What do you get when you cross Batman, Ezio from Assassin’s Creed and Viggo Mortensen? A Lord of the Rings-based videogame which is more than a little bit special.
Games based on the Lord of the Rings books and movies haven’t exactly set the gaming world on fire. In fact, if anything they’ve inspired a certain cynicism in gamers who’ve learned to be wary of games sporting the LOTR label, which is probably why Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor doesn’t use it despite being based on Tolkien’s fantasy works.
The change is most definitely for the better: Shadow of Mordor doesn’t continue the tradition of Lord of the Rings games sucking because it’s very, very good indeed. It blends the beauty of next-generation graphics with ideas torn from several popular franchises, and casts players into a living, breathing and incredibly beautiful open world that genuinely responds to their actions. Think Lord of the Far Cry Batman Creed, and you’ll have a good idea of what awaits you.
But that’s not all. Shadow of Mordor has a personality all of its own, too, that makes it well worth your time and money.
You are the lone ranger
The basic premise of the game is that you’re Talion, a Ranger of Gondor on a quest to avenge the death of his wife and son. He is aided by a mysterious wraith who possesses him at the moment of his own death, an act that saves his life but which binds him and the wraith together. The wraith, whose name I won’t reveal, acts as a bridge between the waking world and the spirit world; in so doing he gives Talion some pretty cool combat powers with which to get his revenge while they search for answers together.
Answers and revenge are both sought by raging through the land of Mordor murdering Sauron’s army of orcs in spectacularly violent ways in a bid to get the attention of – and ultimately kill – the Black Hand, the elite unit responsible for killing Talion’s family. As you make progress, the story shifts and changes until you’re actively pursuing a bigger objective than mere revenge, eventually placing Talion on a collision-course with Sauron himself.
The game’s meat-and-potatoes, and what you’ll spend most of your time doing, is killing orcs with Talion’s sword, dagger and bow in delightfully violent ways. But you can’t just wade in and start chopping, or else Talion will die very quickly since he’s so ridiculously outnumbered all the time. He is, after all, one of the only free humans in Mordor; everyone else is either a slave or an orc.
Getting the better of the orcs in Shadow of Mordor involves using the best tools for the situation, and not being afraid to switch between stealth, ranged attacks and the sword on the fly. There are a few issues with the game’s Artificial Intelligence that can be exploited; for instance pursuing orcs can lose you quite easily if you break line of sight with them and hunker down in a handy bush until they give up (a tactic I employed on many occasions). I know that’s not much of a stretch – orcs are meant to be very dumb – but I often did that with them barely a metre behind me.
They also tend to dismiss dead orcs after a few seconds if they can’t see you and go back to what they were doing, making them easy pickings for stealth players but some situations more than a bit absurd. I remember dropping a huge shield-bearing orc with a headshot right in the middle of a densely-populated stronghold, ducking out of sight and listening to his Captain say “Orcs die all the time, it’s not my problem” when he found him, after which he simply wandered off. I mean I know they’re a callous, stupid bunch, but damn – not even a cursory investigation? Poor show, orcs.
While you’re learning the game’s ropes, you will die. A lot. And that’s okay because the game has a unique Nemesis system that tracks who you’ve killed, and who has killed you in a way that plays directly into the storyline.
Death in Shadow of Mordor doesn’t have a traditional penalty: instead, when you die, whoever killed you gains in power within Sauron’s army and rises through the ranks accordingly, moving from lowly grunt to Captain, and eventually up to War Chief should their win-streak continue.
Should you encounter your killer again – and you will, for you’re not the only character with a mysterious ability to return from the dead – they will remember your previous encounter and taunt you if they won or promise retribution should they have been on the wrong end of the fight. It’s a neat mechanic that inspires a love-hate relationship that makes the conflict just that much more personal.
Even better: if you’re good enough, there’s a way to ensure Captains don’t come back. All you have to do is kill them with a decisive blow that takes their heads off, and you’ll never have to listen to them taunting you again. It’s very satisfying.
As you’d expect, unranked orcs go down quite easily but Captains and War Chiefs are much harder to kill. They have their own strengths and weaknesses which Talion must discover before engaging them, otherwise it’s tickets for him.
He does that by finding bits of intel, gleaned from documents found in the world itself or from specially-designated “worms”, orcs who spill the beans when grabbed and interrogated. Once he knows how to engage his target, taking it down becomes a matter of finding and exploiting its weaknesses which can be anything from a fear of Caragors (the dog-like beasts that wander the lands) to being vulnerable to explosions or stealth attacks, or a combination.
Knowing those is the difference between trying something and failing, and orchestrating events in a way that the kill is quick and easy. It’s a great way for the game to make players feel smart; I know I did when I snuck undetected into a heavily-populated orcish stronghold and took out the toughest-looking badass orc I’d ever seen with an arrow to the head – his one vulnerability. So good.
Power corrupts etc.
Killing Captains leaves a power vacuum within the army’s hierarchy, which can be filled by other orcs as they fight among themselves. Each time you die or you decide to fast-forward time a bit, the orcs in Sauron’s army jostle for position, resulting in an ever-changing power landscape and a world that feels like it’s genuinely responding to your actions.
Later on in the game, you’ll get the ability to turn orcs – including Captains – to your side and activate them to fight for you whenever you want. Since Captains eventually become bodyguards to War Chiefs, you can cleverly manipulate the power hierarchy into your favour by planting “branded” bodyguards, making springing surprise betrayals on the War Chiefs a decidedly satisfying affair. Not to mention taking them out very one-sided, hilarious fights.
Shadow of Mordor isn’t an RPG in a strict sense, but it does have a levelling system that expands Talion’s abilities as he accumulates experience points (XP), Mirian and Power points.
Each unlocks different things: XP unlocks attribute points that can be invested in a range of combat-enhancing abilities, Mirian unlocks extra health and focus as well as rune slots for Talion’s weapons (more on that in a bit) and power grants access to new abilities. You don’t get access to the most advanced combat abilities, for instance, without having accumulated the requisite level of Power.
These have a dramatic effect on Talion’s combat readiness, unlocking things like execution moves that he can perform after building up a combo meter, the ability to pin a fleeing orc in place with an arrow
to the knee to his legs and even giving him 20 seconds of free use of the most devastating combat combos in the game. I was very happy with the choices, and felt like every one of them added something genuinely useful to Talion’s offensive arsenal.
Instead of dropping loot like armour and new weapons, orc Captains and War Chiefs drop runes that can be added to Talion’s weapons to make them better, and naturally the stronger the orc, the better the rune.
Each weapon has five rune slots that must be unlocked through the accumulation of Mirian, and runes do things like offering a percentage chance to regain health or focus on a certain type of hit, a chance for orcs to run away when seeing headshots, that sort of thing.
They’re not essential, but they can change the tide of battle in unexpected ways, like landing a headshot with your bow and scaring the hell out of half the attacking orcs, causing them to run for the hills and leaving you to easily handle the stragglers. That’ll come in handy a few times, trust me.
So much vowlence
By far my favourite thing about Shadow of Mordor is the unapologetic, graphic violence Talion does to the orcs, whom I grew to despise. Talion’s dagger is perhaps the most violent with its up-close shankings, stabbings and throat-cuts, but the sword’s ability to remove heads and limbs with brutal execution moves is just as satisfying.
The slow-motion finishers Monolith put in when Talion performs these graphic executions are stylish to the max, making every fight a ballet of death and every kill an event, to the point where I honestly couldn’t get enough of the combat, even if I didn’t win every time.
The bow is about the most tame of Talion’s death-dealing arsenal, but it’s still cool to watch orcs take an arrow to the head and fly backwards in the direction it was travelling.
Seeing Talion interrogate orcs and then stab them right in the face afterwards never quite lost its shock value, either. Seriously, this is one violent game that actually justifies its M rating, so if you have small kids, don’t let them play it.
Satisfaction almost guaranteed
I’ve said “satisfying” several times in this review, and that’s because after playing Shadows of Mordor, I am one happy gamer. It has everything I like about open world games, from interesting side quests to collectibles to the freedom to explore, which provided just the right sort of background for its tight, focused story to unfold. And the Nemesis system was an unexpected bonus that gave my playing purpose and direction, as well as being a lot of fun to mess around with.
Monolith eschewed a zillion main story missions and instead included just 20 which, along with the sidequests and exploring I did gave me just over 40 hours of entertainment. Sure, nobody’s going to be winning any prizes for the storyline (spoiler alert: Talion wins in the end) but it was enjoyable enough in its own right, with enough twists and turns to keep it interesting without drowning me in exposition.
But without its incredibly flexible combat options (and unflinching violence) and the decent upgrade system in place, Shadow of Mordor wouldn’t have been half the game it turned out to be. Fortunately every piece of the game works well on its own and together with the rest, creating a game that can be legitimately said to be greater than the sum of its parts.
If you’re a Lord of the Rings, Assassin’s Creed or Batman fan, you owe it to yourself to play this game.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is out now for PC (R499), Xbox One (R799), PlayStation 4 (R799), PlayStation 3 (R699) and Xbox 360 (R699).