Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor Review
Monolith Productions has developed something "precious"
Video games surrounding the lore of Middle-earth have always been hit or miss, with most falling in the latter category. This time around, Monolith Productions, in collaboration with Middle-earth Enterprises, Peter Jackson and the artists at Weta Workshop, is taking the reins of the franchise with Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor in hopes of creating a worthy entry that fits as a canon story of this fantasy setting.
Leading the narrative that takes place in between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is Talion, a ranger stationed at the Black Gate with his wife and son. After a brief introduction, the family meets an unfortunate end at the hand of Black Captains, who lead the Dark Lord Sauron’s army with blind loyalty. However, after witnessing the death of his family, Talion wakes up only to realize he is not dead. Instead, he discovers he cannot die and that an unknown wraith, whose motives are not yet known, now lives inside of him. The two realize their paths are connected and decide they must work together to learn about the wraith’s past, as well as put an end to the Black Captains.
The story is a mixed bag since there is not much to it. There are short cutscenes before and after most of the main campaign missions, but, other than that, the characters and settings never get fully developed. As a matter of fact, the story can be completed rather quickly if a player does not participate in the various side quests. Unless the numerous collectibles are found, much of the backstory to the settings and characters will be missed. It is disappointing to see such a lack of character development in Shadow of Mordor, especially since the game ends abruptly, but the gameplay more than makes up for it.
The third person action gameplay is smooth, exciting and easy to learn; Talion is an absolute force to be reckoned with, as he can take down numerous uruks without receiving a single scratch. Never has fighting as a ranger felt so enjoyable and visceral. Along with the many combative skills the ranger has, Talion is also fueled by the wraith’s power. The wraith’s abilities give Talion a supernatural edge against his enemies, such as the ability to use a bow that can slow down time, brand uruks to make them fight for you, tame and mount certain beasts, etc. Ability points are rewarded for experience gained, which allows players to obtain even more combat techniques. When the ranger’s and wraith’s skills are used together, a player can very well dominate a small army of uruks.
Anyone who has played a game from the Batman: Arkham franchise will feel at home with the combat system. Talion can swing his blade from foe to foe, countering when need be. Once the multiplier reaches a certain point, a special move, such as an execution or combat drain, can be used. These special moves are both flashy and brutal, and their force can be felt with every use. When not in direct combat, stealth is both advised and easy to get used to. While Talion is tough, the uruks are many and can overwhelm the player. With the hold of a button, Talion will crouch down and move silently. He can also make use of his surroundings by hiding in bushes, climbing nimbly up almost any structure, and balancing across beams and tight ropes in a style reminiscent to Assassin’s Creed. When sneaking up on an uruk, Talion can perform one of three options: an execution, a stealth drain - which eventually becomes brand later in the game - or grab the enemy to learn information on captains in the area; the last being one of the most important since it can come in handy with the game’s nemesis system.
The nemesis system is easily one of the best features in Shadow of Mordor. Throughout the Black Gate and Núrn, the two major areas in the game, there are uruk war chiefs and captains. These warriors are, for the most part, much tougher than their dimwitted followers, and each of them have different strengths and weaknesses, as well as different personalities. As mentioned earlier, Talion can interrogate uruks to learn the strengths and weaknesses of these captains, which can give him a major advantage when making a move on a target. Once Talion faces off against these uruk captains and war chiefs, they will begin to learn Talion’s fighting style, and some of them may even grow in resentment to the ranger. The uruks Talion faces off against multiple times will remember him and make comments about how they will gut him like a pig this time around, leading to the ranger developing a nemesis that will crave to destroy him. Should Talion fall in battle against any of these captains, they will not only increase in power but in rank as well.
The ranking system in the uruk army is extremely important to keep an eye on. Since the uruks’ primary focus is on becoming more powerful and making their way to the top, these captains will do almost anything to receive a promotion. Through events called “power struggles,” the uruks will ambush their fellow captains, hold feasts in their honor, propose duels against higher-ranked officials, and impose their will on recruits. Players have the option to interfere in these power struggles, altering promotions and humiliations how they see fit. If players decide to not interfere in these matters, the uruks will progress on their own becoming more powerful and increasing in rank. One impressive feature is that any uruk can become a captain. For example, if Talion is taken down by uruk henchman number 34, that uruk will receive a name, become someone of importance, and be promoted to the rank of captain.
Two other impressive feats are the look and sound of the game. The environments are beautiful, contrasting from each other and free to explore. At the Black Gate, the atmosphere is dreary and imposing, while Núrn flourishes with color and plant life. Each of these locations warrant exploration to see the detail placed into the landscapes and discover collectibles hidden throughout the lands. The orcs inhabiting these areas are also extremely well designed, exhibiting realistic facial expressions of terror or anger at Talion’s presence. Talion himself is a joy to watch maneuver; his cape flows freely with the wind and each step, his movements and transitions are smooth and seamless, and his brutal execution techniques will surely entertain players for quite some time. The voice acting fulfills its purpose and more with Troy Baker leading the cast. Talion immediately comes across as the weary family man out for vengeance. Backing him up is Alastair Duncan who gives an intimidating performance as the wraith, especially when he claims an uruk for interrogation. The uruks’ cries are also gratifying as Talion finishes them, delivering sound effects that enhance the brutal action.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is the possibly the best game this lore has to offer. Although the narrative and character development could have been stronger, the gameplay more than makes up for it. The action is visceral and constantly enjoyable, and the amount content the game has to offer will keep players preoccupied for some time. With the nemesis system players can create rivalries with uruks both intentionally and unintentionally, creating new experiences with each battle. Fans of either Middle-earth or action games should definitely take an interest in Shadow of Mordor.