Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is a fascinating game with the polish of a strong franchise, akin to the rise of the Batman Arkham games. The main hook of Shadow of Mordor is its combination of gameplay systems lifted out of the Arkham games and Assassin’s Creed, which are then combined with a unique new element called the Nemesis System. At its core, Shadow of Mordor is game about killing orcs. While it seems to be an overly simple foundation for a AAA game, that simplicity is in no way a reflection of the actual experience. Shadow of Mordor is a game that revels in creatively killing orcs and taking apart the broader armies of Sauron in as many ways as possible. You can be stealthy and sneak up on them, you can set wild animals loose on them, you can poison their beer, posses their own soldiers, pit warring factions against each other, and even maneuver weaker orcs into positions of power to undermine Sauron’s plans. That is the entire game – every side quest, every main quest. The combination of open world exploration, free-form combat and movement, and the Nemesis System makes Shadow of Mordor a very fun game that is held back only by a few hiccups along the way.
The gameplay itself combines the best parts of the Batman Arkham games and Assassin’s Creed. You are given a lot of freedom of motion in terms of travel, similar to Assassin’s Creed. This means there is plenty of climbing walls, leaping over obstacles, and so forth. Even more similar, you will unlock check points by climbing special towers and “activating” them, and then leaping off, much like with a church in Assassin’s Creed. The combat and actual open world design is similar to Batman: Arkham City. The combat is free-flow, which means you aim in the direction you want to hit and swing away to complete combos. Of course, as the difficulty rises, you will have to master counter attacks, dodging, and a nice variety of special tools such as throwing daggers and super powers. The game world is designed so that you can basically roam around unhindered, with only orcs and wildlife getting in the way. Certain areas are harder and may require stealth, others require climbing over obstacles, and a small selection are limited to story objectives. Overall, you are given plenty of freedom in terms of where to go and what to do. As in Arkham City, your map is constantly keeping track of main quest missions, side quests, special events, specific bosses to take out, and items to collect. Altogether, the game provides plenty of freedom and choice to the player.
The worst part of the game is the beginning. The Nemesis System works well enough and makes the game fresh; orc chiefs you defeat will remember you if they run away, those you kill will lose their position of power, and those that kill you will be promoted and level up. If you die, there is no restarting at a checkpoint except for key missions, and once you resurrect you will notice that the game world has progressed in terms of time of day, weather, and even orc activities and positions. This means that the later game involves quite a bit of strategy in terms of deciding which orc leaders to remove and how, since each one has a unique personality with weaknesses, and even rivalries with other orcs which you can take advantage of. The problem is that early in the game you have a limited selection of tools and abilities, meaning you will be killed if you are careless. The more you are killed, the more these orcs will level up making death more likely should you run into them again. Stick to the main quest for at least the first couple of hours to unlock some better abilities and to get used to the controls, and then you can take better advantage of the Nemesis System.
As mentioned, the combat is almost a mirror reflection of Batman: Arkham City. You will often be surrounded by a group of enemies and are given a basic attack, and the ability to dodge and counter attack. You aim the camera at the desired target, strike, and perform combos by continually attacking without being disrupted by an enemy’s attack. Of course, the game quickly ensures that things do not get too simple; you will have to make careful use of blocks and counter attacks to maintain powerful combos. Losing a combo means sacrificing the ability to perform executions, without which fights drag out much too long. As well, Talion, at least at the outset, cannot take that many hits, so timing is valuable. All of this is well known to players of the Arkham series. Additionally, you are given special abilities such as stuns that can help push back relentless enemies. If you are brought down to a near death state, the orc who landed the blow will attempt to execute you. At that point, you have to complete a short quick-time event by performing the right motion and button press to counter the attack, regaining some health and perhaps even killing the orc.
A major part of the Nemesis System is the ability to invade orcs’ minds. You are able to grab weakened orcs and read their minds to get intelligence on bosses, revealing their weaknesses and strengths. As the game progresses, you will be able to use this ability to drain orcs of energy and to even posses them and turn them to your side. Wild beasts such as caragors (think of a scaly, slimy bear/tiger hybrid) can be possessed and used as mounts with their own special attacks.
The side quests are about as varied as Assassin’s Creed games. The main course is hunting down orc chiefs. Other activities include setting human slaves free, hunting wildlife, and collecting items. All of these activities benefit you in some way, giving you more experience to level up special abilities. While Shadow of Mordor is not an RPG per se, as you will not be creating a unique character through an extensive leveling process, you will progressively unlock more and more abilities and special perks for your weapons, such as increased health regeneration following executions. All of these special abilities and perks work together to make your character more powerful overall, but they are not game-changing. You will always be using a combination of aggressive combat and stealth, depending on the situation.
Shadow of Mordor really does a lot to create a beautiful visual experience in a setting that is among the dreariest in fantasy literature. Mordor is the home of the orcs and a base of Sauron in the Lord of the Rings. As a result, it has often been depicted as a dark, barren land that, without its mountains and crazy residents, is rather dull. Here, however, Shadow of Mordor takes into account some of the broader lore behind the region as well as the massive scope of the area, as compared to other places in Middle-Earth. While you are always reminded that this is a place of danger and evil, it is still tastefully decorated. There are muddy roads and hostile rocky obstacles, but there are also beautiful, unkempt areas of greenery and grassy fields, and detailed ruins of awesome structures such as ancient towers and castles. The creativity of the artists behind the Shadow of Mordor really shows, as it is a game that constantly reminds you of the presence of danger while not getting dull or visually repetitive.
The overall look of the game is helped immensely by some very beautiful graphics, arguably some of the best in a multi-platform release without modding. The lighting is powerful: metals produce dazzling reflections, while clothes and skin are given excellent depth as the shadows shift. The character and weapon textures, especially for the main character, are very well done and eye-catching. There are, however, areas of weakness when graphics are considered. Smaller textures such as hanging grass on ledges are overly pixelated at medium-high settings on the PC, and some minor orc characters have dirt smudges and scars that are a little too blurry upon closer inspection. These are understandable shortcomings, however, as the game is open-world and filled with numerous, dynamic characters and objects. Overall, Shadow of Mordor is a beautiful game. As stated, the lighting and creative environment design is what really shines here, giving the game’s details depth, something that is often overlooked in video games.
Shadow of Mordor promised a unique take on Middle-earth with the Nemesis System, an interesting setting, and core game play elements based on some of the most successful designs in the last generation. Thankfully, the game is a successes in these respects. The exploration and combat of Assassin’s Creed and Batman: Arkham City have been tastefully reproduced with some new ideas and even more polish. The Nemesis System is, overall, a success in terms of changing the way you play an open world game, making the experience much more engaging. The system trips up, however, as sometimes orc chiefs that are killed in battle, and listed as such, return to face you again despite the persistence of the game world. It is not as if the game forgot that you killed them, as these orcs come back with scars and even memories of the previous battle. This seems to be an issue of the orcs being killed, but the game thinking that they lost the battle and ran away. This has been noticed by many players already, and the developer has addressed it and has said that it is partially working as intended. While it is strange indeed, and sometimes immersion-breaking, this occurrence is in no way a major detraction of a very enjoyable experience. As well, it is to be expected that a feature as unique and new as the Nemesis System has some quirks. In the end, Shadow of Mordor is an excellent, open-world action/adventure game. It delivers some of the best gameplay elements of other major franchises with a unique spin and beautiful design.
Rating: 4 out of 5