Already being called the sleeper hit of the year, Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is as refreshing as it is derivative. Does this make sense? Maybe, let’s see.
You play as Talion, a Gondorian ranger stationed on the Black Gate with his wife and son. The game takes place between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, so Sauron is still but a twinkle in his own eye (sorry). The Dark Lord’s closest servants are preparing Mordor for his inevitable return, and unfortunately the Black Gate is where they’re headed first. The orcs strike in overwhelming force and Talion ends up the subject of a dark blood sacrifice carried out by the Black Hand of Sauron. But this is not the end of his story; Talion is possessed by an Elven wraith by the name of Celebrimbor, who is determined to destroy the Black Hand and even Sauron himself. The unlikely pair team up to take on the Uruk menace in Mordor, regain Celebrimbor’s memories, and avenge Talion’s family.
Anyone who has played the Arkham series or any Assassin’s Creed title will already be familiar with the fundamentals of how this game plays. Third-person, parkour, stealth, fast-paced combat, upgrades and collectibles as far as the eye can see. So, what makes Shadow of Mordor stand out? The nemesis system is the primary answer, and there’ll be more on that later, but I feel this game should get some praise for its polish. Sure, the gameplay is tried and tested, but it has been executed masterfully. The look and feel of combat is phenomenal, and the animations, decapitations and blood splatters are all immensely satisfying. It’s definitely more forgiving than the Batman games, but far less clunky than Assassin’s Creed. Performance on my PC was fantastic, sitting at an almost constant 60fps with only one or two settings on High instead of Ultra. The 6GB VRAM requirements were greatly overstated (my GPU has only 3GB).
By this point I’m sure you’ve heard endless PR talk about how great the nemesis system is, but can an AI ‘system’ really translate into fun? Let me put it this way: I had played for upwards of five hours before I realised I had barely scratched the surface of unlockable abilities. I was too busy burying my sword in Khrosh Broken-Shield’s skull or setting a pack of Caragors on Tark the Hunter to do any of the main story missions, which is how you unlock some rather essential skill sets. But yes it’s true; the nemesis system is the real star of this game. To the uninformed, this system basically controls the Uruk’s hierarchy. The lowest form of command is a captain; the highest a warchief. The orcs holding these positions are not static. You can waltz up and kill any of these captains at any time, some being easier to kill than others, but after a while their position will be filled by a lower-ranked orc. From the outset these captains will be carrying out their own backstabbings, hunting parties and feasts, whether Talion gets involved or not, and no matter what stage of the story you’re up to. If you fail to interrupt their grog-sampling parties or public executions they will increase in power, giving them unique strengths and making them a greater challenge. If you get overrun while fighting a captain and decide to flee, that captain will mock you the next time you face him. One time I fought a captain with Talion riding on the back of a Caragor, the next time I faced him on foot and he was disappointed that he’d only be able to kill one of us. It is simple little things like this that really make this system shine. It adds meaning to every confrontation, something that is very rare in a single player game. The orcs have real character, and never feel like faceless bad guys. They all have their own names and motivations, and the artwork gone into making these creatures look ugly and threatening is stunning
Unfortunately, Shadow of Mordor’s story and human characters are utterly unremarkable. Talion, despite being voiced by the very talented Troy Baker, is about as memorable as most of the dwarves from the Hobbit films. The other friendly characters are small in number and don’t leave a lasting impression. What bothered me most about the story is how much the dialogue pandered to fans of the films. The script trips over itself in its excitement to cram as many references to lines (famous or otherwise) from the films as possible. My eyes almost rolled out of my face during one cutscene, where Celebrimbor tells Talion to “Fly, you fool!” For big fans of both the books and films this rehashing will make you cringe and in some cases really break your immersion. This is particular bewildering when you consider that the writer behind Red Dead Redemption was involved in this, boy did he phone it in. Even more bizarre is how all the collectible lore entries show that Monolith has really done their homework. The word Istari is used instead of wizards, there are multiple references to Ungoliant and Melkor (the original giant spider and Dark Lord respectively) and plenty of the collectibles refer to people, events and places from the books that don’t appear in the films. This is brave of them and greatly appreciated. Here’s hoping Shadow of Mordor’s critical success leads to more games being set in Tolkien’s criminally underutilised Legendarium.
Similarly underwhelming are the environments. There are two decent sized areas to explore, with their own hierarchy and missions, and while they are occasionally pretty to look at, the only real difference is that one’s brown and the other is green. They’re both made up of orc shanty towns, crumbling ruins, the occasional cave and… not much else. At no point did I get a real sense of exploration, which is a shame considering the source material. I feel this game would’ve benefited greatly from having a base of operations, something akin to the Villa in Assassin’s Creed 2, or the Batcave in the Arkham games. These hubs are rarely integral to the story, but they are a great way to break up the constant bloodletting, to bask in the trophies you’ve collected and perhaps even dive into a micro-managing side story. It may not make much sense for a vengeful Elf-ghost guerilla to need a base like this, but it definitely would’ve helped in terms of pacing.
These issues are minor however and for the most part Shadow of Mordor is a thoroughly enjoyable game. Given the sheer amount of variables and unique encounters the nemesis system allows, the replay value is high, and that’s ignoring all the upgrades, collectibles and side missions. Warner Bros surprised us once before with Arkham Asylum, now they’ve manage to spawn yet another badass-simulator set in a rich, lore-heavy world.
So what are you waiting for? Simply walk into Mordor.