The World of Middle-Earth has had its ups and downs when it comes to video games. Sometimes players would be treated to gems like the Battle for Middle-Earth series. Other times, we would be subjected to lots of singing from Tom Bombadil like in The Fellowship of the Ring. Thankfully Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor provides us with a stellar experience; blending gameplay elements from other titles and adding The Nemesis System, a significant unique new feature. The team at Monolith Productions manages to create a completely unique and immersive experience for you to enjoy.
Much of the core gameplay mechanics have been used in other games. Immediate comparisons can be made to the Assassin’s Creed series for inspiring the world and mission design. Aspects of Batman: Arkham Asylum were the clear inspiration of stealth and combat. I feel that the Batman comparisons are not completely unjustified as Shadow of Mordor was rumoured to have started development as a Batman game, but this is only from a single, anonymous, source. Thankfully Shadow of Mordor is greater than simply a sum of its parts, as the mechanics that work well together have been intelligently blended together.
Shadow of Mordor is an open world action game that doesn’t suffer from many of the same annoyances as other “open world” games. Frequently these types of games will have an incredibly large map which makes traveling tedious. The world will be jam-packed with collectibles or quests that feel like busy work, only included to pad the length of the game. Middle-Earth does not suffer from this problem the world is small enough that fast traveling is almost completely unnecessary. Although the areas where fast traveling is an option are located at incredibly convenient locations.
This world does have more than its fair share of collectables, but unlike other titles, these are not included for the sole purpose of padding the length of the game. The collectables in Shadow of Mordor frequently serve other purposes; for example the flowers and other plants that need to be collected will refill your health after combat. The key feature that separates this game, from other open world games, is the optional quests. Frequently the optional quests in open world games are an annoyance but in Shadow of Mordor they are the draw of the game and are built using The Nemesis System.
The Nemesis System is a tool that is used to make the world more dynamic and it creates the illusion that the multitude of orcs are all unique. The orcs in Shadow of Mordor have their own command structure, with 5 warchiefs being at the top that, presumably, issue commands to the various captains. All of the orcs will have their motives, aspirations, fears, frustrations, strengths, and weaknesses which can be learned and exploited. All of the optional quests in Shadow of Mordor are built from the power struggles that these orcs have trying to rise through the ranks of the command structure. They will attempt to subvert, or even assassinate, each other to increase their own power allowing you to take advantage of the situation. Eventually, you are able to manipulate the orcs and can become the root cause for all of the power struggles between them. The manipulation of the orc command structure is very engaging and I never found myself becoming bored of trying to get them promoted all the way up to the prestigious rank of warchief.
The amount of work, especially voice recording, that went into making sure that The Nemesis System was fully realized is absolutely mind-boggling. Each time the player meets an orc captain in battle they will announce themselves and issue a threat. If they have met you before they will speak about the last encounter . When an orc is about to land a killing strike, against the player, a chant of his name can be heard in the background. The warchiefs will get a similar chant when they walk onto the battlefield.
As the player begins to eliminate captains, random scrub orcs are able to be promoted to replace the one that met their demise. A quick way for one of these nameless orcs to make a reputation for themselves is by slaying the player. This act of violence causes one of these random orcs to be promoted to a captain and begin their journey up the ranks. Being slain by an existing captain increases their power and influence over the others and make them harder to kill with each failure.
Most, if not all, of the side missions on the map are built using Nemesis and are what the orcs use to try to gain power. They will attempt to recruit other followers, go hunting, have a feast or attempt to kill another orc and you are free to sabotage these events. Typically this is done through the murder of one, or all the orcs, on the scene. To successfully fight against the orcs, the player will need to successfully complete long combos that are made out of basic sword slashes, a variety of powers that you gain (through completing story missions or by earning through experience), and graphically violent execution moves.
Though more often than not, direct combat in Shadow of Mordor can be completely avoided. The stealth that has been built for this game is competent enough on its own to be worthy of praise. It is very satisfying to be able to sneak through an orc stronghold and eliminate your selected target through a variety of stealth skills ranging from sneaking up behind an orc to execute them to poisoning a celebratory drink and watching your enemies attempt to kill each other. Good stealth in video games is extremely hard to do. Even veteran developers have hits and misses, so when stealth in a game is good, it is worth the praise.
When I previously said that this game has some graphic violence, I really did mean it. It isn’t simply the combat finishers that can be graphic. Almost every single ability that results in an immediate fatality against an orc features graphic violence. Silent takedowns have the player sometimes thrusting his blade directly through the heads of enemies. The option of lighting orcs on fire starts them running around screaming until they burn to death. There is even a stealth option that has been labeled “brutalize” which features the player repeatedly stabbing an orc in order to make his allies afraid of you.
I played the Playstation 4 version of Shadow of Mordor and found the visuals in the game to be quite appealing. The frame rate is really smooth, even when engaged in combat against more than a dozen orcs that are looking to feast on manflesh. Nothing looks awkward while traveling through the world and the player will grab onto walls and scale them in a reasonably realistic way, considering that the player has super powers. I have also been told that I am a bit of a sucker for capes flowing in the wind and this game has ample cape flowing.
Possibly the weakest aspect of Shadow of Mordor is its story; however, I didn’t seem mind it nearly as much as some other critics. The story takes place somewhere in between The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings following a ranger, named Talion, on his quest for revenge against the people who murdered him and his family. After his own murder he finds himself being possessed by a wraith that gives him the power to exact revenge against his murderers. The possession gives him an immunity to death, allowing him to resurrect after each time he is struck down in combat.
This setup is strong enough to completely justify the motives of the main character and all of his actions; however, I did find the ending to be a mixed bag. I am willing to give it a pass because this ending fits within the context of the story that is being told in Shadow of Mordor. But this ending makes no sense, and does not fit with within the established world of Middle-Earth that Tolkien put on paper. The story, being what it is, is not the reason why you would even want to play this game. The bulk of the content that players will interact with is going to be side content generated by Nemesis.
Interacting with Nemesis is an incredible experience on its own and more than makes Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor completely worthwhile. On top of an incredible system that builds a believable world, great gameplay is also included and a stealth experience that is on par, or even exceeds, many other stealth focused games. The complete package is an incredible experience and is worth all of the hours that will be thrown at it. I have not been so immediately hooked by a game, like Shadow of Mordor, in many months.