Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is an action roleplaying game developed by Monolith, set in the Lords of the Rings universe by J.R.R. Tolkien and between the Hobbit and the aforementioned trilogy.
- The nemesis system
- Good combat and stealth
- Gameplay variety
- Weak characterization
- Disappointing collectibles and side-quests
- Weak climax and ending
Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor (SoM for the rest of this review) puts you in the shoes of Talion, a Ranger Captain on the Black Gate separating Mordor from the rest of middle earth. When the game opens he’s sadly demised and by grasping objects from his now past life, he gets glimpses of the events that led him to his current condition. Servants of Sauron infiltrated the black gate and killed everyone inside, with him and his family being the last victims, their throats slit as part of a ritual by the Black Hand of Sauron, one of the Dark Lord’s three lieutenants: The Hand, the Tower and the Hammer. In death, Talion discovers he’s bound to an Elven Wraith and with his aid, he returns to life. Neither of them can pass on until they break the curse the binds them, for which they need to hunt the Black Hand of Sauron and kill him.
As far as LotR tie-in game plots, this is one of the strongest. It’s a fairly straightforward tale and there aren’t that many surprises, but it’s still enjoyable right up to the end where it stumbles and fails to deliver a satisfying end. The biggest surprise happens early on with the discovery of the Elven Lord’s identity, but after that the main quests just focus on unlocking more of your ghostly companion’s abilities and building your puppet army leading up to the final confrontation with the forces of Sauron. Sadly, the final mission, which had the potential of an explosive climax, wastes the opportunity with a nonsensical QTE boss fight. The cutscenes before, during and after the fight are longer than the fight itself which is tremendously disappointing for such an exciting game.
Characterization is mixed. The main characters are rather bland, playing the Batman personality to the letter right up to the end. There is little to no character growth and when it almost dares to show its ugly head for Talion, moments where the Ranger could show some genuine emotion, the Elven lord quickly stomps it out. The ghost is harsh and unfriendly and even when he’s trying to be nice he comes off as a bit of a prick. The rest of the cast is thankfully more varied in personalities compared to the Batman clones you get to play as. My favourite remains Ratbag, an orc you help get into power. He’s sniveling and groveling but also scheming and opportunistic. He’s openly evil and I like it. Sadly, he doesn’t show up beyond the first of the game’s two maps. Gollum makes an appearance and there’s really not much to say about it. It’s Gollum, by now we all know the character and what he’s like. Queen Marwen, Lithariel and Torvin are welcome additions but their strong performances only make the main characters look more two-dimensional. Having said so, the portrayals and voice acting are solid up to and including all orcs living around Mordor.
I like is how their binding is reflected in game. Some actions shift you from Talion to the Wraith and back again, such as jumping from high altitude or using the bow and arrow or activating the Wraith World, this game’s version of the Assassin’s Creed Eagle Eye or Arkham Batman’s Detective vision, though better balanced than those two. The Wraith vision lets you see enemy and objective positions but it obscures the terrain, making it difficult to see where you’re going, which firmly cements it as a supporting ability and not your main view of choice. Then again, with how gorgeous the environments are, even considering how drab, brown and black the first Mordor map is, it would really be a waste to spend all that time in Wraith World.
Combat is a joy, a mix of attacks, dodges, counters and acrobatics. My previous comparisons to Batman are the most evident in this aspect. The freeflow combat even has the hit multiplier and finisher mechanics from the Arkham series, only with a lot more blood and some fun decapitations mixed in. Every attack you make increases the combo counter and when you hit 8 (5 with an upgrade) the number turns red and you can execute a finisher. The first one is the most straightforward, just a one-hit-kill attack. With upgrades you can perform more than one finisher and even unlock new ones. One of my favourites is the fire arrow, which I used extensively, but then again, I was more of a knife and bow master.
The bow is easy to use but requires some ability to master, to properly aim and fire before you run out of Focus, the small draining bar that keeps time virtually stopped for you. The bow fires ghostly arrows called Elfshot, which you can pick up from the environment or by branding/draining enemies (more on that below). With enough upgrades you can recharge your elfshot and keep firing in the middle of combat, something that is pretty damn useful (and fun) when you’re surrounded by some of the tougher enemies like shield-bearers and berserkers.
Stealth handles similarly to AC games, with an arrow over the enemies’ heads letting you know how aware they are of your presence. Yellow means suspicious, Red means they’re coming for ya. The thing I liked the most about the stealth is you can use the Stealth Kills even while running because as long as an enemy isn’t aware of you, it doesn’t matter if you’re creeping towards him or running full pelt. Even if they do see you, they will first be startled by the discovery and this is a window of opportunity to still use the Stealth Kill on them. Best of all, one guard discovering you isn’t the end of your stealth. As long as a group doesn’t see you and no one sounds the alarm, you can dispatch everyone and get back to skulking. I love it.
It’s up to you to decide how you’ll handle the missions: sniping with the bow, skulking for stealth, just wrecking everything in your path or even mount the deadly Caragor and use them to cut a path through the enemy forces. The freedom of gameplay is one of SoM’s greatest accomplishments and one of the things I loved the most.
But the best part about Shadows of Mordor has to be the Nemesis System, which handles orc behaviour and society. It’s amazing how the focus on strength of orc society is represented in this system. If an orc kills you he gets promoted from simple rank-and-file to captain, and from then on they’ll autonomously fight each other, go on recruitment drives and even offer feasts and fight beasts, all with the purpose of increasing their power amongst the rest of the orcs. Even without you and just by passing the time, the power structures will build and topple and rebuild themselves. It’s frankly fascinating and promises an almost endless supply of powerful enemies to fight. Captains have their own strengths and weaknesses meaning there’s a different strategy to fighting each of them. At first you won’t know what they are, but by interrogating Worms—orcs carrying intel—you can discover who they are and what makes them tick. Weaknesses range from being vulnerable to stealth kills to being afraid of you, which is frankly amusing to see.
The Nemesis system makes things personal, by having the Orcs who previously defeated you scream taunts and jeers when you meet in battle again. I met a Captain with a specific Strength that says the Orc will never finish you off, instead he’ll mock you and leave you. He defeated me three times, rising in power and station and making me seethe. I made sure that when I finally took him out, he’d suffer. I purposely raised the alarm near him, so his men would swarm me but then disappeared, climbing high. Then, as they ran around looking for me I jumped off the edge and air-assassinated his ass, thanks to his weakness to Stealth Kills. In the end he died surrounded by his men and learned that numbers wouldn’t save him…then his men beat the living hell out of me and another Orc rose to take his place. But he didn’t last long!
Best of all is how you can interact with the system. There are quests everywhere to undermine the different captain’s efforts or benefit them. At first there isn’t much reason to do so beyond story missions, but once you get the ability to brand enemies with your drain skill (which takes a chunk of health and replenishes elfshot) and make them your loyal followers, then it becomes an empire building game. By the end of my playthrough I had fully dominated the entire army on two different maps. Everyone was mine to command, from the lowly captains to the mighty Warchiefs.
Branding also plays a part in combat, as you can brand enemies and slowly turn the tide in your favour by making the orcs attack each other. In fact, some captains have a weakness for that, escaping if they see orc turncoats.
While the Nemesis System keeps you busy for most of the time and even well beyond the main campaign, there are of course a bunch of side-quests for you to keep busy. First among them are the Outcast quests, obtained by releasing human slaves from captivity and which consist on helping a few more slaves escape. The quests themselves are astonishingly repetitive but the varied secondary options keep each of them fresh and interesting to a degree. Then there are the Ithildin, glowing letters you collect to form a message on a wall, but if you’re expecting an upgrade or anything tangible for collecting them all, then you’re in for a disappointing experience. There’s only a bit of lore fluff waiting for you at the end, and not even enough to satisfy LotR fans. Then there are the weapon legend sub-quests, for the bow, sword and dagger and these are outstandingly fun, each presenting a greater challenge than the other and with interesting secondary objectives. The point of them is to forge the legend of the weapons you carry, but once you do and reach the end of the quest lines you’ll again find yourself without any tangible benefit, just a weapon decorated in elven script when you look at it closely. Finally there are hunting and survival challenges, the former asking you to kill a certain number of a given creature and the latter doing the same but collecting plants.
The main and side-quests give you experience and Mirian, both of which tie into the upgrade system. Experience unlocks Ability Points, used to buy new skills to improve your combat, archery and stealth skills, with the last few upgrades being outstandingly powerful, especially the Lethal Shadow Strike aka Overpowered Elf Arrow, which you can use to fire at an enemy, teleport to it and chop its head off. It takes two elfshot to pull off but still. Mirian upgrades your attributes: Health, Focus, Elfshot maximum and rune-slots for your weapons. You can also acquire three super-powered skills with Mirian. For example, the dagger one lets you perform unlimited stealth kills for 20 seconds; the sword one unlimited executions in the same time; and the bow one gives you endless focus and elfshot for that same duration. It takes stealth kills, executions and headshots respectively to replenish the ability but using them can turn the tide of a battle. I used them on the final mission and obliterated enemy forces.
All Captains and Warchiefs can drop Runes when they die, the type depending on how you killed/attacked them. There are sword, dagger and bow runes and each provide different bonuses and range from level 1 runes up to Epic, the latter ones giving you outstanding benefits. The large variety of runes means you can customize your weapons to perfectly match your playstyle, which is quite fantastic. My bow runes gave me more focus on headshots and the dagger ones replenished the stealth superpower bar more quickly when I stealth killed someone. The sword ones on the other hand I centered around replenishing my resources when I blocked and countered, as some enemies can really take it out of you.
To conclude, the Shadow of Mordor isn’t just a fantastic adaptation of the Lord of the Rings world, adding its own value to the mythology but it’s an outstanding game on its own right, implementing a complex society management system and taking mechanics we’ve seen in other games and presenting them with such a degree of polish they become new once more. This is a game everyone should play, even non-LotR fans.
The Mental Attic Score: Worth Buying!