Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor (Video Game Review)



It’s always a little lazy and reductive to sum up games and movies as “This Thing” meets “This Other Thing” but some titles make it unavoidable. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is unashamedly Batman: Arkham Asylum meets Assassin’s Creed, but while it liberally steals most of its gaming DNA from those two franchises, developer Monolith refine the mechanics of both in some impressive ways and throw in some fantastic ideas, resulting in a rare licensed game that’s incredibly well made and ridiculously entertaining.

Taking place somewhere between Bilbo Baggins discovering The One Ring in The Hobbit and Frodo’s quest to toss evil Sauron’s all-powerful bling into Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings, Shadow of Mordor tells the tragic tale of noble Gondorian Ranger Talion. After The Black Gate is ambushed by evil forces, Talion and his family are brutally murdered by The Black Hand of Sauron. But death isn’t quite the end for the Ranger and, like the setup to a Middle-earth buddy cop movie, Talion’s human body is fused with the spirit of a mysterious Elven Wraith with amnesia. With the combined use of their respective powers, the undead duo set out to uncover the Wraith’s memories and take revenge against The Black Hand, freeing Middle-earth from Sauron’s clutches and ending the curse that binds them together.
.
.

(Click image to enlarge)

.
.
The melded powers of Talion and his ghostly Elf pal handily make him both Batman and parkouring assassin Ezio all rolled into one body. Shamelessly nabbing the core mechanics of Rocksteady’s Arkham Asylum series and the free-runnning open-world foundations of Assassin’s Creed, Shadow of Mordor’s mechanics are certainly familiar, but they’re just as fun all the same. Talion can scale almost any obstacle or building with speed and dexterity that’d put David Belle to shame and the open traversal is fast, fun, smooth and mostly intuitive. As in Assassin’s Creed, there are moments where the controls will lurch you off a ledge in a direction wildly different than the one you steered it or Talion will awkwardly half-jump up a wall instead of climbing it fully. Those moments are thankfully few and far between and Shadow of Mordor offsets the odd unfortunate moment by removing some of the restrictions of Assassin’s Creed’s movement – you don’t have to find assigned hay bales to land into when leaping off high buildings and Talion can jump off pretty much anywhere without danger of fall damage, what with being undead and all.

You won’t be able to get too far while running about the war-torn landscape of Mordor before you’ll spot roving gangs of orcs stomping about, keeping warm by campfires or having a jolly old time whipping slaves into submission. Shadow of Mordor gives you a versatile and incredibly fun selection of methods to kill every green, pointy-toothed one of them, whether it’s from afar with a bow, from the shadows with stealth or going mano-a-orc in knock-down, drag-out fights with crowds. The flip-over-your-foes, block-and-counter, rack-up-a-combo fight system, with its Zack Snyder-style speed-ramped visuals, owes a tonne to Arkham Asylum and the brutal brawling is just as fluid, visceral and satisfying here.
.
.

(Click image to enlarge)

.
.
The Elf Wraith’s spirit powers give you a ‘Detective Vision’-style view of the environment, highlighting enemies, orcs with intel or important objects dotted around. It’s a handy abilitiy, especially when exercising stealthiness and the other mechanics are as equally fun as the brawling, meaning you’re just as likely to try poisoning grog tanks, picking off orcs with arrow headshots or sneakily dragging enemies off to shank them to to death while you hide in bushes. The skill tree offers up some great abilities and combat moves steadily throughout the game to add extra flavour to gameplay, whether you’re using ghostly teleportation to leap to a targetted enemy to kill them, using scarily satisfying combat finishers to lop off heads left and right or picking up an extra stealth move where you surprise-stab a foe so savagely and repeatedly that all his pals crap their pants and flee for the hills. The game ties together the range of combat techniques to great effect, to the point where you’ll likely get distracted for ages taking on random gangs of orcs on your way to a mission simply because of how insanely fun the action is.

In true open world game tradition, there’s a tonne of side stuff to keep you busy during and after the main story. Collectibles shed additional light on the game’s characters and the wider lore of Middle-Earth, survival challenges have you exploring the land for flowers or picking off spiders, bats and such with your bow and liberation missions where you free groups of slaves from their orc captors. Not all of it is essential or especially great unless you’re a completionist looking to nail that 100% achievement, but it offers up a little added variety between major missions. Due to the setting, the ash-laden, barren valley of Udûn doesn’t make for the most diverse landscape and it’s not until the last third of the game that you’ll see the comparatively sunnier, grass-covered Sea of Núrnen to give you a welcome change of scenery. No matter the backdrop, Shadow of Mordor looks great, and though it’s not as jaw-dropping as some next-gen games, it’s a smooth-performing, detailed and attractive one (version reviewed was Xbox One.)
.
.

(Click image to enlarge)

.
.
Shadow of Mordor might owe plenty to other games, but to balance things out, its best element is a wholly original one cooked up by Monolith and sure to be stolen by other developers for use in future open-world games. Dubbed the “nemesis” system, it’s essentially a dynamic, ever-changing hierarchy of captains and warchiefs – named, creatively unique in appearance sub-bosses and enemy commanders who’re out in the game world somewhere for you to fight anytime you feel up for a challenge. You might bump into them by accident while exploring or during an unrelated mission and you’re sure to find some in enemy strongholds, or you can interrogate certain low-level orcs for intel about their location, strengths and weaknesses. Their appearance is always accompanied by a slo-mo, theatrical wrestling-style entrance as their minions chant their name and they try to psych you out with smack-talk taunting. Seeing those entrance cinematics pop up as extra captains stumble across you while you’re already in the middle of fighting another boss provides a huge, tense, thrilling “Holy shit…” moment of being massively outmatched – battles that are immensely satisfying if you can survive long enough to finish them off.

Considering that Talion can’t actually die, there’s no personal penalty for getting slain in battle, but the trade-off is felt in the nemesis hierarchy. If an orc defeats you in a fight, they’ll be promoted to captains and gain a spot on the nemesis table, while captains who defeat you grow stronger and tougher to kill, eventually becoming top-tier warchiefs who gain their own second-string captain bodyguards with each victory. In a great touch, any surviving captain will remember each scuffle you’ve had with them, taunting you with how you fled the last fight you had or how many times you’ve died at their hand. If you beat one of them to near-death and they escape, their appearance will reflect your attacks the next time you encounter them, with heavily bandaged faces, scars or missing eyes. Employing strategy becomes especially important with higher level bosses as strengths and weaknesses become more crucial – some captains might only be weak to fire, so you’ll have to steer them near explodable barrels and campfires, while others might be terrified of animals, so blasting open a caragor cage or riding one into battle will freak them out enough to give you the upper hand. You can use low-level orcs to issue death threats against captains, too, meaning they’ll start carting an entourage around with them and be tougher to take down, but they’ll drop more valuable runes to give you enticing stat boosts.
.
.

(Click image to enlarge)

.
.
Later in the game, you unlock the ability to ‘brand’ orcs, turning them into brainwashed drones ready to fight for you in battle and it’s a skill that makes the nemesis system even more interesting, too. You could command one captain to kill another or brand all of a warchief’s bodyguards, then activate all your sleeper cells when you roll up to fight him, leading his entourage to turn on him immediately. Optional nemesis-themed side missions crop up as captains challenge each other to duels, undergo combat rituals, execute foes or attend feasts in their honor, and if you show up before they’re resolved, you can twart their attempts, humilate them or snipe enemies from up on high, silently tipping things in favour of one of your branded captains until they’re at the top of the chain, all their minions now yours to command. It’s an ingenious system which is beautifully tied into the rest of the game, making it infinitely more enjoyable as a result (If you’re planning on picking up the game on PS3 or 360, bear in mind that the nemesis system has been pared down significantly there, so you might want to hold off until you make the leap to a next gen platform.)

The ongoing feuds and surprise ambushes that can pit you against multiple tough captains and warchiefs at once can result in so many challenging, tense and tremendously satisfying battles and leave you with plenty of unique stories to tell, which makes it a bit of a surprise that a big chunk of the game’s actual story feel so choppy, simple and anticlimactic in comparison. The plot spins a solid enough yarn and the acting from the casts’ voice talents (like the prolific Troy Baker and Nolan North) do a predictably excellent job, but despite the game’s abundance of rich, varied and enjoyable combat mechanics, the main campaign never manages to channel them into anything as fun or rewarding as its nemesis-driven side content. The rushed final missions suffer especially, as the story’s long-touted epic showdown with The Black Hand is tossed away in a short, limp and painfully unsatisfying button-mashing quick-time event.

The disappointing, anticlimactic story campaign dampens the experience at times, but it’s the nemesis system that’s the main draw here. Monolith takes borrowed gameplay mechanics and fashions them into a well-made, enjoyable open world brawler by itself, but its the addition of that unique, dynamic boss fight system that pushes it over the edge and makes Shadow of Mordor one of the most incredibly fun and amazingly satisfying action games in recent memory.

Rating: