Developer: Monolith Production
Publisher: Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment
Release Date: September 30th, 2014
Available on: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Reviewer’s note: I played this game on a PlayStation 4. There may be differences between versions.
For a long time (well, since 2012) I said that Lego Lord of the Rings was the best Lord of the Rings game ever made. This was good for Lego, though it made it seem like Lord of the Rings just had a hard time getting much past a few decent action games, a decent RTS, and a decent turn-based RPG. Finally with Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor we have a Lord of the Rings game that goes beyond decent and into the realm of excellent.
With one exception, that being the story. Taking place between The Hobbit and the main trilogy, Shadow of Mordor puts you in the role of Talion: a ranger who watches his family get brutally murdered by the Black Hand of Sauron before getting his own throat slit. Yet instead of dieing Talion finds himself bound to a wraith who pulls him out of the afterlife and back into Mordor. Now Talion is on a quest for revenge against Sauron’s captains while also hoping to discover just who exactly this wraith is and what his ties to Sauron are. Some emotional scenes near the beginning of the game work out really well, and some of the side characters are really enjoyable, but overall the plot itself is just a generic revenge story set in the Lord of the Rings universe. Talion kind of takes the whole wraith thing without even blinking an eye, Gollum makes an appearance because it feels like the developers wanted an excuse to have another character from the movies, and the whole “Saruman uses magic to turn the good king evil” plot point is basically copy and pasted from the movies. It’s messy and, worse, clashes with Lord of the Rings lore at times.
Yet while the main story flounders I found the little individual stories you’ll create while hunting down the Uruk captains to be entertaining. See, in Shadow of Mordor your enemies will be led by captains, that can roam the world and partakes in specific actions. Each of these captains have different personalities, strengths, weakness, and partake in different activities. One may spend his time doing nothing but trying to throw as many feasts as possible as quickly as possible, while another may challenge other Uruk to duels because he thinks fighting is fun. Uruk go up and down in rankings depending on how they carry these activities out, and if you get killed by them they’ll get an instant promotion. A lot of the game will be about making sure you can predict and exploit their patterns and fears so you have an easier time killing the captains.
Then it gets even better once you gain the ability to brand Uruk (Something that, a little disappointingly, doesn’t show up until the last third of the game). You can’t do much with regular Uruks outside of asking them to fight for you and making their heads explode, but if you nab a captain then the options open up. You can ask them to become bodyguards to Warchiefs so you can have them stab them in the back later. Or you can feed them other Uruk to increase their level so you can farm a better rune from them to upgrade your weapons. Get them promoted to Warchief and you can flat out start a riot in Mordor. It’s a really neat system that opens the system up even further.
All of this is wrapped around a really well made combat system which, admittedly, is pulled right out of the Arkham games. Not that it’s a bad thing mind you, as the Arkham games have some of the best combat around. As combat flows you’ll be alternating between attacking your enemies, countering their attacks, and stunning them to set them up for stronger attacks. Later in the game you can get special one hit kill executions, throw knives for impromptu ranged attacks, and use a special area-stun on the enemies. One ability that is unique to Talion is the bow. At anytime you can hold down left trigger and draw your bow, which puts the game into slow motion and lets you aim in third person. Besides just simply shooting Uruk, you can also gain abilities that allow you to use the bow to teleport, shoot at fires to create explosions, and distract Uruk to sneak around them.
Sneaking is also important as sometimes you just need to avoid the fight or catch someone by surprise. Similar to combat, sneaking feels like it took some notes from other games, but this time it’s the Assassin’s Creed series. All you have to do is hold down the right trigger and avoid enemy line of sight. You can climb various buildings and structures to avoid enemies too, and also use spells to distract them or make them investigate your location. Unfortunately Shadow of Mordor did take some of the bad with the good, and there were times I was having difficulty getting Talion to actually climb how I wanted him to or to grab the correct object. Fear plays an important part with sneaking around as well. You can open up animal’s cages, drop fly nests, or even use a special brutal kill to scare enemies into running and leaving the battlefield.
Utilizing all of these abilities, you’ll go through 20 story missions which takes about 12 – 15 hours. Besides the story missions there’s a wealth of side content to do. Your sword, knife, and bow all have 10 special missions created to utilize them in different ways. There’s another 24 missions that involve rescuing slaves from the Uruk, and both hunting and survivalist challenges that require you to kill animals and find herbs. Finally, there’s a decent amount of collectables scattered around the open world of Mordor that can help build the world a little more. None of that is extremely unique, but it’s all good enough that nothing stands out as being a problem.
Actually Shadow of Mordor does so much right that I had to think a bit to figure out what I didn’t like about the game. Besides the crummy story and occasionally wonky climbing I only came up with a few other things. One thing was that the game was too easy. Oh, not at first mind you. At first I was actually dying quite a bit and further powering Sauron’s army. Rather, after I gained a good chunk of the abilities Talion was pretty much an unstoppable god force that wrecked every Uruk in his way. The second problem I had from the game stemmed from boss fights. Outside of one neat fight against a giant Graug, every boss fight in the game fell flat. An early fight against a Ghul had so many enemies swarm you that it was frustrating to keep up. Another boss was basically just a regular enemy with extra health while a late game stealth mandatory boss was so easy that I wasn’t entirely convinced it was a real fight. Also, for some unfathomable reason, the last boss fight was just a series of quick time events, something especially problematic when there wasn’t a single quick time event in the rest of the game.
Still, few errors aside, Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor holds up very well. The nemesis system is an amazing thing that I hope to see in more games, and the rest of the gameplay makes for a very fun open world action game. Finally we have a Lord of the Rings game that doesn’t involve Legos that I feel comfortable calling the best.