The Lord of the Rings has had its fair share of games, both flops and successes, since the movies brought Tolkien into the mainstream consciousness. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is the latest offering from Publisher Warner Bros. Interactive and developer Monolith Studios. Clearly aimed at capitalizing on the popularity of open world action games such as Assassin’s Creed, Shadow of Mordor is a compelling action RPG that oozes style and production value. But is it any good? In a word: yes. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is easily one of this year’s best, and even if you’re not a hardcore fan of Tolkien you’ll be hard-pressed not to enjoy Talion’s quest for vengeance and the act of commanding your own Uruk army.
Tolkien purists, though you should be used to games taking liberties with Middle-earth by now, be forewarned. Like many other Middle-earth videogames, Shadow of Mordor takes a lot of liberties in creating a new story between the events of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. However, Monolith obviously went to great lengths to plumb the Silmarillion and delve into the tale of Celebrimbor… the Elven lord who crafted the rings of power. Minor spoiler, he’s the wraith that Talion becomes cursed with, and also your partner throughout the adventure. You’ll spend the game uncovering Celebrimbor’s past, while fighting to free Talion from the curse and stop Sauron from re-entering Middle-earth. Talion himself is an exceptionally skilled fighter and Captain of Gondor, but with Celebrimbor’s wraith powers, he becomes essentially a Middle-earth demigod. And it’s awesome to play as both.
Our video companion review for those who hate words.
I played with a review copy provided by Warner Bros. Interactive and Monolith Productions, and I finished the main story campaign in about 19 hours played. There are dozens of side missions and quests I did not finish, which easily could have added another dozen hours or more onto the time played.
I won’t spoil too much of the story for you, as it’s actually pretty damned good, if you don’t mind the embellishments of Monolith and aren’t worried about “canon” in Middle-earth. Me? I’m just glad we’re finally getting a tale that doesn’t follow the Fellowship and instead plumbs the depth of lore and stories available in the setting. Shadow of Mordor is such an enjoyable game to play, I find myself hoping we’re at the beginning of a new franchise.
The gameplay of Shadow of Mordor will be instantly recognizable to anyone who’s played Assassin’s Creed. It’s clear that Monolith got a lot of inspiration for Talion’s adventure from Ubisoft’s series. You’ll climb wraith towers to gain new fast travel points, much of the between main missions gameplay revolves around assassinations as well. In this way, Mordor does suffer from the same repetitive task syndrome that always plagues Assassin’s Creed. After ten-twenty hours of killing bad guys, you’ll start to wonder why the entire Orc army isn’t dead yet. But you’ll be thankful that genocide isn’t possible because the Nemesis System is something that really makes Shadow of Mordor take on a life all its own.
There are two main halves to the game, the first half taking place at and around the Black Gate itself, and the other taking place in the greener but still shadowy pastures of Nurn. Once you move onto the latter, you can always move between the two freely, and even after beating the main campaign you’ll be able to fight orcs and work on all of the side quests and achievements you didn’t finish. Presumably there will be a good deal of DLC coming to Shadow of Mordor too, and if we’re lucky some of it will feature Torvin the dwarf or Ratbag the orc. Both are fantastic characters, and I’m hoping against hope we get to play as them at some point.
But back to the Nemesis System!
Every orc in Shadow of Mordor is procedurally generated. Captains and Warchiefs alike have their own personalities, skills, fears, hates, and strengths. To truly fight back against the Blackhand and Sauron, you must infiltrate the orcs and learn to command them with the wraith’s powers. In the first half of the game, you do this by elevating Ratbag to the top of the food chain. In the second half, you learn how to brand and control the orcs, and you build your own army by taking over the warchiefs’ minds. It may sound easy, but to be have a better chance at taking on or supplanting the warchiefs, you first need to take out their bodyguards or captains. You can do this by commanding them to fight each other, or even simply by killing them off. You have to act quickly though, because once a spot in the orc hierarchy is empty, it will eventually be filled by another orc.
All of this is made even more interesting by the fact that orcs can be scarred by you, and if they get away, they’ll remember you and show signs of their defeat. If a lowly orc manages to kill you, they’ll take a spot as a captain and grow in power too. And they’re not just stationary, always waiting in the same spot on the map either. I can’t count how many times I was trying to command or take out one captain, only to accidentally find myself in the midst of several. Such fights can be good or bad, depending on how well you fight.
Luckily, Talion’s not left to just his sword, bow, and dagger. The surroundings can be used to your advantage too as hanging slabs of meat can be shot down to attract caragors (think the feline version of wargs), fires can be exploded, and stealth can be employed. There are dozens of ways to take on every single fight in Mordor, and I could have spent a dozen hours or more just wandering around and messing with the orcs. I finished the main campaign in about 19 hours, though it could probably be rushed in 15 or so. Still, this left most of the side missions (freeing slaves, forging my weapons’ legends and unlocking their epics skills) completely undone.