Monolith’s first adventure in Middle-earth, Guardians of Middle-earth, was less than stellar, but the developer has rediscovered its mojo. Shadow of Mordor is an excellent game, and it shows.
You take the role of Talion, a Ranger that’s soon thrust into the harsh reality that Mordor and Sauron’s forces aren’t quite as dormant and broken as Gondor has been led to believe all these years. After witnessing the deaths of his son and wife, Talion himself is then slain...only to reawaken later to discover that he is for the most part immortal, and now bound to a particular Elven wraith. The opening moments of the game are, as you’d expect, a tutorial in the guise of introducing you to the Shadow of Mordor. We get a crash course in sneaking, basic combat and are then thrown into the open world of this pre-Lord of the Rings slice of Middle-Earth.
The fairly basic set-up is elevated immensely by some superb performances. Talion’s mission for revenge never feels forced, and the slow revelation of his elven companion's identity and past is genuinely engaging. Even the addition of Gollum fits neatly within the narrative, and gives Shadow of Mordor a solid link to the film adaptations without forcing it and smacking players like they were a fish on a rock.
Never before I have played an open world third-person action game that involved so much running away, but Shadow of Mordor is full of ‘tactical retreat’ moments you’ll be facing, otherwise you’ll just be whisked back up one of the few towers spread throughout the game world for fast travel. Combat itself is inspired by the close-up brawls and acrobatics from the likes of Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham series, and Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed. That’s not exactly a problem although Shadow of Mordor can at times become a little unwieldy with enough foes and obstacles surrounding you. Counters to enemy attacks are generally easy to do with a single button, but dodging can run into trouble and those sharp pikes hurt – a lot.
As you keep slaying orcs and uruks in your travels you’ll be accumulating experience which you can eventually spend on new abilities, or some that unlock during specific story missions, so you can begin to see some unique flavours emerge. One of the Wraith abilities will let you use our bow to teleport to a target for instance, helping you get out of a tight spot. Then there’s always covering ground riding a Caragor, or even a mighty Rancor-like Gruag. Talion has multiple upgrade paths available to him. Not only can he upgrade his martial skills, and his ranged and stealth based wraith abilities, he also can modify each of three weapons with runes, which alter their effects when used. Coupled with unlockable skills and combat moves, Shadow of Mordor provides more depth in combat alone than practically any game on the market, and it's all in service of the wholesale slaughter of orcs.
But where Shadow of Mordor really shines...is the Nemesis System. Enemies are for the most part a generic horde you’ll be swinging a blade through or firing an arrow at, but that’s where Monolith’s Nemesis system plays its part. Sure you’ll be wading through the grunts of Mordor but very quickly you’ll find yourself being introduced to the higher echelons of orc and uruk society. Captains aren’t your average grunt as they’re much tougher with greater strengths, and early on they’ll have some debilitating weaknesses to exploit like a crippling fear of being burned.
Each of the captains – all the way to warchief – have their own name and ‘motivations’ to give a sense of what they’re thinking. The more interesting part about this system is how easily the deck can be reshuffled. As you start picking them off lesser uruks and orcs will rise to take their place. This means there’ll always be a command structure for Sauron’s army but it also provides an endless array of more challenging foes, as Monolith attempt to make them ‘unique’. It’s a façade to be sure as they end up spouting the same insults eventually, and the models are recycled with variations, but it’s a neat little trick that does try to keep things appearing fresh. To help the Nemesis feature more is the ‘memory’ these captains will have of previous encounters with Talion, so much so that they could be all bandaged up, their eyes turned milky white, or gloating you’ve yet to beat them at all and instead died by their hands many times. If you think it’s easy to take these guys out then you’ll be rudely awakened. Just because you're a Ranger doesn’t mean battles will be easy. As soon as those uruks start swarming around things get heated fast.
In the latter half of the game things switch up as you no longer have to just slice and dice your way through the uruk hierarchy, but can instead brand them as puppets that’ll do your bidding. It’s definitely a welcome change of pace, tactics and fun than just butchering a load more generated captains. It allows for some pretty interesting power struggles as you effectively ‘gain control’ to a degree.
Exploring the land of Mordor is where the game really shows its quality, and is highly recommended. Collectables, upgrades, side quests, weapon upgrade quests, artefacts, and hunting missions are littered throughout the world. They're a completionist's dream, adding more flavour and some interesting rewards.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is a strong foray into the Tolkien universe, backed up by popular combat from other major action series, with its own free-running style to boot. The Nemisis system does keep things a little fresh even if after a while it’s illusion of orc and uruk society does start to break down. The fact these captains are going about their business just as we are helps it feel more chaotic. It is without a doubt the best experience set in Middle-Earth, but also stacks up against any action fantasy adventure, whether with a cape and cowl or haystack diving.
10/10 - MUST PLAY - Highly Recommended!
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