We did it because no one else would. Paying a total of Ł80 from our own pockets for Shadow of Mordor on PS3 and Xbox 360, expectations weren't soaring to begin with. Based on the blank Metacritic scores for both versions at present, it's clear that Warner's marketing efforts and review copy distribution have been focused elsewhere. The obvious inference is that neither version is as good as the PS4 and Xbox One releases, but the gulf in quality seen here is, to put it frankly, absolutely colossal.
For the PS4 and Xbox One's first year, cross-gen titles like this at least give us a barometer of technical progress. The generational leap is vivid for Watch Dogs, for example, a decent sandbox title that causes Sony and Microsoft's older platforms to struggle to deliver the same experience. Meanwhile, Destiny gives the opposite view: its adaptable engine swiftly jumping from PS3's multi-SPU design to the many-core CPUs of current-gen consoles, with solid visuals and performance all round - though of course, the preference is still clear.
Shadow of Mordor is in the former, less favourable category. Meshing Assassin's Creed's open-world design with Tolkien's fiction, and built on a modified LithTech engine, the current-gen releases look stunning in motion. But for better or worse, the massive install bases on PS3 and 360 can't be ignored this upcoming holiday season, with many still preferring to squeeze value from their existing consoles. Basic economics dictates that last-gen versions must exist to check these boxes, and in Shadow of Mordor's case, we're left with fundamentally disappointing ports.
Patched to version 1.01, the results on PS3 are particularly shocking, and the worst we've seen on the console in recent memory. The crux of it is that entire passages of play unfold at 10-20fps, even while exploring Mordor's wastelands without a marauding Uruk in sight. Frame-rates are better on Xbox 360 by a regular 5fps margin, but both suffer from horrendous screen-tear, operating at a Vita-esque resolution of 960x540 to boot.
Each suffers from newly added bugs too, to an extent unseen on other cross-gen projects. Texture and shadow maps pop in (and out) while stood perfectly still, banding artefacts manifest across strong lighting, and Uruk generals even glitch to mid-air positions during battle (notably after Talion performs a vaulting move over an enemy's shoulders). Titles like Far Cry 4 understandably dial down textures, geometry and effects for last-gen editions - as is the case here - but it's clear that the last-gen versions could have benefited from a much more intensive QA parse.
However, the awful sound mix is the killer. Even with a mandatory 4.4GB HDD install, the music cuts out on PS3 (but not 360) during boss battles, as if struggling to process over ten enemies and the audio data at once. Our 40GB 'fat' PS3 is clearly bottlenecked with this choppy sound, but reinstalling the game afresh to a 320GB slim model produces the same stuttering playback at stress points. Simply put, added to drops as low as 12fps, the game is demonstrably a poor fit for Sony's older hardware, and only just about scrapes by on Microsoft's.
But can Shadow of Mordor's open-world design excuse this to any extent? After all, ambitious sandbox games have rarely proven a strong suit for the PS3 or 360. Even as a jewel in the generation's crown, the incredible Grand Theft Auto 5 still has trouble rendering complex inner-city areas, plagued as it is with pop-in and frame-rate lulls on last-gen.
Another case in point is the Assassin's Creed series. After seven releases in as many years, each one improving upon its core AnvilNext tech, the series is still resigned to sub-30fps frame-rates as the generation draws to a close. By comparison, Shadow of Mordor's engine has no existing template on last-gen from which it can quickly develop an open-world design. Sadly, the end result here reminds us of the early, ramshackle efforts at this gameplay form on PS3 and 360.
Granted, we don't expect older platforms to deliver the game at its best, but it beggars belief that such a shaky release can be greenlit, on PS3 in particular. We've covered many PS3 releases over the years, so somewhere in the dim and distant past there may well be a title of two with a worse performance profile, but Shadow of Mordor has more performance issues than any other title that we can recall. With its massive, crisply textured landscapes and towering castle ruins, this realisation of Mordor is evidently built for machines abundant in memory. Unlike the more adaptable Destiny, both the PS4 and Xbox One's huge RAM pools are seemingly at the heart of this world's design, while the restrictive memory set-ups on PS3 and 360 wrestle for the dregs of the PC's lowest presets.
Is it passable? For the 360 release we'd argue it is - barely - but it does push the threshold. The combat and parkour mechanics are intact on both platforms, but unique features such as the Nemesis system are simplified. On PS4 and Xbox One, enemies generated from the Uruk hierarchy would mix traits in appearance, animations, voice samples, rank, and location - a dynamic that keeps each encounter fresh. These last-gen releases still place enemies in a similar shifting hierarchy, but the variables are radically reduced, impinging on the sense that each playthrough is unique.
It's a worrying sign for PS3 and 360 owners keen to stave off a console upgrade for as long as possible. Inevitably, it falls on each developer to make the best call when weighing the viability of these last-gen versions. The increasing need to be technically progressive on PS4 and Xbox One - to truly show off their mettle going forward - also stands to make each port to last-gen a greater challenge. We hope to see this fantastic era in gaming wind down with grace, but with more 'me too' releases in this mould, the aftertaste isn't set to always be so sweet.
Shadow of Mordor's core game design may well be too much for the Xbox 360 and PS3, but the apparent lack of care and attention is what truly rankles. The bugs, the choppy sound on Sony's hardware, the 15-second wait to resume from pause screens, and the chugging, sub-20fps performance issues all outweigh any positives at the heart of this effort. In scouring our local supermarkets to source copies for this review, the PS3 release proved hardest to track down. In its current state, we hope this simply points to a limited print run, rather than a popular choice of gift.