Another year, another Lord of the Rings. Peter Jackson will finally be closing out his Hobbit trilogy and I can rest easy in knowing that with its curtain call I won’t be pulled from my home in the dead of winter to watch another three hour ad placement for New Zealand’s burgeoning tourism industry any time soon. I’ll just put it out there that I’m not much of a Tolkien fan. Though I’m thankful that his writing brought about a revitalization in high-fantasy, I look upon the task of wading through his body of work with the enthusiasm of having a root canal performed. If you’re still with me after that sentence you’re a good sport, so I’m just going to level with you when I say that while Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is not necessarily a bad game, I’m glad that it’s over and that I’ll never have to do it again.
Players will be injected into the role of Talion, a Ranger of Gondor tasked with standing vigil on The Black Wall that divides the lands of Man from the wasteland of Mordor. Sound clips that push the backstory play whenever the game loads and you’ll learn that Talion evidently killed a man and was gang pressed into service. His wife didn’t want him to face his punishment alone and decided to go with him and raise their child on The Black Wall, because that’s a sensible decision that she certainly won’t regret later. As far as I can tell she then proceeds to spend the next sixteen or seventeen years complaining about where they live and generally foiling any chances of Talion playing shirtless volleyball or a rousing game of rat-tail after a communal bath with his fellow guards. By now you’ll be shocked to find that something terrible happens and Talion becomes a vehicle of vengeance ala The Crow, only with the added bonus of having an Elven Wraith fate bound to him. In typical Tolkien elf fashion he appears to look upon Talion’s admittedly shallow world view as a mixture of childlike naivety and the austere delirium of a racist grandmother with dementia. After finally being rid of his wife only to be saddled with a morose, chastising, ghost it becomes clear that even in death Talion will not have peace, so he sets out on a journey to kill himself.
The story will not be winning any awards. Talion is suitably angst-filled and is just as amicable as you would imagine someone would be who’s been henpecked for the last two decades while serving what amounts to penguin guard duty in Antarctica. On top of that the game plays pretty fast and loose with established Tolkien mythos, and you sort of wonder if a more interesting game based upon the Silmarillion could have been made if Christopher Tolkien didn’t have a lich-like death grip on the creative property of his father. Instead the developers of Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor committed themselves to casting aside The Lord of the Rings franchise to distance their game from the movies, only to make it as aesthetically and aurally close to Peter Jackson’s films as possible. While they were rummaging through the bargain bin to save them the trouble of coming up with a new art and sound direction they figured, “What the hell?” and grabbed the mechanical guts of Assassin’s Creed and Batman Arkham Asylum while they were at it. After a competently performed transplant they added the one thing that keeps this game from being an unabashed rip-off: the Nemesis system.
No bones about it, the Nemesis system is actually really good. I might even call it innovative and revolutionary without a hint of sarcasm. It adds characterization to what would otherwise be fodder in any other game as well as supplying the only consequence for a failure state. To put it succinctly, the Nemesis system handles how enemies react to Talion and how they interact with one another. It determines the relative strength of Uruk Captains and Warchiefs, as well as performs double-duty in terms of narrative by creating rivalries and adding little touches like dialogue based off of the players actions or revelations in the story. If you defeat an Uruk, he’ll remember. If you set one on fire, he’ll remember. If he kills you, he’ll be justifiably mystified that you’re not dead the next time he sees you. The variety of personalities, voices, and appearances of the Captains and Warchiefs are extremely diverse.
As the game progresses Uruks will do a fair amount of in-fighting, feast holding, beast slaying, ambushing, and plenty of squats and oats to get swole. This translates directly into increasing their tangible power and plays out like an episode of Game of Thrones that has done away with all the silliness of court intrigue and gets straight to the stabby bits. As Talion you have the ability to tip the scales in favor of one Uruk or another, or foiling their ambitious plots outright.
Each Captain and Warchief has a slew of strengths and weaknesses that can be analyzed and exploited by interrogating spineless cowards and collecting intel from slaves and battle plans. Strengths can be as innocuous as hitting slightly harder to being totally immune to certain types of attacks or finishers. Weaknesses range from being able to be one-shot by a particular attack to a fear of Caragors, a cat-gorilla hybrid that the Uruks can't seem to tame, who can be found in cages all over Mordor for whatever reason.
For all the good the Nemesis system does it’s married to mechanics that you will find criminally similar. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then I hope that Assassin’s Creed and Batman Arkham Asylum at least feel suitably gratified since Monolith essentially repackaged their mechanics with a Middle Earth wrapping. My wife, who pretty much only plays mobile games and Civilizations looked over my shoulder while I was playing and asked, “Is that Assassin’s Creed?”
Stealth kills, death from above, finishers, counters, stuns, and throwing weapons - they’re all here. Even the enemies will seem familiar with Berserkers who counter normal attacks, Defenders that can’t be attacked from the front, and Hunters who pelt you with javelins while grunts dog pile you. Even the infuriatingly inept AI makes an appearance, with the stealth system practically exploitable given that enemies have an awareness of their surroundings rivaling that of a tea-cozy. Heights and ledges can be leveraged to pick off bewildered attackers en masse and entire armies can be lured to a suspiciously unmarked barrel or campfire to be blown up by Wraith arrows. All of this would be forgivable had there been some attempt to improve or distinguish.
It is worth mentioning that the mechanics, however uninspiring they may be, are extremely functional. The combat was in all honesty a complete joy in the beginning and one of the few reasons to play the game. Given that the combat makes up 99% of the game, I’m glad that the it is step-for-step every bit as good as it is in the games Shadow of Mordor borrows from.
There are a few oddities, however. At one point I used Shadow of Acharn to fight a Ghul Matron, only to find that they can’t be stealth attacked. With no way to cancel out of it, I just sat there for thirty seconds with the matron essentially frozen in time. Strangely, despite dying with one hit, Ghuls are almost the biggest threat in the game when there are enough of them since they can’t be countered and have a ranged poison attack. Additionally, it seemed really odd that focus could only be used while utilizing Talion’s bow.
Aside from those small gripes, my only major complaint (and it’s a doozy) is that after a while the combat; you know, the thing you’ll be doing for most of your play through, becomes boring and marginalized by the fact that you become an all-powerful Demigod capable of handling any threat in the game. Any tension is dissolved by the comfort that I can fight my way out of practically any given situation with minimal effort. There were never any moments where I felt as though Talion were in danger or any sense of urgency.
Even the bosses that the Nemesis system does such a great job of breathing life into eventually become fodder, with the only real challenge presented when you have to fight several Captains and Warchiefs in tandem. Exploiting weaknesses not only makes the game considerably less difficult, but is actively encouraged by granting higher tiers of loot to people who properly make use of intel. I find myself battled, because while I like the idea of shaking down informants and looking for intel to expose flaws, the game is already easy enough as it is. Uruks without one-shot weaknesses can still be taken care of by abusing the stun and Wraith combo. Even the plot bosses are fairly simple to dispatch, with one EXTREMELY IMPORTANT FIGHT devolving into a shameless quick time event. Given the absence of difficulty settings, players have to create their own challenges by giving themselves conditions or limitations.
With that in mind, if you’re a fan of this style of combat it’s likely that you won’t have the same complaints that I do. Where I see it as a chore, someone else may see it as a chance to show off all the stuff they’ve unlocked. I feel like having cooldowns or a stamina system might have somehow made the game a lot more interesting.
Talion is extremely responsive in combat and I played the entire game with a keyboard and mouse set-up. I found the controls to be intuitive, and failing that; fully remappable or replaceable with a game pad. The only real control issue is one that’s come hand in hand with this genre since time immemorial: parkour syndrome. Talion will occasionally try to climb things you don’t want him to climb, or assassinate someone below an enemy that’s directly in front of you. One mission in particular wanted me to stealth kill an Uruk whom was standing on a podium. I activated my Shadow of Aschar ability, an unlockable that grants 20 seconds of invisibility, and attempted no less than three times to murder him. Each time Talion took one look at him and then lept off the platform to stab some poor bastard in the crowd. It was infuriating. The mounted combat is hampered by the fact that the controls are extremely slippery, and that any parkour syndrome exhibited by Talion is a mere pebble in the shadow of a boulder compared to when you’re on the back of a Caragor.
Talion comes with a robust tree of abilities and passives that can be unlocked by spending XP earned from killing foes or completing objectives. These are further locked behind tiers, which are opened up by participating in Power Struggles and the Nemesis system in general. Talion’s weapons, the bow; dagger; and sword; can be upgraded with runes obtained from killing War Chiefs and Captains, ranging from mundane percent-based improvements to modifying abilities. Things like HP, Focus (read: bullet time), rune slots, and ultimate weapon abilities can be purchased with Mirian, an Elven currency collected from finishing weapon challenges or successfully fulfilling bonus objectives.
Missions are novel at first, but become repetitive very quickly. There are a slew of side-quests offered by the Nemesis system to dabble in, but almost everything is essentially “kill x with/without y”. If you’re anything like me, eventually you’ll get bored with it all and decide that it’s time to end the game. Plowing through the 20 main missions will take the average player around 15 hours, though with endless opportunity for grinding you could probably pad this to about 18-20. Unless you’re a completionist, I wouldn't advise it. There are plenty of collectibles in the game, most of them supplying Mordor with much-needed back story through little snippets of dialogue and a description of artifacts from past ages. They’re spread out rather well, and when used in conjunction with the purposely limited fast travel encourage exploration, which begs the question: why?
I regret to inform you that despite the incentive to look around, there is very little in the way of compelling things to look at. I rest the blame squarely on the shoulders of mediocre world building. Shadow of Mordor looks pretty good; the textures are serviceable and the lighting does a lot of work. It looks very much like a contemporary sandbox game. The problem with the way the game looks is that for all the lengths the game goes to copy the aesthetic of Peter Jackson's films, it seriously lacks the awe-inspiring set pieces and sprawling panoramas we've come to associate with The Lord of the Rings. We're talking about an entire franchise that banks on scale and splendor, and here we find Mordor absolutely bereft of it. I had to constantly reference my map because of a lack of distinguishable reference points. Once you've seen one ruinous stronghold, you've seen them all. Environments are homogeneous, with Mordor a veritable smear of brown and gray and the second area offering the only touch of verdancy. The water effects would be gorgeous if they actually responded to foot steps, but there isn't a single ripple to be found when Talion goes running through a stream. There are nice little touches to be found like realistic fluttering banners, but as a whole I feel like the setting suffers from a conspicuous lack of anything interesting to see.
Animations are the highlight, with the finishing moves appropriately satisfying and everyone moving with a sense of weight. The game does an outstanding job of making you look like a bad ass. The Uruks are really well modeled, and I really liked the way they looked. I just hope you really like killing Uruks, because that's essentially all you're going to get. No Variags, Haradrim, Easterlings, or Corsairs of Umbar to be found here. What I didn't appreciate was Talion. Not only did I find his design somewhat boring, but outside of cut scene he had an incredibly flat and polygonal face. The fur on his cloak and his hair are particularly offensive.
This is compounded by the fact that the game asks for 4gb of vram to run on high and a staggering 6gb recommended for Ultra. Compare this to a game like Black Flag, which is a lot lighter in the requirements department and in my opinion, looks a lot better. It is worth mentioning that I encountered minimal texture popping and screen tearing, easily running at a steady 60fps on an aged but reliable GTX 760 with a 3.4ghz i7 and 8 gigs of RAM. I found the game remarkably stable. The game has never crashed on me, I've never been hung up in the environment, and as far as I can tell the game is relatively bug free.
The sound is where it’s at in this game. All the Uruks are voiced, and I was happy to see a decent variety of personalities. The voice work is really top notch. You know you’re playing a Lord of the Rings game when the good guys all have proper and manicured South-England accents and the bad guys sound like cockney soccer hooligans. The most disturbing voice set I encountered was a Shaman that just communicated in grunts and what’s best described as creepy panting.
The soundtrack is what you would expect from a Lord of the Rings game. It’s very similar to the movie soundtrack in tone and style, with the thundering drums and deep brass evocative of Mordor in a relationship similar to that of “Imperial March” and Darth Vader. The music does a good job of getting you pumped when you need to be and is entirely listenable to on its own. To be truthful it doesn't really stand out, but it does a wonderful job of establishing mood and setting, which at the end of the day is exactly what an OST is supposed to provide.
I do want to mention that the Nemesis system even rears its head in the sound department, with each Uruk getting a spoken name as well as having it incorporated into war chants and battle music when you fight them. It’s really a nice touch, and makes what would otherwise be an unmemorable encounter feel a lot more personalized. If you listen to groups of Orcs you’ll often hear them conversing about various War Chiefs and Captains.
A final gripe that I'm going to bring up that wouldn't fit anywhere else in the review is the controversy surrounding paid-reviews and Shadow of Mordor. My colleague, Andrew Otton, already wrote a piece about it so I'll simply state that it appears that one of the PR firms was exchanging early review copies and branding money for favorable press on YouTube. This has no bearing on the score I gave the game, but it's something you might want to keep in mind when you read or watch reviews concerning this game.
As to whether this game is worth the $49.99 price tag, Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor provides a solid but entirely average experience. I would have a hard time not suggesting a rental or waiting for a sale before purchasing. Almost every functional part of this game we've seen done before just as successfully in other games, only usually with a lot more flair in terms of world building. With lackluster world building; repetitive gameplay; boss fights that a drooling invalid can overcome; and a cliche, lore-breaking, story; it is this authors honest opinion that the only thing that keeps this game from being bargain bin material is the Nemesis system. I’m eager to see what an expanded Nemesis system can do in the future, and will keep my eye out for games that try to incorporate a similar mechanic.
Ultimately, if you've played and enjoyed similar games you'll probably enjoy this one. If you like the QTE style of combat, this one does it exceptionally well. If you enjoy being a godless killing machine, this game will have you chopping heads off left and right with the sort of rending enthusiasm you'd expect from a wood chipper. If you want to see something new, then the Nemesis system is actually an innovation I think adds depth across the board.
Conversely, if you're looking for a challenge, you won't find it here. If you want to see the beautiful scenes from Lord of the Rings, I'm afraid the cinematographer was out for lunch on this one. If you're looking for something that expands on the illustrious history of Middle Earth in Tolkien fashion, I'm afraid the writing isn't quite up to snuff.
I could only sit back and wonder where the Nemesis system could have found a better home. I mean, how cool would it have been if a Highlander game had finally been made? Where you fight across the ages and watch as Immortals fall and others become stronger? As tired as the zombie genre has become, what about a game where you played as a zombie and hunted down the remnants of humanity, mutating and growing stronger while they in-fight and scrape to survive? Try this on for size: a Vampire: The Masquerade game with the nemesis system that could show the hierarchy of the local Camarilla or Sabbat, where you can diablerize, murder, and intrigue your way up the ranks? I mean, obviously I'm not a developer and you can't hold a game accountable for not being something totally different, but the Nemesis system is just so well done and it feels wasted here.
The Nemesis system is like a farmers daughter: she yearns for the bright lights of the big city, but she ends up marrying the first jackass that comes along and before you know it she's got eight sequels and her best years are used up.
My final verdict is that aside from the Nemesis system, the combat and sound are the only things that stand out in Shadow of Mordor, with the former losing its honeymoon period with me at about half way through the game. It unceremoniously joins the ranks of perfectly playable Lord of the Rings games such as Lord of the Rings: The Third Age and Lord of the Rings: War in the North. Veterans of the genre who like similar games will undoubtedly find something to like about it, but for this writer Shadow of Mordor played out like a desperate one-night stand: unmemorable, repetitive, and best approached with no small amount of liquor; but hey, at least with the Nemesis system it had a great personality, right?
For another perspective on Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, be sure to check out my colleague Andrew Stretch's review. How do you feel about my assessment? What are your experiences with Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor? Leave a comment below, and feel free to tell me why you liked or disliked the game. How do you feel about the Nemesis system? Are you looking forward to a sequel?