Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor
Genre: Action RPG
Platforms: PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Developers: Monolith Productions and Behaviour Interactive
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
A muddy, desolate wasteland stretches out before you. Various encampments infested with orcs have sprung up everywhere, like a pox across the landscape. Looking to the ground, you notice a small flower pushing towards the sky in a desperate attempt to gain sunlight through the constant haze of ash. It is known as athelas and it has anaesthetic properties. With mild trepidation, you pick the flower from the stem and chew it to gain some relief from your wounds. The battle is only now beginning.
You are Talion, the protagonist in Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. Talion lived in the shadow of the Black Gate leading to Mordor, guarding against Sauron’s forces. He and his family were slaughtered in an attack, yet Talion remained alive when several orc chiefs attempt to use him as a sacrifice and accidentally bound him to an amnesiac wraith. He decides to destroy Sauron’s forces to avenge his family and learn more about his new ghostly companion.
It sounds like standard fantasy fodder (magic, death, vengeance) but to say Shadow of Mordor is engrossing is an understatement. Even as a minor fantasy buff, I couldn’t help but be drawn in by the rich history of the land included in the game. Every section feels deliberate and carefully designed. I played the PS4 version and though the landscape is moody and dark, it isn’t dull. It’s exquisitely menacing.
When I was first dropped into the main game after the backstory, I got a short combat tutorial. I was then given an objective and told to go to it. I’m always keen to ignore such instructions and see what happens, so that’s what I did. The game did not complain. Nothing stopped me from wandering around into random areas, attacking enemies and taking side quests. I even killed a captain before I finally gave up trying to test the boundaries of what the game would let me do before I did what it wanted. This is the true test of an open world and Shadow of Mordor passes with flying colours.
The much touted nemesis system lives up to its name. I was killed early on in the game when I strayed into a fort that I was ill equipped to handle. An orc giggled at me for a full 10 seconds when he first noticed my presence. I should have attacked him then or even run away instead of just being creeped out. Soon I was overwhelmed and he landed the killing blow. I watched as he was promoted to captain, with his terrifying giggling gnawing at my self-esteem. How could I permit him to live?
His name was Mûglûk Bright Eyes and I tracked him down. I tortured his fellow orcs to gather information on his weaknesses, watching their terrified expressions and hearing their screams as I used my wraith powers to read their minds because, as your wraith pal says, their minds cannot lie. I wiped that smirk right off the Mûglûk’s face and I felt damned good doing it.
The combat is impressively smooth and intuitive. Countless others have said that it is something of a cross between Arkham Asylum and Assassin’s Creed, using lots of counter attacks while leaping around enemies. I wish I could come up with some original way to describe it but that really is the best way, which is great because they’re both excellent combat systems. It’s not impossible to get the hang of every weapon and use them to your advantage against enemy weaknesses. Later on in the game you can even farm out some of your fighting to orcs using your wraith powers to control them. By far, it gives you more choices in how you play than anything else I’ve seen in a while.
The best advice I can give is don’t forget your wraith powers! Not only do these offer something different to the bog standard hack and slash style, they can really turn the tide in an overwhelming battle, which can happen FAST.
Another aspect that really shines is the dialogue between Talion and the wraith. It’s easy for big fantasy-fuelled adventures to take themselves too seriously, with characters spouting their lines through permanent frowns. Their chats can be surprisingly light-hearted at times, as can the dialogue between other main characters. Gollum is portrayed exactly as he was in the films, his large, darting eyes hinting at the dangerous tendencies lying just beneath his pathetic exterior.
Where the dialogue falls flat, however, is actually part of the nemesis system execution. As orcs wrestle for power amongst each other, new named leaders appear, each with strengths and weaknesses. This is great for battle but not so great at avoiding simple characters and dialogue repetition. As I was approaching one captain stealthily from the top of a wall, he was shouting about how awesome he is. I paused to look around and check for escape routes should too many orcs surround me once he was dead, only to hear him shout the same line over again. Intrigued, I sat upon the wall for a while longer and he kept saying the same thing again and again. It was from being funny to annoying very quickly.
The side quests are mostly fantastic and reward you with experience and upgrades (in the form of attachable runes) for your weapons. You can do things like hunt down artifacts, reforge forgotten weapons, and free slaves. These can also get repetitive over time, particularly as the slaves seem mostly interchangeable. This is par for the course in such large games but, hey, a girl can dream of an open world without repetition.
These problems are the tiniest specks of dust on an absolute masterpiece of a game. It’s one of the best releases this year and is definitely worth playing. If anything, it offers hope that more games will take the nemesis system (or something like it) even further to offer the most engaging experience possible. Everyone has their own nemesis story to tell. What will yours be?
- Nemesis system is actually engaging
- Large, open world with heaps of side activities
- Well written dialogue for main characters
- Slightly repetitive at times
- Uninspired dialogue for bit players