Based on the most important story ever written in the genre of Fantasy, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor pit’s one man against a sea of his enemies, in an action title that features excellent combat, stealth, and enemy AI systems. Taking place between the events of The Hobbit, and Lord of the Rings, cross the black wall and walk the dark lands as a Ranger of Gondor, and a Spirit of Vengeance.
Release Date: Sept 30, 2014 (New Gen/PC) Nov, 18, 2014 (Xbox 360/PS3)
A certified hit, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor has been on the lips of darn near everyone it seems, and they all seem to be singing its praises. If I’m not speaking plainly enough, this is a game enjoying some very good reviews. Hitting the scene in a quiet sort of way, this newest Lord of the Rings gaming title failed to catch my attention the first time I saw it. As important culturally as the literary works of J.R.R. Tolkien were, they haven’t always translated spectacularly onto other media, gaming in particular. Running on the next gen hardware, it was only after I started digging a bit further that it became obvious there was more to it than that. They were boasting some very cutting edge AI systems in regards to its enemies, and despite myself (grand claims have always been a pitfall of the games industry) I started to believe. I wasn’t alone in this, there were a lot of eyes pointed towards (Shadow of) Mordor. Expectation is a you know what, but this time, it was certainly founded. Not a flawless title, this walk inside the dark lands is a taste of what’s possible with the new hardware, that and Uruks, lots and lots of Ururks.
The story (which takes some liberties, and is not canon) goes like this: After the fall of Sauron that first time, the people of Gondor swore that never again would Mordor be allowed to rise, that eye’s would not see it and smash it down. A garrison was established at the Black Gate, and so it went for ages, until… The problem is, when an evil so ancient that is existed before time (so long ago it was actually a being of ‘good’) wants back into its old place, well, you don’t want to be the one in the way. Obliterated by the Dark Lords vanguard, a ranger survives long enough to see his family murdered, before suffering the same fate in some dark ritual, enacted by the Black Hand of Sauron. For reasons unknown, the end result is Talion, the ranger, is soul bonded with the Wraith of an elf lord that knows not who he is.
And you thought you had problems. Good news is, now it’s time to kill some Uruk’s.
A Sea of Uruks
At its heart, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is a fairly simple game. It’s about one guy trying to disrupt and undermine an entire army of monsters on a straight up path of revenge. The fact he has a spectral stowaway just gives him more tools with which to do it. The game doesn’t mess around and drops you in, and gives you a primer. Though the game can be summed up simply enough, there are a lot of moving pieces at play, luckily, it’s a practical education, and you’ll have lots of practice. They might as well have called this an ‘Orc Murder Sim’ because it’s open bloody season. Which brings me to one of my issues with Shadow of Mordor’s. There might just be too much to do. After your primer you will find yourself quickly able to access the main story quest, but it seems that almost instantly, and with nearly every other trip you take, you will amass a great many more things on your itinerary. Mordor is a fair sized place, and broken into quadrants. Broken towers lay strewn about, while in Wraith mode, they will grow, and shine. These act as warp points and your spawn points, and, you guessed it, will unlock yet more things to do. It can drive you crazy, or did me.
Talion has two skill trees, his Ranger abilities, and his Wraith abilities, though this fellow is fairly powerful, even in game, you get some pretty entertaining talents that are a lot of fun to use (shooting ghost arrows into fires to cause massive explosions, for example) and give a variety of approaches. Weapons, like talents, can be improved upon, each through active use and, you guessed it, side quests. Littered throughout the map are challenges, challenges are weapon specific, and will help level up your Uruk murdering tools.
Now, let’s talk about that enemy AI system I mentioned.
Called ‘The Nemesis System,’ the word was that it was an entirely encapsulated system that focused solely on the behaviors within the ranks of the Uruk army. As a game about one man’s guerilla war against said horde, this makes it fairly important in terms of gameplay. It was said that it ensured each individual in the army would be given distinct, and random personalities. Uruks get by on ‘survival of the fittest’ constantly on the lookout for weakness, constantly infighting. Nemesis, through this unique personality matrix, would create a self directed ecology of infighting and uprising, which would then affect the power structure and eventually the quests of each player. They weren’t wrong… but they weren’t all the way right either. You stare at it long enough (and that only takes a few good play sessions) you begin to see the edges of the thing, ‘the code behind the matrix’ if you will, but that is not to say it isn’t an impressive system that says some very exciting things about the possibilities going forward. But it also helps contributed to that ‘too much to do’ thing. I’ll explain.
So, in my ‘one man / one wraith’ quest for vengeance, I found myself encountering a lot of Uruks. I should say that Shadow of Mordor isn’t an easy game, by any means. Talion is powerful, had lost of tools at his disposal, and like the Arkham games, you do get cues in battle, but, it is very easy to get overwhelmed, and even with a well designed (and often challenging) ‘last chance’ mechanic, you can go from having your days whole itinerary planned to being dead in a very short amount of time. When you inevitably get put down, the fellow who managed it gets himself a bump, and ranks up. Now, it is very upsetting to see one of these ugly buggers not only stand over your body laughing, but then get a raise, and a power increase. It is exceptionally effective at building motivation. Your wraith abilities will allow you to force your way into the minds of your opponents, which will help you identify and reveal the weaknesses of the Captains of Saurons army, including those that raised themselves up by stepping over your corpse. These insights are not to be underestimated. Traits vary a great deal, and can go from making a fight very easy, to giving your foe an unexpected strength bump. Well, as I went I began thinning the ranks, I noticed that existing captains I hadn’t managed to get to yet were succeeding in their efforts to expand their power, and now new orcs were stepping in to fill the spots vacated through all my hard work. So, not only was I too busy to have killed ALL the orc captains yet, now there were more! And the ones I hadn’t taken care of were growing. I resolved to renew my efforts. As it turned out, one of the dudes that I’d helped promote by impaling myself with his spear, not only eluded me, but had managed to turn every single encounter to his advantage. The first time it was a party I was meant to interrupt. Toasting his recent success, grog and meat (judging by the talk of the orcs, and all the human slaves I can venture to guess what was on the menu) were to flow freely, and help him gain a stronger following. Despite blowing up his grog supply and nearly killing him, he slipped away, increasing his reputation. It didn’t get better. An assassination attempt I’d intended to ensure succeeded, failed instead. He killed me a few times, and continued his rise. Then, another day, another attempt, while clashing swords with him, he laughed, welcomingly, like he was glad to see me. He preceded to mock my continued attempts, making some rather infuriating suggestions about my motivations. I failed that time too. The next time, he didn’t say a thing, just gnashed his teeth at me repeatedly, with a decidedly unsettling warmth in his eyes.
The whole thing became disturbingly intimate and tangibly emotional. I hated this guy, I was incredibly invested. It was a perfect example of the Nemesis System at work in its intended fashion. An AI system so complex that it earned me a gaming experience that rivals quite a few in novelty and emotional impact, and yet, will be unique to me. There may be similar, even close, but, from the character traits, to the physical ones, strengths and weaknesses, the specifics of the encounters, the ramifications… As an event, it was every bit as good as anything in any game scripted for the masses, that was just for me. It was followed by one of those ‘see the edges’ moments where literally the very next Uruk I clashed with was also a Captain, and in the same area, and he did that same quiet, chattering teeth gnash thing (albeit from a different camera angle). It was purely a random roll of the dice, or, a bit of code triggering the same animation… but it pulled the curtain back. So, it’s not magic, not yet, but it’s also completely new, and still incredibly impressive. The worst part? Aside from the fact my personal arch nemesis wasn’t even one of the big intimidating ones, but a skinny spearman… there’s been no ‘payoff in the end’. That red hued, bat-nosed, ‘you-know-what’ remains alive and well inside my game, gaining in power, as we speak. I have been foiled so many times now, he’s in my head. I’m busy with the superiors of his superiors at this point, but he’s with me every mile, mocking me every time I dispatch one of his brethren. His time is coming… the next meeting will be our last.
You could most accurately call it Arkham Assassins of the Rings, and it’s well worth your time. Though not a perfect outing, there is a big ‘proof of concept’ inside its guts that is a herald of things to come. Visually impressive, well acted, and with a seemingly endless content generator of missions based around the exceptional Nemesis System, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is a Unicorn. Developed without fanfare, but obvious skill, based on a much loved intellectual property it actually manages to live up to, it is a new IP that not only innovates existing genres, but adds something completely new, while being entertaining and well executed, selling well, and reviewing well. I can’t think of another title standing at such a crossroads. It isn’t perfect by any means, there are chinks within the system that will distract you when they reveal themselves, but the good far exceeds the bad. Mostly? It’s a lot of fun. Watch some footage, you’ll see.
Overall Rating 4/5
Link for pre-orders on the Xbox 360,
Link for pre-orders on the PS3