When I first saw the early screenshots and gameplay footage of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, it seemed to be the lovechild of Assassin’s Creed and Batman: Arkham City with a fresh coat of Middle-earth painted over it. The stealth, the combat, the mechanics, hell, even the layout of the collectibles and the open world have striking resemblances to the aforementioned titles, yet Shadow of Mordor embraces those similarities and improves on them in both fluidity and dynamics. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much out of a would-be clone as I donned my ranger garb and clasped my ethereal weapons, but slaying and journeying through Mordor’s armies has answered many of my own Tolkien fantasies with stupendous execution.
Aesthetics (Story, Graphics, Sound)
Set between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Shadow of Mordor follows Talion, a ranger of Gondor whose family was ritualistically slaughtered, and a mysterious elven wraith who revives Talion. They journey across Mordor, accompanied by franchise staple Gollum, seeking answers to the elf’s identity as well as vengeance for the murder of Talion’s wife and child. The setup sounds like it has the potential for an engaging, emotional epic worthy of the Tolkien universe, yet the game never fully realizes this potential. A short storyline, coupled with average writing and only a handful of shining moments, are definitely contributors to the game’s underwhelming story, but as I traveled with Talion and his companions I discovered it was the characters who weighed down the game the most. Talion, in particular, is a mediocre protagonist who rarely feels relatable, mostly just reacting to the events surrounding him in a predictable fashion. The supporting cast does little to alleviate Talion’s vapidness and on the whole there isn’t really anything to connect to in terms of characters or their individual arcs. While the lackluster plot isn’t a major portion of the game nor is it the focus, its
Despite the capabilities of modern gaming — whether it’s on new gen console or on PC — or the game’s Triple A budget, Shadow of Mordor falls a bit short in the graphical category. Textures aren’t as nice as one would expect, giving the environment, especially the rocky mountainsides and foliage, a clay-like consistency. The character models and the blood work are done fairly well, thought due to the lack of sharpness don’t stand out as much as they could. These could be due to a number of factors, such as engine limitations or cutbacks, but its doesn’t lend much to an already stellar game. Don’t get me wrong, the graphics are by no means bad or unsatisfactory; in fact, the graphics are still wonderful. But compared to other games in its genre or on these systems, its less pleasing visually.
Gameplay (Combat, Systems, Mechanics)
On to the gameplay, this is where Shadow of Mordor truly shines: the combat. Taking a page from the Batman Arkham series, Shadow of Mordor features a free-flowing third person action game with heavy focuses on combos and countering mechanics. There are many ways in which this type of combat system can falter and many more examples of where they have, but in Shadow of Mordor its implementation is executed with skill and finesse. As you take on each orc pack in the open world Mordor, the seamless animations from one move to the next are spectacular and really give this visceral sense of being a one man army a la Aragorn. Though the transitions between each button press, before the animations, are a tad choppy, it doesn’t hinder the timing of the combos which could effectively cripple the combat. It’s easily one of the most enjoyable games I’ve played in a long time in terms of gameplay. This is the combat we’ve been waiting for from a Lord of the Rings game, one that turns you into a whirlwind of slick moves and orc destruction.
Speaking of orc destruction, Shadow of Mordor offers one of the most creative, intuitive enemy systems I’ve witnessed in a long time called The Nemesis System. It basically creates a hierarchy of orc captains, each with a power ranking, that is completely dynamic and always shifting as they vie for power among themselves. They’ll duel, they’ll gather influence, they’ll mercilessly put down any resistance — they respond to not only the player’s interference, but to the other orc NPC’s in the hierarchy. As you kill more and more captains, new orcs with different weaknesses and strengths (their difficulty in battle) take their place, ultimately creating an endless flow of combat and content. They dynamic aspect of the system is brilliant as it offers new challenges in an infinite fashion and battling these captains is a significant source of the game’s enjoyable experience. What’s even more impressive, however, is how the Nemesis System interacts with the player. For example, I died while fighting in a horde mode arena towards the beginning of the game. The orc that slain me was granted a name, a title, a power rating and a position in the captain ranks. After running around the map, I encountered my foe multiple times and each time he acknowledged our previous encounters; the game created for me a personalized archenemy It’s immersive to its core and one of the reasons why this game is wholly cinematic and fantastic.
Shadow of Mordor isn’t just an action game though as it features some elementary RPG mechanics. Talion can level up, gain skill points and equip runes to power up either his sword, bow or dagger. The perks of upgrading weapons and skills does show through in the gameplay, but it never feels like it provides a huge boost or changes the gameplay drastically outside of the main skills acquired through the story. It’s a great addition to an already solid action game that provides more welcome content, though won’t really unbalance the combat or the way you approach exploration.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is best summed up by a joke I made to one of my friends, wherein Monolith as a whole remarks “Hey, did you like the Batman Arkham series? Do you wish you could become Aragorn from Lord of the Rings, specifically Aragorn in the Return of the King? Well here’s Shadow of Mordor. Congratulations, you’re now a one-man orc mulcher. You’re welcome.” Although the story is a little bland due to underdeveloped characters and a lackluster plot, the game’s seamless, enjoyable combat mixed with an ingenious, dynamic boss system earns this game a spot in. I would definitely recommend Shadow of Mordo to everyone who enjoys a fantastic action game. It has exceeded our expectations and has saved itself from a trip to a metaphorical Mount Doom.
Final Score: 8.5 / 10
Written and Edited by Tim Atwood