Otha the Immovable. I’d hunted the bastard for days. Following his every move, interrogating his henchmen. I learned his fears and his weakness. There would be no more charging into battle; I learned my lesson at the wrong end of his sword too much to make that mistake again. Once one of his henchmen squealed that he feared fire and was vulnerable to stealth attacks the plan was set. I stalked him until he arrived near a campsite for his men and made my move. I lit up the sky with explosions and gave him no where to hide. When he was trying to make his escape I dove from the top of a nearby canopy and plunged my dagger into his back. Watching him crumple to the ground lifeless was more satisfying than I could ever imagine; that was until he rose again and sent me to an early grave while I searched for my next target. This, in essence is the genius of Shadow of Mordor.
There’s a disturbing trend going through the game industry lately that promotes familiarity over risk and innovation. It’s the same trend that allows yearly game releases to overshadow those that set out to try something new. I thought that Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor would be just another to follow the trend, but much to my surprise (and delight), the game takes some very heavy risks, and though they don’t pay off, it makes this a must play. While some of those risks pay off more than others, Monolith Productions has crafted a love letter to the Tolkien universe that’s also wholly their own.
Set between the events of The Hobbit and the Fellowship of the Ring, Shadow of Mordor follows the story of Talion, a Ranger of Gandor — or at least he was one. Talion meets his untimely end in the game’s opening cinematic where him and his family are ritually executed in incredibly brutal fashion. As you might have expected, Talion doesn’t stay too dead for too long and winds up being sent back to earth with some fancy new powers to wreck havoc and take revenge on Sauron’s forces. If you’ve got an extensive knowledge of the Tolkien universe, it’s pretty obvious that there are some glaring potholes that make this a hard to believe story but it’s entertaining enough to forgive. Besides, it pays homage to the source material with some great fan service while being brave enough try to tell it’s own unique story in a very much loved piece of fiction. Gameplay wise, Shadow of Mordor has a lot in common with the Batman: Arkham series, much like a lot of the third-persona action games of the last few years but the catch here is that Monolith almost does it better than the original. You’ll sulk through Middle-Earth and either attack your enemies either head-on or via stealth and each one is equally satisfying. Combat is rhythmic in nature and flows quite well from enemy to enemy. The combat system is a bit more forgiving here than it was with the caped crusader, specifically with counters and reversals; I was almost always able to complete a counter move, where Arkham almost forced you to be perfect or fail.
Most importantly, the combat in Shadow of Mordor almost always feels incredibly satisfying. Whether you’re sneaky around trying to kill without being noticed or jumping head first into the fray, lessening the armies of Sauron always feels great, especially when you’re able to end it with a brutally violent finishing attack that often ends with your enemies losing a limb or worse. Combat lies at the heart of Shadow of Mordor and you’re going to do a lot of it, and thankfully it’s this fun and rewarding. To be fair, it can get a bit repetitive towards the end half of the game, but the game let’s you build up Talion’s skill tree pretty quickly, which allows you to experiment with much more powerful moves and combos as you progress through the game.
Truth be told, it’s this upgrade system that kept me going through Shadow of Mordor, even when the story lulled and the combat got most repetitive. Killing an Uruk captain will drop a rune that you can use to attach to your weapons and abilities, often giving you very different results. Some of these rune’s give you invulnerability to certain attacks, while others modify your own attacks. Some of my favorite rune effects gave me the ability to string together longer combos , which made the game’s combat system that much more enjoyable. Later on in the game you gain the ability to control the mind’s of your enemies, which opens up a whole new world of gameplay. You can either force them to off themselves, tell their comrades about the terror you’ve instilled in them or even force them to try to assassinate leaders in their own armies. It’s a cool little system that adds a whole new level of depth to the game, but more importantly, it leads you into the game’s most intriguing feature — the Nemesis system.
Think of the Nemesis system as the beating heart that keeps Shadow of Mordor moving, or at least interesting. If you don’t kill certain enemies, they’ll remember you and either be scared of you next time they see you or seek revenge for the brutal attack they suffered at your hands. Some enemies will even come back disfigured as a result of your attacks. On the counter side, if an enemy kills you, they’ll level up, get cool new armor, get promoted and gloat about it next time they see you (you’re banished from death in the story, so it makes sense that you keep coming back). There’s a cool hierarchy of enemies that’s constantly evolving within the world of Shadow of Mordor and it’s incredibly cool to watch it change over time, but it’s even better when you realize that you can play with it and use it to your advantage.
Either by intimidation or by possessing your enemies and sicking them after their own leaders you can directly impact the lives and ranks of your enemies. It’s extremely cool to send a lowly enemy after to kill a general and then watch said lowly enemy assume the throne. More importantly the Nemesis system makes every battle matter and keeps Shadow of Mordor from being a grind-fest. The Nemesis system also adds a ton of depth and replay to a game that’s already packed with content.
Brutal, filled with content and incredibly fun to explore, Shadow of Mordor plays like a love letter to the Tolkein Universe that isn’t afraid to strike out on it’s own. I’ll admit that I didn’t expect a lot from Monolith Production’s foray into MiddleEarth, but I was completely surprised at how much fun I had with it. Fans of the Lord of the Rings universe finally have a game that’s worth their passion and those who just like a good action game can’t go wrong here