Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor Review
Reviewed on Sony PlayStation 4Also available on Microsoft Xbox 360, PC and Sony PlayStation 3
It is staggering. How could they get it so wrong? It’s like they didn’t even bother to read the script. Didn’t they know that when it comes to Middle-Earth, or most movie tie-ins, you really need to just half-ass it and then count your millions. What Monolith have done, in the words of bacon connoisseur Ron Swanson, is whole-ass it. Shadow of Mordor is absolutely the exception to what has been the rule for so very long, and if ever there should be a slow-clap for a developer of a videogame then it should happen now.
Straight out of the box an asset for Shadow of Mordor is the fact that it exists in a world as rich and well known as Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. There is a familiarity with this world that eases the player straight in, and it is unlikely that a player will not already know the difference between a goblin, orc and Uruk. The main character Talion cuts a decent, if uninspiring, protagonist as the vengeful Gondorian ranger - driven by the ritual sacrifice of his wife, child and himself by the Black Hand of Sauron. This ritual sacrifice was intended to summon Celebrimbor, an Elvin smith from the Second Age, but wouldn't you know it, something goes awry. The ritual actually binds Talion and Celebrimbor together, and with both of them harbouring notions of vengeance focusing on Sauron and his Black Hand off they go to put right a series of wrongs.
With the binding of Talion and Celebrimbor, who exists as an amnesiac wraith, you have two stories to explore but you also end up with two distinct skillsets for combatting all of the ne’erdowells. You begin with the basic level of attacks and defense but these can be improved as you move through the game, and you’ll often need to choose between upgrading your Ranger or Wraith abilities. Improving your Ranger abilities early in the game is important, with a game as heavily reliant on combat you will need every trick at your disposal and thankfully Talion has quite a few just waiting for you.
There are two ways to improve your arsenal in Shadow of Mordor; the first is the typical avenue of earning XP and in turn these provide you with ability points that you can then use to unlock skills. You can also collect the in-game currency, known as Mirian, that you can gather from collectibles, completing side missions and challenges. With this currency you can upgrade health or use it purchase rune slots for your weapons, allowing you to add buffs to your weapons. The whole upgrade system is fairly robust but you will never be stuck with Sophie’s Choice as each decision is rarely that much worse than the other, however you will want to upgrade your health as soon as possible as you will struggle to stay alive in battles for too long early in the game.
The combat itself is a joy to play around with and unless you have been living under a rock and missed the incredible success of Assassin’s Creed and the Arkham games you will feel right at home. As with those games timing is everything and before long you’ll be countering and dodging like you were born to do it. There seems to have been special attention given to the transitional animation and as you wheel from one attacker to the next it all feels fluid and heavy at the same time. There is a very visceral approach to the combat that shares perhaps more of the Jackson universe than the Tolkien books themselves as limbs litter the screen and blood is everywhere. You can always choose to run away, or let a foe who has turned tail get away, but largely these options will later come back to bite you in the shape of the same character but levelled up and more difficult to defeat.
Bizarrely, for a game called Shadow of Mordor, a problem that arises is the setting for this Tolkien revenge story. It turns out that Mordor isn’t an overly exciting place to look at, lots of rocks and mud seems to be order of the day. You will get to explore southern Mordor in the shape of the watery and foliage filled Núrn, and while this breaks up the monotony of the surroundings, overall there is very little variation in locale and with the maps not being overly large there can be a sense of visual blandness. Thankfully though you are usually too busy fighting your way from one side of the map to the other to take notice of the countryside and with so much to distract you it is a minor issue.
This issue coupled with some forced fan-service (spoiler: Gollum appears) serve as the only real gripes with Shadow of Mordor. Most missions fall into a few categories: go to here/collect this/kill that guy/escort that guy. It’s not inspired by any stretch of the imagination but you get the feeling it knows that and it is confident to be this derivative because it does it very well and also because the whole game is housed in one of the best mechanics you are likely to see this side of this console generation.
And here we get to the Nemesis system, a feature that could have its own review and serves as a coup de grâce to all third-person wannabes and in many respects is perhaps the type of innovation that a series like Assassin’s Creed needs. There is something wonderfully simple about the Nemesis system, although undoubtedly complex, and is easily one of the most important mechanics a videogame has had in a very long time. The Nemesis system is in many ways a game-randomiser; giving every player a seemingly unique experience, a wonderful fuel for recanting stories with your friends.
The system brings to life a hierarchical power struggle within Mordor, with the initial players displayed in a chessboard type overview with grunts of lower rank at the lower end and bodyguards and other high-ranked enemies further up the chain. This self-contained set up changes as you play and largely depends on your actions within the land of Mordor and when you die for the first time you will see these wheels begin to turn. Upon your death, the person that killed you will be highlighted and exalted as responsible for your demise. They then get entered into the hierarchy of power, facing off against opponents next to them. If successful they will improve their stats, making them more powerful but also likely leaving a power vacuum in the position they once occupied on this ladder of power.
So what you have is a dynamic power struggle that feels unique to you, as you move through the story you will see familiar unfriendly faces moving up the ranks, each with their own fantastic moniker and custom attributes. What this also sets up is the idea of revenge, and trust us you will go completely out of your way on a mission to deal out some justice to the orc that killed you with a cheap arrow to the back while you were occupied fighting. It’s a wonderful device and before you know it you will be taking encounters extremely personally.
The brilliance though is that the sword cuts both ways - you can be in the middle of an intense battle only for a foe you have bested arriving to hand you a fist full of revenge. The sense of power struggles and petty grievances is undoubtedly the best character in the game, pulling you from pillar to post purely to settle scores. The game also does a great job of making every character feel unique and full of personality, usually throwing some sarcastic and insulting comment at you as they ride into battle. Helping to develop that sense of character is that they will carry battle scars (perhaps missing an eye that you helped remove) and they will reference it before battle in a crash-zoom monologue. While there are obvious algorithms at work determining name, type, skillset and so forth it is so well presented that the strings appear to be hidden.
The Nemesis system also cements its brilliance by those characters in power struggles going about their business, trying to increase their overall ranking independent of whatever you do. They will duel, challenge and try to recruit and it is up to you to hinder them to degrade their status in the eyes of their followers thus halting their progress, or alternatively you can just kill them. Using ‘fast travel’ will also force a change in the power struggle, and you will watch as ambitious enemies try to progress, sometimes successfully and sometimes not so much. It speaks to the strength of the Nemesis system that in these instances, when you are forced to observe the pieces moving, when a character dies that you never got the chance to best on the field of battle you will feel a pang of regret for not getting that opportunity.
It is hard not to love what has been done with the addition of this system, it fills a void that we didn’t know was there. Where games tend to only highlight boss characters and leave the grunts to mere button-mashing fodder Shadow of Mordor gives any opportunistic enemy the chance to rise up the ranks. This egalitarianism fills a hollow in a game where typically we would have accepted any character without a dedicated cutscene as nothing but a victim, where now they can become empowered and hinder your progress, directly or purely by just distracting you out of pure vengeance.
If you are a betting person you would be safe to wager that there will be attempts to ape this system in other similar games, but Shadow of Mordor succeeds because of the attention to detail and nuance it applies to the system. Even in a social context this system succeeds as you will have missions available that will allow you to take on enemies that bested your friends and you can complete these missions for extra rewards. Nemesis is a success if by no other measure than it has shown what videogames should be striving for in terms of delivering a more believable and more interesting game world.
On the face of it there’s really not that much to whet the appetite for those looking for something new and interesting. Third-person view? Yeah. Combat based on timings counters? Definitely. Lots of map-trawling for collectibles? Most certainly. So on the surface what you have already developed in your mind’s eye, and aided by your gamer spidey sense, is that Shadow of Mordor is essentially Assassin’s Asylum: Mordor Edition. The truth of that idea is that, by and large, you’d be not too far off the mark and this is a game built solidly on derivation of ideas. However what most games do is imitate but never seek to improve, settling for producing a version of a successful mainstream approach. What Monolith have made deserves all the plaudits that it has received, for it has taken, replicated and improved a genre that has been treading water for far too long. As a gamer you owe it to yourself to experience Shadow of Mordor if not for anything else other than the Nemesis system because playing a single-player game never made you feel less alone.