Shadow of Mordor's Bright Lord DLC plays like a very thin vertical slice for Shadow of War, but there is one thing in particular that it does way better than the base game - tightly focused storytelling.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor was little more than competent and solid with the design and execution of most of its systems, but what really made it a stand-out title in 2014 was its Nemesis system. I recently replayed the the game, DLC's and all - completionist style, in preparation for eventually sinking my teeth into Shadow of War, and one thing struck me as particularly odd. The story, in both structure and delivery, can be incredibly flat and yawn-inducing, and it shouldn't be, considering its subject matter.
A man forced to witness the murder of his loved ones is out for revenge, starving slaves are embarking on a struggle for their very lives and freedom, a hunter with a troubled past is on a quest for glory and vengeance, a tortured spirit is trying to make sense of its memories and purpose, a multitude of puzzle pieces is falling into place in preparation for some constantly looming doom. Or, that's what I think was happening at least.
Somehow, in spite of my best efforts, I often zoned out during Shadow of Mordor's cutscenes, dialogue and lore deployment attempts.
The game desperately struggles to maintain the aloof and oh so epic tone often present in the Lord of the Rings movies, and only succeeds in being sterile and tedious. A lot of the characters come across as unrelatable cardboard stereotypes with the depth and complexity of a high fantasy potato.
For a while I wasn't sure if the tedium was radiating from the voice acting or the writing, but in the end I decided it was a bit of both.
I guess the writing staff put together a makeshift usual suspects cliche list, and it often seems like the game's setting was added as an afterthought, or for some marketing related reason. Most of the game's writing has the quality of a pulp fantasy novel. The voice cast wasn't given much love either. Instead of proper direction, I presume someone assembled the admittedly impressive and star-powered cast, threw a script at them and just told them "make it sound like the movies". The results were predictably bland.
The best voice actors money can hire won't deliver a good performance if they don't know what they are supposed to be doing. Motivation, personal history, and the emotional resonance of any fictional character has to start in the writing, then move through competent voice direction, in order to finally shine when performed by a talented voice actor. "Here is some lines, make them sound epic or whatever" just won't do.
According to people far better versed in Lord of the Rings mythology, Shadow of Mordor also the spirit of Tolkien with its narrative. It probably doesn't help that Monolith tried to throw in as many flaccid plot lines into the mix as possible, in what I believe was an attempt to make the game's world seem more believable. Instead, it leaves the entire game looking unfocused and unsure of what its central theme or tone is supposed to be. This abundance of plot threads sadly also suffers from the luke-warm narrative style and structure I already mentioned.
Shadow of Mordor's The Bright Lord DLC is a different beast entirely. It's short, tight, blunt in its execution, focused both in terms of its systems and narrative, and doesn't waste any time on long-winded speeches or cutscenes. Granted, a lot of these traits can be attributed to it being a 6 hour DLC, but there is something to be said for delivering a story, speartip first.
Celebrimbor forges the rings, figures out he got tricked by Sauron and Ring, as almost everyone eventually does, goes berserk and decides it would be a good idea to try to use the ring to get some payback. For the entire length of the DLC, Celebrimbor rampages his way through to Sauron, only to get his behind handed to him, because that's the usual result of someone other than Sauron trying to put it to use.
From start to finish The Bright Lord is about Celebrimbor's anger at his recent employer and more importantly at himself. Both ultimately turn out completely impotent and doomed to failure. Everyone seems to be aware of where the smith's fate is about to take him, except for him. It isn't overly complex stuff, but it works incredibly well exactly because of its simplicity. You can tell how nearly insane with rage the elf is, right from the start. You can plainly see that he is about to walk into some sort of doom, and to make things worse, the player is the one who has to get him there, in spite of knowing better himself.
Alastair Duncan, who voiced Celebrimbor, understood and captured the elf's disposition near flawlessly - denial, willful ignorance and hubris, combined with the corrupting nature of the ring. The crime Celebrimbor was unwittingly accomplice to, his unwavering trajectory towards disaster, along with his being denied justice or redemption by what is an evil god for all intents and purposes, provide ample elements for a tragedy.
The writing goes through a similar transformation. If recent Hollywood narratives can teach writers anything, it's how to write revenge story. Plenty of reference material to be found in every other action flick. Video game developers have had their fair share of experience with crafting revenge tales as well. I'm not trying to say that there is a lack of competence on display with Monoith's writing staff. But something that didn't quite click for Shadow of Mordor, obviously did for The Bright Lord.
It also helps that there is a minimal amount of distracting collectable, side content, and leveling featured in Celebrimbor's suicide mission.
Whether this is just a coincidence and caused by more basic constraints of making DLC compared to a full game, or a deliberate effort on the studio's part doesn't change anything about the smaller, more streamlined and less cluttered project being a more coherent and enjoyable experience on most narrative fronts.
Shadow of War could benefit greatly from trying to cover fewer bases with its content, but covering fewer bases means appealing to fewer audiences. The story related announcements and trailers for the game all seem to be steering towards the usual more-more-more mantra. Shadow of Mordor was infuriatingly unfocused and tonally inconsistent at times. Chances of WB and Monolith working towards resolving these issues are negligable.
With the recent confirmation of microtransactios and loot boxes being part of the game, it isn't entirely clear what shape Shadow of War will take. Story DLC has been confirmed, but as a rule of thumb - multiplayer DLC sells better than its singleplayer counterparts. If Shadow of War can't be helped by The Bright Lord, then some of its DLC just might.