Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor review

“You cannot escape us!”

Shadow of Mordor is the best Assassin’s Creed game in 4 years.

I really mean it, it refines all the middling parkour controls that have plagued the AC franchise for so many years and  has also unashamedly nicked the Arkham combat system to deliver an extremely enjoyable core experience for the player. Arkham Creed: LOTR is an absolute blast to play through; decapitating Orcs in the thousands never seems to get old especially when the much-hyped Nemesis system makes every encounter at least feel a little special. The main storyline is a bit of a let-down, but if you can overlook that, there’s a game here where you can just run riot, and sometimes that’s enough in itself.

The game opens with introducing you to Talion, a ranger of Gondor who is responsible for guarding the Black Gate of Mordor, it’s not long though until Tallion’s family and himself is ritually executed by Sauron’s army led by a particularly nasty entity called ‘The Black Hand’. However, the end is in fact the beginning as Talion’s soul instead of being laid to rest with his family, is entwined with that of the legendary wraith-warrior named Celebrimbor. Talion is told by this figure that the only way he can be with his family is if he kills the Black Hand and his army. So basically file another entry into ‘revenge and redemption’ then.  Although there are a few twists and turns in the storyline, it just never retains a solid flow in its narrative, the brutal opening is a high-point that the game can never quite match from then on. It’s a shame because some of the material on offer here is neat, such as the deft monologues that play when you uncover artefacts and runes. Troy Baker does a great job voicing Talion too, but there’s the unshakeable feeling that the narrative, like the structure of the storyline itself is simplified to the extent where it’s just a shallow excuse for you to go on happily slaughtering Orcs.

Additionally, the main villains in the game are embarrassingly upstaged by the Nemesis system, meaning random Orc encounters will be the battles you remember rather than the er… actual main confrontations themselves like with the Black Hand himself. A desperately weak ending somewhat fittingly rounds off the disappointment, but I freely admit I’m not a fan of the LOTR universe so there might have been a lot of cool nods here and there that sailed over my head. Nonetheless I’m writing my impressions with the experience I have and taking the story for what it is, and its rubbish.

None of this seems to matter much though when you’re rampaging through legions of Orc grunts with as much force as a raging Rhino and the finesse of a Soviet gymnast. Mordor combines the best of Creed’s traversal mechanics and Batman’s combat system to create a kind of riotous frenzy that you’ll never want to pull yourself away from. This finely tuned playground takes all the frustration and faff that you’ll have encountered when playing other open-world games. Parkour is easy as can be, much to my delight after putting up with Desmond’s descendants flailing around like they’ve been caught in a spider’s web; Talion scales ledges and towers with incomparable ease. This fluidity extends to stealth as well, simply hold the right trigger and he’ll crouch, hold X and he’ll move faster but still be in a ‘stealth mode’. This is a godsend, no longer do you feel shackled while adopting the sneakier approach, and it’s all so simple, Monolith aren’t re-writing the rulebook here, they’ve just refined the foundations, but it makes an enormous difference.

The combat meanwhile borrows pretty much everything from Rocksteady’s efforts, if you’ve played any of the Arkham games before, you’ll be right at home here. The rhythmic flow works as well as you might expect, but Mordor differentiates itself in the sense that not every battle can be won. Sometimes the numbers of the Orcs are too overwhelming to fight, similarly if you encounter a higher-ranking Captain, you’re going to have to accept early on that it’s best to make a dignified retreat now and avoid him until you’ve beefed up a bit. This greater challenge improves the game further by forcing the player to adapt to the situation and integrate new techniques into their preferred playstyle. For instance, you may scale the towers to take out the pesky archers, before then dispatching a few secluded saps with your bow and then maybe shoot down some bait to let the Caragor beasts ravage the bulk of the forces. Mordor’s prerogative is to teach you how to thin the herd, it isn’t about fighting 30 Orcs at a time unless you want to torture Talion’s soul a bit more, rather it’s about directing your tuned abilities into something altogether more efficient and deadly.

Shadow of Mordor’s trump card though is it’s ‘Nemesis System’, basically it involves a sort-of procedurally generated Orc hierarchy that reacts dynamically to your actions over the course of the game. Captains and Warchiefs are given their own identities with their own strengths and weaknesses and the game makes sure you know about it when they boom into battle. They’re treated as bosses, the bloodthirsty troops chant his name and slow-motion zoom gives them a limelight befitting of a wrestling star. Moreover, some are really difficult to take down, especially the legendary Warchiefs. The system has plenty of cute tricks up its sleeve, for example if you flee from battle, the next time that leader sees you, he’ll taunt you about your cowardice. Or if you beat him enough so he retreats, the next time he appears he might have horrific scars or kitted out with a helmet for extra protection against your attacks.

If you die however, time passes on with the Orc that killed you being promoted within the hierarchy, growing in power until you can defeat him. Power struggles and betrayals are all part of the game too which you can manipulate to suit your goals, get a weak captain promoted all the way to Warchief, why not?

By the time you reach the second area of the game, Mordor gives you even more ways to mess with the Orcs, the ‘brand’ power enables you to convert an Orc to your cause no matter how high-ranking they might be. This becomes especially significant when you’re faced with dispatching the toughest enemies of the game, giving the mindless killings a sense of purpose and direction. All this scheming doesn’t make you quite feel like Kevin Spacey in House of Cards, but being in a position of puppetmaster sure felt satisfying.

Shadow of Mordor impresses on the visual front too, Mordor is suitably grim and barren, but it’s the meticulous details of the Orcs that makes the game stand out. Every grotesque inch of their faces, scars and attire is often unique to that Orc, the Nemesis system takes it up a notch when if you for example, throw one into a fire, the next time you meet him, half of his face may be savagely burnt. It sounds so simple reading this, but when you see it happen, it blows you away. The lush landscape of Nûrn revealed in the second part of the game allows Monolith to flex their muscles a bit more with a far prettier world to be let loose in. The beautiful greenery and peaceful waters is effectively juxtaposed with ruined towers and the hellish Orc army. I have to say, I spent quite a bit of time messing around in the photomode because I just loved the way this game looks. The weather effects look fantastic, the animations are top-notch and my oh my those amazing cape physics…

I clocked in at 90% completion in just over 18 hours, so there’s plenty of content to sink your teeth into here, being an open-world game you’re free to do what you want although naturally some challenges are locked until you’ve got the necessary upgrades. Away from the main storyline, you have to different Power Struggles to get involved in, challenges to upgrade your sword, bow and dagger, artefacts to collect, viewpoints to unlock and wildlife to hunt. There’s loads to do but whether you’ll be motivated enough to pursue them all, well that’s a different matter. The pacing isn’t the best, it’s like gorging on Dairy Milk just before you have your main meal, enjoyable but now I don’t really want anything more. By the time you enter the final third of the game, you’ll have seen all the tricks of the Nemesis system and battles aren’t as special as you thought they were 10 hours ago. The second area is certainly lovely but is should have been opened up a lot earlier than it was, the momentum is slowed until the game eventually limps over the finish line.

Shadow of Mordor is a very good game, it’s on the cusp of being a great one even, but it’s failures in its main campaign and pacing sadly let it down. Nevertheless, there’s an enormous amount of entertainment to be had here, especially if you care about the license which I freely admit don’t. It recalls Assassin’s Creed as a template but blows away much of the frustration found in playing them. In the tools it gives to its players, Shadow of Mordor emphasizes fun and fun you will have for the first 10 or so hours, but by the final third the game fades away through its repetitive structure and clunky conclusion.

7.5/10

Fluid combat / stealth mechanics makes it a very fun game to play

Lots of content

Nemesis System is really neat

– Deeply underwhelming main storyline

– Pacing and repetition becomes a problem towards the end