In a world where hype rules the release of games and the media holds sway over the market, it’s sometimes hard to tell what’s worth snatching up at full price and what’s worth waiting on, or worth buying at all. Since its announcement some ten or more months ago, we Hobbit-lovers have awaited Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor with bated breath, and though its media presence hadn’t been as large as say, Titanfall or Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, the buzz surrounding its apparently revolutionary enemy mechanics and gorgeous next-gen graphics has had everyone waiting on pins and needles. While I’m now part of the media machine and you have absolutely no reason to trust me, I urge you (if you haven’t already) to give Shadow of Mordor the good look it deserves. Though it falls victim to a sizable number of obvious pitfalls, this breathtaking action RPG delivers on so many other fronts, making it well worth the hype.
Set in the shithole that is Mordor (couldn’t have guessed, eh?), this epic tale takes place between The Hobbit and the LOTR trilogy we’re all so familiar with. Without giving too much away, the protagonist, Talion, a ranger tasked with guarding the Black Gate, finds himself in dire straits when a mysterious general known only as the Black Hand of Sauron overruns the gate and lays waste to all around him. On the verge of death, Talion is bless-cursed by the ghostly presence of Celebrimbor, of whom I shall say no more about lest people cry out “Spoiler Alert, John!” With Celebrimbor’s apparition granting him mystical powers and guiding him through the depths of Mordor, Talion takes it upon himself to hunt down the Black Hand, all the while slaughtering countless Uruk war chiefs along the way.
With a story worthy of the cinematic giants behind the franchise, Shadow of Mordor already comes out swinging with full force, and it’s all a little overwhelming when it comes down to where I should start. To get it out of the way, let’s make a quick comment on just how damn pretty everything looks. I understand this is a next-gen game, and that by now we should all be expecting graphics so sharp they make our eyes bleed, but before the gaming community becomes too spoiled, let’s take a second to appreciate the sheer movie quality of the setting, animations, cut scenes, and visual effects. Sure, half the game can be spent in “wraith vision”, where everything is an off grey/blue tint and absolutely horrifying, but you’ll miss out on all the brown and red rocks, brown and red camps, and brown and red ruins. All joking aside (and yes, I understand Mordor was probably a very gloomy, dichromatic area at best), the visuals of the game boast all the muscles of modern technology and rendering, leaving even the most scrutinizing eyes in awe.
As great as a game’s graphics are, there needs to be more than just pretty pictures, this isn’t The Walking Dead, after all. Luckily, Monolith Productions thought of that (possibly because they’ve sat down and played a game before), and offer up a pace-it-as-you-like adventure to accompany the plantlike plants, firelike fire, and rocklike rocks. Like many successful RPGs, Shadow of Mordor doesn’t heavy-handedly drag you down a linear path of main missions, forcing you to beat the game at breakneck speed for lack of a chance to explore. It’s actually quite the opposite, and for a long while I absentmindedly wondered if the game forgot about me as I gleefully sprinted from camp to camp, slaughtering countless Uruks and picking dandelions (or PipeWeed, wink wink). The pressure to do missions was about as noticeable as the pressure to do my taxes, as in the game assumed I knew what I was doing and I’d be screwed if I mucked about too long like the asshat I am. This was great because I enjoy feeling like I’m allowed to be responsible for my otherwise irresponsible self. With multiple main missions open at once, a handful of side missions available upon discovery, and the random Uruk war chief encounter, I found myself setting my own schedule and doing whatever the hell suited me at the time. A definite plus, unless of course you crave direction (dance puppets, dance!).
Before I touch on the game’s absolute best selling point, let’s first take a look at the combat styles and upgrades available for Talion. As a ranger, we all know (or will from this moment on pretend to know) that you’re skilled in the art of swordplay, archery, and stealth. Being able to utilize these, mixed intermittently with the wraithlike qualities of your ghastly counterpart, equates to having a ranged ethereal bow with the standard “slow time” perk, a dagger for stealthy takedowns, and a sword for standard, balls-to-the-wall combat. Shadow of Mordor utilizes the same fighting mechanics seen in Assassins Creed and Batman: Arkham Asylum/City, allowing multiple baddies to orbit as you tirelessly attack and counter everyone’s assault one at a time. With the ability create awesome sword/dagger/fist/foot combos and brutally execute helpless enemies, using your bow falls to the wayside and is reserved for sniping and making campfires explode (the Detonate perk is well worth getting). Perks, earned through combat and mission success, allow you to unlock both Talion and Celebrimbor’s abilities, forcing you to choose between maxing out your sneak and fight skills or your badass ghost powers of possession and fear-striking. However, awards system errs on the side of being too generous, giving you more than needed.
As great as everything has been, I have so far held back on the coup de grâce. While recognizing that up to this point, the game would turn out as an excellent clone of the many RPGs before it and nothing more, Monolith Productions decided to spice things up a bit and introduce the Nemesis System. Unique to Shadow of Mordor, the Nemesis System is a clever addition to the game’s enemy AI. Where you have the standard set of grunts to mow down on your way to kick king baddies’ ass, larger enemies, such as war chiefs, all have a dynamic personality that is constantly shaped by encounters with you. I know what you’re thinking, and no this isn’t a choice-changes-storyline mechanic. It’s completely different and way more badass. Letting one war chief run away with an arrow stuck in his bum will cause him to remember that you shot him in the buttock, which will in turn change how he interacts with you later down the line. On top of that, war chiefs and Uruk generals advance in rank and compete for dominance, meaning that as your strengths evolve, so do theirs, and not just in the form of a level cap increase. Monolith Productions actually created an enemy Uruk hierarchy, a political (it’s just as volatile as politics) structure in which the happenings in the world, perpetrated by you, affect who becomes top Caragor (look it up) in the ranks of the Sauron’s finest. Sure it’s a gimmick to get me to play, but it is so damn sweet.
Though it’s certainly bound to end up in the RPG hall of playability, Shadow of Mordor is definitely not without its faults. While in early trailers it was touted as a stealth masterpiece, I actually found the sneaking mechanics to be rather one sided. Sure I could crouch-walk my way up to an unsuspecting greenskin and slit his throat, but there wasn’t much else to do other than that. Stalking didn’t mean fuck-all, the AI refused to notice me as I stealth killed an entire single file line of Uruks, and I found it ridiculously easy to approach enemies in the direct line of sight without them giving me the time of day until I was wrist deep in their jugular. The movements in stealth are slow, and the overall sneak experience can best be described as clunky, which is a major disappointment for someone expecting mechanics akin to Dishonored.
A couple other chinks in the armor that’s supposed to save us from Sauron’s fury are the blocky parkour motions and overabundance of sword fodder forced on you throughout the game. The motions, again being the lovechild of Creed and Arkham, are slow to respond and limited in scope. Running activates the ability to jump small rocks and obstacles, something apparently impossible for Talion to do while walking, and climbing is slow, as if presenting your backside to the enemy like a baboon in heat was the whole damn point of scaling that castle’s parapet (you sexy beast, you). As for the enemy, they are absolutely EVERYWHERE. Again, I understand you’re in Mordor, and it’s the orc’s HQ, but give me a freaking break. They must be turning out four Uruk per every three seconds I’m in the damn game, the supply is endless! It kind of defeats the purpose of killing anything at all, when after slaughtering 50 enemies in four minutes I’m faced with 80 more. The constant onslaught requires constant attack/parrying, which will begin to try your patience as you slog through carcasses, knee deep in guts and frustration.
With my gushy fawning and petty whining aside, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor turned out to be a pretty decent game. With an ingenious enemy AI system, the freedom to roam, and meaningful interactions all set on a gorgeous stage, it’s almost easy to overlook the fact that Talion’s parkour is on par with a toddler rocking a full diaper. Awesome executions and smooth combat mechanics make the endless Uruk confrontations interesting, and if nothing else, you’re bound to get a couple cathartic releases and some wallpaper-worthy screenshots out of the whole deal. Hell, if we’re lucky enough, maybe in the years to come we’ll get a movie adaptation (cue audience groan)!