Beheading an enemy is a satisfying feeling. Monolith Productions have seemingly set out to prove this statement true with Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, a fully realized journey beyond the Black Gate set between The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. You play as Talion, a ranger who once lived with his family guarding the mountains of shadow. This changed when the reemerging forces of Sauron raided his camp and slaughtered everyone, cursing him to live an eternal afterlife amidst the hoards of Uruk-hai that call Mordor home. Over the 15 or so hours you’ll spend traversing volcanic plains and enemy infested strongholds, you’ll come to master your ghostly powers in combat and stealth scenarios. You’ll come to appreciate the ways that Monolith combined the best of Arkham Asylum‘s combat and Assassin’s Creed exploration into a brand new AAA experience. All that is in addition to the amazing AI of the orc leaders who hunt you across Mordor and remember your past exploits, bringing a level of replayability to the game’s open world design that stands alone amongst its peers. Shadow of Mordor deserves your immediate attention, as it defines what it means to be a big budget game on the next generation of consoles.
As a fan of Tolkien lore, I was cautiously optimistic about Shadow of Mordor before release. Games tackling LOTR in the past have previously ranged from portraying Middle-earth as an interchangeable fantasy realm (The Lord of the Rings: Conquest, Battle for Middle-Earth) to adapting the fiction into genres that don’t really fit (Guardians of Middle Earth, Lord of the Rings Online). 2011’s War in the North was a step in the right direction, and is still a good playthrough if you’re looking for a bit more RPG in your trek through Tolkien’s realm. However, I feel like Shadow of Mordor has finally struck the right balance between its setting and gameplay. Combat takes center stage, and the swordplay is just as satisfying as it looks in any of the battles that Peter Jackson brought to the silver screen. There is a standard upgrade tree and a minor loot system for improving your weapons, but everything serves to make your character feel dominant over the landscape. Its been a long time since I’ve felt this level of progression in a character action game of any type. By the end of the game, you’re charging into hoards of fifty or more foes with confidence and engaging in numerous battles that look straight out of Helm’s Deep.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor (PC [Reviewed], Xbox One, Xbox 360, PS4, PS3)
Developer: Monolith Productions (PC, Xbox One, PS4), Behavior Interactive (Xbox 360, PS3)
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Release Date: September 30th 2014 (PC, Xbox One, PS4), November 18th 2014 (Xbox 360, PS3)
This sense of progression also steps over into the enemy AI thanks to the much lauded “Nemesis System.” It’s a gimmick that works outstandingly, and one of those ideas that I was surprised no one else had ever tried to implement before. There are a set number of Uruk-hai captains roaming the land, each with a unique name, personality, and enough intelligence to wander around the open world on their own. And since the world isn’t large compared to the maps of other open world games, one or more of them is bound to investigate whenever you start swinging your sword wildly. If you are defeated in battle, the faceless minion who dealt the final blow will be promoted to captain, gaining a unique title and some ridiculous form of armor. Likewise, if you burn a captain and force him to retreat, he may reappear later with a scorched face and a taste for vengeance. The situations are endless, and makes every encounter something special, especially early on when you are your foes are still on equal footing. The only real disappointment is that your personal nemeses aren’t more closely tied into the story missions, although it is understandable considering that the forthcoming Xbox 360 and PS3 versions of the game are lacking the system completely.
Tracking your unique group of orc bosses throughout the game is the highlight of the non-story missions, which otherwise consist of various collectable hunts and combat trials. It’s worth doing some of it for the variety and the currency to spend in the progression system, but I felt no compulsion to go back and 100% everything once the credits rolled. The mechanics are the whole show here, and they do their job well, so much so that it’s a shame that a rather fun boss rush/score attack mode is locked behind a pre-order bonus. The story in the game is serviceable, but ultimately forgettable. A few more familiar Tolkien characters show up with roles that make sense, although it’s hard to think that they weren’t referenced for the recognition factor alone. It almost played out like a superhero origin, which is fine if not a bit trite. Also, in case the protagonist’s literal immortality didn’t give it away, there is plenty of setup for future sequels, all of which is way more interesting than anything you accomplish in this first chapter.
For a while there, it looked like Monolith was becoming one of those developers that coasted on their former glories. It isn’t to say that Gotham City Imposters and Guardians of Middle-earth weren’t good, but they weren’t to the caliber of a F.E.A.R. or a Tron 2.0. Their comback here is uplifting in an otherwise depressing year for our hobby. Even with its few shortcomings, I can wholeheartedly recommend Shadow of Mordor to both fans of Tolkien and fans of open world gameplay. While many looked to Watch Dogs and Destiny to kick-start the next generation into gear, Mordor delivers the goods with technically beautiful landscapes, silky smooth framerates, and gameplay features that are truly revolutionary and will no doubt be stolen by several games currently in development. It’s nice to play a big retail game in 2014 without having to page through menus of microtransactions or experience a tacked on multiplayer mode. Mordor doesn’t have the loftiest ambitions, but it’s often the case that those games go above and beyond to engage the player, and it’s those games that we remember fondly as we look back at our libraries years later.