One thing we learned from J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantastic Lord of the Rings saga of books and films is that Mordor is a horrible hostile place where evil dwells around every corner.
Behind those infamous Black Gates lies death and destruction and air as black as the ash that erupts from Mount Doom. This treacherous landscape is the setting of Monolith Productions’ new game Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, published by Warner Bros Interactive. Fitting in nicely between the events of the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies, Shadow of Mordor sets forth to answer questions set on the minds of all Lord of the Rings fans “How did the famous rings come to be created and what happened immediately afterwards that saw Sauron claim ownership of the One Ring?” These questions are answered under the ruse of done-before game-play elements which, on paper, sounds bad but does that mean the game is overshadowed by the games it tries to imitate?
The story of Shadow of Mordor is a new fork in the Lord of the Rings timeline. Following the trials and tribulations of Talion, a ranger captain who was posted at the famed Black Gates with his men. They are attacked by Sauron’s lackeys The Black Hand, The Tower and the Hammer of which Talion and his family are captured and executed however Talion is resurrected by a wraith that no longer remembers his identity and uses Talion to revive it and seek revenge on the murder of his family. The story is as excellent as the saga it slots nicely into, Talion is a relatable character and the Black Hand is as cruel and vindictive as Sauron himself creating a worthy antagonist. Although quite short, the story held me until the end thanks to the excellently executed cut-scenes and outstanding motion capture and voice acting, it was as marvellous to sit back and watch as it was when I first saw the Fellowship of the Ring at my local cinema.
Shadow of Mordor has suspiciously familiar gameplay elements although it plays better than the games those elements come from. From the moment you’re free to roam, his movements are immediately recognisable. Talion runs and walks similar to Altair and co from the Assassins Creed games however Talion is a lot more responsive. Whilst sprinting forward, tilting the stick back makes Talion swiftly change direction, not only that but Talion can climb quicker using large leaps rather than worrying about where he is going to put his hands and feet. It’s not as bad as it sounds; it makes scaling tall structures and cliffs a joy and does nothing to slow down the pace when in the heat of battle and the animation of Talions movements are smooth and fluid. Combat is more familiar ground if you have played the Batman Arkham games. Shadow of Mordor uses the same free flowing combat system as Batman and why the hell not? It’s fantastically maniacal and chaotic but controlled and simple to pick up. Attacking foes whilst watching out for button symbol displayed above the enemy unleashing an incoming attack so you can quickly hit it to counter that move, its brilliant and Talion stops any move he is performing to counter. The responsiveness is astounding and I never got bored, even large scale battles were awesome to take part in purely because of the magnificent battle system. Talion also has his wraith abilities which can be used to stun enemies, perform rapid combo techniques similar to Batman and even use an otherworldly bow to pop off stragglers. Even though the fighting is fab and huge amounts of Orcs come running when it’s kicking off, sometimes stealth is the best option.
Stealth is where Shadow of Mordor exceeds the Assassins Creed games as Talion has a stealth button which, when held down, places Talion is a crouching posture making him harder to detect (are you listening Ubisoft?). From this posture, Talion can sneak up on unsuspecting enemies to take them out in a variety of ways. He can pull off a silent and swift execution manoeuvre which are extremely brutal and satisfying, he can also use a brutalize technique which is a crazed flurry of stabs which causes the enemy to scream in pain. Brutalize, once performed, causes nearby Orcs to flee in terror from this maniac slaughtering their brethren, it’s a fantastic sight to see as you use their fears against them and later in the game you will be able to turn Orcs against their own and make them fight for you creating your own little Orc army. Going all stealthy is amazing and in missions where stealth is a must or you fail, it gets very tense. Strategically taking out the archers before going in for ground troops is recommended when taking on strongholds or luring them toward you allowing you to isolate Orcs to take them out one by one, there is many ways to play Shadow of Mordor which kept me hooked until the very end and even after the story ended, I wanted to keep on going to finish everything.
Aside from the story missions which are nicely varied between stealth missions and all out fighting, side tasks are available. These are weapon based side missions which help you upgrade your bow, dagger and sword respectively by proving you can wield them like an expert and also prisoner missions which require you to rescue slaves from the Orc menace. There are also collectables such as hidden relic items and symbols which are needed to complete a large mural as well as hunting quests for animals and certain plants. There are loads to do which will keep you busy even after the excellent story.
The main mechanic which is a revolutionary one is the new Nemesis system. This unique way of monitoring and later influencing the Black Hands Orc army can change the flow of the game as well as allowing you to exploit leaders’ strengths and weaknesses making battles at least more bearable or even a walkover. Basically the system is displayed as a hierarchy table going from bottom row of Orc to the top. The bottom Orcs are Captains and Leaders and the top row is the War chiefs which are the strongest of them all. Each Orc on this table has his own name, look and strengths and weakness which can be displayed at will although the latter two features can only be discovered by gaining Intel on highlighted enemies scattered around the game world. Fighting any of the Orcs on the hierarchy requires planning and endurance as you are required to undergo a certain task before luring out the top tier War chiefs but the bottom ones are randomly positioned in the world. Later, you can make the captains and leaders fight for you so you can instruct them to betray the leader they are supposed to be protecting which creates a side mission meaning you have to help gain the final outcome. This entire system is fantastic and certainly keeps things interesting.
Shadow of Mordor looks amazing, Mordor itself is as black and gloomy as portrayed in the books and films although sometimes the sun may shine thanks to the ever changing weather system. Talion and other key characters are brilliantly designed and the monsters that roam the land look grimacing and the same can be said for the randomly generated Orcs in the aforementioned hierarchy.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is easily the best Lord of the Rings game in existence and I urge you to play through this phenomenal title whether you’re a fan or not. Yeah it takes up some previously used mechanics but it capitalizes on them and polishes them up to make one of the best stealth/action/adventure titles in the market.....and that Nemesis system......genius!
Story - 5/5
Graphics - 5/5
Gameplay - 5/5
Overall - 5/5
Version reviewed - PlayStation 4