Don’t believe Boromir’s lies
In the opening minutes of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, the protagonist Talion, a valiant Ranger of Gondor with flowing chestnut locks worthy of any hero in Middle-earth, openly displays the sort of Troll-stompin’, pipe-weed-smokin’ J.R.R. Tolkien street cred that developer Monolith Productions clearly aims to capture with their open-world action-adventure.
“They’re not Orcs,” Talion brusquely scolds his son, Dirhael, who dares to misidentify his snarling, slobbering opponents as mere run-of-the-mill ruffians. “They’re Uruks.”
For those familiar with the source material, this plays as Monolith’s knowing nod to Tolkien fanatics, furiously attempting to assuage their well-publicized fears that the game’s premise is nothing short of openly pissing on the former English literature and language professor’s grave in the Oxford suburbs: Yes, we completely understand that these are not the garden-variety Orcs you’d find in Moria but instead an advanced race bred by the Dark Lord Sauron during Middle-earth’s Second Age. And now that that matter’s out of the way, please enjoy the game!
That’s the challenge for Monolith—showing that they respect the lore, making clear that they recognize the responsibility of taking on the biggest name in fantasy, but also reserving the right to explore Middle-earth on their own terms at times and creating something that will even appeal to players who don’t know their Gimlis from their Galadriels.
Shadow of Mordor succeeds on all of the above fronts, but not in the ways you might necessarily expect from a game bearing the name of one of the most famous locales in fantasy fiction. That success starts with the aforementioned Talion, who exudes the likability and tenacity of Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn alongside the steadfast loyalty and stubbornness of Sean Bean’s Boromir.
But unlike Boromir, Talion can simply walk into Mordor (c’mon, don’t act like you didn’t see that coming), thanks to an expansive suite of powers that arrives with his untimely passing (giving him one more thing in common with Sean Bean). On the fateful night of Sauron’s return, the critical episode that ultimately puts the Lord of the Rings trilogy into motion, Talion is accosted at his post at the Black Gate and ultimately executed in a dark ritual—a ceremony that just so happens to bind him with a powerful wraith.
You see, this is no ordinary apparition that’s brought Talion back from the dead. It’s Celebrimbor, the legendary Elven smith who forged the Rings of Power for Sauron himself and then faced betrayal. It’s safe to say that Sauron isn’t high on either Talion’s or Celebrimbor’s list of favorite Dark Lords, so they have ample reason to work together and bring him down. The presence of Celebrimbor also brings much-needed credibility to Talion’s challenge and lends a sense of purpose to the narrative. A single Ranger of Gondor cutting through a fierce army of Uruks, even one as decorated as Talion? Not a chance. But with the Ring-maker himself at Talion’s side? Now it’s a whole lot more compelling.
Since he’s not just a Ranger but also a captain and commander, Talion’s already expertly skilled with both sword and dagger. The former allows him to slice through hordes of enemies in counter-based combat reminiscent of Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham games, while the latter enables stealth-based techniques that give the choice between silent assassinations or bloody brutalizations that’ll send any surrounding foes shrieking and fleeing in sheer terror. Meanwhile, Celebrimbor—who hails more from the dignified, stately school of Elrond than the prancing, preening tradition of Legolas—takes control during long-range attacks, wielding a bow with the precision worthy of Orlando Bloom mugging for the camera.
The great thing about combat is how seamlessly it integrates all three elements into the overall experience. You won’t succeed by mastering or relying on just one weapon, particularly since significant, meaningful enemy strengths and weaknesses are weaved into the fabric of every encounter. And while you certainly don’t need to max out all three weapons in order to make it through all of the game’s missions, you’ll definitely have to unlock at least some skills and equip Runes acquired from fallen foes (which imbue your arsenal with bonus effects). All of this lets you tailor combat to your personal playstyle, keeping encounters fresh and invigorating throughout.
My only major combat complaint has more to do with the control layout than anything else: Because stealth is so crucial, particularly early on when your powers aren’t as potent, it gets annoying to hold down the R2 button anytime you don’t want to draw the attention of the salivating enemy hordes. A few times, Uruks noticed my presence simply because my finger got tired of holding down that way-too-large button on the DualShock 4. (To be fair, I don’t have firsthand experience on whether the experience is more ergonomic on the Xbox One, but I can’t imagine it’s significantly more comfortable.) I’d have preferred an option to turn sneaking on and off with a press of a button—even Metal Gear Solid pulled that off 16 years ago.
Celebrimbor’s wraith powers allow him to unlock Forge Towers scattered throughout Mordor, which serve as handy warp points. While you can certainly amble about the landscape at your own pace, you’ll teleport to your destination (or near it) more often than not. As your powers increase, though, you’ve got one more transportation option: taming the wild beasts of Mordor, such as the Caragor, a lion-like creature who roams the fields looking for its next meal, and the Graug, a hulking behemoth who resembles a Troll and can rampage through packs of foes.
Unfortunately, the world itself will probably be the biggest disappointment for most players. While The Lord of the Rings practically invented the concept of the modern fantasy epic in 1954, the world of Shadow of Mordor simply doesn’t match those high expectations, nor does it offer the vast diversity of landscapes seen on film or described on the page. The first area, the desolate Valley of Udûn, feels brutally suffocating, and you’re stuck among its craggy peaks for far too long—it’s here where the game makes its one significant pacing misstep.
The second area, the lush, green Sea of Núrnen, is a lot more interesting and enjoyable to explore, but there still aren’t any towns to speak of—nor any friendly NPCs other than the occasional mission-offering slave. While measuring world size is an inexact science, it took me about two minutes to traverse Udûn sprinting north to south, while Núrnen took about three minutes. The areas don’t exactly feel small, and they do come across as respectful and authentic to Tolkien (and they’ll certainly be familiar to Rings fanatics), but they don’t come close to matching the scope of larger worlds seen in the genre.
But if the world itself doesn’t feel quite as expansive as you’d expect from a game featuring the works of Tolkien, why does the gameplay itself feel so monumental and consistently gripping? It’s partly the finely tuned combat that never feels like a chore and the excellent characterizations penned by Red Dead Redemption writer and lead designer Christian Cantamessa, but here’s the real answer: the Nemesis system, which places Talion and Celebrimbor in the middle of an intricate power play among the brutal, backstabbing world of the Uruks.
It’s rare that you play a game and come across a concept that you immediately recognize as something developers are going to emulate going forward. The Nemesis system is one of those instances—it’s part politics, part sports, part sociology, and part grudge match. Uruk society takes Social Darwinism to the extreme; it’s all about survival of the fittest and the concept of weeding out the weak and elevating the strong, and you’ll play a part in shaping how Shadow of Mordor’s society evolves.
Uruks are promoted, Uruks overthrow their commanders, Uruks flee in humiliation—and even the lowliest Uruk can gain some prestige from (temporarily) slaying Talion and earning a promotion in the process. While perishing isn’t ideal, it’s not the huge punishment it is in most other games. Instead, you’ll gain some experience from “cheating death” and get a glimpse at the cogs of the Uruk military machine in action as time passes: Promotions, deaths, and schemes all unfold in a handy overview, letting you know the status of the enemy.
As part of the interplay between Man and Uruk, Talion’s Elven companion can even delve into the mind of his enemies and bend these easily manipulated, malleable creatures to his will, extracting information about the command structure of the enemy. Worried about believing the word of an Uruk? Don’t be. “Trust has nothing to do with it,” Celebrimbor says bluntly. “Their thoughts cannot lie.”
This leads to confrontations, even in the main story missions, that feel a lot more organic and open to improvisation. One of the reasons Grand Theft Auto III hooked me back in the day and got me into open-world games in general was because it offered so many different ways to succeed in a given mission—a feeling that’s disappeared in more recent entries in that series and from the majority of titles in the genre, where there’s now one “right” way to do things.
I rarely felt that stifling sense in Shadow of Mordor. One mission tasked me with taking down an Uruk warchief who, due to some reconnaissance, I discovered was vulnerable to stealth finishers. Unfortunately, he was holed up in a stronghold surrounded by bodyguards, so there was no way for me to exploit that weakness. So I improvised. I lured him out of his stronghold, took out his considerable cast of minions with Celebrimbor’s arrows, and patiently repeated the process until he followed me alone into some ruins.
Now, at long last, he was on my turf. I had the high ground. I climbed the crumbling edifice, took a look down to make sure he was in my sights, and swooped down and cut his throat with a single strike.
Even after you beat Shadow of Mordor, however, these rivalries don’t have to end. The Trials of Power challenge mode tasks you to best a certain number of captains and warchiefs within a specific time limit, but to be honest, you can just as easily make your own fun—I certainly did. In fact, after completing the game, I had one lasting grudge that I just couldn’t let slide. I tracked down one particular warchief who always had my number during my initial playthrough—a mountain of an armored warrior with no clear weakness named Krímp Shield Master, the toughest foe I faced throughout my time with the game—and lured him into a devious trap where all four of his bodyguards betrayed him simultaneously. It was a beautiful, bloody catharsis.
I felt more satisfied at that bit of subterfuge than even seeing the credits roll—and it’s all because Monolith does a superlative job making the confrontations and rivalries with the Uruks feel personal. When you turn tail and run, they’ll remember. When you launch an explosive arrow into a campfire and set them on fire, they’ll remember. When you disfigure them, they’ll remember. (One foe with the ironic moniker of Zog the Handsome has seen the pointy end of my blade across his face three times now, and the left side of his head now closely resembles that of a blueberry muffin—I eventually felt sorry for him, branded him to come under my control, and he’s now one of my personal warchiefs.)
Judged on its own, Shadow of Mordor is an unqualified success with some noticeable warts—it’s not nearly as expansive as you’d hope from a game based on Tolkien, the story pacing could use some work, and the lack of downtime and townsfolk to interact with are particularly noticeable in an adventure that’ll take at least 30 hours of your time (and likely a lot more).
Judged for its future potential, however, Shadow of Mordor becomes far more tantalizing. After all, it’s hardly a spoiler to mention that Tolkien didn’t just invent the modern fantasy epic—he also brought us the modern fantasy trilogy. If nothing else, Peter Jackson has shown us exactly how easy it is to conjure three chapters out of thin air when it comes to Tolkien’s writings. But after The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies hits theaters this December, it’ll likely be awhile before we see any mainstream media tackle the world of Middle-earth due to ongoing legal entanglements with the Tolkien estate.
In a sense, then, Shadow of Mordor comes at a crucial time for Middle-earth in the public consciousness, and it looks primed to carry the torch of Tolkien for the foreseeable future. Monolith seems more than capable of doing for Sauron and company what Rocksteady did for the Dark Knight: finally delivering a gaming franchise worthy of the iconic fiction. We’ve seen competent games based on Tolkien’s works here and there, but this may well become the first series that has the chance to finally live up to the source material. Considering the important place Tolkien holds in fantasy and storytelling, that’s a welcome sight for games—and one long overdue.
|Developer: Monolith Productions, Behaviour Interactive (360 and PS3 versions) • Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 09.30.2014|
The landscapes and exploration elements might not be on the level of some of its open-world brethren, but Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor delivers one of the best games to feature the intricate lore of J.R.R. Tolkien—and its innovative, addictive Nemesis system could redefine the way developers design enemy encounters in the future.
|The Good||The Nemesis system is one of the biggest gaming innovations we’ve seen in some time and offers considerable, true replayability; the combat system expertly weaves together sword, bow, and dagger for a diverse set of battle options.|
|The Bad||The world isn’t particularly large, especially for a game with the Middle-earth moniker; a few pacing issues during the midpoint and endgame.|
|The Ugly||Going to a hardcore online Tolkien community to read discussion about Shadow of Mordor.|
|Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is available on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC. Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions release on November 18th, 2014. Primary version reviewed was for PlayStation 4. A review disc was provided by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment for the benefit of this review.|