Reviews

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor Review – Actually, One Does Simply Walk Into Mordor

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Platforms: PC, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PS4 and PS3
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Monolith
Publisher: Warner Bros.
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: No

There’s a single Orc that has proven to be a thorn in my side. His name is Nazdug, but that has faded into memory in favor of his title: the Prowler. We’ve met several times before, and each of those times I’ve been forced to either retreat, a fact that he loves to remind me of, or I’ve been defeated by him and his forces. To say that it has become a personal vendetta is something of an understatement. I hate him. I hate that he’s beaten me. Yet I respect him, too, as an adversary, Through spilling my blood he has risen through the ranks, becoming a powerful and dangerous Captain feared by everyone. Still, eventually I managed to slay him, an arrow through the eye bringing his existence to an end. Or so I thought. It wasn’t long before I discovered he had somehow survived, a metal mask now covering the eye that I pierced. His arrival during my fight with a Warchief cost me a victory.

He’s just one foe of many that I developed a bitter rivalry with throughout my time with Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, but the important thing is that these weren’t scripted events taking place throughout the story, they were being generated by the game, each enemy having his own name, strengths and weaknesses assigned to them, and each of them remembers past encounters. It’s a series of relatively actually quite simple systems that generate these beastly enemies and gives them their dialogue, but it’s the player that imbues them with a personality, that turns an AI into a rival, a warrior worthy of fighting.

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I am, of course, speaking about Shadow of Mordor’s Nemesis system, the biggest selling point the game has and arguably the only reason people had to pay attention to it before release. The idea is to generate named foes for you to do battle with while at the same time creating a working Orc hierarchy that changes as time goes by. At the top of the pyramid are the mighty Warchiefs, and under them are many, many Captains, of which the elite serve as bodyguards for the Warchiefs. Each of these Orkc has a name, distinctive look and a set of strengths and weaknesses, such as being immune to stealth attacks or having a fear of fire that can send them running. Should a Captain defeat you in combat they’ll increase n power, becoming harder to kill  and possibly snagging a new set of armor and weapons to boot. If an unknown Orc happens to kill you then he’ll be instantly  promoted to the rank of Captain and granted a name of his own to carry forth. Each of these vicious bastards are capable of remembering your last encounter, and will often reference those events. Flee a Captain and his cronies and he’ll call you a coward the next time you fight him. Burn an enemy with fire and he;ll return with a scarred face, a fear of flame and a desire for revenge. Shoot an Ork in the eye with an arrow and he may hunt you down with half a metal plate covering his wound.

When you stop and think about it you’ll realise that enemies are only capable of remembering a set of specific events, but when combined with the wide range of voice actors and possible sentences it gives them all a sense of being real. When you add that to each Orc’s list of strengths and weaknesses a rudimentary personality is formed and then filled in by the mind of the player. As you encounter them, battle them and plot revenge they begin to develop a backstory and personality. Your mind spins a small narrative for each one.  A single fight can spiral into a series of epic battles your nemesis.

Finding  the weaknesses and strengths of a given Orc requires a bit of work, but can be worth it as discovering the chink in the armor can save you a lot of effort. Likewise attempting to assassinate a Captain that is invulnerable to stealth attacks can leave you looking a tad stupid. Any random Orc can be interrogated to learn the name of a unidentitied Captain, but only Captains or “worms” can provide more detailed intelligence. Some Orcs may be weak to ranged attacks, but become enraged when their comrades are attacked, or they may be able to summon reinforcements. It’s especially worth gathering such intel before confronting a Warchief. Of course you can still simply go rushing in, but bonus experience is awarded for taking advantage of a weakness.

Scattered around the open world of Mordor are Power Struggles, events in which Captains will gather more influence and power unless you intercede. You can crash feasts, sabotage hunts, become involved in duels between two captains or more and even save prisoners from execution. Fail these events and the Captain will grow in power, while success means he won’t, assuming you don’t just kill outright. Should you die at any point during the game every single Power Struggle on the world map will be resolved without your presence. New captains will come to power, others will be killed or gain more strength.

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Combat has been ripped wholesale from the Batman: Arkham games, every single facet taken and quietly woven into the fabric of Monolith’s work. With a gamepad plugged in on PC tapping X unleashes a standard strike, while Y counters telegraphed enemy attacks. A double tap of the A button sends you leaping over the shoulders of your currently targeted foe. Meanwhile tapping B unleashes a stun move, which can then be followed up by a flurry attack by hammering the X button. Successfully land enough attacks without taking damage and you’ll be able to launch into a pleasingly brutal, savage execution move or perform other types of assault, like instantly finishing off every downed enemy in the area

See? It’s Batman from head to toe, yet unlike most of the imposter’s that have attempted to mimic Rocksteady’s critically acclaimed combat systems Shadow of Mordor perfectly replicates the flow and feeling of fighting in the Arkham games. Which is for the best because you’ll be fighting a hell of a lot of Orcs throughout the game. It’s impossible to venture a mere 100ft without seeing at least a few of them brandishing swords, and in combat massive mobs are common so as to achieve the flow that makes fighting fun – you bounce from Uruk to Uruk, leaping over shields, executing enemies and feeling like the most badass badass to ever badass.

It would normally be easy to berate a game for so clearly taking systems from other places, even if it is a standard practice, but when it feels this good it’s hard to care. Combat is gloriously fun, and amazingly despite the sheer amount of fighting that needs to be done it never becomes boring, largely because it provides a decent level of challenge. It’s easy to lose your rhythm and miss a counter or two. Of course combat needs to offer at least some difficulty, otherwise the Nemesis system would be severely crippled.

Familiarity can also be found within the parkour system which allows hero Talion to scamper up the side of buildings  with complete ease. The controls are different, but it’s Assassin’s Creed through and through, albeit not quite as smooth as Ubisoft’s work, hardly surprising given that the they’ve been doing it longer. There are moments where Talion will get stuck or the animation seen a bit clanky, yet it works well, letting you scuttle and clamber around the environment.

This feeds into the simple but effective stealth system which lets you slit throats with brutal finality. Movement when crouched is fast and the detection system is extremely generous, thus you can quickly and quietly glide through encampments and leave a trail of bodies behind you. Stealth is kept to a very simple line of vision mechanic, so there’s no need to worry about making too much noise. This isn’t a game that intends on making you patiently watch patrol routes and time your moves, instead it wants to make you feel like a dangerous predator with no equal. It succeeds in this regard.

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On top of your sword and stealthy dagger you’ve also got access to a bow which automatically slows down time when brought to bear, which in turn makes it useful even in the middle of heated combat. A couple of headshots can thin the crowd considerably. The amount of slowed time is limited, but it makes the bow an invaluable tool in a number of situations.

There’s other cool moves and tricks to discover, too. Shadow Strike let’s you aim at any foe and then instantly teleport to them, either doing some damage or outright killing. It’s a move that is brilliant for just about anything; in the middle of a fight it can bring down an enemy quickly, during stealth it can let you cover long distances without being seen or it can simply be used to kill a foe who is running to light the reinforcement beacon. With an upgrade you can even chain Shadow Strikes. Another upgrade lets you pin Orcs to the ground by shooting an arrow through their ankle, handy if you want to interrogate an enemy. Caragor cages can be shot open to unleash the beast within and hives of wasp-like creatures can be dropped to terrorise the enemy. Hell, you can even ride the Caragor if you want, or poison the grog. There’s even special extra brutal stealth moves that can make other Orcs in the area flee.

You can’t equip different weapons or armor, but there’s a pretty substantial set of upgrades to purchase, each of which makes a clear and definite improvement. It’s nice to buy an upgrade and not simply get a small, almost entirely unnoticeable boost as per many games. Buy something in Shadow of Mordor and it provides a tangible effect that makes gathering XP feel worth it. On top of that your bow, sword and dagger can all be equipped with a variety of runes which provide effects like a chance of regaining health on critical strikes or extra damage at high combat combo counts. Only Captains and Warchiefs drop Runes, their Power rank determining what chance you have of getting a rarer drop. You ca even choose to send a Captain or Warchief a Death Threat which increases the chance of getting a better Rune at the cost of making the victim harder to kill because he knows you’re coming.

Completing story missions and simply slicing up Orks are the most obvious ways of levelling your character up, but scattered around the open world of Mordor are tasks based on stealth, combat and ranged skills to beat and complete which grant you points to spend on grabbing health upgrades or increasing the amount of arrows at your disposal. They don’t do anything very different from what the rest of the game demands, which is to say killing a lot of stuff, so it’s a testament to the core gameplay that they are a lot of fun to beat. Having said that it would have been nice to have some true side-quests to check out, small bite-sized narratives to complete, although the setting of Mordor does somewhat prohibit this, I suppose.

Just when it feels like the game can’t get more enjoyable, about half-way through the story the location changes from the barren, boring grey and brown to a more green, lush environment and you unlock the wholly awesome ability to Brand enemies, essentially bringing them under your control. At the most basic level this means you can, for example, sneak around an enemy base and Brand several archers to give you support when taking on a Captain. A quick tap of the correct button activates your Branded minions and voila, you have a small support force. The system runs deeper, though, and other options are available. Brand an Orc and you can guide him through the ranks, enabling his rise to power. Help him out during Power Struggles and he can become the bodyguard of a Warchief. Help him out further and he can actually betray the Warchief and take his place, which in turn gives you control over him and all the troops under him. You can become surprisingly invested in your little pet minions, just another way in which Shadow of Mordor let’s players craft their own little stories.

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Graphically the game looks nice. The initial area of Mordor is a bland grey and brown landscape that while true to the source material isn’t easy on the eyes, but even there the textures are good and the animations detailed. Once you arrive in the second location the developers could clearly stretch their legs with more vibrant colors and interesting scenery. It’s a good looking game, and to top it off it’s very well optimised for PC. Indeed, special mention has to be made of the graphical options menu who provides handy explanations for every settings, including recommendations for texture settings depending on the graphics card you’re running. There’s also a benchmark tool, something that every PC title should feature as it makes tuning the settings significantly easier.  The only thing that’s strangely lacking is anti-aliasing, a feature that’s included on the consoles but is entirely absent from the PC version.

No game is ever perfect, though, as we all know, and Shadow of Mordor is no exception. Without a shadow of a doubt the biggest weakness is simple repetition; everything revolves around killing Orcs, and the mission structure of the story never moves past that very simple goal. As fun as the stealth and combat is there’s only so many enemies that can be slayed before it begins to drag. More interesting story missions really could have helped here.

Meanwhile in its narrative Shadow of Mordor is rather a mixed bag, mixing enjoyable elements with generic storytelling while throwing in plenty of links to the Lord of the Ring. As the game opens we’re treated to the brutal murder of ranger Talion’s family at the whim of the Black Hand, setting the stage for a relatively straightforward tale of revenge. Talion is technically killed, but through some dark magic has his soul bonded to that of a mysterious  and long-dead Elf, allowing neither of them true release.

Along the way you’ll run into Gollum several times, who is so well-acted that I had to double-check Andy Serkis wasn’t involved, discover more about the Rings of Power and much more. The inclusion of Gollum feels somewhat awkward, but for the most part the developers have successfully tied Shadow of Mordor into the overarching. However, that doesn’t stop the overall narrative feeling weak, largely due to the bland personality of Talion himself. The elf’s past makes him interesting while several of the supporting characters, like RatBag, are enjoyable, but Talion is a generic gruff goon and before long most of the written plot was stomped into the ground by the smaller stories I was making myself.

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Take the time I forced my brainwashed Warchief to challenge another Warchief, instigating a Riot where both Orks mustered their forces and faced off. Unbeknown to the enemy Warchief I had subverted one of his bodyguards, and as battle was joined he was betrayed from within his own ranks, leaving my loyal Captain to take his place. The Captain in question was a certain Azgrom the Crazy, a chap I had taken quite a liking to due to his mental handicap, by which I mean his firm belief that worms were wriggling around inside his head. With his strange hair and batshit crazy approach to everything I took great pride in enabling his rise to glory.

Still, credit must be given to the fact that the story does lightly dabble in a few deeper concepts surrounding the One Ring and its use. Your Elven companion has a more ruthless streak than Talion, giving rise to some intriguing moments. It’s not enough, though, to really drag you in, despite the stellar voice-acting.

As a living, breathing world Mordor is rather lacking. Dreams of exploring a virtual version of  Middle-Earth give way to a landscape that often feels hollow, like it was thrown together merely to support the gameplay, unlike the better examples which work seamlessly with every other mechanic to create something cohesive. However, in the developer’s favor Mordor was never going to be a wholly interesting place. Still, it would be nice if there was something there, a reason to explore or even just cool scenery to go out of your way to check out.

But before we finish let’s do some small nitpicking. I’m not a fan of the game’s chosen form of QTE which involves getting the cursor into a circle so that you can then tap the correct button. Nor am I a fan of how easy it is to accidentally massacre your Branded followers during a hectic fight

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In its familiar mechanics Shadow of Mordor trumps its own lack of innovation through pure good execution. This is combined with its one true original idea, the outstanding Nemesis system which would seem a likely target of copying by other developers in the future, and for good reason. It alone would make the game worth playing, but happily it’s far from the only reason to delve into Monolith’s creation. You won’t find another epic Lord of the Rings style tale that lives up to Tolkien’s wonderful writing, but you will find a bloody fun game.

On a personal level I want to give Shadow of Mordor full marks simply because I had so much fun running around causing mayhem. However, it does have flaws holding it back which Monolith will need to resolve for a sequel. And it does deserve a sequel.

The Good:
+ The entire Nemesis system
+ Combat feels so good
+ Feeling like a badass.

The Bad:
– Story is meh.
– Repetition
– Basic mission design.

The Verdict: 4/5 – Great.
A brilliantly fun game that has taken a large step toward creating compelling player-driven stories. You owe it to yourself to play it.

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