With Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, Monolith Productions bring together a number of beloved elements: Arkham-style combat, Assassin's Creed's traversal and stealth elements, and the world of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. While they're each executed well individually, their imperfections are brought to the forefront by the time the game is brought to an anticlimactic end.
The most immediate impression of the game comes from the incredible graphics. Everything from the buildings to the Orcs are rendered with an unprecedented amount of detail for the genre, creating a level of immersion that almost feels like going on holiday. This is particularly true of the second area, a verdant environment where you can even make out the blades of grass swinging in the wind. The only drawback is the lighting, but even that is hit and miss; the light cast by the flickering Uruk camp fires look incredible and set a perfect tone for Talion's malicious escapades, but some of the daylight rooftops look unnatural.
The high detail is particularly evident in the Uruk-hai enemies who are each rendered with a lot of character in ways like vacant expressions and drooling. They also come across like a genuine threat, their weapons designed with a weight and density that carries a level of intimidation to correlate with their rank and power.
The Uruk captains and Warchiefs ooze personality not only in their meticulously detailed horrific appearances, but also in their dialogue. Creepy monologues, arrogant diatribes, or simply maniacal heavy breathing that all do a wonderful job in intimidating the player.
Their animations also lend the player a feeling of incredible power, particularly when you send a horde of them fleeing in pant-wetting terror after a particularly gruelling execution or slaying fifty or so enemies. Watching them all run for their lives really drives home the feeling that Talion, and the player by proxy, is an immensely dangerous one man army.
Shadow of Mordor's combat systems should be immediately familiar to fans of the Arkham games. For the most part you'll simply be attacking and countering enemies, though you'll eventually start learning new abilities that help in tearing apart the Orc army and make Talion feel incredibly powerful. Melee executions, for example, will instantly and brutally kill an enemy when the player manages to reach a certain number of chained attacks. The ties between Talion and the Wraith are incorporated into combat in natural ways such as being able to counter two attacks at once; one with each character. It also opens up certain abilities, such as stuns that allow Talion to wreak havoc.
Talion's combat animations are also excellent, creating a seamless string of swordplay without the jarring switched between animations that other games suffer from immensely. Not only does he contain an incredible amount of power at the player's fingertips, but he commands it with the grace of mastery.
A key difference between Shadow of Mordor and the Arkham games is just where the challenge comes from. Shadow of Mordor is initially a lot more forgiving since it requires a lot less precision to counter enemies, even allowing you a pretty generous window to attack them during this time, but this is eventually nullified by the sheer numbers of enemies in any given encounter. At that point it becomes more akin to a puzzle, the goal being to dwindle the enemies down enough that eliminating your target becomes substantially easier.
The amount of options in doing this are quite staggering: Do you take out the archers? Sneak around? Bait a portion of them away? Blow them up? Take them out from afar with the bow? Or perhaps just run in and hope you're up to the task of surmounting the incredible odds stacked against you? It's up to the player to assess the situation and formulate the best plan, and the game fortunately refrains from any hand-holding here.
New enemy types are gradually introduced to provide further challenge including shield bearers, berserkers, and poisonous ghuls. This requires the player to re-think each new encounter, providing a steady influx of surprises and challenge.
Everything about the combat does a fantastic job of making the player feel powerful. The animations of each attack and ability are exaggerated, particularly when Uruk-hai heads start flying. The most particularly powerful animations are also punctuated by brief slow motion, though these get frustrating after several hours of this. Sound design aids this empowerment and the overall satisfaction of combat, the crunching, steely bites that accompany Talion's sword swings going a long way in portraying the power of them.
A more insidious kind of power comes in the form of branding, the ability to twist an Orc to the player's will. Doing this allows them to command their own Uruk-hai army and strike at the enemies from within, as well as eventually taking over the highest positions of the enemy army. It provides a different kind of empowerment, though one just as satisfying as the combat itself.
Shadow of Mordor also borrows quite heavily from Assassin's Creed in the traversal, allowing players to climb around buildings and easily sneak from one encounter to the next. It outdoes it's progenitor, however, since it doesn't suffer from the same unresponsiveness that has plagued Assassin's Creed since its inception: If you point Talion in a direction, he'll typically follow it.
You can also get around quicker by mounting a caragor, a warg-like beast that can be found prowling around or in Orc cages. The most surprising part about doing this is that it doesn't feel at all restrictive, allowing you to lumber up and over most buildings in the game. You can also use them in combat and bite the enemies to death.
While Shadow of Mordor borrows a lot of mechanics, it also features a big new one: The Nemesis system. This gives you a view of the Uruk-hai hierarchy in each of the game's areas, allowing you to systematically take them down from the captain level all the way up to the five Warchiefs. When you gain the ability to brand the Orcs, you can manipulate the system to put your selected pawn at the top of the whole thing.
There also missions that impact the system, such as struggles between Captains that Talion can impose himself upon. Doing so has a variety of effects upon the world and the captains themselves, such as making them stronger or removing them entirely. It adds another layer of power to Talion, granting him a limited dominion over the Uruk political structure.
There is something incredibly addicting about the system, urging you to go after captains and take on the side-missions that lead you to them that put you in danger of all-nighters.
The most disappointing parts of Shadow of Mordor are when control is wrestled away from you. Executions, caragor taming, and a lot of other feats that Talion performs often come down to a quick time event and occasionally even a cutscene. Players are all too often forced to watch instead of take part themselves which builds a lot of frustration until it's just not fun to play any more.
The main missions are unfortunately less interesting, usually acting as a kind of tutorial for the playground that is Shadow of Mordor's vast world, giving you the tools that will get you the most out of the great side missions and general chicanery with the Uruk army, though they do also tell a compelling story for the most part. They're generally underwhelming, however, particularly the finale that devolves into a mere quick time event.
Shadow of Mordor's story is at least interesting and does a good job of being inclusive for those who might not be Lord of the Rings fans. Talion watches his family get murdered, then is revived by a Wraith who decides to cohabit his body and give him magic powers. They go after his family’s murderer, The Black Hand, in a pretty standard revenge story. Unfortunately, it falls flat by the end as a lot of prior characterization is undone.
The game is well-written, giving everything a sense of gravity. Phrases like "why was my soul denied death?" is a lot more flavourful and has more impact than "why did I return from death?" for example, and there a lot of lines that engender a similar tone.
There are also several engaging and genuinely surprising twists along the way that involves perhaps the most important character in Lord of the Rings lore. Diehards will either love it for the character's mere inclusion or hate it for twisting the lore, but it makes for an interesting and compelling story either way.
While most of the characters are fine, Gollum is not. His role in the game is little more than a caricature of himself and is not effective as a plot device. He's there strictly to act as a bit of fan-service, though he doesn't do that particularly well as most of his dialogue is simply annoying and cheesy.
Collectible artifacts dot the map, featuring lore to build the world and give some history to Gondor and Mordor as well as provide some touching insight to some of the game's characters. The audio logs that they unlock detail events such as what led to Hirgon defecting from the Rangers and what happened to Torvin's hunting partner. This adds some genuine emotional weight and drive to a later mission to kill a Graug, though this is deflated somewhat by the fact it’s done in a cutscene rather than through the player’s actions.
The game's sound design does its job phenomenally well. The soundtrack is great in setting the scene and keeping your adrenaline pumping, as well as punctuating dramatic moments such as performing a ledge kill. The tribalistic chanting of the Warchief's names when you lure them also serves to pump you up, as well as reaffirming the idea that they have an enormous intimidating following behind them.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is all about surmounting overwhelming and intimidating odds while feeling like a one man army, and the brilliant touches that build up this atmosphere permeate in everything. It's a shame, then, that far too many of the most important moments of this occur in quick time events and cutscenes rather than through actually gameplay, underwhelming the amazing foundation that it was all built on. That said, everything that leads up to these moments is meticulously crafted and empowering on unprecedented levels.