The Legend, the Lore, the Artistry, the Deftness, the World and the Characters, these are some of the things which J.R.R Tolkien brought to life in his Lord of the Rings books, and which were transferred ever so well into film format. But try as they may, that feeling just didn’t make it through into Lord of the Rings games. It’s always been a shame because it lends itself so well to the spectacular, the gruesome and to the subtle undertones of fantastical storytelling. Then came Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor.
Shadow of Mordor is no ordinary game which in itself tells you that it belongs in the Lord of the Rings Universe. Monolith have set a story, and a path in a time between the events of The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring, and it stands true in the passage of what comes before it, and what will follow.
The story in Shadow of Mordor has you playing as Talion who dies at the hands of Sauron’s army, but not before he must witness the killing of his wife and son. Talion, however, is banished from death and returns to right the wrongs of Sauron. He returns with a wraith in Celebrimbor who can function in the wraith world. He also explains to Talion what he knows, but the rest they must discover together and try to work out how they can reunite with their loved ones.
The story appears a bit generic at the start, but the further you delve into it the more you realize just how much has gone into it. Not only in terms of the main narrative, which is intriguing in so many ways, but also in terms of the lore and legend that the world and characters bring about. You meet some extraordinary personalities along the way, and they emphasize the meaning behind everything you are doing, even if it isn’t all clear until later on.
The visuals in Shadow of Mordor are so misleading. It’s Mordor, so inevitably it’s a relatively ugly world, but it looks amazing for what it is. There is so much detail, changing weather and time and the entire setting makes you feel like you are actually there. It gave me the shivers at times as I moved Talion between the different areas as I imagined what a place like this might actually feel like.
The character models are on another level. The Orcs, Uruks and other enemies you meet are brilliantly designed and could easily have been crafted by Tolkien himself. The ally characters you meet are equally well designed and the superb voice acting completes the entire engaging experience. It’s remarkable what Monolith have done with the license and a credit to them to provide something with such incredible value. In fact, it may be the best voice acting I have ever heard.
The music and sound effects add to the atmosphere and ambience of the world and the characters. Everything is so wonderfully put together, even the little memories and thoughts that play through the Dualshock 4’s little speaker has a subtle, yet clever effect on the experience.
That’s all very well, but the crux of the game is the gameplay and mission structure. The most notable of these is the Nemesis system which Monolith have created for the game. The idea is that you have a ‘live’ world which is ever changing, and this includes Sauron’s army structure. Within the different areas and amongst the 1000’s of enemies you will have captains leading in certain areas. In order to weaken Sauron you will need to take these captains out, and then the Warchiefs and their bodyguards of course.
This process is brilliantly original and will have you fighting numerous different enemies in order to get to the top guys and take them out. There is more to the system in that you can gain intel on the different captains and warchiefs. By doing this you can discover what their strengths and weaknesses are and how to attack them. At the same time if you defeat a captain and they run away they might attack you again. If they manage to kill you, you can go for a revenge battle and they will instantly recognize you.
At the start I thought this to be gimmicky, but it is anything but. For instance, I had to fight a Warchief called Orthog The Shield and to do so I needed to take out his bodyguards first. I did this and tried to kill Orthog. Sadly, I was heavily outnumbered and killed. When I returned, the orc that killed me was promoted to a bodyguard who I now had to take out. I did so, attacked Orthog again and was killed. Third time I decided to pay a bit more attention to the intel I got on the Warchief. There it told me that in battle he will call all his allies to assist (hence I was being overpowered), but I discovered that he was vulnerable to stealth kills. So after 45 minutes on my first two attempts, I changed strategy. Waited for the Warchief to come looking for me, hid in the bushes and stabbed him in the back (classy). The fight was over in 2 minutes.
This is just one of many examples that you will experience in the game, and it shows just how intricate the system is and how well it works in practice and in theory. It means you can approach things very differently depending on the situation. It’s a complex system that works very simply and is something you must experience firsthand.
The combat is the other highlight of the game. It clearly takes from Sleeping Dogs and Batman games in terms of the combo attacks and counters, but it adds its own personality with the types of weapons you use and your special abilities. The main sword attacks are fluid and, if timed well, brutal. The stealth dagger attacks are wonderful for taking out enemies and the ranged bow attacks are useful, especially for armoured foes. You can then upgrade skills and weapons to give more effect and use to weapons, and the balance is near perfect.
I have already explained so much and left out so much more, but I am going to rave about one more thing and that is the variety of missions. It’s an open world so there needs to be plenty to explore, and there is. Finding artifacts, hunter and gatherer challenges, sidemissions where you need to attack certain enemies in a certain way to craft special weapons, and even disrupting duels and feasts to weaken Sauron’s army. It’s all as magnificent as the main story and you will often find yourself lost on a side mission instead of carrying on with the main game.
It’s not all rainbows in Shadow of Mordor though, the parkour bits are very clunky and can be a real annoyance, especially when on the run. The AI are a bit too dumb at times and some of the generic enemies become repetitive to battle. Not to the point where it gets boring though, thanks to the combat.
That’s about all the complaints around the game that I have. In conclusion, Shadow of Mordor has everything needed to live up to the name Lord of the Rings. It’s hard to imagine that if Tolkien lived in our times, he wouldn’t be proud of the quality that the game possesses. In a time where we have so many games to choose from it’s hard to justify what to buy. Shadow of Mordor is one game that is easily recommendable. It’s a must play, no questions asked.