Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC, Playstation 4, and Xbox One Developed by Monolith Released in 2014
The last two console generations have seen gaming take a massive leap in technology, yet it’s disheartening to see many triple-A games ignore the potential afforded by this tech in favor of making simpler games with better graphics. Most of the time it’s indie developers working with a lot less firepower that end up designing amazing new gameplay concepts or innovating genres, but late in the lifespan of the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 there was a big budget title that proved the industry could still do it. Monolith’s venture into Mordor brought us the much-lauded Nemesis system and since its release I have been excited to try it out. After recently purchasing a new TV, the time was finally there.
Another Brick in the Wall
An important detail to note in the game’s title is the absence of “Lord of the Rings“. If you were hoping to return to Tolkien’s world and play as or with your favorite heroes from Peter Jackson’s movie trilogy you’re in for a surprise, as only Gollum makes it into the plot of this game. Rather than Aragorn or Legolas, you’ll be playing as Talion, a Gondorian captain with a prominent position on the black gate, where he also lives with his wife and daughter. At least, that’s what he’s doing for the duration of the tutorial, which concludes with all three of them having their throats slit by The Black Hand, a prominent follower of Sauron.
Rather than dying alongside his family, Talion finds himself resurrected by an Elven wraith who tells him the two of them are blocked from entering the afterlife. Eager to be reunited with their respective families in death, the two of them set out to take vengeance on The Black Hand and murder a few thousand orcs along the way.
I can’t say that Shadow of Mordor enjoys the best of writing. It benefits from taking place in Tolkien’s fantasy world and the developer clearly had a passion for the setting. You get to meet people and visit places only seen in the books, and it seems like every other collectible wants to throw in a little reference to the lore left out of the movies to please the fans. It does have some inconsistencies, but the effort to make this a story about Tolkien’s world rather than a tie-in for the movies is much appreciated.
It’s a shame then that the story we watch unfold and the characters doing that unfolding aren’t up to par. Talion is just kind of an okay dude that can beat up a lot of orcs and generally be relied upon to do the right thing at the right time, but he doesn’t have any qualities to him that make him particularly inspiring as a fantasy hero. He is also so ridiculously powerful it feels overpowered by the standard of other characters from Tolkien’s setting, making him feel more like a fanfiction character.
The wraith is pretty much the same, except angrier and he often complaints about having to do something for characters before doing it anyway. I definitely enjoy stories about a duo of characters working through an adventure together, but those tend to work best when there is some friction between the characters. Talion and the wraith only butt heads a few times throughout the entire game, while the rest of the time they are perfectly cooperative and friendly to each other. I did find some of the side-characters interesting, like the sickly Queen of the Shore or the Gondorian deserter you end up helping, yet those tend to be absent for long stretches of time because this game is mostly driven by the emergent stories created with its gameplay.
Also, on the flipside, the villains of this story are utterly underwhelming. They are generic, evil-looking fantasy dudes that show up in the tutorial and then disappear entirely until you unlock the quest to kill them. It’s all-around a little shallow and underdeveloped, like why go through the effort to put in all these references to the books, only to then feature a character that would never have a place in them?
Story score: 6.5/10
Stab people until they want to be your friends
If you can manage to play a Batman: Arkham game with one hand and speedrun Assassin’s Creed with another, then you are successfully recreating the Shadow of Mordor experience. Monolith took the frantic combat of Batman‘s recent outings, where you are a single, overpowered character fighting groups of thugs, and mixed it with Ubisoft’s open-world formula, where you have a large sandbox map to uncover with towers to climb and collectibles to fetch.
It has to be said that Talion is a lot more expedient than the likes of Altaïr and Ezio though. While he starts out with the same platforming moveset where holding the button to run will automatically make him leap between platforms, climbs walls, and skip over obstacles, you acquire new powers as you go that change things up nicely. One power will let you press X after landing a small jump to get a temporary speedboost, whereas another allows you to target an enemy anywhere in sight and immediately warp towards him, planting your fist in his face at the same time. This made travel a lot faster, often making the ability to fast travel between towers unnecessary. Regrettably, Talion does run into some issues as he moves around. He is prone to getting stuck on small objects and will sometimes refuse to climb walls or jump to certain spots. I lost count of how many stealth missions I failed because rather than jumping from a platform unto a rooftop, Talion instead dived for the ground and into an orc camp.
The two maps you get to play around in are kept vague until you climbed the local tower, after which the game will sprinkle it with icons representing side-missions and collectibles. The layout I found to be great and, despite its size, I soon became familiar with a few places in Mordor and could use my knowledge to plan routes and sneak about. Sneaking is done by holding down the right-trigger, but rather than slowing the game to a crawl, Talion will actually keep up a decent pace, and orcs are dense enough to avoid with ease. From stealth you can also use instant-kills to avoid combat or immediately drain a target, frightening them and refilling your arrows a bit.
Combat in this game is less entertaining than I thought it would be though. The Arkham combat system is as free-flowing as ever, but the controls tend to be slightly unresponsive and enemies too numerous and lively. It takes a lot of hits before an orc stays down, and while you can use a stun-move to begin releasing a flurry of strikes or press a combination to deal a death blow to a downed enemy, other foes will always interrupt these unless they are entirely prevented from doing so. Even with improvements your finishing move is too slow to execute before a foe rushes to his friend’s aid. This means you are either left slashing away until an orc finally dies or relying entirely on the finishers you can perform after keeping up a combo long enough.
And orcs have friends aplenty, I can guarantee you that. Unless you decide to leg it, combat can stretch on forever due to wandering patrols or alarms being sounded, sending an endless stream of baddies your way. You can make use of your bow to trigger traps like explosions, release dangerous creatures, or just shoot some greenskins in the face, but when foes just keep coming you’ll run out of options sooner than later. And in the late-game this becomes even more of a mess, as more captains are hidden in bases with alarms and you begin to get allies of your own. Shadow of Mordor‘s targeting is completely out of whack, often causing you to hit friendly characters or use instant-death moves on them. When a captain is surrounded by a legion of orcs you just have to find a way to cheese him, because going for a straight fight is not going to work well.
Which brings us to the Nemesis system. In Shadow of Mordor, there is a hierarchy for the orcs consisting of four ranks, with the warchiefs standing at the very top and picking bodyguards from among the lower ranks. All the orcs who have a rank enjoy a randomized design, name, and a number of traits that determines their dialogue and behavior in combat, making it fun to hunt them down and see what you might run into. You can interrogate certain orcs to learn the traits of captains and use this information against them, but a nice touch is that if an orc kills you he grows in power and moves up the ranks. They may even challenge other orcs to combat or start their own missions to grow their influence, which you can then invade and disrupt. Even the random, throwaway orcs earn a name for themselves if one manages to kill you.
This is what I meant with emergent stories earlier in this piece. One of my favorites was an orc that killed me once, but wasn’t particularly good at anything. I got my revenge soon enough, but the crazy bastard just kept coming up, each time with new wounds and newfound determination. Now when you die the orcs all complete their quests and hold their duels, so when a particular side-quest killed me a few times, this random orc ended up becoming the bodyguard to the warchief, brutally defeating every foe and partying like a madman. I felt a tinge of sadness when I realized what must have been my fifth time beating the poor sucker up finally did him in, Feldûsh was no more.
It’s a great system and late in the game you acquire the ability to brainwash orcs to turn them to your side. At that point you can begin to manipulate the hierarchy, looking to place orcs in positions of power by having them duel troublesome rivals. It’s a little too easy because you can just brainwash all of them once they are weakened enough, but it’s hilarious to get into fights with a warchief and have him panic as his own bodyguards begin hurling javelins into his spine.
The nemesis system is definitely the main selling point, which makes it a shame that Monolith locked it away behind its lackluster story missions. I didn’t get the ability to brainwash Orcs until 75% through the game and many other cool abilities suffer a similar fate. Shadow of Mordor is exciting when you are manipulating the Orc ranks and buffing up your forces to take on the servants of Sauron, but when you get into story missions it turns into a whole different game. You are suddenly forced to babysit slow-moving NPC’s as they send you on tediously roundabout quests. One early missions has you escort a slow NPC as he takes you for a stroll to pick (poisonous) flowers, it’s all so out-of-tone with the gameplay.
Aside from the nemesis system this game doesn’t do much new. Its open world structure will be familiar to anybody that has played a Ubisoft game of late and its combat is fun if a little too frantic. The controls could have done with some testing and it’s frustrating when Talion misinterprets your orders or when you can’t get the game to attack the enemy you want, but it’s generally a lot of fun and the nemesis system leaves me inclined to see a few of these issues through the fingers. I just wish they had spent more time drawing the full potential out of this unique system and less on telling a drawn-out story experienced through boring quests.
Gameplay score: 7.5/10
Every orc is special
As Talion you are diving into the heartland of the orcs, which is a mixture of untamed nature and ruined civilization. You’ll have long stretches of grasslands populated by monsters that connect a series of ramshackle orc camps, ruined buildings, and cave systems. The visuals are up to modern standards and rather appealing to look at, with the nemesis system necessitating that all the orcs you run into have a recognizable appearance. It really feels like you are chopping your way through an army, as the orcs are just varied enough to not make it feel like a bunch of clones. It’s also great to see when captains you have previously fought return, either with new decorations and armor to celebrate their victory, or with vicious scars to remind them of their defeat.
In terms of music there is little to talk about, as I had to actively google to see if there was a soundtrack at all. It’s just generic background noise, nothing special. As for the voice acting, Monolith went with a few reliable and well-known actors. Troy Baker, known for many performances such as Booker in Bioshock and Joel from The Last of Us gets to be Talion. This is kind of fun when you realize The Black Hand is voiced by Nolan North, famous for his performance as Uncharted hero Nathan Drake, whose brother Sam Drake is played by Troy as well. Other well-known actors like Steve Blum, Jennifer Hale, Matthew Mercer, and Yuri Lowenthal also have voice roles in this game with varying degrees of importance.
I have read many complaints stating that Shadow of Mordor‘s use of language doesn’t fit the realm of Middle-earth, and while I only noticed strange lines in a few places myself, I can at least say that it’s competently delivered thanks to this all star cast of voice actors.
Presentation score: 8/10
Being an open-world game styled after Ubisoft’s formula, the land of Mordor is a sizable stretch of territory littered with all sorts of side-missions you can complete. First and foremost, there are relics to find across Mordor that are revealed after you activated the tower in a zone. These are lost items that give you a bit of lore and prompt a discussion between Talion and the Wraith, but they are often so banal it’s not that intriguing to pursue them beyond getting them for completion’s sake. A similar situation applies to the Elven language scribbled on various walls across Mordor. By reading them you get a bit of lore, which I didn’t realize until the very end of the game, and some free upgrade points. There around 20 of both and they are always marked on your map, so it’s really just a question of whether you can be bothered to collect them.
A more involved side-quests is found in the 30 weapon legends. Your sword, bow, and dagger are all amazing weapons and by triggering missions where you must use them to complete a small challenge (with an optional extra objective) you can score points and eventually have the Wraith reforge them into their true shape. These missions also provide you upgrade points, so it’s useful to complete them anyway. Less interesting are the “outcast” mission, which have the exciting premise of liberating slaves from Sauron’s grasp, but all of them just end up having you walk around a bit, kill a few orcs, and then let a prisoner go. There is a little story context that makes each one theoretically different, but in practice it’s all the same. It would have been better if the prisoners were always on the map and freeing them was just another overarching goal you work towards whenever, not just after triggering a mission.
A small frustration in the way missions work in Shadow of Mordor is that failure states, aside from outright dying, immediately end the mission. For story missions this means you just retry and get to resume from a checkpoint, yet for the side-quests you just lose and resume regular gameplay. To have another shot you need to go all the way back to where you triggered the side-quest, then start it all over again.
Another obnoxious design in Shadow of Mordor is that there are multiple different upgrade trees that all use different currencies. You got experience, you got some kind of white points, some red points, it’s all a tad too much to keep track off. I actually realized five hours into the game I hadn’t been using one of its upgrade trees, because it was hidden in the confusingly designed menu structure. The upgrades do have tangible benefits, such as experience points accumulating into new ability points that can be spend on immediately getting new skills to play around with.
Each of your weapons also has slots for runes, which drop whenever you defeat an orc captain, and provide a variety of bonuses that allow you to tune your weapons to your play-style. While neat, I ended up unlocking all the slots early on and equipping the runes I found most useful, after which I never touched the stuff again. It’s a cool system, yet you often end up getting runes that give you a small chance to get a beneficial effect, which were rarely better or more worthwhile than what I already had.
Extras score: 6/10
Even if you exclude the nemesis system, Shadow of Mordor is a fun game with a combat system that is cool to play around with and a character that is fun to control. It stumbles a few times and could have been more optimized, sure, but with the nemesis system in place it’s truly a must play for anybody interested in game innovation. This makes it a shame that Monolith hid much of its depth behind boring story missions. It feels great to earn experience, manipulate the orc ranks, and cut through Sauron’s armies, so it baffles me that they opted to design it so.
I won’t say Shadow of Mordor should have no story campaign at all, as the side-characters you meet through them are entertaining and have interesting dilemmas going on, but I would have liked to see Monolith let the player loose a bit so they can tell their own stories.