Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor Review – Orc Killing Simulator
Over the course of gaming history there have been dozens of games that have been set in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings universe. It seems unfair that only a couple can be regarded to as successful in their venture, and none have come close to equaling the quality of the feature films. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor changes that. It’s not only rooted in its lore, it’s fun enough to create new fans of the IP.
Shadow of Mordor begins with violent cinematics that portray the protagonist, Talion, and his family being sacrificed by the Black Hand. Talion is soon resurrected by the mysterious Elf Lord Calebrimdor. When he awakes, he and Calebrimdor are merged into one. And so Talion begins his journey of revenge.
Surprisingly enough, Shadow of Mordor’s story isn’t where it shines. Sure, there are some great cutscenes, but there’s only just enough that develops to keep you interested in finding out what comes next for Talion.
Instead of it relying on its story, its Nemesis system is what makes it stand out from other RPGs. This system allows dynamic evolution of the game’s many Orc leaders, Warchiefs and Captains alike. They battle each other for reputation, and gain strength in the process. You’ll see this clash of leadership develop before your very eyes.
Made better, the Nemesis system incorporates you as part of its development. If you happen to fall to one of the Orc leaders, instead of being punished with permanent death, you’re taunted and your opponent grows stronger. The next time you meet, he’ll refer to how much of a weakling you are before pursuing you. It’s easy to become involved in the game’s boss ecosystem. You’ll forge hatred for some of the bosses.
Additionally, each boss has his own attributes. Some are naturally weak to stealth attacks, while others require execution to be defeated. Instead of making you guess what each boss is vulnerable to, you’ll be able to acquire intel in a variety of ways to uncover information about a specific leader. You’ll find grunts around the open landscape that have the information you’re looking for, and even draw details from a boss before his death. It’s a fantastic system, and sets Shadow of Mordor apart from its competitors.
Gameplay is best described as a medieval fantasy version of the Batman Arkham games. You’ll spam a single attack button to melee foes, use well-timed button taps to counter them preventing damage and opening up opportunity, and stun them with thrown daggers. It’s also violent. You’ll be severing the heads of hundreds of Orcs within your first couple hours. Truthfully, most of the game is battling seas of Orcs as they charge you in packs. If you don’t end up liking the combat, there’s no way you’re going to enjoy the game. But there’s a good chance you’ll find it exciting.
Gameplay isn’t all about clashing with Orcs using your sword, though. You’re equipped with a bow that is capable of powerful one-hit headshots. It even has a focus system that allows you to slow down time for a few seconds, allowing for precision. It’s very potent, so you’ll want to make sure you keep your quiver full whereever you are.
The most surprising thing about the gameplay in Shadow of Mordor is it incorporates a well-executed stealth mechanic. You can sneak around easily and assassinate Orcs. Using parkour including superhuman-like climbing skills and quick feet, you can dispatch of most enemies without raising alarm. You’ll want to incorporate stealth into your strategy even if just to make situations easier to handle.
To add depth to the gameplay, you will have several options for customizing your character’s skill set. You’ll earn runes to slot into your weapons, giving them attributes such as the ability to instill fear in nearby foes upon execution, or heal on a critical attack. You can also increase your stats or unlock more rune slots on your weapons. Lastly, a skill tree allows you unlock new skills to incorporate into your arsenal. Early on Talion isn’t very adept at combat resulting in a much simpler gameplay experience, but as you progress he’ll become a much more dominant force. The progression is substantial, incentivizing your participation in content.
There are two weaknesses of Shadow of Mordor‘s gameplay, though, one of which is how health replenishing is handled. If you stay out of combat for a few seconds, it’ll regenerate like many other games, but only a small amount. To fully restore you’re health you’ll have to find a flower in the environment to eat… a flower. It’s kind of ridiculous, and given how hard enemies hit, unless you have tremendous reaction time you’ll be frolicking around looking for flowers often.
Additionally, the controls can fumble often. When you intend to scale an object, you’ll find yourself leaping over enemies or shimmying along the object. Other times when you want to move a certain direction, the game sends Talion somewhere else. Thankfully, the movement is cohesive, so most of the time it feels great, but you may end up dead a time or two due to its unreliability.
Shadow of Mordor has a great presentation. The visuals are as dark, inspiring confidence in Monolith’s ability to stay true to the universe. The environments aren’t all that varied, but have a good level of detail. The cloth physics and animations of Talion make him a joy to watch as he butchers Orcs. The cinematics are fantastic, too. If anything, they are what retain your interest in progressing the story.
The audio work is another highlight. The game’s cast is voiced by some of the most reputable voice actors in the business. Accompanied by an epic OST that even features songs specific to Orc leaders, it’s just what you need to become motivated for Orc slaughter.
Shadow of Mordor has two open-world maps that vary dramatically in style, both of which stay true to the spirit of Tolkien’s lore. These open-world environments house roughly 20 main missions, a healthy amount of optional challenges, and endless Nemesis fun. There are also collectibles including artifacts to look for, which bulk up the play value. In total, you can expect to get at least 22 hours out of the game.
If it weren’t for its Nemesis system, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor would just be another good The Lord of the Rings game. But it isn’t. It’s the best game the IP has ever seen. It’s fun to play, and the relationships created between you and its bosses become very personal. It stumbles in gameplay from time-to-time, and surprisingly doesn’t have all that interesting of a story. However, chances are you’ll have good enough of a time usurping Uruk leadership that you’ll get the enjoyment out of this RPG adventure that you’re looking for.
Jonathan Leack is the Gaming Editor for CraveOnline. You can follow him on Twitter @jleack.
Copy provided by publisher. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is available on PC, Xbox One, and PS4. Xbox 360 and PS3 versions will debut on November 18th.