Ever since I originally read The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings in my younger years, I have had a great respect for the works of Tolkien. While not always enamoured by his writing style, I loved his ability to sew a rich tapestry of characters and places, monsters and magic in a way that felt utterly fantastical, yet plausible. What Shadow of Mordor does is drop you down into this world, give you a goal and a reason to achieve it, and then takes the leash off. In Mordor you are mostly free to do as you wish, and what you will do is kill a lot of Orcs.
You play the role of Talion, a Ranger with a tragic past who carries the heavy weight of a burning need for vengeance. Your main companion on your quest is a long dead Elven Wraith, and for reasons unknown your souls of inexplicably tied together. It’s not all bad news though, the Wraith can compliment both your knowledge and your abilities. He not only guides you through the tricky terrain of Mordor but also shows you how to become a more effective killer with bow, dagger and sword.
Over the course of the game you will meet several other main characters and through either necessity or a sense of honour, their goals become yours. By helping them, you inch ever closer to learning the truth about what happened to you and your family and why your soul and the ghostly Elf seem linked. Along the way you will meet an unhappy Orc who sides with you in order to improve his own position in the Uruk legions, and a Dwarf who is addicted to the thrill of the hunt who will teach you how to kill and ride the fierce creatures inhabiting Mordor. You will even run into familiar faces from your past as you help the human slaves trapped in Mordor fight back against their oppressors.
While the story itself sits beautifully in Tolkien’s world, the presentation draws enough influence from the movies to make everything feel fantastic yet familiar. I did however have a personal issue with one aspect of the game and how it is presented; the passage of time. From the initial tragic scenes to the end of the game, it was genuinely hard for me to figure out how much time had passed, and occasional character interactions felt as though they undermined Talion’s quest for vengeance. That said, it is a minor gripe. Overall the story is fantastic, the characters feel rich and vibrant and wholly suited to a story set in the Lord of the Rings universe. The pesky Orc known as Ratbag and the Dwarfish hunter add some much needed humour to what could otherwise be a dour tone for the game, and the occasional conflict between Talion and his ghostly companion make for a compelling story…they both want the same thing, but can they agree on the same course of action in order to achieve it?
All in all the plot runs smoothly, suffering only a couple of minor hiccups which feel like they are there as a result of the way that games can be made; first comes the world and the mechanics, then comes the story as a way to stitch everything together. Shadow of Mordor delivers a fairly generic tale of revenge that can be excused because of the way it sits into the greater lore of the Lord of The Rings. In the war torn realms of Tolkien’s imagination there is only so much room to move and the writers do a good job with the available space. Special mention here to the voice actors, be they main characters or individual Warchiefs whose only destiny is to fall to your murderous assaults, the dialogue is delivered with the necessary heart, humour or malice that the situation requires.
In the war torn realms of Tolkien’s imagination there is only so much room to move and the writers do a good job with the available space.
An open world RPG game like Shadow of Mordor lives or dies by how you interact with the world in which you find yourself. Mordor is made up of rocky, craggy terrain, blasted ruins and ugly Orc encampments dotting its landscape. The main currency here is death and violence, and Talion traverses the former like a ghost and dispenses the latter with abandon. Movement is fluid and natural, maybe twice over the course of 25 hours of play did I hit a spot in which the character was unable to find a way around, in both cases, an awkwardly placed beam jutting up from the one I was already walking across.
Combat is where the game really shines, as it’s visceral and heavy; sword strikes and arrows hit with a satisfying thunk. Borrowing heavily from the attack/counter/special system used in the Batman Arkham series, Monolith have refined it, taking great care to ensure that the flow between animations and enemies is smooth. When a counter is called for it is not a necessity, you can choose to hit the counter button or launch a well timed attack with similar results. As you fight and finish missions you earn experience and ability points which can be put into 2 areas of a skill tree, the Ranger side or the Wraith side. Both have their uses and both are worth exploring. Numerous special abilities allow you to fight the legions of Orcs and their commanders on your own terms.
As in all games of this nature, Talion eventually evolves into a fearsome killer, but never to the point where the enemies against you are not a threat. Sometimes it is sheer weight of numbers that drags you down, but oftentimes it will be a particular Orc and their own individual strengths that provide you with a challenge. Each Captain and Warchief comes with their own strengths and weaknesses that need to be scouted out in order to be fully prepared to engage them. Some of them can be instantly killed by Stealth attacks or a well placed arrow to the head, others seem immune to almost everything you can do, giving you no choice but to pile into a massive fight, building crits to fuel a flurry of execution attacks on them, eventually cutting them down.
Some of the animations are brutal, where heads are decapitated, and swords are driven through chests and throats. A particularly flashy execution move sees you flipping over your opponents backs, using the momentum to swing your sword up into their throat, resulting in their head sailing through the air as nearby Orcs recoil in horror. The facial expressions of your Orc foes add more to the game than most may realise; brutally murder an Orc and a nearby ally of his will look terrified at the thought that he is next, the fear filled grimace will not have left his face before you are on him, sword and dagger lashing out to take his life.
There are many options when it comes to killing Orcs, be it up close or from afar. You can invade their minds and steal their thoughts, or make them yours to command. You can engage in stealthy tactics resulting in a surgical strike on your chosen target, or take on a massive horde of enemies in combat. You can strike with sword, dagger or bow in various combinations. Ground executions and combat executions add flare and tactics to the fighting, and it all happens in a beautiful and fluid ballet.
More than any game I have played, Shadow of Mordor does a fantastic job of making you feel incredibly strong, able to take on hordes of enemies and defeat them. It also does an amazing job of balancing this with risk, where it only takes a few hits from the Orcs to have you close to death, and some of the enemies you will face can do tremendous amounts of damage. Lose your life to an Orc and their standing amongst the Uruk horde grows, return to fight them again and they will remind you of their previous victory and happily assure you that you will again feel the sting of defeat.
The facial expressions of your Orc foes add more to the game than most may realise; brutally murder an Orc and a nearby ally of his will look terrified at the thought that he is next, the fear filled grimace will not have left his face before you are on him, sword and dagger lashing out to take his life.
The true heart of Shadow of Mordor is its Nemesis system, the interlinking social system that drives Sauron’s army of Orcs across Mordor. Every interaction with a Captain has an affect, if you win you cut down an established leader, or the Orcs leave a power vacuum that the others will attempt to fill. Fail and they grow in power, making beating them in a future fight an even more difficult prospect. Talion’s quest eventually takes him from fighting Captains to chasing Warchiefs, and here the game shows its true flare.
Fight a Warchief straight away and you set yourself a stern challenge, as he will have supporters and bodyguards all around him. Take the time to seek Intel, either dotted around the map or plucked from the minds of a terrified Orc and learn who their bodyguards are and where their strengths and weaknesses lie, then spend some time chipping away at them. Remove their allies and engage them alone, exploit their weaknesses and cut them down and it can feel incredibly rewarding. Talion is fighting a war and terror is his greatest weapon. In this way the game can challenge the player, Talion is desperate for revenge and is willing to do whatever it takes to kill his enemies. He will exploit every fear, he will prey on ever weakness. You the player ultimately decides how he approaches each and every kill and it is in this concept of player agency and a reactive social system within the game that Shadow of Mordor truly shines.
When you are cut down in battle all the hierarchical struggles of the Orcs play out, they challenge each other and win or die, they pass Trials or win more supporters and grow in power. It can be hilarious to watch the spear wielding grunt who landed a lucky shot on you in a fierce fight get promoted, only to get ahead of himself and challenge someone far more powerful than he is, only to get cut down. All this can be interrupted as well, Red missions on the map directly affect how the Orcs are interacting and ambushes can be ruined, executions stopped or hunts interfered with in your psychological war against the Orcs. It’s a rewarding system and one that other games would do well to pay attention to.
Some of the Red missions will give you the chance to avenge the death of friends in your Friends List. Its a nice social feature that does not intrude upon the solitary nature of the single player campaign. It’s just the right touch when it comes to getting people talking about their game experiences with each other, and I have seen many people send a friend a screenshot of their defeated enemy on Twitter. It’s not overbearing in the way that some other single player games seek to add a social element to their campaign, and this should be applauded.
In the game their are two areas, the initial area around the Black Gate and a new one you gain access to later in the game. The world feels lush and alive, yet barren and dangerous at the same time. Massive creatures roam the land and are a huge threat or incredible asset depending on how you approach them. Graphically, the game is glorious on PC (the platform on which I played it) and the juxtaposition of beauty and rainy gloom that can sweep across the land is fantastic.
Orc encampments dot the map and are well designed to be climbed and run across, the Black Gate rises high and imposing above it all, and in the distance a near-finished statue of Sauron rears against the sky. The maps, while not huge, feel much bigger than they are through excellent use of space and well dispersed missions that take you back to the same place enough times for them to eventually feel familiar, but never tiresome.
Failings of The Game
As fantastic as Shadow of Mordor is, it is not without weak points. As mentioned previously, at times the story feels a little rushed and that is a shame for a game with so many side missions set in such a lore-rich world. It’s also a shame that when you die during a mission it will reset you to the nearest tower and you must travel back to the mission starter marker again. The use of towers and fast travel lessen this an issue, but it would have been pretty simple to just reset you at the mission start marker, and if the player decided they had bitten off more than they could chew they could simply move on to other things and then come back.
(Potential mechanical/story spoilers ahead, skip to the next paragraph to avoid them)
The biggest failing of the game however is its final resolution. Over my play time I built Talion into a machine in his quest for revenge. I could cut through Uruk or Warchief with style and precision and I longed for a brutal fight with the Black Hand. Sadly this was robbed from me in the form of a Quick Time Event and I cannot understate how disappointing that felt at the time. I wanted to FIGHT not have my victory handed to me for managing to follow onscreen commands in the allotted time. It felt so strange to suddenly have all the freedom and agency the game had allowed up to this point be taken away and it was a big shame that the developers decided to resolve their story in this fashion.
Finally the game suffers from the same malaise that nearly all RPG games suffer from: a lack of mission variety. Things mostly boil down to kill or collect missions with the occasional stealth mission thrown in for good measure. That said, the sheer joy of the combat saves the day, all the kill missions in the world would still have charm if the killing were done with this much finesse.
Middle Earth : Shadow of Mordor is a fantastic and fun game. It does nearly everything right and is almost certainly to be at the top of many peoples’ Game Of The Year lists. The sheer variety in design of the Orcs you face, the way the world is impacted by your actions and the smooth flow of combat are all stellar. That said, it isn’t perfect and that is a shame. While its failings are not major, they are present nonetheless, although they are hardly enough to really damage the game’s standing. Overall the game is fun, addictive and rewarding Shadow of Mordor challenges you to seek Talion’s revenge against the armies of Sauron, your power growing over the course of your journey, effectively rendering you a god in combat. The true strength of the game however, is in the legions of Orcs, Captains and Warchiefs who will be more than happy to show you that even gods can bleed.
You are the Shadow of Mordor
A reactive world that bleeds where you cut it
Ending dampens the fire
You should own it already
For details on release dates and other related info, head to Shadow of Mordor’s game page.
** When is it worth the price? — In lieu of review scores, we opt to give our opinion on whether the game is worthy of it’s release day price, or if you should wait for a patch or a sale. **
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