Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is the best Lord of the Rings game I’ve ever played. It’s that simple. It takes the gameplay of franchises like Assassin’s Creed and Arkham City, throws new gameplay wrinkles into the fold, and adds a good character to make your time in Middle-earth exciting. But it’s not all Hobbit stew and potatoes.
Taking place between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor has you play as Talion, a ranger of Gondor that guards the Black Gate of Mordor. After he and his wife and child are killed by Sauron’s forces, Talion is revived with Wraith-like abilities from an Elven master smith who now occupies the same body. Together, you’ll grow in power, learn the story of this Elven spirit, encounter characters like Gollum, and hopefully exact your revenge on those that killed your family.
Aesthetically, Shadow of Mordor is a pleasure to look at. It’s almost cinematic in quality, the lighting is excellent, and character models are great. Middle-earth comes to life with every breeze that moves the grass and rustles the leaves of trees. The map is of decent size, and you unlock another whole area about half-way through the game. Eventually, you’ll be able to travel back and forth between them as you please. Fast travel makes getting to certain areas for quests easy. Not only is the game easy on the eyes, but on the ears as well. Troy Baker does the voice for Talion, and he’s never bad. The soundtrack is Peter Jackson worthy, and the overall voice acting and sound production is superb.
Then there’s the gameplay. If you want to feel like a badass with a sword, bow and dagger, play this game. While you play the game like Assassin’s Creed, the combat is Arkham City. The action is fact, impactful and brutal. You start off weak as Talion, relying on attacks and counters to get to a high enough combo so you can pull off an execution. Executions are insanely satisfying, brutal, and cool to watch. They usually end in decapitation. Not Ned Stark decapitation; we’re talking cool, swiping off orc heads decapitation. As you get stronger, you’ll unlock more abilities, takedowns, level up your weapons to make them stronger, and lower the streaks you need to pull off consecutive executions. Once you’re well-equipped, about 75 percent through the main story, combat feels swifter than Legolas at Helm’s Deep.
This is the way to get 'ahead' in the Nemesis system.
How you get to be this strong is by gaining both experience and power. There’s so many side quests (freeing slaves, weapon challenges, etc.) that will reward you with experience and upgrade currency that you’ll easily be able to dump 20+ hours in the game and not be 50% complete. Experience is attained with every action you do — stealth kills, arrow kills, saving slaves, you name it. Power is given through defeating Orc leaders, Captains, Lieutenants — all part of the power struggle happening in the game.
And that brings me to what I consider the best part of Shadow of Mordor — the Nemesis system. There are five Orc Warlords. Each one has bodyguards, Captains and other orcs under them. There’s constant power struggles, duels and jockeying of position. If you want to take out a Warlord, it’s wise to kill the orcs under them first. You’ll also need to decide when to strike at a Warlord, because if you die, new orcs fill some of the ranks and power struggles play out. Also, that orc that killed you will rise in strength and become a certain rank, even if it’s just a regular orc at first. The Nemesis system really picks up in the second act of the story, when you get the ability to brand enemies and have them carry out your orders. Then you can send a branded orc under your control to assassinate others and have them rise to the rank of Warlord.
I did find faults with Shadow of Mordor as well. For as much as I love the Nemesis system, the decisions of who you want to rise to Warlord under your control doesn’t seem to really make much of a difference. I also think it’s rather annoying that I have to travel to that Orc and dominate him in order to issue him orders. The problem I also have with branding orcs in general is that they didn’t always follow me as I fought through a Stronghold. I can tell them to attack at a certain moment, or kill them all with the press of a button, but there’s no follow command.
My other complaint has to do with the ending — don’t worry, no spoilers on the fights or what happens. Essentially, you have this awesome combat system that drives the game and empowers you. In what should be the coolest two fights of the game, the combat system is removed and replaced with what’s basically a QTE (quick time event). It’s really disheartening and I felt a bit cheated. What did I power up Talion so much for if not to use that power in the final moments of the game. Luckily, after the main story ends, you’re able to keep playing to complete challenges, take over all of the orcs, and power up Talion even more. Another complaint I have is that there’s only a few characters that you interact with. The story will have you meet three or four characters, and each are in a few quests, but after that they’re gone. They’re in and out of the story so quickly that it’s hard to form any sort of attachment. I hope they’re included in more DLC, but some human, dwarf or elf NPCs or villages to change tasks up a bit would have been nice.
Overall, Monolith has done an incredible job with Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. It remains faithful to Tolkien’s lore but isn’t a slave to it. There’s a lot of depth to the gameplay, the combat is incredible, and after 30 hours put into the game, I still want to keep playing. I just wish combat wasn’t taken out of your control when it should have mattered most. I’m curious to see where the future take Shadow of Mordor. For now, it’s impossible to not have a blast playing this game. Any fan of Lord of the Rings, Assassin’s Creed or Arkham City should give Shadow of Mordor a go.
Reviewed on PS4 with a provided review copy.