PS4 + Xbox One + PC: September 30th, 2014.
Xbox 360 + PS3: November 18th, 2014.
Current Price at Good Time Games:
Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is an action game set in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings universe developed by Monolith Productions. The game takes place before the events of the main trilogy, but after the Hobbit. Its notable gameplay draw lies in a mechanic called the Nemesis system, where orcs who you’ve killed and ones who have killed you rise and fall within a military hierarchy, creating epic battlegrounds in which your enemies remember you and the tactics you have used in the past. Does Monolith Productions' offering in the LOTR universe just appeal to the Tolkien faithful, or do we have a stellar action game suitable for a wider audience on our hands? My full review will fill you in.
Shadow of Mordor does a great job of cataloging all of this lore in your menu, along with helpful tutorials and story recaps. It really has everything you’d want from a menu in this type of game.
Before we delve any further into the game, I'd like to highlight some version differences. For the record, I played and reviewed the ps4 version. The next-gen versions all fare much better in the graphical department, which is to be expected. They run smoother and are able to handle more fauna and enemies onscreen at once. The game is otherwise the same, give or take a few minor details, aside from one major thing.
The last-gen versions don't offer as many variables of character traits for the various orc captains. This is fairly huge, considering in the end game, assassinating orc captains is basically your entire source of fun if you've already 100%'ed everything. It is for this reason that I strongly recommend getting this game on a next-gen platform if you have the option to.
The story is the only area of Shadow of Mordor that left me wanting more, and not in a good way. Its story involves Talion, a captain of the guard in one of the few remaining human strongholds in Mordor. The Black Hand of Sauron devastates his stronghold, kills his entire family, and even kills Talion himself. He is saved from death by a spirit of an elf who lived long ago, whose origins I will not spoil.
Talion’s story is at best a mediocre revenge tale that serves to loosely connect various bits of gameplay together. You’ll find yourself much more engaged in the gameplay than the story. Even with iconic characters from the main trilogy, such as Gollum, making an appearance, these cameos do little to save the passable at best narrative.
Some elements that I do like are the brief dialogues of main and side characters between loading screens. These concise and entertaining conversations do their part in pulling you into Mordor, and the voice actors really shine. Troy Baker, who plays Talion, does a fantastic job, as we've come to expect from him. Everyone else is top notch too, but the cut-and-dried plot holds Mordor's story back from being great.
The ending is perhaps one of the most disappointing I’ve experienced in a long time, in terms of feeling left incomplete. Without going into spoilers at all, the final boss, who should be awesome and memorable in every way, is relegated to a simple quick-time event and is very forgettable as a result. That’s not to say that the cutscene that accompanies him is not awesome, but the gameplay in this section is pretty awful for a final boss.
You get the sense that the developers are holding back the grand finale boss battle for the season pass, which has already confirmed that you will fight Sauron, the big bad guy in the Lord of the Rings franchise. My overall experience with the game did not give me this incomplete-without-DLC impression, but the somewhat rushed feeling ending did.
Shadow of Mordor really shines in the gameplay department. Borrowing from other tried-and-true games such as Assassin’s Creed, the Batman Arkham games, and the Tomb Raider reboot to name a few, Shadow of Mordor knows the role it wants to fill, and executes this perfectly. Its combat system is robust and always feels fluid, with countless animations of deaths and finishing blows to keep you hacking and slashing throughout.
Combat relies on timed button presses for strikes, counters, stuns, and specials, so if you’ve played a Batman Arkham game before, you will feel right at home here. Remember, imitation is one of the most sincere forms of flattery, especially when done as well as Shadow of Mordor.
Mordor’s open world, split into two large areas, is a virtual playground filled with collectables, very comparable to the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Among the activities available to you are countless side quests, climbing towers to secure fast-travel locations, and hunting the various beasts of Mordor.
Collectables, again, like Assassin’s Creed, are dotted throughout the map, removing the sense of achievement you’d find from stumbling upon them yourself, but in a world as expansive as Mordor’s, this is not a bad thing. You will be able to 100% this game as long as you put the time into it.
Something that makes traversing the open worlds of Mordor much more enjoyable is the addition of the ability to mount some wild beasts of the land. There are two basic forms of mounts, caragors and graugs, with one built for speed and the other for power. Each has their own movesets, and are able to aid you in combat once you’ve dominated them, even after dismounting.
These runes allow for a solid degree of personalization to how you want to play the game, a very welcome addition to the game. Levelling allows Talion to access new and powerful abilities which help tip the scales in your favour, although these runes and abilities perhaps work too well. More on that later.
Talion levels up his abilities by killing the many orcs, as well as disrupting the orc chain of command in the game’s bread and butter: its Nemesis system. If you’re unfamiliar, the Nemesis system is basically a military hierarchy for the orcs, in which captains get promoted, duel other captains for supremacy, become warchiefs, and so on.
Meeting a captain begins a minor cutscene in which the captain will clash swords with you, while threatening you, or whatever their character trait calls for them to do. These cutscenes provide a great build-up to an epic battle, and were one of my favourite moments in the game.
Each orc on the battlefield has the potential to become a captain if they kill you, and they will remember your last encounter and the tactics you tried to use against them, which is particularly cool. Each captain has their own set of traits, strengths, and weaknesses, forcing you to apply different methods of assassinations for each.
This system, in theory, offers limitless combinations of traits and skills for the orc captains to inherit, but in reality, familiar captains will emerge and re-emerge often enough that you’ll begin to notice. You will still have a great time assassinating and branding captains, however, as the gameplay never felt stale to me after a 30+ hour 100% completion run. In fact, I actually wanted to play it more, so I ended up getting its platinum trophy (which is fairly easy to obtain for you achievement hunters out there!).
Here's me giving you a demonstration of how the nemesis system works, by assassinating the orc captain, Dush. Yes, Dush.
With fully upgraded weapons socketed with powerful runes (which become abundant), and a bunch of skills purchased in the skill tree, I barely ever died, or even came close to death for that matter. The skills you can unlock, while really awesome, quickly make the game’s A.I. trivial. You’ll find yourself able to sneak up on everyone no problem, and get away just as easy.
This wouldn’t be an issue normally, but the game has no difficulty setting. I’m really not sure why they chose to do that. Sure, you can impose tough challenges on yourself, but the difficulty of a game should come from its design, not player agency. I'd recommend staring a new file once you've completed the game to keep yourself challenged.
The graphics and sound in this game are top notch, and will rival any AAA game put out this year. Expansive vistas and barren wastelands seem to pop out of the screen, with very large draw distances aiding that. One area of the game that looks particularily great is the gritty details depicted in each of the orcs’ faces. Between the excellent voice-acting, dialogue, and unique facial details of each orc, Shadow of Mordor becomes one of the best looking games of 2014.
That’s not to say that you won’t run into the same looking and sounding orc from time to time, but that is much more rare than running into an orc with the same traits. Also, once you get used to the controls, which are fairly standard, you will quickly assume the role of Middle Earth's resident orc slayer.
The soundtrack is beautiful, giving you a sense that you really have transported yourself to Middle Earth. From melodic overworld expositions to dramatic and exciting action ballads, Shadow of Mordor delivers on all fronts of the audio department. Speaking of that, the voice-acting is great. Some of the orcs you will come across truly feel powerful, or insane, or even depressed. This great variety is part of what gives Shadow of Mordor its charm.
There are of course some instances of repeated dialogue, but that is to be expected in an open world action game with 30+ hours of gameplay (The amount of times an orc captain has called me out saying, “Man-filth!” is pretty funny).
Some slight gripes I had with the controls were that some objects which should be climbable, such as certain crates, were not. You could climb up them when approaching from the other side, however, which makes no sense. I'm usually a fan of glitches, because they are most of the time hilarious, but the unclimbable object one is just frustrating. Thankfully, it doesn't happen very often; I'd say I ran into it about 3 or 4 times during my 30+ hour playthrough.
Other glitches include floating orc weapons, and orc weapons sticking out of walls, but these happen even less than the unclimbable objects one, and don't hinder the gameplay experience in any way.
Being a single player only game, you wouldn’t expect online play. But there is a component of it available. You have the opportunity to avenge the death of players on your friends list (and on PSN if none of your friends have the game). This is particularly satisfying, as you face the exact captain with the exact traits which slayed your friend.
Defeating a powerful foe that your buddy had some trouble with gives you an immense sense of accomplishment, especially when you know that it will pop up on their screen that you killed the captain that killed them the next time they boot up the game. This works extremely similarly to the recent system in Diablo III: Ultimate evil edition for consoles, as a point of comparison.
Shadow of Mordor offers a fairly large chunk of content for an action game. It pulls from the Assassin’s Creed franchise in its open world collect-a-thon style gameplay, which is a great thing. I finished the main campaign 100% after about 35 solid hours of gameplay, and, as previously mentioned, I still wanted to play!
Thankfully, SoM offers a challenge mode, which offers you an endless challenge of hunting down orc captains and warchiefs. You can choose from a variety of challenges, including timed assassinations and mass assassinations, but all of these challenges rely on the same rock solid gameplay present throughout the entirety of the single player campaign. This is by no means a bad thing, but if you find yourself tiring of the single player gameplay, you won’t find anything mind-blowing in these challenge modes.
The season pass, which will run you 25$, promises to extend your gameplay experience even further, although I will not be covering that today.
Admittedly, I know very little about the Lord of the Rings universe. I’ve only seen bits and piece of the film trilogy, and I haven’t read the books. Shadow of Mordor, despite having a pretty weak story, pulled me into that universe and made me want to learn more about the complex backstory and characters. The gameplay is a melting pot of successful parts of other great games, mixed in with its own unique mechanics, notably the innovative Nemesis system. The graphics and sound are phenomenal, and to find everything in the single player campaign, you’re looking at around 30 hours of gameplay. Overall, Shadow of Mordor is a fantastic game that should not be missed by mature fans of the action/adventure genre.