A video game tied to the Lord of the Rings brings with it intrigue, anticipation and harsh critique. It’s a story most people have read, watched, or heard of – with rich lore, picturesque landscapes and epic battles.
Shadow of Mordor may have distanced itself, by name, from both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings novels but there’s no reason for fans of J.R.R Tolkien’s classics to worry – this is a real treat to play.
The game begins unexpectedly, with seamless transitions between cutscenes and short tutorials with the family of the main protagonist, Talion. Before too long, his keep is attacked and its villagers slaughtered – it’s hard to watch and the game doesn’t shy away from the bloody deaths of innocents.
But Talion is saved from death by an Elf Lord whose morals align with his. Together they set out to dismantle Sauron’s army and exact revenge on one of the main Lieutenants, The Black Hand.
From the outset, the game is a feast for the eyes. This is a Mordor on the brink of Sauron’s return to power and produces fantastic views of distant mountain peaks, dank and gloomy caves and wonderfully detailed castle ruins. The day/night cycle is a real bonus in Shadow of Mordor, with clouds filtering rays of sunlight and pelting rain creating puddles and damp garments. The soaked effect of Talion’s tattered cape in the midst of a storm is an iconic look against the darkness of a changing Mordor.
It was also a great sound design choice to include small talk amongst the Orc and Uruk soldiers, discussing potential power struggles and distaste towards someone of a higher rank. It adds some much-needed life to the game, as well as a glimpse into the fractured pecking order of Sauron’s army.
Early on, players are introduced to ‘Forge Towers’ that will unlock extra story missions, side quests and collectibles. This is a very similar system to Assassin’s Creed – with the use of synchronization viewpoints. The story missions are sparse in comparison to the side content, as I would return to the campaign after completing the last chapter a few hours earlier; story progression just didn’t grip me as I’d hoped.
Shadow of Mordor borrows a number of other mechanics and adapts them to suit this world of Middle-Earth. There’s the Assassin’s Creed climbing and free-running, giving Talion the ability to traverse structures and zip around the open world quickly; there’s ‘Wraith-Mode’, homage to ‘Eagle Vision’, where the Elf Lord sees points or people of interest from long distances; the combat mechanics are a dead ringer for Batman: Arkham Asylum’s – everything connects with deadly force and the rewards that result from a high combo multiplier further Shadow of Mordor’s enjoyment.
But all of these aren’t bad things; if it works and doesn’t diminish the gameplay, go for it.
Speaking of gameplay, there are so many ways to take down specific targets in this game that it isn’t even funny. The Ranger and Wraith skill trees give players so much variety – from ledge stealth kills to ‘branding’ enemies to make them fight for you, Shadow of Mordor is a really entertaining game.
Players may end up in fights against 20 or more Orcs, but the beauty of it all is that you can dispatch each one of them a different way. You can release beasts from cages, fire arrows into a hornet’s nest, ‘brand’ enemies and make them fight for you; exploding their heads with Wraith magic adds a nice touch, too.
There are executions aplenty here and they are as violent and gory as you’d expect. They are extremely satisfying to pull off and the short slow-mo that follows is awesome and cringeworthy at the same time. When the combo multiplier turns red, the execution perk is active and I squirmed a few times at the sheer brutality behind Talion’s attacks – heads are removed, limbs dismembered and streams of black blood spurt everywhere.
But the real winner in the whole game is the Nemesis System. Basically, throughout the story, individuals within Sauron’s army will adapt and re-configure based on Talion’s actions. This may occur if you fail to kill a target whilst riding a Caragor – the Captain’s reputation not only grows, but he’ll have archers in place to kill the beast whilst bolstering his own defence with more bodyguards. The aggressive AI keeps you on the move and isn’t reduced to cannon fodder despite Talion’s arsenal of abilities – they’ll swing at him at any moment, with safety in numbers; it’s never a walk in the park.
But the Nemesis System, despite its seemingly groundbreaking structure, failed in giving personality to the Orc hierarchy. The demeanor of every head-honcho I faced felt the same and there was no uniqueness among any of the characters.
The perfect plan of attack is an important part of the Nemesis System. Gaining intel about your next target, through reading army documents or interrogating weak Orcs (called ‘Worms’), will list every strength and weakness of that selected enemy. It’s fantastically detailed, as you can exploit a Captain’s fear of Caragors, Morgul Flies, or even weaknesses to stealth attacks and fire.
It’s been a long time since a console game has had this much entertainment whilst offering only a single player experience – these days, it’s a rare feat. While Destiny was still working its magic on everyone, this game snuck under the radar beautifully to become an early contender for Game of the Year. It’s also produced a unique AI system that’s bound to be copied in years to come.
Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is gorgeous, action-packed and wickedly satisfying. Highly recommended.