Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor

Middle-earth Never Played So Well

overall score 87 / Get It
Jun 17, 16  | reviewed by Joel Castro (1242)

gameplay 98 / story 78 / graphics 95 / sound 96

It’s almost an unspoken taboo to add to a franchise that nerd culture considers sacred. Monolith Studios looked to create an original, yet alternate storyline to build into Lord of the Rings franchise in their latest game, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. It sounds like a self-imposed death sentence, especially if they made it without even caring for the original source material. Fortunately for Monolith, no such lynching occurred. Shadow of Mordor both creates a fascinating and well-made gaming experience without sacrificing any of what made The Lord of the Rings so epic to begin with. Through combining familiar gameplay mechanics into a brilliantly emergent system, the game sets out to become something greater than the sum of its parts, and that’s in spite of its lackluster story and presentation.

Set in the years between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, you play as Talion, a ranger from Gondor tasked with guarding the Black Gate of Mordor. During a raid, the Black Hand of Sauron, a loyal group of master soldiers who work directly for the dark lord himself, murder his wife and son, and kill Talion after that. However, Talion doesn’t end up being quite so dead. A wraith brings him back from the dead, infusing the not-really-dead ranger with his otherworldly abilities. His life renewed, Talion sets out to Mordor to exact revenge on those who killed his family, while also taking down the Uruks (more intelligent versions of orcs) that stand in his way.

Right away, the game attempts to bond you with Talion through gameplay interactions with his family. But it comes off as flat, considering not enough context or time is given to flesh out each relationship before being unceremoniously killed off. Talion himself is given some personality and is a genuinely likeable guy, but his gruff exterior hinders most chances to relate to him, which goes double for the wraith living inside of him, who’s given an interesting backstory, but doesn’t use that to create a memorable character either. That’s not to say they’re poorly written or developed, mind you, as there are twists that do keep you on your toes while not being too surprising. It’s just that they’re not as memorable as others who have gone through similar routes in the revenge business like Ezio Auditore from the Assassin’s Creed franchise. The same thing happens with the various characters you encounter, with a few familiar exceptions to keep you interested.

Given the timing of the game’s setting, Mordor has yet to become the smoldered land of brimstone and magma that Tolkien fans know it as. For this reason, the lands you travel across are nothing short of beautiful. Lush green fields of grass, marvelous views from gigantic cliff sides, and even forts overlooking the seas across are all given spectacular detail, and allow the world to feel alive and dense without overwhelming you with size or scope. Even dynamic weather effects like occasional rainfall and fog effects seek to further immerse you into this lost version of Mordor. The same goes with character models. They are richly detailed and superbly animated, looking as real as possible while still maintaining character, especially the brutish and downright ugly orcs and Uruks.

But enough about the story and visuals already. How’s the actual gameplay? Well, if you combine Batman: Arkham Asylum’s freeflow combat system with a streamlined version of Assassin’s Creed’s climbing and travel system, then you’ll already have a good idea of how Shadow of Mordor handles. You travel around hillsides, ruins, and rocky bits of terrain either by walking or running, and are able to climb such structures with relative ease. You only need to move the analog sticks to have Talion climb and navigate whatever he’s climbing as opposed to the more complex multi-input structure of the AC series. This also makes stealth much easier to accomplish (that, and a dedicated crouching button). Talion is quick on his feet and even quieter in his step, regardless of what kind of terrain he’s over.

The overworld map is only as big as it needs to be for this kind of traversal. You can travel to and from any point on the map without it taking an hour in between, if you decide to avoid any of the activities within traveling distance. It allows you to feel connected to the world and has you becoming familiar with your surroundings, which is useful considering the amount of freedom each mission gives you in terms of how to complete them.

However, the orcs that have made camp in Mordor aren’t likely to let you pass by without wanting your head decorating their armor, so you’ll have to chop theirs off in order to have any chance of success. This is where the combat comes in. As mentioned before, the combat is similar to the Arkham Batman games. You use your main attack button to hack and slash enemies that attempt to surround you, and you hit the counter button right before they tear into you like wet tissue. Getting around groups is no easy feat, as they can charge you two or three at a time, throw spears and arrows from a distance while you’re slicing up their brethren, and will even corner you if they get the chance. You don’t mess with these things.

Fortunately, you have a wide range of weapons for use in any situation. Aside from your standard sword, you have a bow from the wraith world that lets you pick off those pesky archers and spearmen, especially when you use the focus ability to slow down time and make headshots easier to achieve. You also gain a broken sword that acts as a dagger when you’re taking down Uruks from the shadows one by one. You can even take control of the wild beasts of the land, such as the panther-like Caragors, to assist in carving through the Uruks, something that is more fun than it has any right to be. Whatever your play style, be it action-oriented or like a sharp and deadly whisper in the wind, Shadow of Mordor adapts to your strategies and allows for several methods of entry to each area held by the Uruks.

Each kill grants you experience points which you can use to obtain upgrades to your weapons and skills, such as more powerful arrows and more powerful combo execution methods, which you will need as you progress, since there are Uruks that will not be bothered by your murderous reputation. They’re are called Captains and War Chiefs. This is where the game’s Nemesis system comes into play. These Uruks are looking to achieve greatness, and what better way to do that than to claim to have taken down the Ranger who’s been slaughtering them left and right.

As a result, they have their own hierarchy system in place, with War Chiefs at the top of the food chain. They constantly shift around and change according to actions they take, such as holding feasts to raise morale amongst the men, ambushing weaker captains, or holding death matches pitting rivals against one another. They gain power through succeeding at these events scattered throughout the map, and you can even assist them if you have a particular captain giving you a hard time. Have the weakest captain take the win by weakening the stronger rival from a distance, or even interfere in a hunting party from a particularly strong captain. It’s moments like these that make this system immediately more engaging than the main story, as the opportunity to use the gameplay to interact with these interesting opponents allow for players to create their own stories against these captains.

Captains themselves are also much more interesting than the main cast, due to the fact that they all have unique personalities and motivations for increasing their power. Even with some occasional overlap – likely due to a scripting limit – any captain you face is both memorable and intimidating. They’re basically like an endless supply of either elite or boss enemies. And like bosses and elites, they’re much more difficult to take down. They absorb more damage and have much more powerful attacks, as well as some having invulnerabilities to some of your attack styles, like knowing how to stop an attack from above or shrugging off arrows.

Defeating these captains takes some doing. Fortunately, there are orcs and human slaves who know a captain’s weaknesses. You can interrogate them to reveal such weaknesses, and even discovering information on any unknown captains located in the world. Is a captain giving you hell and killing you because his current power level means most of your attacks are useless? Interrogate a mook and you might learn that not only are combat finishers useful at making him bleed, but he also has an intense fear of Caragors and fire. Using this knowledge, you can chase him down as he runs from the sight of you riding his most feared enemy while also lighting him up with any fire barrel you destroy along his running path. If you don’t kill him by beheading them and face him again, he will remember what you did to him and vow to make you pay for burning him before you rid him of his pain. Of course, this is just one example, as there are many different ways to take out the Uruks giving you problems, which again allows for player-made tales of glory about them defeating Pigug the Noble after several unsuccessful attempts because he hated the feeling of fire peeling off his skin. It’s satisfying, to say the least.

Of course, there’s more than just the intrinsic feeling of taking down captains that’s the reward. Every captain leaves behind a weapon rune varying in level. You can equip these runes to your three weapons to further enhance their features. Some runes give you some health upon using a stealth kill, and others might make give you some focus back after a headshot from a bow. The higher the captain’s level, the more powerful the rune he drops. Some of the stronger captains even have a chance to drop Epic runes, which give significant increases to your abilities and even grant some immunities.

Aside from killing captains, however, there are other varieties of side missions. There are some missions that allow you to forge the stories of your weapons and what incredible feats their wielder has accomplished. These are specialized missions in which you use each weapon in ways that seem fitting, such as getting multiple headshots with a bow in a certain time limit or while riding a caragor, or even silently taking out Uruks with your dagger without being detected. There are also liberation missions, which lead into some of the main plotline missions, where you must free some humans from their imprisonment/punishment by the orcs. These can yield either monetary rewards – which you use to buy health, focus, and weapon rune slots – and even intel on some of the captains.

Even further, there are collectables in the game, which further explain the world of Middle-earth as seen through the eyes of Mordor. You can find Elvish seals that uncover some backstory on your wraith buddy, and loose items along the ground that give information about the people living in Mordor. You can also tackle survival challenges, which have you hunting for specific types of herbs and hunting down various creatures for monetary gain. These are a good way to keep the game’s content level high for players, and are there for 100% completion, but are otherwise not as engaging as the rest of the game and can be skipped unless you really want to know the story of Mordor, which at the very least is interesting if only for the fact that there’s no other way to get the backstory in the main missions.

The sound design should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. It all sounds great. The clanging of swords, the ambient environments, the voice acting on every character is fantastic all around. While I like the use of the PlayStation 4’s controller speaker here for the collection of artifacts, the volume of it does tend to grate a bit as it’s also used for various animations as well, such as killing orcs in a more grisly fashion, as well as for some of the more otherworldly sounds. I would suggest turning it down to enjoy the feature a bit better.

Of course, the game isn’t without fault. Aside from the narrative faults, there are occasional glitches where animations to connect properly, resulting in swords stabbing to the side of an orc rather than through him, as well as some clipping issues when running around the landscape. The textures are all smooth and have little to no instances of pop-in, at least on the PS4 version of the game, and I assume the Xbox One and PC versions are the same way as opposed to the previous generation, which have texture pop-in all over the place, as well as a much diminished Nemesis feature, which hinders the game in a variety of ways.

If you’re a fan of Tolkien’s works and are a fan of excellent gameplay in general, you owe it to yourself to play Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. No, it doesn’t get everything right in the story department. Yes, you’ve played this type of gameplay before. But the general excellence of its execution, combined with the innovative Nemesis system that provides a near-endless amount of excellent side content and emergent narrative opportunities, all provide this game with a unique identity and further raises the standard of licensed video games set by the Arkham Batman series. If anything, play it to see how many orcs you’ll remember having epic battles with, as well as being able to say without a doubt that one can simply walk into Mordor and survive to live another day, over and over again.

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Action Adventure



release date

September 30, 2014