, which is just Talion with a beard that would rival the sights one might see in East Williamsburg:
Everything else from Lord of the Hunt is sealed off behind an arbitrary virtual barrier. Even more strange is the fact that few things besides your character's progress and skill level carry over to Lord of the Hunt. The expansion takes place in Núrn, one of the two main maps from the original game. Nothing has changed, territory-wise—it's literally just half of the terrain from Mordor. Here's what I saw shortly after starting Lord of the Hunt:
And when I went back to my main game just to make sure I wasn't missing something:
There are no caragors anymore, or any non-wretched graugs—just their respective counterparts. I couldn't tell when, exactly, the events in Lord of the Hunt take place in relationship to the original story, but it centers around Torvin, a dwarven hunter you first met midway through Mordor. The premise is that Núrn is being overrun by the scary new "beastmaster warchiefs"—orcs who've somehow learned how to control Mordor's ferocious wildlife—and it's up to you and Torvin to try and stop them.
Things start out well enough in Lord of the Hunt. Despite their similarities to the ones in the original game, the new animals are distinct enough that playing around with them is a treat. Caragaths are my favorite so far. As lithe, agile versions of the caragors, they essentially allow you to perform the same stealth maneuvers that Talion has always been able to. Sneaking up on unsuspecting foes and chomping on them is deliciously, viscerally gross.
The vomiting graug is fun too, albeit a little...messy:
Setting a horde of ghuls on some unsuspecting orcs, meanwhile, makes for some hilariously chaotic scenes. I first used it to my advantage when I set about invading a duel between two orcs—one of whom was the bodyguard of a beastmaster that was giving me a really tough time:
The problem with Lord of the Hunt isn't that any of the new stuff is bad. It's just that it's imperfectly, and incompletely, applied. Fighting the new beastmaster warchiefs, for instance, was an incredible experience yesterday. These are more fearsome foes than the ones I encountered in Mordor, and that's a good thing, because the game gets pretty easy by the time you've maxed out Talion's abilities. Seeing a warchief ride into his fortress on top of a graug was terrifying and exhilarating. Then having to fight the thing? It's the closest a video game has come to making me feel like I was inside that memorable scene from the first Lord of the Rings movie when sighs, "they have a cave troll." Only this time, I could be Legolas and Aragorn at the same damn time.
As incredible an experience as it was to fell the graug-riding warchief, its memory is already a bittersweet one. Because once I'd defeated him, he was replaced by an opponent that I could've just as easily encountered in the original game.
For some arbitrary reason I can't possibly understand, Lord of the Hunt only lets you confront these amazing new beastmaster warchiefs once each. I kept waiting, playing and replaying to see if more would show up. But every time the nemesis board was refreshed, there was just another orc atop the food chain.
Fighting against these bad guys is as fun as it's always been. But after getting the briefest of glimpses at something far more grand, it just doesn't hold up the same way as it used to.
"How did this uruk learn to control a graug?" Talion asked when I brought that most memorable of nemesis orcs down after four or five embarrassingly botched attempts. A moment later, he said something about how the beastmaster must be stopped before it's too late. I guess that makes sense from his perspective. But the gamer in me wanted to shout at him: "No, don't stop them! At least let me fight a few more first!"
That's Lord of the Hunt in a nutshell: a taste of something immensely promising, but one that leaves you wanting so much more.
It's incredibly disappointing to see one of the most imaginative games I've played in a long time take such an uninspired approach to its DLC. Hopefully, the developers will try a little harder with the next expansion.
Lord of the Hunt is now available for the PC, PS4, and Xbox One versions of the game for $9.99, or as part of the season pass, which is $24.99. No word yet on when (or if) it will come to the last-gen versions of the game.