Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor Review

This article was originally published at Another-Castle.com

Mordor: Assassin’s Asylum

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor
Platform: PC (reviewed), Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3, PS4
Developer: Monolith Productions
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

The Lord of the Rings and the world of Middle-earth is a property that has had far more influence on video games than actual video games. Indeed, up until the release of the Peter Jackson movies in the early 2000’s, there were relatively few video games based directly on the property but countless titles influenced by it. Since the release of the movies in the early 2000’s there have been a plethora of games from direct movie tie-ins to real-time strategy titles and a MMORPG. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is the latest and one of the most original in years.

Shadow of Mordor is set in between the events of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings and as the title suggests, takes place within Mordor, the land of the dark lord Sauron. The player takes on the role of Talion whose family is killed by the Black Hand of Sauron. Talion is only saved because Celebrimbor, an elf-turned-wraith merges with his body. This merging gives Talion superhuman abilities which equip him nicely for his quest of revenge.

It would be very hard to write about this game without mentioning two other game series. The first is Assassin’s Creed and the second is the Batman: Arkham series. Shadow of Mordor essentially takes the open world nature of the former with the rhythmic combat of the latter. The button layout for the combat is exactly the same as the Arkham series as are many of the power ups though with different names. In short if you have played either and especially the latter, you already know how to play Shadow of Mordor. If you haven’t then the game has a rather fun tutorial that will quickly introduce you.

The most touted feature of Shadow of Mordor is the nemesis system. The orcs of Mordor are in constant power struggles with new captains and warchiefs changing regularly. The nemesis system not only lets you see these struggles but allows the player to influence them. This starts out simply enough with Talion getting intel from orcs to discover weaknesses of certain leaders but eventually leads to putting orcs influenced by and even controlled by Talion and Celebrimbor. Another aspect is that every time you are killed by an orc, whether lowly or mighty, those orcs gain power and will even remember you when you come back to fight again. Each time you die you witness a series of power struggles that happen in your absence with captains being killed and replaced. The system actually has the odd effect of making death more acceptable which is great since most players are going to be dying a lot.

As funny as it might sound for a game based on what is arguably the 20th centuries finest work of fiction, the story of Shadow of Mordor is more window dressing than anything else. While there is plenty of lore to discover, references to events in the stories and appearances by well-known characters, the main focus of the game is killing orcs; lots and lots of orcs. That really is all there is to it and what is particularly impressive is how well the developer Monolith Productions stops this from getting old. In my playtime, I found myself constantly going off and doing other things besides the main story. One reason is there is just so much to do but it is mainly because the story missions aren’t nearly so rewarding as exploring the open world and harassing, manipulating and killing the inhabitants. When I eventually stopped myself to push through to the end, I was underwhelmed but happy to go back to doing what the game does best.

Outside of the smooth, rewarding combat of the Arkham series and the innovative nemesis system, Shadow of Mordor has a well-paced and involved progression system. There is nothing particularly innovative here, just good design. Everything you do will grant you experience but there are different types that can be earned by doing different things. Almost anything you do will grant general experience which can be used to unlock different skills. In addition to general experience there is power which can be earned through orc power struggle missions which unlock additional tiers for upgrades. Then there are resources which can be earned by discovering collectables and through certain missions. The resources grant other upgrades including health, additional powers and rune slots for weapons. The runes can be earned by defeating orc captains and warchiefs and there are a lot to collect. For the player, what this means is that everything within the game is worth doing whether it is stopping to massacre a patrol, freeing slaves, hunting wildlife or just exploring nearby ruins. Everything you do can enhance your character in some way which makes the already entertaining open-world even more rewarding. It is still worth pushing through with the story though as many of the more entertaining powers and features unlock this way.

I’ve been light on criticism up to this point and that is simply because there is a whole lot more to like than dislike. With all the fun I had playing, I was often frustrated by repeated deaths and getting swarmed by seemingly endless waves of orcs. It was also annoying to have unskippable cutscenes play when I encountered an orc captain and the fact that they remembered when they defeated me or witnessed me run away got old fast. The former was solved by taking a more strategic approach and using my skills and the environment to my advantage, the latter, like loading screens, I learned to live with.

My aging video card forced me to run Shadow of Mordor at the lowest settings to get a consistent frame rate so I don’t feel confident giving an appraisal of the visuals. The character and world design is based off the Peter Jackson films but Mordor is not quite as dark and desolate as the movies and the second area of the game looks more like the Shire than Mordor. The game is also considerably more violent than the films which may put off Tolkien purists altogether. Even though the majority of enemies found within the game are orcs, I was impressed with how many unique faces I saw throughout. I am looking forward to going back to the game when I have better hardware. I can at least add that the sound design is excellent with great voice work, cringe-inducing combat effects and a familiar yet suitable musical score.

Some readers may be familiar with some controversy with content creators on YouTube receiving review codes in exchange for brand deals. I’ve used a lot of buzzwords in this review that advertising agencies promoting this game would love to see. I haven’t done this to check boxes for them in exchange for an early access review code but because I genuinely think the game deserves this praise. It is a shame that such a competent product has been dragged into a controversy that suggests the publisher didn’t have confidence in it. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is one of the best games I’ve played this year and more than likely an excellent first entry in a new franchise. The quality of the product speaks for itself and it is a shame it has been dragged down by shady and completely unnecessary brand deals.

4 Stars
October, 2014
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