Compared to similar beloved multi-media franchises like Batman or Star Wars, the Lord of the Rings and the any other works of J.R.R. Tolkien have a far smaller success rate of being translated into video games. Interplay had a few decent hits in the 80s in early 90s, back before PC games were the legitimate force they are today, but more recently, EA did an excellent job not setting the bar too high back when they were exploiting the Peter Jackson movies’ license.
These so-so action and strategy games captured the movies’ spirit well enough, about as well as licensed games did during the PlayStation 2 days, but they were forgettable as products of their time. Perhaps the most popular is the fan-favorite Lord of the Rings: The Third Age, an RPG which told a “behind the scenes” story and ripped off Final Fantasy X all the way down to its battle interface. It’s remembered more for being a weird hybrid of West meets East rather than being a decent game.
Ready to move on to newer and better things now that EA no longer owns the license, gamers have all but forgotten the days of the movie games. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is tasked with breathing life back into J.R.R. Tolkien on the video game front, and its treatment of the lore has already lead many to crown it “the best Middle-earth game of all time.”
Granted, the bar isn’t exactly a high one to topple, but does this open-world action game from Monolith Productions hold up to that moniker?
Familiar on the Surface
It’s worth mentioning that if you love what other games on the AAA scene have to offer, then Shadow of Mordor will be right up your alley. If you’ve played something popular in the last two to three years, chances are that Monolith ripped it right off for this game. Every single gameplay idea on the surface of this projects has an origin in a recent hit.
Our ranger hero Talion fights and stealth attacks just like Batman in the Batman: Arkham games. He climbs towers to reveal the map like in Assassin’s Creed, and even swan dives off of them without the safety of a haystack. When he goes into stealth mode, he leaves a shining imprint of his body at the last place the enemies saw him, just like the recent Splinter Cell games.
Of course, he uses a bow and arrow, just like every major video game these days, and he spends a majority of time walking from waypoint to waypoint to find secret items and missions on an open-world map. I’m going to say “like Tomb Raider” just because I want to, but you can insert your own AAA example if you like.
Sound familiar? Shadow of Mordor has very VERY few new ideas when it comes to the core gameplay. I’m both surprised and thankful that Monolith didn’t play up the morality between Ranger and Nazgul because then it would just be the most generic thing in history. A saving grace, I suppose.
Despite the few new ideas it brings to its combat and exploration, everything it does, it does very well. The map is mercifully not too large, and Talion can potentially cross it unimpeded within five minutes. He gets around fast, especially when he rockets up featureless walls with the slightest of ease, and has plenty of abilities that can help him get to a destination even faster.
In an open-world game, being able to get from point to point quickly and effectively is a must to avoid being boring, and Shadow of Mordor succeeds with stars and stripes at that.
Combat too is very satisfying, but I’m going to dock it for not being quite as fluid or natural as its obvious inspiration, Batman: Arkham. On the bright side though, attacks are incredibly violent and each slice and execution will make you feel their impacts over and over (and over) again. If we are keeping up the comparisons, it nearly takes it to the level of Fallout 3’s brutal deaths. Taking down orcs has never been so satisfying, and best of all, it never gets old.
But Dig Deeper…
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor succeeds at being a competent action game using every trend in the book on its surface, but it’s when you start digging that you start to find the real fun.
Far and away, the main reason to play this game is the Nemesis system. The idea behind this genius system is that every single orc generated in this game has a name, rank, and series of attributes that will help or hinder him in combat. These come into play when they are promoted to the rank of captain, and this happens either by lucky chance in the game’s background or the more common reason, delivering a killing blow to Talion.
Once promoted, these captains wander the map and gain levels in the background action, be it through fighting other orc captains, recruiting members to their individual causes, or surviving encounters with Talion. You learn of their location, quirks, and weaknesses by interrogating random orcs, and the main drive of Shadow of Mordor is hunting these captains down. Killing them grants powerful runes to improve your weapons and increases Talion’s own power to learn better abilities.
Don’t think that killing them is a walk in the park though. Generally, they are always much stronger than normal orcs, and they are always surrounded by their followers. You might have to do some carving through trash mobs when getting ready for the final kill approach. Perishing in a fight with a captain also only makes them stronger, so you really don’t want to fail when attempting an assassination.
The next time will only be harder.
That is, unless you want to make them stronger! That way, they drop better gear when you finally do kill them, or they take down another even more challenging captain in a behind the scenes duel. The joy of manipulating death for Talion’s own benefit is something Shadow of Mordor does very well.
Most often though, the best way to tackle a captain is to exploit his weaknesses, and as mentioned before, each has a list of ways he will respond to elements in battle. Seeing an ally suffer might enrage him, but catching on fire might frighten him, or more generously, kill him instantly.
Likewise, another orc might flee at the sight of a fellow captain he despises, and fiery explosions might only make him angrier, thus making him stronger and his attack patterns more unpredictable.
Some have quirks which make them immune to arrows or stealth attacks, others can be dropped by the same attacks in a single hit. The best are the captains terrified of the rapid beasts that roam the land. Let one out of its cage, and it will chase him across the world until it mauls him to death, doing your work for you!
Just don’t let him retreat out of sight because enemies can run away and will, of course, come back stronger.
Let’s not forget to mention the character model creation as well. Each orc is randomly generated with a wide array of visual elements, be it skin color, body size, head shape, facial features, weapons, armor, and even voice. No two captains will ever be the same, and they are all delightfully evil in many ways.
Is it weird that I had flashbacks to Monkey Island with each passing duel? Picking a fight with one and exchanging insults felt like the witty battles from the LucasArts classic. All the talk of Grog might have something to do with it as well.
The Freedom to Progress
I would like to create a new video game term called the “story wall.” It’s similar to how the “pay wall” works, where you can enjoy a free-to-play game until you have to pay, but rather than money, the ”story wall” means you have to interact with the boring story missions developers still jam into these open-world free roaming games.
The best games in this genre: Fallout 3, Skyrim, Just Cause 2, and Crackdown for example, let you progress deep into all the game’s content without forcing you to interact with the game’s plot. Every small action you do in these games rewards you with some form of progression, be it equipment, stat boosts, money, or chaos. Even just messing around at your own pace has its benefits.
Then there are the Rockstar standards set by the likes of Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto IV. These games have a “story wall” that is never more than a mission or two away, and once you hit it, there is no way to make progress in the game without sitting through a long walk or car ride with characters blabbing on about exposition, followed by a forced stealth or clumsy driving segment.
I don’t enjoy these kinds of games because I hate being instructed on how to progress through a genre that celebrates freedom. Just drop me in the world and leave me to my fun, please!
How does Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor handle this? Very very well actually. Indeed, the entirety of Mordor was in flames, and its warchiefs were long since rotting corpses by the time I ever interacted with Gollum or the game’s allied forces, the Outcasts. Talion was at peak performance with his weapons loaded to the brim with epic runes, and he could perform crazy takedowns by brutalizing unsuspecting enemies in front of their allies, or even make their heads explode!
Monolith’s game does a great job encouraging exploring and breaking away from the main path because the rewards for doing side missions are far more fruitful than anything the main story has to offer. Sending death threats to captains for a higher chance of epic ruins, beefing up your weapons with “legendary” tasks, freeing slaves, and just simply finding ways to send the forces of Sauron into pure chaos.
Insurgency is a wonderful thing in this game, and Monolith does a great job at making it feel rewarding!
Then of course, there comes a point when there are no more ways to advance. Some skills can only be obtained through the story, and the captains are in such disarray that they stop dropping noteworthy loot.
And that is where the “story wall” comes in. This ultimate ranger, who knows no death and has caused irreparable havoc amongst the forces of the Dark Lord Sauron, is reduced to stealthily picking poison herbs and trotting along the footsteps of Gollum on one of his goofy treasure hunts. Rock on… I guess.
Plus, one small minor complaint. These forced story segments always take place at night or in a cave. No matter the situation during my free-roaming stints, I always made sure I played in the daytime because kind of like to see what I’m doing when I play my video games. Forcing night and darkness upon players does nothing for the atmosphere, and serves as merely an annoyance.
Shadow of Mordor doesn’t quite reach the levels of “freedom to progress” as the greats of the genre, but I played for a good 15 hours before being forced through the story. Then, I simply lost all interest and prayed for the chance to start wreaking havoc again.
The sad part is, after a handful of missions with exposition spouting allies or stealthily following Gollum’s footprints with little consequence, I felt as if my time with the game was enough. Mordor was in disarray, I killed a direct servant of Sauron in an epic boss battle that was far more thrilling than the warchiefs, and I was sure I had left the path open for Frodo and his friends. With a little tweaking to its narrative, the game could have happily ended here.
Instead, Monolith opened up an entire new map and the only difference was that it was just a bit more green.
17 hours of hard work, and you gotta do it all over again. “More” is not always “better,” and pacing is very important in video games, just as it is in movies. I already experienced most of what the game offered and even this new map was not enough to reignite my passion for those glory days of insurrection. My impatience with the forced missions and distraught over the grinding I had done in the previous map brought my momentum to a halt.
Talk about a buzzkill…
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor… or whatever
For a Middle-earth game, I had very little interest in the actual Middle-earth setting. It could have been titled “Orc Insurgency Simulator,” and I would have enjoyed it all the same. I felt nothing for Talion, his counterpart Celebrimbor, or their combined generic tales of revenge and amnesia, and I didn’t care that somewhere beyond the borders of this game that Frodo and his friends were happily playing in the Shire or that Gandalf was smoking a pipe.
Monolith’s tight mechanics and deeper ideas with the Nemesis system far outshine the source material for this game, and I was too busy thinking of my own narrative for Talion causing havoc in this playground of fun destruction, which could have been a generic fantasy world for all I cared.
That reason alone means it is not the best Middle-earth game of all time.
Don’t let that deter you, though. Shadow of Mordor is a hell of a ride from beginning to the “story wall.” There is always time for “one more captain,” and there is always one more secret or quest to complete that will grant you enough experience points for one more ability.
I’m going to lean towards a “Buy” on this one. Shadow of Mordor is a conventional open-world action game with very cliched mechanics, but if you approach it conventionally, it might bore you to tears. Break away from its path, experiment, and find your own fun. Tackle story missions only when you want some new abilities or a new map to toy with, and you will definitely get your $60 worth.
Just whatever you do, expect that new map at the halfway point! Do not under any circumstances charge through thinking your time in Mordor will stop at the black gates. You’ll have prepared your heart much better than I did for the unexpected round two. There really is no true death in Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, nor really in any video game that refuses to let you go.
Just come back to life, rinse and repeat. Great game, but I knew when it was time to walk away.
Disclaimer: We purchased a copy of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor with company funds and played twenty hours of the single player campaign before writing this review.