You might find it a little bit strange to visit a website dedicated to comic book games and see a headline promising a review for a video game based on a well-loved series of books, especially when it’s already been deliberated on by all major gaming websites, but here me out. As to why I’m only getting around to it now, that’s simple enough: I couldn’t afford it due to a little something called Disney Infinity 2.0 and the pending Christmas season. Come to think of it the reason why I’m covering it here is pretty basic as well: This is the best Batman: Arkham title to date outside of the real thing.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is set between the events of J.R.R Tolkein’s The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring and puts you in control of a wholly original creation in the established universe, Talion, a ranger serving at the black gate of Mordor. Talion and his family are brutally murdered by the Black Hand of Sauron as part of a blood sacrifice to resurrect an elvish wraith. Things exactly don’t go according to plan however, as the wraith binds himself to Talion, subsequently reversing his grizzly fate and granting him supernatural abilities. With his new partner along for the ride, Talion sets out to end the existence of the one who murdered his family as well as find out if his strange ally is someone who can be trusted.
Full disclosure: I detest fantasy and have only read one of Tolkein’s books, The Fellowship of the Ring, which I had to do for an advanced literature course and HATED every minute of it. I’m also only a moderate fans of the films from Peter Jackson as well, appreciating them more on a technical level more than anything but ultimately finding them pretty boring overall. I say this because overall I though the story of Shadow of Mordor was pretty uneventful. Talion, though once again expertly voiced by Troy Baker, is not that interesting of a protagonist and I would be hard pressed to remember any of the handful of people he runs into throughout the twenty hour adventure. Fans of the Lord of the Rings may derive a lot more pleasure from the tale, but personally I never got invested into Talion’s thirst for revenge
So if you don’t like the source material or the story, then why bother to pick up this game at all? Fair question, and I’ll answer it like this: I can suffer through a unengaging plot in a property I have no investment in because the gameplay is just that good. I’m sure you’ve heard from other reviews of this game, but the combat/stealth is ripped straight from Rocksteady’s play-book and it translates into this universe exceptionally well. Believe me when I say that if Talion had a glider of some sort and a medievel grappling hook he’d be a direct palette swap for the Dark Knight.
The game is divided up two ways: fighting and stealth. Combat has the same flow as all of WB Games’ Batman titles: one button attacks, one button counters, you have a stun function, again just like Batman, and throwing knives taking the place of batarangs. Taking the place of detective vision is “wraith mode”, activated the same way with the hit of a trigger button where Talion can see things from the perspective of his ghostly symbiote. This view allows Talion to see things like tracks, health items or various other collectibles, the same way you hunted Riddler trophies or followed Jim Gordon’s tobacco trail.
Much like the combat mechanics, anyone who’s played an open-world stealh game last gen, in particular Assassin’s Creed, will have no problem adapting to Mordor‘s take on it. Having played all the Arkham titles and the first few Assassin’s games, I had no trouble sneaking up behind a Uruk, leaping down on one from a perch, or otherwise using my environment to terrorize them into running scared. It should also be said that Uruk’s have fairly awful peripheral vision, often missing me entirely as I strolled right along side one or not seeming to care when their friend was getting his throat slashed directly next to them. At its core, Mordor can come off as fairly safe given how liberally it borrows from the hits of last generation, but where it stands above its competition is in the highly touted “Nemesis System”, something I expect to see implemented into a lot of games over the coming years.
In order to accomplish his goals of terminating the Black Hand, Talion first has to work his way through the Uruk hierarchy, dispatching captains, bodyguards, and eventually warchiefs, all laid out to you in a pause screen. Getting to a warchief at the top of the food chain means cutting through his underlings to grab his attention, and no Uruk, no mater how small, is unimportant. Should a random enemy manage to best you in combat, they’ll be promoted through the ranks and also remember your tactics from your primary encounter. Similarly demoted Uruk’s will hunt you down, firmly reminded by their scars and burns how your arrival into their lives have brought them nothing but grave misfortune.
Normally in games regular enemies are nothing more than cannon fodder used for little more than getting in some combat practise or scoring a few experience points, but through the “Nemesis System” every encounter feels significant. That sniveling little Uruk who managed to get in that cheap shot just as your on your last sliver of health suddendly becomes a notorious captain on his way to warchief, and a permanent reminder of your shortcoming as a warrior. The only real downfall to this revolutionary way of looking at the player/enemy relationship is Mordor’s distinct lack of challenge.
Starting out you come equipped only with your sword, a knife and a bow, but even with such small an arsenal you already feel more than prepared to mow down hordes of Uruk’s. Before I had completed barely any story missions, something I’m prone to do in this type of game, I found myself accidentally killing captains who managed to stumble into a skirmish I had started. As you progress things manage to get substantially more easy to the point where you wonder if Talion was present through the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, things would’ve gone much smoother.
You can equip runes on each of your weapons that are obtained from fallen commanders and upgrade your physical attributes as well as your wraith powers through gained experience both in combat and completing side objectives. By the end you can insta-kill enemies after a mere five hit combo, force enemies into doing your bidding through branding, murder the lot of them once they’ve fulfilled their purpose and dominate massive beasts with a simple two button command. If you play your cards right Talion can be come the least active part of any fight when you take over enough Uruk’s. That all being said, chaining together all your skills in one fight still feels very satisfying, and much like the Arkham games, it never truly gets old.
You’d think that for a game set in the bleakest part of Middle-Earth that the environment would be a barren, grey and brown eyesore but thankfully Mordor proves you mistaken. The game takes place over two environments teeming with nasty Uruk’s but there still manages to be a lot of colour in the world, something I’m always happy to find in today’s games that always tend to lean towards postapocalyptic with muted tones. Initially both maps can seem daunting in their size however Talion is quite nimble, almost too nimble, and can get around pretty quickly. Mounts in the forms of caragor’s are plenty, but they’re normally too much of a hassle to tame given the main characters land speed.
Whether you’re a hardcore fan of the Lord of the Rings books, the films, both, or even someone who doesn’t really care at all about elves, dwarves and magic rings, Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is well worth your attention. While you’ll probably forget the story long after the credits roll, the moment-to-moment combat and stealth mixed in with the unique “Nemesis System” will have you sinking hours into this unexpected journey. Those who sunk hours into open-world stealth action games last gen would be going themselves a huge disservice by passing up on this title, regardless of your interest in the source material.