Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor for PS4, Xbox One and PC
Shadow of Mordor is proof of something I’ve been banging on about for ages; there’s nothing wrong with nicking other games’ ideas if you have one really good one of your own. Sure, Shadow of Mordor takes a lot from Assassin’s Creed and the Arkham Games, but it also has a killer feature, one guaranteed to be plundered for many years to come.
Shadow of Mordor takes place in between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and details the final downfall of Mordor into the desolate wasteland we see in The Lord of the Rings. Talion is a ranger of Gondor, who watches the Black Gate of Mordor. He and his family are murdered by a senior member of Sauron’s army, but Talion is returned from the dead possessed by the wraith of a mysterious ancient elf. Talion travels Mordor seeking revenge against those who wronged him and to discover the secret behind his elven companion and the reason for his resurrection.
The actual plot of Shadow of Mordor is serviceable, but not especially exciting. Perhaps I’m just not versed in Tolkein lore enough to pick up on a lot of stuff. There are some great moments, such as appearances from Gollum and any moments involving the scene-stealing Dwarven monster hunter Torvin, but by and large this is your standard revenge story. Don’t get me wrong, Talion’s better than Aiden Pearce of Watch Dogs, my new gold standard for generic vengeance driven protagonists, but he’s not exactly dynamic. Shadow of Mordor’s appeal isn’t in its actual scripted plot, but in the best emergent storytelling I’ve ever seen in a game. I’ll get to that.
The fundamental gameplay of Shadow of Mordor will be very familiar to many people. You’ll do lots of Assassin’s Creed-esque climbing and assassinating, with a stealth system which is actually significantly better than that seen in Assassin’s Creed. The combat is almost exactly the same as the Arkham games, down to the specific button presses for different types of finishers. As opposed to gadgets you have wraith powers with not dissimilar effects, with the enemy types of the Orcs in Mordor also paralleling that of the goons on the streets of Gotham. This really isn’t a bad thing; no open world action game has hand to hand combat as satisfying as the Arkham games and it’s oddly gratifying to see a game company giving up even trying to improve on it. The addition of a bow and arrow does shake things up ever so slightly though, with the option to take out foes from afar. The upgrade system is complex but very satisfying. You can use Mirian, earned from side quests, to upgrade things like your health and ability to slow down time when aiming your bow, as well as traditional EXP to boost your abilities. Your weapons can also be upgraded, being infused with runes taken from fallen Orc Captains. It probably sounds overly complicated, but Shadow of Mordor has one of the most satisfying progression arcs of any game, you start out weak and powerless, but by the end you’ve gained enough fun and varied abilities to be a true force of nature. I know that the received wisdom is that games should get more challenging as they go along, but I actually quite like this approach of a game getting easier and easier as you become more and more powerful. I completed the second half of this game’s content in about half the time I completed the first and it was very satisfying to be able to confidently stride into encounters that I would have shied away from previously. For example, caragors are deadly Mordor creatures and early on in the game something to avoid at all costs, but by the end you’ve gained the ability to instantly tame and ride them, allowing you to take down swaths of foes which might have previously caused you serious trouble.
The main selling point of Shadow of Mordor is the much touted ‘Nemesis’ system. In each of the two main areas, five Orc Warchiefs command Sauron’s armies, and you must work your way to the top and take them down. To do that you must work through the randomly generated group of orc underlings which make up the command structure. If you defeat an orc their space in the command structure is left empty, and if one beats you its power is boosted and it may be promoted. You can interrogate low ranking orcs to find out intel on higher ranking, such as strengths and weaknesses. Early on in particular, knowing these details is absolutely vital. Some captains are highly armoured, immune to ranged and stealth and surrounded by armies, but have a terrible fear of fire, so luring them towards barrels and oils and setting them off can leave them terrified and defenceless in your hands. Each Warchief has bodyguards which can be taken out to make the eventual final conflict easier. You can either hunt particular orcs by scanning their general locations or waiting for events marked in red in your map, which see the orc involved in some kind of event that you can ambush. These can be hunting trips, duels between orcs, feasts or a range of other events. Later in the game you gain the ability to ‘brand’ orcs and brainwash them to your side, sending them to perform particular tasks like assassinate other orc leaders. There’s something wonderfully satisfying about branding all of a Warchief’s bodyguards then sending them all after the chief at once. In such encounters, if you keep your branded orc alive they will gain in power and be even more useful for your bidding. Although randomly generated, the orcs are bursting with personality, and you will soon come to hate particular orcs who you clash with again and again, as they taunt you anew each time. Finally taking down an orc you’ve battled and lost to repeatedly is a truly wonderful feeling. It’s this emergent storytelling which is the true star of the game. The Nemesis system is a fantastic idea that I cannot wait to see stolen by every other developer under the sun.
Shadow of Mordor is a lengthy game, with a decent length main campaign and a hefty amount of genuinely fun side content. You could spend hours and hours messing around with the Nemesis system though, so once you’re done with the assigned tasks I think that this is a game world you could genuinely want to spend time in. The complaints about this game are mostly quibbles; I really hated that failing in side content, such as getting spotted in a stealth mission, forced you to run back to the mission start point rather than letting you just go in fresh. It felt like an irritating way to punish failure, in a game which generally punishes failure in one of the most interesting ways I’ve ever seen.
Still, the complaints to be levelled at Shadow of Mordor are far from deal breakers. It steals from and then betters many other games with similar mechanics; I have a feeling that the developers of Assassin’s Creed: Unity and Batman: Arkham Knight might have been made slightly nervous by this game. The bar has been raised.