Middle Earth: Shadow Of Mordor have topped a lot of game of the year lists for 2014. Although to be fair, it didn’t have a whole lot of competition as some of the year’s AAA titles faltered dramatically. Destiny had a rough launch and was panned by critics for a lack of content, Assassin’s Creed Unity and Halo: The Master Chief collection were known for being a buggy messes that took months to resolve, and the likes of Alien: Isolation and Infamous: Second Son failed to set the world on fire. It’s no wonder then that Shadow Of Mordor appeared like a shining beacon of light in comparison.
Comparatively, 2015 was such a good year that Shadow Of Mordor has been relegated to a forgotten past. In fact, some have posited that the game wouldn’t be anywhere near the top of its class had it been released in 2015. As someone who has only just got around to playing it in 2016, I can safely say that, in my opinion, Shadow Of Mordor deserved all the praise it received at the time, and possibly more.
The first topic of conversation is inevitably the nemesis system. The system randomly generates captains and warchiefs for Sauron’s army, which effectively serve as mini boss battles. This method of random generation opens up a world of possibilities, where uruk names and personalities are produced by an algorithm. Although procedural generation in other games can often make characters or levels seem horribly generic, Shadow Of Morder makes it work. Sometimes the system seems a little too intelligent to be truly random, such as in my playthrough where a veteran captain (and my nemesis after killing me several times in the early game) was called Grug Metalbeard, who had a steel jaw grafted on to his face. Something in the generation process tied his name to his physical attributes, and the result was a character with bags of personality.
The system will also generate a list of strengths, weaknesses, hates and fears that really flesh out characters such as Grug Metalbeard. He was invulnerable to stealth and ranged attacks, always travelled in packs, hated defeat and feared being ganged upon (which was kind of ironic given that he always had his harem behind him, and uruks are flaky creatures). This serves as a springboard for emergent storytelling, and I could tell you many tales of the battles I fought with Grug, the times he killed me, the time he fled from a particularly grueling battle and came back later with a steal plate grafted to his face.
This characterization goes a stage further. When you first run into a captain or warchief, they are given a short introduction where they will trash talk you, comment on your actions, and often expose a part of their personality. The range of different voices and lines of dialogue never gets old, and I found that even after 20 hours of gameplay I never noticed any repetition in this aspect. This tends to escalate as captains will comment on the outcomes of your previous battles, such as “I thought I killed you!” or “Are you gonna run away again, ranger?” I was especially freaked out when one uruk didn’t threaten to eat my heart or anything; he just laughed in a creepy fashion as we locked swords.
There is a hierarchy to Sauron’s army that includes uruk captains and warchiefs that are engaged in a constant power struggle. When you kill a warchief, a captain will eventually rise through the ranks and take their place. This way, you can manipulate Sauron’s army, taking out certain captains and allowing others to fill the gaps in your wake. You can interfere in their power struggles by turning up and helping the captain of your choice, which is a good strategy for taking out stronger rivals. When a captain is recruiting other uruks into his unit, you can turn the tide by killing dissenters, or joining the fray to gang up on or weaken the captain. There are many opportunities presented here to cause mayhem, which all add to the fun.
Later in the game you’ll receive the ability to “brand” uruks, making them fight for you. This adds a further delicious layer to the nemesis system, allowing you to control captains and force them to fight each other. You can, given enough time and planning, install a powerbase of branded warchiefs that will all fight for you. Occasionally, branded captains and warchiefs will turn up and start helping you out during combat. Tying these procedurally generated characters to you in such a way makes them incredibly endearing, and I found myself dropping the main quest several times in order to help my favourite captains win their power struggles.
This is not something that I would normally consider for an evaluation of a game, but the trophies for Shadow Of Morder are particularly interesting. Many of them loop back into the nemesis system and the ways in which you can exploit it. One trophy tasks you with branding 5 warchiefs (a whole tier of command), another asks you to brand 5 bodyguards for a warchief and make them all turn on him at once. There’s a trophy for starting a riot between rival chiefs, and even a trophy for helping a lowly uruk rise through the whole hierarchy before eventually killing him. These reward you for engaging fully with the system and encourage you to find new and interesting methods of play.
As with many open world games, there is a fair amount of busywork spread out across the two maps of Shadow Of Mordor. Some of these are fairly mundane such as the survivalist challenges and artifact fetch quests, but the hunting challenges can be rather interesting, especially towards the end. These challenges reward you for exploring the map and slaying some of the hellish wildlife to be found in Mordor. These do slightly tie in with Torvin the dwarf, who teaches you methods of beast mastery as part of the main questline, but nothing beats riding atop a rare Graug and laying siege to an uruk camp, stamping on and eating the helpless hordes.
There is a sense of power with taming and slaying some of Middle Earth’s more formidable creatures, and by the end game you’ll find yourself to be incredibly powerful indeed. Contrast this with the early game when you are comparatively weak, and where every captain and caragor represents a serious challenge, and there is a strong line of progression. The early game is certainly a lot trickier, but it forces you to work out your foe’s strengths and weaknesses, then come up with a plan of attack. If an uruk is scared of fire, you can blow up a campfire. If they are scared of caragors, release some from their cages, or tame a wild one and ride it into battle. As you gain more abilities the need for careful planning slowly disappears, but it remains no less fun to charge into a stronghold and decapitate everyone in sight.
The main questline for Shadow Of Mordor is, unfortunately, one of the weakest links in the game. It ties very loosely to the Lord Of The Rings universe and, while it doesn’t do anything unplausible to the original Tolkien story, it presents Talion (your character) as an unstoppable, overpowered individual who could pretty much take on Sauron by himself. Excluding a turn from Smeagol, the cast of characters are largely forgettable and aren’t particularly well written. The agency they would have is largely lost due to the fact that we already know the outcome (Sauron still remains at large), and that they cannot impact on the efforts of Frodo, Gandalf and the rest of the fellowship. It’s telling just how inconsequential the cast is that I’ve written over 1200 words here before even mentioning the main character by name.
Fortunately, the nemesis system comes to the rescue once more. The real story of Shadow Of Mordor isn’t the one that the writers give you, it’s the one that is created around you. It involves your rivalries and the struggles against your enemies. It is as much about Grug Metalbeard as it is about Talion. Perhaps there’s something to be said about a system that can produce more rounded, fully formed characters than a team of human writers. Either way, the nemesis system is a true innovation, and it’s surprising that more games haven’t taken this approach.
For that alone, Shadow Of Mordor deserves all the praise it received in 2014. Spiced up with a combat system that is lifted straight out of Batman, impressive visuals, and an expansive world to explore, all the ingredients just feel right. In my eyes, that makes Middle Earth: Shadow Of Mordor my 2014 game of 2016.