Even many years after Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy has been succesfully adapted for the big screen, stories taking place in Middle-Earth don't end there. With several games released that extend the lore of Tolkien's established fantasy universe, they show that there are still many adventures to embark to and tales to be told in this world.
The most recent addition comes in the form of Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor. Coming from WB Studios and Monolith, the creators behind the MOBA Guardians of Middle-Earth, the developers once more return to Middle-Earth, yet now into darker territory with the bleak landscapes of Mordor, as well as a new genre - the open world adventure game.
But is Shadow of Mordor's trip to the orc infested regions in Tolkien's world enough to make it worth it, or is this a tale that is destined to be forgotten?
Talion, a ranger captain, is part of a Gondor garrison stationed at the Black Gate. The garrison is attacked by Sauron's Uruk forces led by 3 Black Númenórean captains; the Hammer of Sauron (John DiMaggio), the Tower of Sauron (J. B. Blanc), and their leader the Black Hand of Sauron (Nolan North). Talion, his wife Ioreth, and his son Dirhael are captured and ritually sacrificed by the Black Hand in an attempt to summon the wraith of the Elf Lord Celebrimbor. However, Celebrimbor (who suffers from amnesia due to his status as a wraith) instead ends up merging with Talion, saving him from death. The two of them set out to uncover Celebrimbor's identity as well as to avenge the death of Talion's family.
Fairly different from other tales taking place in Middle-Earth, Shadow of Mordor's story is far not as deep or complex as most LOTR stories are used to. It gets clear fairly quickly that Talion's revenge quest almost never really strides into unexpected territories that haven't been explored already in other games numerous times before and mostly in quite a bit more interesting detail. Therefore, Shadow of Mordor's story development only holds extremely little surprises and is resultingly a very straightforward affair. The main revenge plot is strictly followed and cameos of popular LOTR characters like Gollum only serve as minor distractions during cut-scenes that don't serve much more purpose than simple fan service.
Yet, Shadow of Mordor luckily also avoids feeling like a game that takes itself overly seriously, which makes its story nevertheless entertaining enough to endure to the end. With that said, the game definitely knows and feels like a game whose story isn't set out and doesn't want to to alter or affect the course of Middle-Earth's main history too much. Shadow of Mordor is decidedly a tale with a far smaller scope and scale compared to Tolkien's original fantasy epics, and in that sense, the game's lighter and simpler story actually manages to compliment and underline the game's freedom in gameplay fairly well in the longrun.
With only about 5 or 6 main quest-givers outside of the Elvish voice inside Talion's head (Celebrimbor), there are no towns or villages to get additional objectives from. Yet, this is Mordor after all. Every other human in the region is either dead or enslaved, which therefore makes sense considering the circumstances.
Still, Talion's revenge quest through Mordor nevertheless offers some optional intel about the world's lore that players can dig deeper into if wanted. Either through collected artifacts or by paying attention to echoes from Talion's past that play over the loading screens, the game can achieve a little bit more sub-text to its relatively thin story.
|It's cameo time!|
Core Gameplay Mechanics - "Improvement Over Familiar Grounds"
Shadow of Mordor is another one of those game's whose thin storyline is easily forgiven seeing how the primary focus of the game is clearly put on its gameplay mechanics, which turn out relatively strong.
Talion's revenge quest leads him through the land of Udun, the Mordor that you are used to, and the lands of the Sea of Nurnen, which displays a sunnier and far more lifely side of Mordor with wide green fields.
Taking (or rather copying) much of its core gameplay mechanics from other notable games like the Assassin's Creed series and the Batman: Arkham series, Talion is able to roam freely in these Mordor's regions while quests are initiated on specific spots on the map and Forge Towers help you fast travel around after having activated them much like Synch-Towers in the AC games.
Due to its very obvious and strong similarities with most notably Assassin's Creed, most players will definitely feel right at home with Shadow of Mordor's initial control mechanics based on sneaking, climbing and fighting. Offensive mechanics play out like a surprisingly competent mix of Assassin's Creed's stealth mechanics and Arkham's beat-em-up and counter-attack focussed combat mechanics. Furthermore, there's even a detective mode of sorts that enables Talion to scan the area for orcs, beasts and health giving herbs.
Although the parallels between Shadow of Mordor's gameplay mechanics to the ones from AC and Arkham often come off as so obvious to a point where even most of the movement-animations feel like they are ripped straight from those "role models", it still would be unfair to judge Shadow of Mordor as a rip-off and resultingly a bad game. Shadow of Mordor's "innovation" in this regard rather shows in just how cleverly it blends the strengths of both AC's and Arkham's mechanics together. Especially the implementation of Arkham's beat-em-up formula into the game manages to make Shadow of Mordor overall actually feel like a better or at least more effectively improved Assassin's Creed game than Assassin's Creed itself (at least regarding the mechanics).
Yet nevertheless, there are also quite some own new ideas that Shadow of Mordor brings to the table...
|Detective Mode engaged.|
The Nemesis System - "When Things are Getting Personal"
The biggest difference to the game's "role models" (AC and Arkham) comes in the form of Mordor not being as much of a friendly or neutral place...actually it's quite the opposite seeing that orcs (or more precisely urucs) are currently taking over the land making it pretty much impossible to make your way through the regions without getting the attention of one or more of these ugly foes. Therefore, it comes to no surprise that killing orcs and assassinating their leaders is the meat and bones of Shadow of Mordor's gameplay.
At the heart of this strongly assassination oriented core gameplay lies the game's so called Nemesis System. In its most visual form, said system comes in the form of a menu screen displaying the 20 most feared captains in each zone of the map along with a total of five warchiefs that command each zone.
The obvious hierarchy shown in the Nemesis System is constantly changing. In that sense, being the vicious creatures that orcs are, orc captains will challenge each other for supremacy, get stronger after each time they beat you in combat, and get promoted when a specific empty spot in the hierarchy needs to be filled.
Mostly due to its constantly changing nature, which makes this hierarchy among the orc troops feel very organic and unpredictable, Shadow of Mordor's Nemesis System is rightfully the strongest aspect of the game. With such a seemingly self-evolving system at its core, Shadow of Mordor really gives you the feel of being a lone warrior who strategically has to fight his way through an entire army.
|Oh boy, that looks like a whole lot of work.|
Furthermore, seeing that captains and warchiefs are getting stronger each time they beat you, Shadow of Mordor is a game whose difficulty is definitely depending on how strategically smart you play it. Sure, attacking a warchief on the top of the orc hierarchy is possible right from the start, yet very unwise considering that each time you fail you make him a stronger and harder to beat boss. Shadow of Mordor resultingly is a quite "fair" game. Fails or deaths feel much more devastating in their consequences and impatient players are quickly getting punished when they try to recklessly rush through the orcs' elite.
In order to effectively fight your way to the top by taking out one captain after another, you can scout and assassinate captains freely in the open world or take part in specific Power Struggles located on the map that represent opportunities to directly confront and eliminate one or more targets on your hit list.
Yet, the strategic part about assassinating your target doesn't end there. Planning strikes and gaining intel about your target is another big part about avoiding unnecessary fails during your revenge quest. To gain information on captains and warchiefs, you can track informants who once they are spotted and overcome will list the strengths, weaknesses and location of any orc captain you choose. The shortly revealed vast variety of different orcs with so many varying strengths and weaknesses is sure to surprise many players. For example, while some captains may be immune to stealth attacks, arrows or fire, some may also have specific weaknesses like a fear of specific beasts that roam the lands making them run screaming.
|When "Power Increased" feels more punishing than actual death.|
Though taking out each of the orc captains is still possible without paying attention to their specific stats, taking their weaknesses and strengths into account before striking them is highly suggested since it will definitely increase your chances of success while avoiding drastic fall-backs during your progress.
Shadow of Mordor's sense for a distinctly evolving social structure is an amazing mechanic that hasn't been done with such an eye for detail in other open world games. While not every encounter with an enemy captain might necessarily turn out as an epic showdown that tests your skill, it's how one encounter affects another that keeps the proceedings in your experience fresh and entertaining. A nameless grunt that gets lucky and kills you might end up as a warchief after a few promotions making things quickly become somewhat personal. Speaking of things becoming personal, you can also develop rivalries with certain captains that just won't leave you alone. It's exciting and often even funny to see how a specific captain visibly gets older, remembers your past encounters and even talks about his scars he got from you. It's this staggering amount of detail that will keep you playing even long after the main story ends since ending a specific rivalry with an orc by an awesome execution-move can feel that much more like an accomplishment.
|A face not even a mother could love.|
Weapons and Upgrades - "Weapons of Orc Destruction"
Even though Talion is put against an entire army of orcs, his tools of destruction are not to be undererstimated. Aside from some supernatural abilities that he is granted through Celebrimbor's wraith powers, Talion's arsenal is focused on three weapons: a bow, a dagger and a sword. Equipping or using one of the weapons is depending on how Talion is controlled or what move he is performing. With that said, each weapon is used for a specific purpose: the dagger is generally used for stealth kills, the bow is equipped for kills from a distance and the sword is your general mano-a-mano fighting tool.
While the combination of Talion's weapons is very satisfying to use thanks to the seemless transitions between the different attack moves, it's easy to see that Shadow of Mordor's limited weapon arsenal is nothing too noteworthy...at first. Yet it's the game's big upgrade-tree that will eventually make Talion feel sort of like a one-man-army himself towards the end of the game when all of his upgrades take effect. Upgrades mostly fall into the general spectrum of increased damage, defense, and other stats in addition to Talion's increased superhuman wraith abilities like faster speed, etc. On top of that, killing captains and warchiefs awards you with runes that can be attached to one of your weapons granting it additional specific abilities, whereas levelling up gives you the opportunity to buy even more rune-slots to make each weapon even more devastating.
If that wasn't enough, you can also dominate and ride beasts like Caragors and giant Graugs, natural animals that roam the lands and attack anything on sight, to take out multiple enemies at once. Yet, you can eventually also dominate and overtake orcs as well to build up your own legion of captains and warchiefs to challenge the Black Hand and Sauron's army with your own.
With all those tools available to you, the game might become a tad too easy for some players' tastes towards the end, when Talion's abilities are all maxed out and fights therefore are getting easier and easier with each dead orc that grants you XP. Nevertheless, fighting your way strategically up and overtaking each zone after another is hugely gratifying and easy to get obsessed with even despite the game's increasingly easier getting difficulty.
|If it's big, you should ride it ...that sounded wrong.|
Despite the fact that the entirety of Shadow of Mordor is (of course) completely focussed on this grey, muddy and bleak looking part of Middle-Earth, Mordor actually looks quite good and partially actually beautiful in the game. Though in its entirety the game's map of Mordor is fairly small compared to other open-world games and the variety of landscapes to explore is understandably quite limited, it's the overall atmosphere to be travelling through enemy infested territory that makes Mordor itself work. Most notably Mordor feels like a vivid and actual place, in which things happen without you having to trigger it. Orcs sitting around a campfire talking about various tales and other things, or Caragors and other beasts from the natural wildlife running into nearby orc groups and attacking them breathes significant life and credibility into Monolith's depiction of Mordor.
Whereas the surroundings manage to showcase Mordor in the most impressive way possible with a strong emphasis put especially on lighting effects (due to all the light reflections on all of the mudd-puddles), the character models in Shadow of Mordor are a mixed bag. While on the one hand, the protagonist Talion along with Cerebrimbror clearly stick out a bit negatively due to their somewhat lack of detail, the orcs on the other hand clearly steal the show with their large array of various looks from distinct faces and weapons to different and changing armors. Though after some time some orcs might tend to look a bit more samey, the variety of orc models is still big enough to make sure that each orc (in combination with differing voices) mostly feels like a unique person.
Shadow of Mordor might only have a pretty slim storyline but it's got a great cast of voice actors to make up for it. The few dramatic scenes during the story are actually delivered pretty convincingly and well (in terms of voice acting). Furthermore, the big variety of orc designs is accompanied by the accordingly impressive amount of different voices they are granted.
Other than that, the many music cues in the game will come off as quite familiar to many fans of the LOTR movies, though the score itself is nothing too noteworthy to talk about.
Lastly, seeing that Gollum's role in the happenings of Shadow of Mordor is as already mentioned only limited to it being mainly there for fan service's sake, the lack of Andy Serkis doing his voice isn't that bad either (voice actor Liam O'Brien as Gollum does pretty much equally as well).
|Who knew that Mordor could look this green?|
Seeing how obviously and how much its core mechanics borrow from the well known Assassin's Creed- and Batman: Arkham franchises, it might be initially very easy to be skeptical towards Shadow of Mordor as a standalone game. Yet, it's how cleverly Shadow of Mordor blends its own ideas together with these "copied" gameplay foundations, that ultimately make it stand out as not only a strong game on its own, but also in many ways as pretty much an even better "assassination-game" than Assassin's Creed itself.
Shadow of Mordor is heavily focussed on you as a lone warrior fighting against an entire orc army, taking out one zone and its captain after another. With that said, the game's very own Nemesis system, which makes fighting through the orc chain of commands very strategic as well as unpredictable (and partially even personal) affairs, clearly is what Shadow of Mordor is all about. Seeing how much unpredictability and fun tactical freedom said system grants you at the same time, Shadow of Mordor's servicable yet very simple revenge storyline is almost entirely forgivable in comparison.
Though your seemlessly endless quest to free Mordor from its several orc captains and warchiefs might feel a bit easy in its difficulty towards the end, since Talion consistently grows stronger and stronger with his many upgradable abilities, it nevertheless won't hurt the overall addicting fun too much. Ending long rivalries, dominating an entire zone or finally killing a warchief with a brutal execution move pretty much never gets old.
If killing orcs is your thing, there's no better time to head to Middle-Earth than now. Though its core mechanics might seem awfully familiar at first, you will eventually be left surprised at how many hours of entertainment the unpredictable evolution in Shadow of Mordor's Nemesis System holds for you...and how personal a rivalrly with a virtual orc can feel.
Final Verdict: 8 out of 10