My first thoughts concerning ‘Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor’ consisted of: “At least it’s not another Middle-earth MMO.” Then, once I got round to seeing the reveal gameplay video, I knew this was not just another Middle-earth game full-stop. From the get-go, it was clear that Shadow of Mordor was a polished game, containing features that were not only revolutionary for any ‘The Lord of the Rings’/’The Hobbit’ tie-in, but for open-world games in general.
In fact, I feel it would do the game an injustice if I were to refer to it again simply as an open-world game. Shadow of Mordor is a sandbox game. What’s the difference? An open-world title allows the player to explore an open area without limitations, and whilst the game in question may allow you to control certain aspects of your environment, this control only affects the world at face-value and not to a further extent. A sandbox title, on the other hand, is an open-world game, but is further developed by allowing the player to affect the game’s inner layers (e.g. NPCs and their reactions to you). Shadow of Mordor is a great example of a sandbox title. This is because of its RPG elements; the foundations of which can be found in the game’s unique, ground-breaking ‘Nemesis’ system.
This system is what makes this game really stand-out as possibly the best single-player, Tolkien-based game ever created. This is how it works: if you encounter an Orc or Uruk captain in your travels, he will remember you, no matter the outcome of the battle you have (unless, of course, if you kill him). For example, if he successfully escapes before you can kill him, he will remind you of that fact when you next meet him. By this time, he may have been promoted to a higher rank and gained power, making him more difficult to defeat or scare. Another example could be that you come face-to-face with an enemy captain you’ve never met before. If he kills you, he will automatically be promoted and gain power within Sauron’s army. He will also gain considerable bragging rights when you next come across him in Mordor. And it isn’t just an underlying memory your foes have, but also a physical one as they’ll bear the injuries you gave them in your last fight. For instance, if you set them on fire but they lived, they will have burn marks in relevant places. The Nemesis system, then, is an absolutely fantastic addition to Shadow of Mordor and allows you and your friend to have two completely different experiences, which adds huge replay value to this already great experience.
In regards to story, Shadow of Mordor is set between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (you know you’re a Tolkien fan if you get interested in this game at that point alone). This is a fantastic period in Tolkien’s universe as this was when Sauron had just been defeated again, meaning the Dark Lord and his forces are forced to flee in the direction of Mordor in order to attempt to reclaim his former homeland. You play as Talion, a captain of Gondor, who has a wife and son. He and his family live on the Black Gate of Mordor, with his job being to stand watch over and protect the gate. As the forces used to guard the gate decrease and weaken, Sauron launches his attack. He is successful, and once the fight is won, his right-hand soldier, the Black Hand (voiced by Nolan North, although his talent is barely used), heads a ritual sacrifice of you and your family in order to bring back an Elf-lord. Instead of returning in a physical form, he re-enters the world as a Wraith and, requiring a body, he enters Talion’s, saving Talion in the process. In order to grant Talion his wish to die and see his family again, he and his ‘saviour’ must reach the Black Hand and kill him.
Along the way, you are also trying to discover the mysterious wraith’s past by uncovering artifacts linked to him in some way. The cutscenes that form the broken memories of the wraith are truly interesting and well-paced, allowing you to connect with the wraith more than you may have thought you would.
Without spoiling anything, the game’s ending is extremely disappointing, and is clearly designed to make you want to buy the game’s DLC Season Pass. (I can’t go into further detail without risking spoilers).
The missions that make up this surprisingly good story, whilst repetitive, are engaging and interesting. For example, later in the game, Talion gains the ability to command enemies, as you may have seen from the aforementioned reveal video. This supernatural power is gifted to him by the wraith that is within him. Once Talion has been given access to this ability, you can command a captain to start a riot or murder another Orc/Uruk captain. This means that you can build and develop your own personal army of Orcs and Uruks within Sauron’s army. Commanding more powerful captains enables you to initiate a power struggle and resultant battle with a warchief.
Before that point, though, you have to make do with gaining intelligence from an interrogation with a captain. This allows you to know who these captains are, what they look like, and where they are located on the map. If you want more specific information, you must collect intel scattered randomly around the map, or dominate and gain intel from a ‘worm’. This allows you to see exactly where they are on the map, as well as what a captain’s strengths and weaknesses are. The latter gives you a chance to think tactically before going into a battle. If the captain in question is invulnerable to ranged attacks (i.e. attacks with your bow), for instance, you know that trying to start the battle with any kind of bow attack would be useless as you would give away your position and, therefore, lose the element of surprise.
The world of Mordor in which this game is set offered plenty of opportunities for the developers of this game, Monolith Studios, to not only show off what they were capable of as world and level designers, but also gradually reveal certain parts of Mordor as Sauron’s grip over it tightens. Take Mount Doom, for instance: it wasn’t always a viciously active volcano with bare, rocky terrain surrounding it. If left, nature would take hold. Greenery would be seen, as well as an occasional, harmless smoke trail from the summit of the mountain. This, unfortunately, is never shown to the player at all. I mean, what is the first thing you think of if I said ‘Mordor’? I know my first answer would be Barad-dur (the Eye of Sauron’s tower) or Mount Doom. So do you get to at least see these two landmarks in your open-world travels? Nope, not even once! Maybe this is my disappointment talking here, but it absolutely astounds me that a game that is so meticulous in its creation of the Nemesis system and level design never gifts the player a single, in-game look at what represents Mordor to many, many people. The same people who will buy this game.
In terms of characters, Talion is the strongest and most memorable character in Shadow of Mordor. This is down to his significant character development and great voice-acting (by Troy Baker, voice of infamous: Second Son’s Delsin Rowe, and The Last Of Us’ Joel). As the main character, this is to be expected (take notes, Ubisoft *cough* Aiden Pearce *cough*). Other characters include Queen Marwen, a dwarf hunter (no, not someone who hunts dwarves… someone who hunts animals and happens to be a dwarf), and – er, oh yes – GOLLUM! Admittedly and unfortunately, he isn’t voiced by the man himself, Andy Serkis, but Liam O’Brien does a fantastic job nonetheless. There’s also a rather renowned/infamous character who makes himself/herself/itself known at some point, but I won’t spoil it for you if you are yet to see the latest trailers and interviews for the game. I stayed away from the videos as it neared release day for the sole reason of spoilers, and I suggest you do the same if possible. My mouth hit the floor when I realised who this character was, and yours hopefully will to. This is another thing that baffles me about Monolith: why would you reveal the character’s name and significance before the game comes out? Given that this revelation was only made clear towards the end of the game, it would be safe to assume that, at the time of making the game, they intended to keep it under wraps for shock value. Sure, drop a hint or two on Twitter, but don’t go all-out and reveal it! That’s just bad marketing.
It is at this point that I realise I am yet to touch on the game’s gameplay. I apologise. Anyway, Shadow of Mordor’s actual gameplay is extremely satisfying. This is largely down to the brilliant combat, which is heavily reminiscent of the ‘Batman: Arkham’ series, and I mean that in the best way possible. Combat is as smooth to transition into as it is to transition out of. Whilst this doesn’t sound particularly important on paper, it is crucial in the game itself as you can be easily overwhelmed in a battle, whether it be a spontaneous one, or a mission-based skirmish, meaning you’ll need often need to retreat temporarily (or permanently, no one will judge you). Countering requires concentration and, due to the vast number of enemies you can find yourself fighting, countering is easier said than done. Another great thing about combat is that the game doesn’t lock you to one weapon in the heat of battle. Got some room around you? Get your bow out for some quick headshot insta-kills. In addition to this, death always feels like an option due to a lack of regenerating health. The only time Talion will heal on his own is if he gets knocked down and is either allowed to stand back up, or defeats the enemy who knocked him down with a simple QTE (quick-time event) that gets harder to complete each time you are subdued. But does this mean that Talion feels under-powered? Far from it. When you ‘Wraith Stun’ an enemy and follow it up with numerous, brutal sword slashes you feel like an absolute (for want of a better word) badass. And that’s just one example!
However, I must also comment on the fact that combat can be extremely frustrating at times. The most common irritation I have experienced is that I would be easily winning a battle against numerous Uruks, possibly including one or two captains, as well as a warcheif. It is particularly important that I win this fight to prevent them from gaining power and/or being promoted. I’m on full/nearly full health and suddenly, out of nowhere, a captain uses a fire arrow on me which instantly kills me. There is no way to defend against it at all; I simply die. This is incredibly frustrating. Also, you could be facing off against a captain and multiple other enemies. One of them knocks you to floor and, instead of presenting you with a QTE to give you a second chance and regain some health, the game informs that you have “No Chance” to defend yourself from their finishing blow, and so you just die, regardless of whether or not you’ve been knocked down previously in the same fight.
In regard to travelling, fast travel is an option, but only after you climb and unlock “towers of silver”, as Talion calls them. Until then, you’ll have to make do with running everywhere. Whilst this doesn’t sound all that bad in theory, it is extremely boring and dull in practice as there are very few buildings to change up how you traverse the map. The buildings that you do come across are likely to be surrounded and/or infested with enemies, meaning you either have to fight them or run away from them before you can continue. If you do climb them, you should notice a similarity with the ‘Assassin’s Creed’ series and its free-running. Early on, you can unlock the ability to gain a temporary boost of speed after vaulting over an object if you hit ‘X’ at the right time. Whilst this can significantly decrease the time it takes to get from A to B, it feels like Monolith created this ability simply because they realised how tedious travelling would be without it. Later in the game, carrigors (large, savage and wild wolf-like creatures) can be mounted and used as a vehicle for Talion. They can also be used in combat as a weapon by ripping enemies limb-from-limb.
Unfortunately, the signature soundtrack of The Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit is not in the game. However, the game’s own music is very atmospheric, and whilst it didn’t come close to Howard Shore’s work, it did a very good job.
Overall, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is the best open-world – sorry, sandbox – game available on Sony’s next-gen beauty and really does set the bar high for any game attempting to do anything similar. Well done, Monolith!