There are several preconceptions that have been hung around Middle-earth: Shadow Of Mordor’s neck. Accusations of laziness in how its central mechanics have seemingly been cherrypicked from the genre’s strongest offerings; the unfavourable association that licensed products have with generally poor software; and then there’s the fact that games based on The Lord Of The Rings franchise have been almost universally average. Imagine our surprise, then, when we found Shadow Of Mordor to not only dispel such qualms but proves to be finely-tuned action adventure title with plenty of ideas of its own.
The finest of which is the Nemesis system. Set across the barren planes of Mordor is an Orc hierarchy that changes depending on your interactions within the world. It’s a hugely immersive mechanic, with the Uruks you encounter shaped by your previousinteractions, and each possessing their own unique traits and behaviour quirks. After several unpleasant encounters with Borg Evil Eye (who killed us once and fled from battle twice), his final (and unfortunate) skirmish
with our hero Talion began with him strutting onto the battlefield, his head wrapped in cloth and string thanks to too many nasty lacerations from our previous dust-ups.
You do end up forming small, meaningful relationships with the enemies you encounter, spurring grudge matches and vengeance missions. In fact, much of our first ten hours playing the game were spent scouring the land for those that previously wronged us, and plenty more joined the hit list with each subsequent death at the hands of previously anonymous Orcs.
This does tie into the central narrative, with hero Talion witnessing his family slain at the blade of the Black Hand of Sauron – a high-up lieutenant that yields power over his armies – and sets out on a mission of bloody revenge. Getting to the Black Hand involves passing through his Warchiefs and it’s up to you whether to use the Nemesis system to create advantages in completing that mission. For example, Captains can be interrogated for information on a Warchief’s personal bodyguards, and the hunting down of those bodyguards before fighting the Warchief himself will present a huge advantage. And other options become available as you progress and gain further abilities that enable you to manipulate the Orc infrastructure by recruiting enemies to your side.
The success of the system is as much down to the personality as it is the gameplay’s gripping, gratifying loop. The hours of dialogue and the huge diversity in characters is a magnificent achievement and elevates Shadow of Mordor’s combat above its hack-and-slash trappings. Of course, it’s helped in that department by lifting one of the best melee systems in the business, using Rocksteady’s Arkham series as a template for its action. It serves Monolith’s mature vision on the brand well, with punchy, flowing combat responsive and visceral; a slick combination of offensive moves and counters can turn a garrison of blood-hungry Orcs into mincemeat in minutes.
The intuitive moveset is bolstered by Wraith abilities. Familiarity once again strikes as the view in the Wraith world bears uncanny similarities to similar Detective modes in other games, however the range of enhancements to combat offer more critical and wider attacks. Also, ranged weaponry is entirely a Wraith trait, which, while slightly odd, does enable the bow to be used as a teleportation device as well as a weapon. But most impressive is the ability to dominate opponents, which enables players to enter the minds of Orcs (and the lessevolved beasts that lurk past the Black Gate), interrogate them and set them against their own masters.
This is given some convenient context within Tolkien’s own established lore, with the Wraith himself revealed to be Celebrimbor, the Elf who forged the Rings of Power. Celebrimbor and Talion set out to discover why they were destined to unite and along the way run into some familiar characters, including a welcome cameo from Gollum. That being said, tonally the script is at little at odds with its source, trying to capture the tone of the movies but occasionally descending into much darker and morbid territory – one skit involves an Orc looking for a sharper blade to mutilate a victim.
For the most part the character work and narrative offer some enjoyable beats, but the world itself is much less engaging. Mordor, as you may remember it, was an ashen wasteland, with a imposing mountain spewing magma while a flaming eye watched over its denizens. With Shadow of Mordor set before the events of The Lords Of The Rings and just after The Hobbit , such iconography doesn’t exist and Mordor itself is much healthier. Almost everything has been left to the developer’s artistic interpretation and it disappoints: a bland collection of toppled structures and makeshift Orc camps. As you start to spread outwards and unlock more of the map, there’s not much to distinguish one district from the other.
It’s disappointing that Shadow of Mordor couldn’t match the originality of its superb Nemesis system with a more engaging world, but the characters which populate it are more than enough to spur you through the campaign. Shadow of Mordor might owe something of a debt to numerous games that have come before it, but by adding its own flavour to the mixture the result is a surprisingly expansive and hearty experience that is more compelling than plenty that have come before it. A hugely entertaining, tongue-in-cheek and fulsome experience, it’s a worthy expedition whether you’re a Rings fan or not.