The Lord of The Rings franchise has had quite a storied past when it comes to video game adaptations of the franchise; we’ve had everything from grand scale strategies to old-school arcade brawlers. Most of them have been serviceable at best but honestly I’ve found all of them to quite mediocre. I was sincerely hoping that Monolith would be the developer to break this streak with Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, and they have most certainly delivered.
Set somewhere between the events of The Hobbit and the main The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor casts you as Talion; a ranger charged with protecting the Black Gate, the main entrance to the land of Mordor. In the opening hour his outpost is overrun and Talion witnesses the slaughter of his wife, son and every soldier under his command. Talion himself also dies during the assault but he’s brought back by an ancient wraith who lends him the necessary power to exact his revenge.
Its a great setup, especially once the identity of the wraith is revealed, but the plot never really strives or achieves any of the spectacular potential it has lurking within it. In fact it feels like there’s a large chunk of the story missing towards the latter half as the ending is quite abrupt and there are plot threads just left hanging.
The writing is solid throughout though, Talion manages to be a bit more interesting than the generic revenge driven protagonist as he actually exhibits some nuance in his personality as he slowly devolves into an engine of destruction. The interplay between him and the wraith is excellent and the supporting cast (with the exception of an awfully lazy love interest) sports some really memorable and exceptionally acting characters.
The star of of the show however are the Uruks of Mordor. Instead of a nameless legion who’s only purpose is to die by your blade, the army of Mordor is a living hierarchy that is constantly changing and adapting through your interactions with them. The game’s much touted Nemesis System really delivers on its promises. Each orc captain is entirely unique, complete with his own personality, battle style, weaknesses, fears and strengths.
You approach to eliminating each of them will have to change according to their attributes and if you should die by any orc’s hand they’re immediately promoted, whereupon they gain even more strength and followers. This even applies to lowly grunts and I found that a certain dual wielding berserker who got lucky once became my most notorious enemy later in the campaign.
These captains aren’t idle with your absence though. They’re in a constant power struggle against one another, participating in duels, executions, hunts and ambushes in hopes to kill off a superior officer and take his place. You can intervene on all in all these to kill off the captains or ensure their victory and promotion to open up more opportunities later on. For instance: I assured a one captain was successful in his execution of a rival orc and shortly after this he held a feast to celebrate his victory. I snuck in an poisoned several batches of the mead that him and his men were celebrating over, this resulted in his men rioting and eventually killing off the newly promoted captain.
Its a really robust system that opens up a fantastic new dimension to the open world gameplay and none of it is pre-scripted; all of it is generated on the fly and it makes the world feel truly alive. It only gets more interesting later on as you gain the ability to turn captains to your side; which opens up a slew of new opportunities. This is is sadly only introduced quite later on in the story but its still a fantastic addition to your arsenal.
Speaking of which you deal with orcs through way of three distinct disciplines: a free-flow melee system, stealthy stabs and a host of ranged powers courtesy of the wraith. The combat and stealth mechanics are immensely satisfying and beautifully animated resulting in a true dance of death once you get a firm grip on it. As you expand your suite of abilities it to manages to encapsulate the feeling that you’re fighting as one with the wraith as he dances in and out of combat to defend and assist Talion.
The powers of the wraith complements other abilities quite nicely enabling you take enemies out an enemy at range with the spectral bow, and engage in a more up-close execution with the Shadow Strike abilities that send you teleporting directly to a target. He also affords Talion a host of powers to assist in his mobility, including a wonderfully fast sprint and the ability to survive any fall. It can get quite finicky at spots but all around the movement system is serviceable and smooth.
The game largely takes place in the outskirts of Mordor and a neighbouring kingdom. The landscape varies between barren desolate landscapes and lush jungles, all of which leverage some impressive tech to create a game that looks quite stellar at times. The overall texture quality, lighting, foliage and animation are some of the best I’ve seen on the new generation of console hardware.
More importantly though it manages to actually make great use of the LOTR art style that the films pioneered. Its a very particular style that can look horrendous if captured incorrectly, but Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor puts it to fantastic use especially in the rendering of its weapons and architecture. The style of the orcs in particular is near perfect and looks as if it would be right at home in the cinematic versions.
The score is another highlight as its boasts some excellent composition that brings the both the dramatic and more light hearted moments of the game to life. Garry Schyman and Nathan Grigg managed to create some really nuanced tracks that elevate the big moments, but its also measured and absent enough from some scenes as to let the characters take centre stage.
A decent amount of side content and a upgrade system that adds a nice pace to the progression rounds the entire game out quite nicely. There’s also a rune system that allows you to customize the bonuses of your sword, dagger and bow, there’s some nice variety in terms of these bonuses. These are gained via killing captains and there’s an interesting risk/reward system that opens up later on which allows Talion to send death threats to captains. They gain a significant boost in strength and a special company of guards, but drop much better runes if you’re successful in killing them off.
While its opening hours can feel unrelentingly brutal, the game gets far to easy later in the game, you are able to take on an entire legion of orcs without much hassle. Considering the wide range of interesting methods and tools the game gives you to do this rarely ceases to be entertaining. Its a game that really shines when you start to experiment in the sand-box and it constantly found new ways to surprise me.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor shows a ton of promise in its opening hours and it manages to deliver on the majority of its potential and the result is a truly wonderful game that kept me enraptured for near thirty hours straight. The plot really doesn’t capitalise on its potential but the rest of the game is so good that its easy to overlook that. The combat, world and Nemesis system all work in tandem to create an experience where the moment to moment gameplay is so extremely satisfying that I’m already itching to dive back in.
Lasting Appeal: 9/10
Ever so slightly unhinged, this one spends most of his time playing or writing about video games. Also dabbles heavily in tabletop, comics and the occasional bout of music creation.