Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor Review

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor features an original story set sometime between the events of The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring. You play as Talion, a ranger who commanded a keep protecting Gondor on its frontier with Mordor until it was overrun by orcs. The orcs slaughter Talion's family in front of him, and then turn a blade to Talion himself. Before crossing over to the other side, Talion is met by a wraith who was once a powerful elf but remembers little else of his past life. Now part man, part wraith, Talion sets off to seek vengeance for his family while also trying to disrupt the growing army of orcs and Uruk-hai that's gathering outside of the gates of Mordor. But he's also bound to the wraith that saved him, and compelled to aid the wraith in its quest to remember its past life as an elf.

The quick and dirty description of the gameplay in Shadow of Mordor would be "Assassin's Creed meets Batman Arkham," but such a simple description would really be selling the game short. While Shadow of Mordor clearly takes some inspiration from those games (with perhaps a dash of Red Dead Redemption, as well), overall it's a unique and very enjoyable experience.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor screenshot 10

The game takes place on an open-world map that's peppered with orc strongholds and crisscrossed with orc patrols and slavers. You're free to roam the map eliminating orcs by stealth or direct confrontation, completing hunting, gathering, and collecting challenges, and the like, and when you're ready to advance the story you travel to one of the available mission starting points. That's all pretty standard stuff for this style of game, but Shadow of Mordor's nemesis system injects a whole new level of life into the living-breathing world experience.

This is how it all works. The orcs are commanded by a small handful of war chiefs, and below them are several ranks of their captains and lieutenants. Promotion in these ranks is usually a matter of eliminating the next orc up the chain of command, or by performing a great deed in battle like, say, killing a ranger. When you're killed by an orc, you'll see the orc's name as he relishes in his victory and he'll earn an immediate promotion into the command hierarchy. The fact that you're dead but not really dead fits the whole gameplay conceit nicely - if you're killed in battle, you are brought back via the wraith world and restored to life again at the closest ancient elven Forge Tower. Since the game doesn't have to pretend that you never really died to keep the story going, it's possible for you to be recognized by an orc that killed you before. Should you meet again, he'll recognize you and make an extra effort to kill you again - once he gets over the initial surprise of seeing you among the living again. If he succeeds in killing you a second time, he grows in power and moves his way up the orc food chain - after all, he's now killed two rangers. Meet in battle a few times, and he'll make it his personal mission to seek you out and try to put you down for good.

When I was playing early in the game, I found myself overwhelmed by a horde of orcs and fell to a bolt fired by a crossbow wielding orc in the distance. Not too much later, I was about to put down a small orc patrol when suddenly I was being hit by bolts from somewhere. It was the same orc archer, and he turned the tide of battle against me. He was promoted again for his victory, and when I next encountered him he had his own retinue which he set upon me as he stayed a safe distance away and fired at me ... and now he had poisoned bolts. He appeared at other battles after that, always keeping his distance while poisoning me. After a couple more deaths, I decided that I had to hunt him down because he was beginning to interfere with my ability to complete any of the game's missions or challenges. I tracked him down to some ruins on a cliff side, so I knew that I had him boxed in. I then stealthily snuck around his camp, taking out his retinue slowly, carefully, and silently. After culling his minions I was able to challenge him directly with his back against the wall and his cohorts lying dead around him. This time the fight was more in my favor, as he did not have the skills to meet a pissed-off ranger sword to sword. When I finally cut him down for good, the feeling of satisfaction was immense and gratifying. I've beaten many an end game boss and many of those victories didn't feel nearly as good as it did when I struck the fatal blow against my arch nemesis.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor screenshot 6

Part of the beauty of this system is that your experience the game will be different. In fact, this was just one story out of many that came to life as I was playing the game. Each orc leader is unique, with a random collection of strengths and weaknesses. Some will try and hunt you down, some will seem to avoid you, and some will work their way up the orc ranks on their own by assassinating other orcs in duels or even throwing feasts to build a loyal following - you can even turn the tables on a nemesis by crashing his party and putting an end to his career.

The nemesis system is just one aspect of the game, and luckily the rest of Shadow of Mordor is excellent as well. Let's next turn our attention to combat in the game, which takes one of three forms - stealth, ranged, and full melee. Stealth mode is reminiscent of the gameplay in Assassin's Creed games. You need to stick to the shadows and plant life to stay out of sight as you approach enemies from behind to stick a dagger in their backs. There are other silent takedown options as well that include dropping on an enemy from above or pulling one down from the edge of a ledge. Should you be detected - or worse, an orc sounds the alarm to an entire camp - you'll very quickly find yourself switching to your sword for melee combat.

Swordplay in Shadow of Mordor has its similarities to the fights in the Batman Arkham games, at least initially. Combat is timing-based, and success requires you to deal damage with counterstrikes after executing a parry on an incoming attack. The game's implementation of this combat model is spot-on - the controls are tight and the animation smooth and fluid, without any delays caused by long, canned animated sequences. As you grow in power, though, the combat begins to give you access to more and more wraith-powered attacks that take the battles from great to awesome. The thrill of beating back an entire horde of orcs with magical sword strike flurries while building up monster hit streaks and by sucking their souls from their bodies is incredible. And I love that the game gives you a final chance to stave off death with a last ditch counter should your reflexes be quick enough. Making a quick turn to bat down an arrow with your sword or thrusting your blade up through the head of an orc who had knocked you on your back, and then jumping right back into the battle really makes you feel like an epic hero.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor screenshot 20

Ranged combat is a wraith power that gives you an ancient elven bow that fires magical elf shot - a limited resource that can either be scavenged from ancient ruins in the environment or generated by sucking the life out of an orc. When you use the bow you transition to the wraith world which gives you an enhanced view of enemies in the area, as well as a limited ability to slow time so that you can place your shots with precision. It's a great tool for taking out guards in watch towers or picking off a few stragglers before taking on a patrol, but don't expect to go all Legolas on the orcs. You're a ranger and you'll be spreading the butter on your toast with your sword in this game.

The game juggles a few parallel storylines and that seems to make it so that a couple of story missions are always available to you at most times. You can stick to one storyline for a few missions or jump back and forth if you'd prefer to keep things mixed up a bit. The story is written in such a way that you don't need to be a Tolkien fan to keep up with things, although if you've seen the The Lord of the Rings trilogy at least once it will go a long way towards putting everything into context for you. Purists may balk at a few of the liberties taken by the story, but they should probably just relax and enjoy the game.

There's a tremendous amount of gameplay in Shadow of Mordor, and it's so captivating, exciting, and utterly engrossing that I often found myself getting lost in it for long stretches of time, oblivious to the passing of time in my own world. And it's the kind of game that will have you thinking about it when you're not playing it, as well as looking forward to the next time you can jump back into it. Shadow of Mordor is without a doubt the best The Lord of the Rings game that I have ever played, and quite probably the best game I've played this year. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a great action game.

Final Rating: 95%. Middle-earth the way it is meant to be played.


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