The Lord of the Rings franchise has not had the greatest success in the video game industry, but Warner Brothers Interactive and Monolith Productions has taken it upon themselves to change that with Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. Set between the storyline of The Hobbit and the Fellowship of the Ring, Shadow of Mordor combines the transversal and exploration of Assassins Creed with the combat of the Batman: Arkham franchise to deliver the best title in the Middle-Earth franchise to date, and also a real contender for best action title of the year.
In Shadow of Mordor, players take control of Talion (voiced and motion-captured by Troy Baker), a ranger guarding the Black Gate of Mordor as it is attacked by Uruk-hai led by three Black Númenóreans. The Black Gate is quickly overrun and Talion along with his wife Loreth and son Dirhael are captured and ritually sacrificed by the Black Hand, leader of the Númenóreans, in an attempt to summon an Elf Wraith. But instead of appearing before the Black Hand, The Wraith becomes bound to Talion in return for saving him from death. Due to now being a Wraith, he suffers from amnesia and thus does not know why the Black Hand have summoned him. In his new guise, Talion sets off to avenge his family and discover the true reason for the Black Hand summoning the Wraith. As the story unfolds revelations are made; not only about the Wraith but of Sauron himself. For fans of the franchise this will be a great treat as a lot of Sauron’s past has been kept in secret. Uncovering the origins of the rings and how Sauron was able to manipulate and corrupt everyone around him was a treat to watch and experience. In a way the game’s story can be considered an origin story of Sauron’s rise to power. I found myself driven to the next story mission just to get a better glimpse of Saurons and the Wraith’s relationship.
Throughout the story players explore a portion of Mordor in an open world. Players will encounter other survivors that provide quests and reveal backstories of both Talion and the Wraith; the most important of which is Gollum. Due to his exposure to the One Ring, Gollum is able to see the Wraith and tries to befriend him in hopes that he will lead him to the One Ring. Gollum begins to lead Talion to artifacts located throughout Mordor allowing the Wraith to regain fractions of his memory. As much as I enjoyed uncovering more backstory to the characters it was unfortunate to see that after completing their quests the other characters that players encounter don’t seem to play much of a role after that; some just disappear after their final mission.
As an open world title, players are able to explore Mordor to their hearts content. Like Assassins Creed, towers occupy regions of the map. Once players climb to the top and activate the anvil, collectables and side quests will be revealed in that portion of the map. Although players can go and complete most of the side quests whenever they want, some collectables require certain skills that players unlock later on in their journey.
As an open world game players will be able to go where they want, climb towers and ruins and eventually tame and ride Caragors, giant dog-like creatures native to Mordor. Unlike other games, Talion does not require specific markers to aim for when he climbs; running up to almost any wall will see Talion grab hold and climb with ease never leaving players wondering if they can climb up an object or not. I found this quite rewarding as I never had to look for markers to climb up. I was also happy to find out that it never takes too long to reach any destination. Towers allow for fast travel and mounting Caragors will allow players to reach their destinations that much fast, it also helps that the Caragors can climb and scale environments with the same ease as Talion. But even without the Caragors it doesn’t take to long for Talion to run to his destination. Players are also able to switch to the Wraith-world view, which allows them to see items highlighted in the environment and see Orcs through walls.
Unfortunately, traversing the environment does have its share of problems. I found that Talion has a mind of his own when it comes to jumping from high places. There were plenty of times where I tried to jump to a certain ledge or platform only to have Talion change directions and jump to the closest ledge he can grab. Although I didn’t run into this issue a lot, when I did it came at the most crucial of times. Another problem I ran into is the collision detection. I found myself getting stuck and unable to run when I approached the corners of walls or trying to run around trees forcing me to turn around and take much wider turns when trying to move around objects.
When it comes to combat Shadow of Mordor doesn’t disappoint. Taking cues from the Batman: Arkham franchise players are able to strike, dodge attacks, throw daggers, stun enemies, and perform brutal finishers. Just like Arkham, enemies who attack Talion have a button prompt appear over their head allowing Talion to counter their attacks. As the game progresses, different enemies are introduced, from shield barriers that block your attacks, to berserkers who relentlessly attack and counter your attacks, forcing players to change up their strategy. The combat in Shadow of Mordor is not only fun to play but great to watch. The animations are superbly brought to life with great motion capture and brutality. Heads get lopped off and Orc blood flows from every attack. Each attack and execution looks and flows extremely smooth tricking players into believing they are watching on big choreographed fight scene.
Besides using his sword, Talion is armed with a broken sword that he uses as a dagger, in addition to the Wraith’s bow and arrow. The dagger is used for stealth if players choose to take a more cautious approach, but the bow brings a more interesting dynamic. While aiming the bow, players enter the Wraith-world, slowing down time around him and taking precision aim. Players can upgrade their bow with skills such as shooting fire arrows and shooting Orcs in their feet and pinning them to the ground. The game boasts a number of skills players can acquire and attributes for increasing their health, and focus.
Players can also equip runes on their weapons. These runes act like perks for the weapons giving players boosts in combat or healing them when performing a certain act. For example, players can equip their sword with a rune that "increases their weapon damage by 23% when hitting an enemy from behind" or have a "49% chance of recovering health when using a finisher". Players can upgrade their weapons up to four times and equip four different runes.
The most rewarding and entertaining feature of Shadow of Mordor comes in the form of the "Nemesis System”. The Nemesis System tracks and remembers player interactions with enemies. As players explore the game and battle Orcs they will encounter Captains of Sauron’s army. Players can open up the menu and examine this army which features twenty Captains and five Warchiefs. These captains have a unique look and set of abilities. These abilities are categorized in strengths and weaknesses. These weaknesses become important and make battles faster and easier; weaknesses range from the Captain being vulnerable against finishing moves to taking double damage from behind. Meanwhile, their strengths range from being immune to ranged attacks and being immune to counter attacks. In order to discover these strengths and weaknesses players must interrogate Orcs with special green icons over their head. After doing so players can choose any Captain or WarChief to gain information on them.
Some Captains will run from battle when taking too much damage. If these Captains successfully escape they remember your encounter with them and will build a strength against the attacks you used and remember your tactics. For example, if you set the Captain on fire in one fight, the next time you encounter him he will not only mention what you did to him in a previous encounter but he will now be immune to any fire attacks you throw at him.
Once players successfully kill a Captain, another one take their place after a few hours allowing the cycle to continue. If left unattended, the Orc Captains will do battle with each other to move up in rank and power. Missions will pop up informing you that a Captain has started a duel with another Captain, players then have the option of letting the duel go on or attending the duel. Watching the duel players get the chance to then eliminate two captains at once. But duels are not the only way Orcs will move up in power, they will set ambushes against each other and take others for execution all of which the player can interfere in.
Later on in the game players will gain the ability to brand a Captain. This allows players to command their own Captain and push them to move up in ranks in Sauron’s Army. During any encounter, players can call forth their branded Captain and his followers to come aid the player in combat allowing them to watch a small skirmish transpire between Orcs. It’s also worth noting that Shadow of Mordor has one of the most interesting penalties for dying. If a player is killed by an Orc that Orc will instantly become promoted to a Captain with all the knowledge of your tactics making him that much harder to kill later on.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor delivers in everything it sets out to achieve. Appeasing not only fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saga but of gamers alike. With a masterfully brutal combat system, superb animation and graphics and a great innovation with the Nemesis System. Monolith has breathed fresh air into a license that was struggling to find footing in the gaming industry.