Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor Review

By Blair Nokes on October 20, 2014

The Washington-based developers over at Monolith Productions have been hard at work for their debut title for the 8th generation consoles. It wasn't another instalment in the F.E.A.R series, nor was it a new Condemned. It wasn't even a sequel to Gotham City Imposters (though they should absolutely do that!). Instead, they've continued on using the source material they used for Guardians of Middle Earth, and have decided to release an all new adventure in Tolkien's world. Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is a spin-off of sorts; it's certainly grounded and carries the look and feel (and in some cases character lookalikes) of Peter Jackson's ongoing film series, but takes sources liberally enough to make them fit the story Monolith wanted to tell. This may be concerning to lore buffs of The Lord of the Rings, but if the Expanded Universe in Star Wars has taught us anything, it's that it doesn't have to be canonical to be a great instalment. The story is set between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

You play as Talion "“ a ranger from Gondor, and he is responsible for protecting the Black Gate of Mordor. The plot moves quickly as they rush you through not only the sacrificial slaughtering of your wife and son, but also see your own death at the hands of someone called the Black Hand of Sauron. This was an attempt to summon the Elf Lord, Celebrimbor "“ who fans may recognize as the Elven smith who forged the Rings of Power. However, instead of being summoned for the Black Hand, Celebrimbor ends up merging with Talion, giving him new life, and new purpose as he now has the powers of a Wraith. The true story will have you journey across the baron smoggy hills of Modor, to avenge your fallen loved ones.

The story is fairly well done, and uses familiar characters like Gollum to help drive parts of the overall plot. However the story itself is very formulaic, and basically has players reaching objectives, killing baddies, drawing out leaders, rinse and repeat. Where the game truly shines is in revolutionary gameplay mechanic "“ Nemesis. As mentioned earlier, Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is an open world game, unfortunately not set in all of Middle Earth. We are confined to just Mordor, but even then the size of it really is impressive. As you pursue your main enemies you are also left defeating waves of Orcs and Uruks. There are simple grunts, archers, heavies, berserkers, Captains, and Warchiefs at the very top. The Nemesis' function is to allow an ever-changing interaction between player and enemy NPC. Enemies that kill you will actually level up. And this is where the system shows its brilliance; enemies that do level may actually end up being strong enough to overtake their captain, or even Warchief. So this sparks a power struggle and a fight for the title, which could then swiftly turn the inner ecosystem of the horde. It's essentially a Butterfly Effect that ripples through your entire playthrough, and when you eventually obtain the powers of possession, you can potentially possess an Orc and watch him climb his way to the top of that faction. Not only that, but if you have left your mark on a target that ended up killing you, like if you burned them, the game will actually have them disfigured accordingly, and out for revenge. I've personally never seen this mechanic used this intelligently in a game before.

The core combat is essentially the product of the Batman Arkham series, Assassin's Creed, and a dash of Monster Hunter. Attacks are all done using Square, and you can perform timed counters with Triangle at the right moment. Ranged attacks with the Bow are naturally mapped to the triggers, and there is also an Eagle Vision that allows you to observe enemies, targeted captains, or an Elven tower that acts exactly the same as Assassin's Creed Viewpoints. By climbing these towers and interacting with the anvil and hammer at the top, you essentially hammer in a new portion of the map that was previously not shown. Monolith do take many liberties in how closely they borrow certain mechanics from, but to be fair, it's tough to make a competing mechanic next to the respective leaders; it's wiser to borrow and innovate.

Every kill or action you do warrants experience that used to improve your character. Weapons have skill trees in the form of runes; each rune is a spot for an upgrade you can acquire from fallen captains. Towards the end your weapons will have some deadly combinations. There are also player specific enhancements like improving health, or adding new combat possibilities.

The main campaign is fairly short, offering 20 missions that vary from completion time. It will take roughly 10 hours or less to breeze through it, but fortunately there are a slew of additional missions to ensure you're playing for a good while. There are "legend" quests that have you recreating famed legends that reward you with rare weapons, hunting missions that allow you to hone your predatory skills as a ranger and hunt for various creatures, rescue missions that have you freeing the human slaves from the Uruks, survival missions that have you foraging for certain plants, and finally there are side missions devoted to the hunting of larger and rarer beasts of Middle Earth. The content is varied enough to keep players engaged without feeling repetitious.

There is no form of online multiplayer or coop in the game, however there is a nifty Vendetta mechanic. Essentially if you are is killed by a Captain, the game sends that exact Orc to your friend's game as a Vendetta mission. If your friend is successful, said Orc will be weaker and have fewer soldiers as backup for your next encounter. It's a neat passive way at incorporating your friends into your single player experience, and to be honest, the absence of a multiplayer doesn't feel like much of a missed opportunity when there's already much to do in the single player campaign.

Shadow of Mordor might be one of the more visually impressive titles on these new systems. Characters are insanely detailed, up to the tiny pores on Orc skin. The map of Mordor is quite large, and has a wonderful lighting system that fades away as soon as you enter Wraith mode. The camera work is also very well done, giving action shots on counter attacks or brutal finishers. Seeing Talion summon Celebrimbor to extend the combat is fantastic and is vaguely reminiscent the way a Stand operates in JoJo's Bizarre Adventure.

Final Thoughts

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is a tremendous feat for the open world adventure genre. The Nemesis System will be the new standard in enemy interaction. Having control over how your enemies progress through their own contained ecosystem, and messing around with the ranking politics feels like it could be its own game, and it's just a terrific addition to this one. If you're starved for a title, in need of a good fantasy game, or are merely waiting for Assassin's Creed Unity, definitely check this title out.

Beautiful visuals!
The Nemesis System is ground-breaking in what it achieves.
A plethora of side content that will increase longevity.
The main campaign is fairly short.
The combat system feels almost TOO borrowed at times.
The main story’s progression can be tedious at times.
blog comments powered by Disqus