TL;DR- Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is hands down a top tier action/adventure game for its core mechanics alone, but what makes it truly a unique experience is its “Nemesis System,” an advanced take on enemy A.I. that adds insurmountable depth and unpredictability to the game. Furthermore, Shadow of Mordor doesn’t use the eminence of Tolkien lore as a crutch, but rather uses the robust mythology to compliment its already remarkable gameplay foundation. As intimidating as Tolkien lore can be for newcomers, be advised: you do not have to be a fan of The Hobbit series nor The Lord of the Rings series to enjoy the hell out of this game. Behold, a new reason for owning a next-gen console.
I am viciously massacring waves of enemies, and it means nothing to me, because I have lost everything. The broken sword of my murdered son: my dagger of choice to jam into the cranium of an Uruk captain, just so that I may watch the black-ish discharge come spurting out of its vile cranium. Its minions are quick to flee, shrieking in terror after witnessing the brutal slaughter of their esteemed superior. The Black Hand of Sauron thinks he can just traipse in and wipe out my people with it going unpunished, but soon he will know: one does not simply walk into Mordor.
Unmerciful: how it feels to control the paranormal sword wielding ranger Talion in Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, a game that manages to be exceedingly fun from the start to the very finish. Monolith has constructed a masterpiece of an action/adventure title for their first next-gen outing. The kills: more ruthless than Regina George’s Tumblr page. The graphics: visually attractive like your celebrity crush’s leaked nudes. Sit back folks, I’m getting ready to tell you why Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is looking like quite the Game of the Year contender.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor takes place in between the events of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. You play as Talion, a ranger of the Black Gate, which was established to keep watch of Mordor for the last 1000 years. After the Black Gate is overrun by Uruks (smarter and nastier Orcs) and Talion is murdered along with his family and everyone under his command at the hands of the Black Hand of Sauron, a mysterious Wraith resurrects him. The Wraith and Talion then set out together on a quest for revenge and redemption. The relationship between the Wraith and Talion becomes a centerpiece for a very well crafted extension to the Tolkien pillars that are already in place. Upon the game’s conclusion, I wanted to learn more about Talion and the Black Gate as they existed before Sauron’s vicious takeover.
Right off the bat, Shadow of Mordor throws you and your three trusty weapons (sword, dagger, and bow) to the mercy of the Uruk infested Mordor, and not much is done in terms of holding your hand outside of basic tutorial prompts that occur in the introductory portion of the game. The game’s combat system is synonymous to the counter-based mechanics you’re familiar with in the Batman: Arkham series, while traversing the game’s play area will come to you second nature if you’ve played any Assassin’s Creed titles in the past. This makes for an engaging experience that’s hardly interrupted by unwanted on-screen prompts, though folks unfamiliar with the Batman: Arkham and Assassin’s Creed games will catch on rather quickly, as Shadow of Mordor‘s controls are very accessible.
Monolith found a way to make the dark and ruined landscapes of Mordor visually pleasing to the eye. In all of its beauty, however, I did feel that most of Shadow of Mordor‘s play areas were a lot alike, and a bit more variety in the look of the maps would have been a bit refreshing from time to time. Luckily, I was so engaged in the gameplay, that this didn’t detract much from the overall experience. The audio side of the game was just as pleasing as its other components, and really helped infuse this game with a soul. With an all-star cast that includes, Troy Baker, Alastair Duncan, and many more, it should come as no surprise that the voice acting was quite pleasant as well.
Though there are Assassin’s Creed-like exploration elements in play that send you on a scavenger hunt to find collectibles across the map, don’t expect any RPG-like looting. Instead there are “runes,” which are collectibles that drop with every Uruk captain that you slay, and can be used to increase certain aspects of your weapon attributes. For instance, you may find a rune that makes your sword inflict 11% more damage, or a rune that increases the amount of focus you get while firing arrows from your bow. There’s also a robust skill tree that allows you to upgrade Talion’s many talents with skill points as you gain after certain amounts of XP are acquired.
The star and key feature of Shadow of Mordor is the “Nemesis System,” which raises the bar on enemy A.I. to an entirely different level not yet seen in a game. An inexplicable amount of detail went into making the Uruks completely distinctive, from their looks, to their dialogue, and all the way down to their behavior. Watching the Uruks interact with one another as well as different species in the environment was quite intriguing, and I found myself inadvertently using more stealth as I progressed through the game, just so that I could eavesdrop on the Uruk’s interactions with the world around them. They make the universe feel very grounded and realistic. Even when you aren’t paying attention, you can bet there’s an Uruks somewhere getting itself into trouble, perhaps trying to hunt Mordor’s wild beasts or making the power move of ambushing their captain. They talk about you when you’re not around, and when you do show up, they call you out, yelling their strategies out loud, sounding alarms that bring in swarms of their ally soldiers (I believe I was fighting around 25-30 simultaneously on screen at one point).
After my first two captain assassinations, I became bloodthirsty beyond comprehension, wandering off the trail of story-based missions to infiltrate enemy encampments and execute whoever was in charge. Shadow of Mordor has a way of making you feel deadly, while not giving you too much power, which would have made the game far too simple. It’s best to approach each captain with a bit of strategy– especially the ones who have bested you in the past– as they’ll likely be a bit more difficult the second time around. Most importantly, however, is the fact that even while not playing the story, the world of Shadow of Mordor continues to persist as captains get promoted, killed, ambushed, etc., regardless of your involvement in their affairs.
From the start, you have the ability to interrogate Uruks to gain intel on other Uruk captains to use against them upon confronting them. Each captain has strengths and weaknesses that may or may not fit well with your play style. For instance, some Uruk captains are invulnerable to stealth attacks, while others are invulnerable to ranged attacks. Breaking the weaker Uruks and making them spill the beans on their leaders is integral to having the upper hand against the higher ranking Uruk captains. Later in the game, you can really get your hands dirty and begin to indoctrinate the Orcs, using fear as a means of controlling them, thus helping you locate or even fight other high ranking Uruks that stand in your way. This adds another layer of strategy to the game, coercing players to choose whether or not killing high ranking Uruk officials is the best route, considering they can be used against someone else who is ranked above them.
An issue I had with the game was that, given the vast amount of key enemies that existed in the game– some of which were more difficult than others– battles with the black captains (the sub-bosses) became quite anti-climatic, and in a sense, too easy. You’ll never quite find an adversary as challenging as your long-running nemesis, which could just as easily be the first captain that’s able to defeat you. As long as he succeeds in taking you down and continues to grow stronger and more confident, he’ll be harder to get rid of, and possibly more so than those ranked higher than him. I wish that the battles with the black captains were a lot more challenging, as each battle proved to be a bit disappointing in hindsight. Just a minor grievance of mine in the sea of glory this game offered.
Many folks will compare Shadow of Mordor to the Assassin’s Creed and Arkham series, and don’t get me wrong, that is great company to be in. But when it’s all said and done, Shadow of Mordor is a very unique game that has managed to aggressively establish its own identity, with a clever blend of solid gameplay, solid narrative, and a highly engaging environment. Do yourself a favor and don’t miss out on this game: Monolith put loads of black blood, sweat and tears into it, and anyone who puts more than 15 minutes into Shadow of Mordor will see that for themselves.
– The “Nemesis System” is the first of its kind, and an innovative take on video game A.I. that does wonders for this game’s replay value
– The game mechanics never get boring, taking the smooth traversal elements of Assassin’s Creed and the combat system of the Batman: Arkham series.
– The story of Talion and the Wraith is compelling from start to finish and even better since its ingrained in Tolkien lore.
– “Nemesis System” made closing boss battles less challenging
– While a good size, the game’s play areas can sometimes feel monotonous
4.5 out of 5 burritos
This review was completed using a PS4 copy of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor provided by Warner Bros. Interactive. The game hits stores Tuesday, September 30 for the Xbox One, PS4, and PC.