Ordinarily I’d avoid a ‘Middle Earth’ game like the plague. I’m a bit funny when it comes to fantasy games and even funnier when it comes to movie tie-ins. Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is both.
To say my alarm bells were ringing as I slipped the disc into my PS4 would be an understatement.
Shadow of Mordor is a third-person action game very much in the same mould as Warner’s other top-selling Batman: Arkham series. Apart from a few tweaks, the combat is pretty much the same. More on that later.
I remember during a conversation I had with Patrice Désilets, a few years ago, where he suggested that the Batman games were perhaps inspired by his Assassin’s Creed games. He was probably right.
Well, this time developers, Monolith, took notes. Quite a few notes, in fact- from both the Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry games.
But let’s not get precious about it (pardon the pun). As a gamer, I have no problem with developers getting “inspired” by gaming mechanics that work.
This game is set somewhere between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Players take on the role of a ranger of a Gondor called Talion who, during an attack by Sauron’s forces, is executed along with his family.
Instead of joining his family in death he is resurrected and, sort of, possessed by an amnesiac wraith. Both man and wraith occupy the one body, except in the shadowy wraith world where they can both have a nice chat. Together they head off into Mordor, one to avenge his family the other to unlock his past.
Story wise, that’s about all you need to know. The wraith starts piecing his memories together and Talion gets to lop off an incredible amount of Orcs’ heads. In their quest they form unlikely alliances with an Orc called Ratbag, Hirgon, Ranger Deserter and the former ring-bearer, himself, Smeagol.
In a few words, Shadow of Mordor is basically an Orc combat game. Or to be more precise, an Uruk-Hai combat game, the enemy for the most part actually being the Orc’s larger brethren.
The game starts with Talion in the land of Mordor, which is split into areas. Each area has a Forge Tower which must be climbed up and activated. Once activated all the areas of interest are then highlighted on the map (sound familiar). Getting to a mission is simply a case of running off in the right direction, or following a waypoint indicator.
Being set in Mordor, the scenery is a bit bleak. Whilst there are a few interesting settlements, Orcs were never noted for their architecture. For the most part Mordor is very generic, rugged terrain with a few similar-looking ruins set amongst some larger Orc encampments.
But it does look very nice. During the day the blue sky reflects in the puddles on the ground and in the evening the sunshine casts an orange tinge as beams of light dance between the shadows.
But the developer’s effort when it comes to the visuals has clearly been focused on the creatures, themselves. The Uruk character models are amazingly realistic with scars, manky eyes and toothless snarls. They look great and really add something to the game.
Gone are the days of cookie-cutter armies, all the bad guys in this game have a certain amount of individuality about them, and there can be so many of them. You can be attacked by twenty foot-soldiers, three or four brutes and a few archers and spear-throwers off to the side. If things are coming to a head you can have a few Captains and maybe and Warchief thrown in for good measure.
These are epic scraps and the game gives you all the freedom you need to maintain an awesome brawl that’ll leave you breathless.
In order to bring us such a satisfying combat experience, the developers have managed to successfully transpose the sublimely satisfying combat from the Batman game from the streets of Gotham into the world of Middle Earth. And it is simply wonderful.
Talion attacks using his sword, dagger and bow- for melee, stealth and ranged attacks. Melee combat is all about timing strikes and counter-strikes. You keep hitting your opponents until they fall.
If you have the chance you can finish the enemy whilst they are down or just keep on hitting them when they are back on their feet until they finally expire. The Wraith Stun ability is unlocked very early on. This special attack stuns the enemy, allowing the wraith to unleash a lightning fast barrage of blade strikes to finish the creature off. Your common Orc can also be grabbed and either used as a shield, repeatedly stabbed until dead, drained or interrogated.
Tailon can stealth attack an enemy from behind and take him out silently. The strike from above ability adds vertical attacks to the ranger’s deadly repertoire.
Ranged attacks call upon the wraiths power to slow time for a short while. A head-shot, in most cases, is an instant kill – so it’s worth practicing. Ranged attacks use elf-shot, which can be found lying about or obtained by draining nearby enemies.
Of course, all this can be upgraded.
By spending XP you unlock some pretty vicious attacks (with exploding heads etc.), brutalising stealth kills from above, teleporting attacks and all manner of others.
Another way to kill Orcs is by freeing Caragors.
These are huge tiger-like beast that like the taste of Uruk-Hai. They also like the taste of rangers. You free them by firing an arrow at the creatures’ cages, in a similar way to the tigers in Far Cry 3.
With the right ability unlocked the Caragors can be tamed and ridden. Whilst standing above one of the creature’s cages, follow the prompt and successfully complete an easy quick time event and you are done. From the back of a Caragor you can fire your bow, drain the creature for elf shot, swing your sword and order the creature to bite the enemy. If you dismount the Caragor will just carry on attacking the enemy until you get back on or it is killed.
As you’d imagine in a place as chaotic as the dark realm of Mordor, there’s a fair amount of political unrest. Whilst the Uruk are not particularly fond of rangers, they aren’t particularly fond of each other either. Also, status, it seems is everything to the discerning Uruk.
And this is where the Nemesis system comes in to play, a game mechanic which forms a large part of the game’s longevity.
The whole show is run by a number of Uruk-Hai Warchiefs, under which is a motley collection of Captains. The game features a seemingly endless parade of very unique Uruk Captains, each with their own name, personality traits and weaknesses.
In order to progress in their careers, the Captains fight amongst themselves for power. However, the best route to success for an up and coming Orc is by killing you, Talion – the player.
As you wander about Mordor or complete missions you will find yourself in regular skirmishes. If you find yourself about to be dispatched, just before the fatal blow, you are given a saving chance via a simple quick time event. If successful you will watch as your assailant is suitably chopped up. If you fail then it’s back to the local Forge Tower for you.
Before you respawn, you are shown what effect your death had on the Orcs’ tribal hierarchy.
Firstly, the Orc that murdered you will gloat about your death and get a bit excited about his imminent promotion. He’ll then be given a unique name, a title and get some new armour. The victorious creature will go from a nobody to a Captain in the dark lord Sauron’s Uruk army.
So, by screwing up you create your enemy. With every death the Orcs get stronger. If you choose to go after your killer, the Orc will likely recognise you and most definitely taunt you about its previous victory.
If you are going to successfully take on Sauron’s Uruk Captains and Warchiefs you are going to need to know all you can about them.
Interrogating Orcs gets you the intel that you need. If you just want a name, any Orc will do.
For more details like strengths and weaknesses you need to interrogate either special loose-tongued Orcs, called worms, or other Captains and Warchiefs.
Interrogation, which is fatal for the victim, is carried out by grabbing them, as you would to stab them or throw them. You just press the button.
Captains and Warchiefs are usually going to need softening up a bit in order to be grappled. As you hold the Orc and about to probe it’s mind, the look of absolute terror in the creature’s eyes is something that I’ve never before seen in a video game. The emotional despair in those eyes is a credit to the developers’ skill.
If you are successful in killing a Captain he will drop a rune which can be added as a buff to weapons, providing a slot for it has been previously unlocked. Slots can be purchased using currency obtained by successfully completing side quests.
Dotted about the various areas are a number of bonus challenges. They are relatively short and usually involve having to dispatch a target, or series of targets, in a certain manner. Success is rewarded with XP and cash.
There’s also a lot of optional missions, pitting players against Captains, which involve things like spoiling an Orc feast, freeing slaves and gate-crashing executions. Again, these are all slightly less arduous than the main campaign missions. They offer up a quick bit of fun rewarded by victor over a Captain and that all important XP, if successful.
As you’d expect the world is scattered with collectables. These items unlock lore and the wraith’s memories.
Every time you die the game really rubs it in as the victorious Orc gets his promotion. Resurrected, you now have the opportunity to avenge your death by hunting the Orc that killed you. Occasionally, you will also get the opportunity to avenge the death of another player, which is a nice touch.
With all the Orcs just wandering about, the side missions and collectables, it’s very easy to get distracted from the main campaign. I spent a majority of my time just roaming the landscape causing trouble and collecting things. This is a game that will definitely not leave you bored.
I sincerely hope that Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is the start of a new franchise for Warner Entertainment. It certainly feels that way.
I could argue that the game lacks depth. But this is a game that’s not pretending to be Skyrim or The Witcher, it’s a game that just wants to be fun to play.
And it is.
The story is paper-thin, but nicely told via some beautiful pre-rendered animations. The subdued plot is actually just enough without getting in the way of the gameplay.
Whilst I’d have like to have seen a little more variety in the game environment, it still looks nice and does the job. Maybe this will be improved for the next outing.
Regardless, the satisfying combat and the nemesis system more than makes up for any of the game’s shortcomings.
For a game that I thought that I’d dislike, it was a very nice surprise to find myself getting so engrossed. This is a game that I can see myself returning to for a long time to come.