I, like many other Lord of the Rings fans, have always been massively disappointed by the various games that have been released over the years from all sorts of different developers. The movies had such amazing production quality and Tolkien’s original works had an immense depth to them; most of the games don’t even come close to any of this. Step forward Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor then, the first LOTR title to venture onto next-gen consoles and carry with it the hope of so many fans. So does it finally do justice to the deep and complex world of Middle Earth? Well it may not be perfect but, in short, yes it does!
Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor centres around Talion, a ranger like any other, who is part of a company guarding the Black Gate. Their outpost is stormed by Sauron’s forces and overrun, at which point we are briefly introduced to the Black Hand, the games main antagonist, who slays Talion’s family and then Talion himself. Talion’s fate is not sealed here however as he is brought back from the dead by the wraith of Celebrimbor, one of the few characters here that were in Tolkien’s works. In order to find peace and avenge his family, Talion must hunt down the Black Hand by infiltrating and cutting his way through the armies of Mordor. Along the way you’ll meet a few other characters, some of which you’ll recognise, and you’ll also find out more of Celebrimbor’s story and his own reasons for hunting the Black Hand.
The biggest fear when Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor was first announced was that developers Monolith had taken the decision to step away from Tolkien’s official lore and create their own story. Whilst this might upset some purists, Monolith clearly have a great deal of love for this subject and there is barely any part that feels out of place. Mordor also looks beautiful in its desolation, especially the second part of the map you unlock later on.
The story of the main characters is revealed more as you progress but its the focus on the Orcs that Monolith have done brilliantly. As you sneak through strongholds and pick out targets, you hear the Orc’s talking to one another and it seems so much more than the usual idle chatter from most games. The Orcs discuss their thoughts of their leaders, brag about kills, taunt one another, hurl abuse at their slaves, and as your deeds spread they even discuss you; all of it is brilliantly immersive and reminds you that Mordor is their land now. The Captains and Warchiefs are even more interesting as each of them has their own personality and traits. They will bully and fight each other, try and kill one another and constantly strive for more power. Being able to decide whether to intervene or simply sit and watch these power struggles gives much more life to the Orcs, they feel more than just ‘the enemy’ but part of this living world.
The general gameplay of Shadow of Mordor is nothing particularly new and yes, all those comparisons you may have seen to Assassin’s Creed and Batman are certainly easy to spot. The point though is that it’s the best parts of these games that are on offer here. The movement and stealth is much like Assassin’s Creed. You can run around easily and scale pretty much any wall or cliff that you can see with little effort and Talion’s wraith abilities mean that he wont take damage from falling. Some objectives will have you killing Orcs without being discovered and these are perhaps much better made than in Assassin’s Creed. Staying hidden is easier and you can move quickly to dive in for a kill from all angles and then vanish again.
The combat is fast and free-flowing, very similar to the Batman games. At the beginning of the game, I was worried that it seemed incredibly easy and yes, even much later on, you’ll still be able to cut your way through countless numbers but things can get tricky pretty quickly. Different Orcs have different attacks and defenses, some will have shields, others can parry your standard attacks and archers will hang back to shoot you while you fight. You can also end up swamped by hundreds of Orcs and will often find yourself needing to make a hasty retreat. The combat itself looks flashy and impressive and, with multiple, brutal takedowns and executions, it feels incredibly satisfying to cut through huge numbers of Orcs.
You never really find yourself short of things to do either; there are countless missions, both storyline and side missions of different types, along with a large amount of hidden collectibles. I like the fact that, with this being open world, the missions aren’t separated from anything. Being on a specific mission doesn’t mean that you wont stumble upon an Orc Captain and all his guards while trying to complete your objective. Likewise, if you fail a mission, it simply reappears on the map and you are left in the middle of whatever mess you’ve created for yourself and will need to fight your way out. Everything you do will reward you with experience and ability points to improve Talion’s skills so even if you just decide to go out hunting Orcs, you’ll still be progressing through the game.
The star of the show here however, that turns what would be a good game into a great one, is the Nemesis system. The Orc leaders are split into different levels of rank and power and you will be able to directly affect this constant power struggle. Where the game really comes to life is when you meet one of these leaders in combat. The Orcs will threaten and taunt you in all manner of ways depending on their personality and, depending on the outcome of the fight, you can often find yourself meeting these enemies again and again. If you find yourself overwhelmed by a Warchief and his guards for example, and decide to retreat, the next time you meet you’ll be mocked for your cowardice; forcing them to retreat though will weaken their power among their followers. If you defeat an enemy it might not mean the last of them either, you’ll often find these same Orcs appearing later on to hunt you down, still bearing the scars of their loss and looking to take your head. Later on in the game you can also dominate enemies to put them under your control and turn them against their allies. You can set up some brilliantly satisfying ambushes like this, but you can also dominate Orc leaders to have even greater control over the power struggle by using them to assassinate their masters and promoting them even higher while still under your control.
Perhaps the most awesome feature though is that any Orc can suddenly become a thorn in your side if you happen to be killed. During a fight, if any random Orc manages to land the killing blow, they will be promoted to Captain and begin their rise to power, with their own identity. The next time you meet, they will taunt you for your loss and often these enemies will become your nemesis, becoming more and more powerful after your fights. It brings a great perspective the game as you have those amazing ‘you again!!’ moments during a fight.
The Nemesis system isn’t perfect however. The strengths and weaknesses of each Captain weren’t all that varied and considering some of them had a long list of traits, most of it often didn’t matter. I found quite frequently that, when stumbling upon a new Captain, I could simply defeat them there and then without knowing all their details. It’s also not really that easy to actually be killed during battle. Mordor is huge and open, so when you find yourself getting a bit of a kicking its easy to simply turn tail and run. You’ll still fail missions this way and lose fights but, without dying, the Nemesis system doesn’t get its full effect, unless of course you die on purpose!
Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor then is certainly a game that this legendary universe deserves. At its core, its a fun game that takes the best of many other titles and Monolith could have left it there, it would still be an enjoyable game. Instead though they added in the Nemesis system, something that feels fresh and unique. It’s perhaps a tiny bit underdeveloped but it helps to add a whole new layer to the game to help it stand out and provide almost every player with a different experience along with their own, personal nemeses. There’s a high level of production quality, with detailed graphics and brilliant voice acting and offers huge appeal to fans of Tolkien’s work.
Screenshots taken on the Xbox One
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