The rich vistas of Tolkien’s Middle-earth are almost second to none in the realm of geekdom. As such, those who tackle it through any sort of entertainment medium have their work cut out for them, and risk having millions of Internet-based pitchforks levelled at their backs if they make any sort of ‘wrong’ move. It’s that tall task that Monolith Productions (who developed F.E.A.R. quite a few years ago) undertook when they decided to start development on Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. They were obviously up to the job, though, because what they’ve produced is a heck of a fun game, albeit one that borrows many of its mechanics from other franchises.
In Shadow of Mordor, players control Talion, a former captain of the Black Wall rangers, who was brought back to life without knowing why. In fact, all that he remembers is seeing his family (a beautiful wife and son in his late teens) die at the hands of evildoers, who slit their throats without any sort of remorse. Of course, the family members came first, because that’s how you create a good torture scene. Talion, expectedly, had to wait his turn, and was killed last, after cursing his killers and briefly mourning the loss of his beloved. Vengeance was in his mind and in his soul, but it seemed impossible at the time, with ropes tied tightly around his wrists and the sharp end of an axe at his jugular.
However, Talion lucked out – if that’s what you’d call it. Instead of finding himself in the afterlife, with his wife and child, he became a reborn and undead badass, hellbent on getting revenge on those who wronged him. His return to the land of the living didn’t occur naturally, of course, as he returned in a cursed state, with a ghost-like wraith attached to his very being. That would be Celebrimbor, whose amnesiatic state and important backstory take precedence throughout most of the game’s interesting narrative.
With the friendly wraith at his disposal, Talion’s forced to trek across the vast expanse of Middle-earth — which is made up of two unique maps — in an effort to piece things together and discover who was behind his murder. Along the way, he must fight thousands of powerful, orc-like Uruks and figure out how to bend them to his command. Therein lies the most unique and only wholly original aspect of this game.
Behind all of the hacking, slashing, stabbing and decapitating that takes place in the forefront of the experience, exists a deep and thoroughly interesting game of chess called the Nemesis System. Essentially speaking, it’s a social ladder for the Uruks themselves, where they battle for supremacy.
Players are placed in the middle of things and are given the keys to the castle, so to speak. When they kill an Uruk captain, elite, bodyguard or warchief, they’re significantly impacting the social ladder. Conversely, when one slays the good ranger himself, it receives a promotion as well as a skill upgrade. It’s a really neat idea, which plays a large role in the 10-15 hour-long campaign and leaves a lasting impression on you.
What’s most advantageous about the Nemesis System is its branding mechanic, which allows Talion to gain control of high-ranking foes using some sort of mind-magic. In doing so, he opens up strategic possibilities, not to mention powerful new allies who can fight beside him in battle. Things become easier when you brand a foe, then dominate his mind and ask him to duel, betray and/or overthrow one of his hideous and wretched peers. Taking advantage of this option is vital for those who wish to complete the campaign, as one must work to gather an army before entering into the final battle.
At its core, though, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is a mix of an Assassin’s Creed-esque action/adventure game and a hack ‘n’ slasher. Actually, to be exact, it plays out like a mixture of Assassin’s Creed and Rocksteady’s beloved Batman games. You’ll spend a lot of time running, jumping, climbing and diving throughout Mordor, using controls and animations that resemble Ubisoft Montreal’s historically-inspired epics. Then, when you run into a band of Uruks (of which there are so, so many), you’ll fight them using tactics that are ripped straight out of Arkham Asylum. You know how it is, I’m sure: Attack until you see an icon above an incoming enemy’s head, then stop and press that button to counter his attack, before continuing on with what you were doing.
The combat is fun, but it gets to be repetitive after a while, and its lack of originality hurts it. There are literally thousands of orcs to battle though, and they’re everywhere, making avoiding them a job in and of itself. If you’re smart, you’ll take to the top of buildings and sneak by, stabbing the odd enemy in its back as you progress; otherwise, you risk having baddies chase after you. They’re ruthless when they do that, and one group can turn into two. Then, if you’re not careful, you’ll have fifty some-odd Uruks begging for your throat.
Stealth is an important part of Shadow of Mordor and it’s the key to victory in quite a few missions. Thankfully, it’s handled very well and is a joy to use. I never tired of scaling walls (with ease that mimics the best of the Assassin’s Creed games) in order to gain the upper hand on unsuspecting foes. After doing so, I’d be able to survey their positions before deciding whether to drop down and stealth attack them, or use Talion’s slow-mo bow and arrow to deal deadly headshots. That bow was a lifesaver.
If you wish to take a break from the campaign, you’ll find a lot of things to do in this representation of Mordor. Although Sauron’s cloud has darkened the land and looms above it, daunting those who dare defy him, the world is alive. Take your time to explore it all and you’ll find hidden relics, magical door inscriptions, and human prisoners in need of rescue. Going further, there are a host of side missions to take on, including sword, dagger and bow challenges, not to mention the Nemesis System itself.
It can be fun to screw around with the local Uruks and mess up their hierarchy, but you also get skill upgrades for doing so. These come in the form of runes, with each one being specific to one of your three weapons. Killing a captain will drop a basic one, while defeating a warchief or something similar will usually gift you with a special, golden one. And, when equipped, said runes can grant you helpful bonuses, like the chance to gain HP in battle or added damage. This is all available on top of a more traditional upgrade system, wherein earned skill points can be used to unlock new abilities.
Now, when you think of Mordor, you likely think of a large expanse of grey rocks and hills, with an overbearing sky filled with red and orange hues. Not a nice place at all. However, Monolith has done something smart with its version of Sauron’s domain. The first of its two maps is exactly what you’d expect, that being a rather bleak expanse with a washed out colour palette; however, map number two is a lush environment with lots of fauna. Both are filled with the same amount of enemies, though, as well as beastly caragors, which can be stunned and ridden.
Aesthetically, this is a beautiful game that begs to be shown off to friends and family. Its frame rate (on Xbox One, at least), is also very stable, and its top-notch voice acting puts most other titles to shame. Generally speaking, it also ran very well during my hours with it, despite one glitch that locked me in place at the start of a mission and forced me to return to the dashboard and start over.
In the end, it’s hard to not recommend Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor to those who like solid and immersive action-adventure games. Although it borrows heavily from some of the industry’s top titles, it does so with class and manages to add-in its own, unique mechanics. In fact, the Nemesis System creates a sort of game-within-the-game experience, which allows for a lot of replay value and makes this one of the more memorable titles of this young generation.
This review was based on the Xbox One version of the game, which we were provided with.
Despite borrowing some of its more prevalent mechanics from both Assassin's Creed and Batman, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor manages to be a very solid and memorable game.