Review: Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

Shadow of Mordor title image

Story
Taking place between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings, you assume the role of Talion, a ranger of Gondor responsible for guarding the Black Gate of Mordor. In the opening tutorial section you play through mini-flashbacks which show him and his wife and son being killed by some of Sauron’s minions. Thankfully (and thus avoiding a very short game) Talion is revived but now comes with added special powers. Equiped with his new found wraith abilities he heads into Mordor to exact his revenge on those who killed him (yes, slightly odd) and his family.

The plot develops further, delving deeper into the world of the books/films introducing us to a mixture of old and new faces but I’ll let you explore that when you play the game but suffice to say it’s a well paced plot. I’m not even a great lover of The Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit but in no way did that affect my enjoyment of the game. Not only is that partly down to the Nemesis System (more on that later) and the gameplay in general, I found the few main characters in the game more interesting (or rather less annoying) than the ensemble in the films. Fan favourite Gollum makes an appearance (and includes him singing a funny song about Bilbo) plus an amusing Orc named Ratbag. Ratbag is a key thread to the early portion of the plot and I found him an engaging and entertaining Orc outside the brutality of his comrades. It’s also really good how the plot mixes with the Nemesis System, leading the story in a way I didn’t quite expect (and for the better).

Shadow of Mordor screenshot 4

Gameplay
Simply put, Shadow of Mordor combines the best of Assassin’s Creed’s open-world structure and free running with the Batman: Arkham series’s combat. With an area of Mordor to run around in that’s smaller than many other games but still a decent size, you’ve got a whole load of missions, side quests and plenty of Orcs waiting to meet their end.  Missions aren’t the most original around but are generally interesting in how they tie into the plot and are enjoyable compared to Assassin’s Creed’s many tailing missions. Much like Ubisoft’s series you’re free to run around the whole map at the beginning but it’s only when you clamber up a tall structure and do Shadow of Mordor’s equivalent of synchronising are you able to see the raft of activities available.

Shadow of Mordor screenshot 2

You do have standard collectibles dotted around the map however they at least add some back story to the world unlike some games. But on the whole activities are more engaging than most and well worth doing as they serve up some good practice in all areas of combat plus help towards unlocking abilities and weapon improvements too. Ranging from timed archery challenges to beast hunts, activities don’t feel as much like padding as they could have done. You also get randomly appearing power struggles between baddies which you can intervene, avenge missions which you can kill whoever killed another player in their game (both tied into the Nemesis System) and more.

I’ve already mentioned how combat is similar to the Arkham series (honestly – it’s practically identical) but with your wraith powers you do get a mixture of combat options too beyond swordplay. You don’t have as much variety as Batman’s array of gadgets and ways to stealthy take out enemies but no matter how you attack the enemy it’s simple, effective and a great deal of fun. The one exception being able to mow down Orcs whilst riding a carragor.

The thing that makes this game however is the Nemesis System. Gameplay revolutions don’t come around as often these days but Monolith Productions have crafted a system that works very well and so engrossing that it’s literally a game-changer. As I mentioned earlier the majority of this game is a blend of Assassin’s Creed and Batman: Arkham which is great but they’re old-gen games now and as good as they are, new generations should bring about not just better graphics but make gameplay better than ever.

Anyway you’re wanting to know what the Nemesis System is now. Well it’s a persistent system where enemies you encounter have a personality and engage with you in a frequent basis as you grapple with their hierarchy. By killing some of the more senior Orcs you disrupt the hierarchy and with all the in-fighting and backstabbing that goes on in Sauron’s army you see them fight among themselves become as powerful as possible. That’s all fun and interesting to watch the enemy develop but the really good part is when it comes to your own personal nemesis.

Shadow of Mordor screenshot 3

In my playthrough I was being harassed by Dugza the Painted. Our first encounter came shortly after I started as I was a bit too eager too early on to take on a group of enemies and one of them killed me. Upon my death Dugza (now I’m informed of his name) taunts me and says how’ll he enjoy his promotion thanks to my death. When I come back to life I continue my journey slaying more enemies and completing the odd side mission as you do. However after a particularly frantic battle that’s left me with little health, Dugza arrives on the scene telling me how much he’s please to be back to take me on again. Thanks to my current state I didn’t last long. Again Dugza taunts me following my death and a quick look in the Sauron’s Army section of the menu I can see how he’s getting stronger and stronger. I need to do something about this git! More ambushes came and each time Dugza won but more and more scarred after each battle.

After tackling another mission or two an opportunity appeared on the map, Dugza was going on a beast hunt. I took this opportunity to finally get the jump on him rather than the other way around. Long story short, I finally got the bastard. Out of all the enemies I’ve killed in my 20 odd years of gaming this was probably the first kill I’ve made that actually meant something other than “Yes, I’ve beaten this person. Now I can proceed further towards completing the game”. Game developers have spent many years crafting excellent companions be it Alyx from Half Life 2, Elizabeth from BioShock Infinite and Claptrap from Borderlands. Now Monolith Productions have switched their focus around and given our killing a story and a purpose.

How many people have you killed in games? 10,000? 1 million? And can you recall any of those moments when the enemy met their death? Bet you can’t. Shadow of Mordor is different, and will no doubt be another milestone in great gaming developments. The only thing that comes close to this game is the ending of Red Dead Redemption and it’s no surprise for me to learn that the lead writer and designer for that game was involved in this title.

You can interrogate some enemies for information about their commanders which yields their strengths and weaknesses, such as invulnerability to ranged attacks of fear of carragors or fire which makes them easier to kill. The great thing about this system is that death doesn’t punish you or set you back in terms of lost progress however each death does make the game more engaging. There are even more aspects to this system but I’d rather not tell you any more, but suffice to say it keeps fights interesting right until the end of the campaign.

Presentation
The graphics are really good, with the Orcs being the standout in my opinion. Not only the character model but the variety too. The Nemesis System means you’ll be looking at many Orcs in close detail and each and everyone looked different. The environment looks good too although you can tell that the cross-gen development has meant that it’s not as good as it could have been if it was only developed for new-gen titles. Although it’s a very brown and unexciting when it comes to the colour pallet, Middle-earth has been re-created in the same style as the film so it all looks as it should. That was hammered home to be as my wife (who had no idea what I was playing) walked into the room and mentioned that it looks like Gondor and she was spot on, I was in Gondor! Thanks to the developers working with the creative team of the LotR films you can tell at a glance that you’re in Tolkien’s world.

Shadow of Mordor screenshot

The game is actually far more bloody than the films. The various execution and finishing moves that you can pull off are certainly more aggressive that what Martin Freeman gets up to. Exploding heads, decapitations, buckets of blood and repeatedly knifing an enemy in the back combine to make a far more adult tone than I expected from this licensed game based upon the films. I suppose it didn’t have to be like that but I for one enjoyed slicing and dicing an Orc in a very visceral way and I’m sure you will.

Voice acting is commendable too with another fine performance by Troy Baker as Talion and a very good turn by Liam O’Brien doing his best Gollum voice. Other supporting characters all do their part too, be it Orcs, humans or dwarves, and makes this a game that can proudly sit among the films as a piece of quality entertainment. One thing that I did notice (or should that be didn’t?) is that I can’t recall hearing any line being repeated which is a common sin in open world games. Be it incidental chat or the exchange you have between you and an Orc when you’re one on one with them, you always heard something new.

Multiplayer
None, other than the fact that other people’s deaths can be avenged in your game and vice versa.

To sum up
The best Lord of the Rings game yet and one of the best licensed games too. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is a very entertaining game with the excellent and unique Nemesis System elevating this title to the being among the best in open-world action games.

PopBucket Review Score 9

Version reviewed: Xbox One

Middle-earth: Shadow or Mordor is out not on Xbox One, Xbox 360, PS4, PS3 and PC.

Author: Martyn Newton

Overlord of PopBucket and a gamer from a very young age with earliest memories including Theme Park, Detroit (look it up), Sim City, Championship Manager 2, The Lion King and Command & Conquer.

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