Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor (PS4) - A Short Pause Review

At one point, I didn't really like Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor and its brand of third-person action/adventure.

Early in the game, players are tasked with taking down a group of elite orc soldiers known as Warchiefs. This is primarily used as a vehicle for introducing you to the game's Nemesis system, which is a gameplay mechanic aimed at bringing a more strategic angle to your average moment-to-moment combat. More on this in a little bit. My initial dislike of the game stemmed from the degree of difficulty I was encountering during these Warchief missions. 

To put it bluntly, I just kept getting my ass kicked. Repeatedly.

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor

Platform: PS4/Xbox One/PC

Developer: Monolith Productions

Price: $59.99

To confront one of these Warchiefs, you must first perform a mundane task such as eliminating one of his supporters, or freeing a caged Caragor (one of Mordor's local beasts) from containment. After this, the Warchief is drawn out into the open and ready to be challenged. The problem is, you're not just confronting him, you're confronting 100 of his closest orc friends as well. Most of the Warchiefs are found in these areas of the map known as Strongholds, which are essentially orc encampments setup in various spots around Mordor. Needless to say, I found myself frustrated early on as every time I attempted to fight a Warchief, I wound up battling four or five other Captains and their armies simultaneously, forcing me to focus my efforts on everyone except the Warchief I was targeting. In spite of my continuously failed attempts to slay the Warchiefs, I came to the "brilliant" conclusion that recklessly jumping into battle — swords blazing — was definitely the best course of action to repeatedly try; a severely misplaced sense of confidence in my "superior" combat skills would surely lead me to victory... eventually? No. Just no.

Then along came Tûgog the Guardian and everything changed.

The infamous Tûgog himself

The infamous Tûgog himself

At this point I had managed to conquer a couple of the Warchiefs through sheer determination and will (with a dash of luck thrown in for good measure). Until Tûgog. Every time a Warchief or Captain defeats you in-game, their power increases. Tûgog defeated me so many times that he couldn't even level up anymore. I just could not defeat this brute. After an innumerable amount of failed attempts, I had all but written off and cursed this game to backlog purgatory. See, Shadow of Mordor's combat is inspired by the Batman: Arkham games, so naturally, being a veteran of these fine titles, I figured I'd simply waltz into battle, unsheath my blade, and return it after I had drawn the requisite amount of orc blood. This is where that Nemesis system comes into play. I had initially brushed it off as a gimmick, but upon further inspection, it became a necessary learning experience in order to progress through the game. 

The Nemesis grid

The Nemesis grid

The Nemesis system is essentially a grid of all of the orc (or Uruk for those into proper names) Warchiefs and Captains wandering around Mordor. At various points throughout the game, you'll have a chance to gain access to valuable intel which is obtained through the retrieval of documents, finding informants, or special orcs which you can force to reveal information about their fellow Uruks. This intel is then used to unveil the strengths and weaknesses of the orc of your choosing.  You'll learn whether your targeted orc is invulnerable to ranged attacks or weak against stealth maneuvers among a host of other possible vulnerabilities. You'll also learn which orcs are in cahoots with who — including which ones are bodyguards to the powerful Warchiefs — and even which orcs are at each others throats. It becomes apparent that there is this whole entire strategic metagame taking place behind the scenes, and it's this realization that really began to open up my enjoyment of the game.

Now, I was planning my every move. I knew which Warchiefs were assigned to which bodyguards, allowing me to track down and eliminate any help the Warchiefs may have had at their side, making my eventual battle with them much more manageable. I began to study their weaknesses, making them more susceptible to the wide range of attacks at my disposal. Suddenly, Warchiefs were falling to my blade left and right and I was growing stronger with each victory. The upgrades I was unlocking were becoming better and better, and now those huge mobs of orcs were less and less of a problem. I was becoming a bad-ass Ranger and enjoying every minute of it.

At this point, my like of the game was no longer deniable, and I started really loving Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor and its brand of third-person action/adventure.

Combat is extremely violent

Combat is extremely violent

The actual story present in Shadow of Mordor is pretty straight-forward. Players assume the role of Talion, a Ranger responsible for guarding the Black Gate of Mordor, expertly voiced by the insanely prolific, Troy Baker. When the Black Gate is invaded by the forces of the Dark Lord, Sauron, Talion finds himself the victim of a ritual sacrifice, which results in Talion bonding with a spirit-like creature known as a Wraith. Caught between the living and the dead, Talion seeks out revenge against the Black Hand of Sauron so that he may finally find some peace in death.  

This is a very bad man

This is a very bad man

The main plot is divided between Talion's standard tale of revenge and the Wraith's more interesting backstory. Seeing as Talion's story is not particularly dense, the game is padded out with some entertaining side-stories starring the characters you meet throughout your journey. Of the game's 20 main missions, a good number of them are focused on extraneous characters and situations. While the side missions are fun, it showcases the lack of focus and substance in the game's main plot, which ultimately culminates in an admittedly disappointing ending. That said, the opening of the game is brilliantly grim and well-executed — serving as both a tutorial and an engrossing introduction to the world of Shadow of Mordor — the history behind the Wraith is fascinating, and Lord of the Rings fans will have plenty to get excited about as fan-favorite characters pop-up throughout your quest. 

While the story may not have been as focused and engrossing as more linear affairs, the world of Shadow of Mordor more than makes up for it. Making excellent use of the Lord of the Rings license, Mordor comes to life in all of its dark fantasy glory. The world is expansive and fun to climb and run around in, and the lore relayed through artifacts and other findings fleshes out this bleak time period in Middle-Earth history. If one were to just focus on the story itself, then Shadow of Mordor would be a relatively short 5-7 hour affair, but this is a nigh-impossibility as there are a wealth of distractions to keep you focused on everything but the main missions.

The main distraction is most assuredly the combat system, which as I alluded to earlier, borrows heavily from the Freeflow combat system pioneered in the Batman: Arkham series of games. Being my favorite attack system in recent memory, it stands to reason I'd be excited about its implementation here, and it doesn't disappoint. While not as nimble and fluid — understandably — as Batman's ninja-training-influenced fighting system, Mordor's Gondorian Ranger form of sword-and-bow combat is more deliberate and calculating, but no less enjoyable to execute. The dodge mechanic is a little...um...dodgy in its button response, but the controls are generally tight and responsive, and the fighting animations are flowing and flawless. The game is rather beautiful in motion. I found myself constantly stopping to battle random orc hordes throughout my time with the game, as I was determined to utilize every opportunity I could to fight.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that hurt

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that hurt

Upgrading Talion in the game is also reminiscent of the progression system found in the Batman: Arkham games. Upgrade points are unlocked as experience is gained, and a host of awesome combat additions await gamers. Combat finishers, fire arrows, and the completely kick-ass shadow strike are just a few of the attack upgrades available to Talion throughout his journey. I was completely enthralled with the Rune system in the game as well. Runes are weapon specific modifiers that provide performance buffs such as life recovery for stealth kills, replenished focus for headshots, and the like. There's a bit of a random loot drop feel to the Runes which makes obtaining the ultra powerful Epic Runes all the more satisfying. Seeking out more of the Epic Runes available in the game is something that is going to keep me coming back for more. 

There is no doubt that Shadow of Mordor wears its influences on its sleeve. The wide-open fantasy environment mixed with sword fighting and parkour elements clearly recalls the Assassin's Creed franchise, while the artifact collecting, upgrade system, and fluid combat were obviously inspired by the Batman: Arkham games. There are far worse games to seek inspiration from than Assassin's Creed and the Batman: Arkham games, and Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is able to succeed in its own right by building upon, and adding their own unique mechanics to, the foundation laid by these aforementioned and revered franchises. The Nemesis and Rune systems, Wraith-assisted combat, and the Lord of the Rings setting are great additions to the Assassin's/Batman formula. While the main story is unfocused and not terribly long, at 30 hours and only 76% completion, I've found plenty to keep me busy during my time in Mordor. I've still got side missions to complete, and Shadow of Mordor's open-world remains a fun place to get lost in tens of hours later. While the difficulty was a tad oppressive in the early-going, I eventually got a handle on the Nemesis system, began to level up my character and become more powerful, and started having a great time with the title. With this new-generation of gaming still in its infancy, Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is easily one of the standout titles available on either the PS4 or Xbox One. Don't be surprised if this one makes quite a few "Game of the Year" lists at year's end. If it slid under your radar upon release, remedy this oversight as soon as possible and experience one of the definitive next-gen games released yet.

And for the love of Gandalf's beard hair, make sure you eliminate Tûgog's bodyguards before attempting to face him, okay?

Positives

  • Expansive Open World
  • Fluid Combat System
  • Presentation
  • Lord of the Rings setting

 

Negatives

  • Unfocused narrative
  • Initial difficulty