Shadow of Mordor Is Not a Lord of the Rings Game -- Review

By Published October 10, 2014 at 12:47 pm
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Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is not a Lord of the Rings game. There are no epic battles between a wizard and a balrog, there are no disguised female noblewomen slaying wraiths, and there are no hobbits singing jigs and jumping on top of cave trolls. However, having demoed Shadow of Mordor at Monolith Productions, I had not wanted any of that in the finished product.

Sure, Peter Jackson’s films have translated well to a couple of titles, and some of our readers may have been satisfied by the more recent War in the North or Lord of the Rings Online, but there’s more to be had. What the Tolkien universe has needed to keep us inspired and excited is a logical, original interpretation of Middle-earth. Shadow of Mordor offers this originality by stripping the Tolkien world down to brains and blood, and the game is better off because of it.

That’s because it offers two perspectives to the story instead of just focusing on the human-elf alliance. Shadow of Mordor creates a new world of personality and dynamic interactions among its hierarchy of Uruks (or orcs), ranging from the footsoldiers carrying intel to the higher-ranking Captains and Warchiefs. The hierarchy is ever-changing and offers the player opportunities to influence it, and so the player’s perception of the battlefield is never the same. This is a clear advancement in the handful of Tolkien-inspired action games.

Summary of Thoughts

While Shadow of Mordor sticks to the core mechanics of action combat, it presents enough open-world variety to keep action as fresh as any other game in its genre. Where it pushes the genre and adds depth, creativity, and satisfaction is in its dynamic “Nemesis AI” ranking system.

The visual presentation is not as inspirational as the Peter Jackson films and there are a few shortcomings in the gameplay & mechanics. That said, Shadow of Mordor forges its own identity that’s separate from LotR and The Hobbit, making for an authentic, rewarding experience.

Shadow of Mordor has deep gameplay architecture, so there’s only so much I can cover in this review. If you have any questions, please post a comment below or tweet your question to @GamersNexus.

About Shadow of Mordor

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Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is an open-world third-person action game set between the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings story arcs. Talion, an undead Gondorian Ranger, teams up with a wraith elf, Celebrimbor, to weaken and control the dark lord Sauron’s forces.

Players hack and slash their way through Mordor to control the Uruk hierarchies. They can kill off every Captain and Warchief manually -- the tried-and-true way -- or players can turn the Uruks on each other through betrayals.

Shadow of Mordor is developed by Monolith Productions and published by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.

I’ve gone over more of the game’s core mechanics and objectives in our hands-on preview.

Story and Presentation

Creating a story from two iconic arcs is a huge undertaking, but Monolith has bridged The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings together with some new faces, albeit dozens of ugly Uruk ones.

Talion, a Gondorian Ranger, is out to avenge his family and countrymen and, despite being more reserved than Aragorn, makes for a somewhat compelling protagonist. He awakens from death into an Alice in Wonderland world with characters like Celebrimbor, Queen Marwen, and Gollum chiming in with their sides of the story. It’s a formula that, although not the most exciting to follow, moves the story along well. The blend of new characters and art styles -- both in-engine and cinematic -- resembles Dragon Age almost as much as the Tolkien arcs.

Shadow of Mordor offers its other perspective to its lore with the Uruk hierarchy. Monolith has infused more personality to the bastard-elf opposition than what even Jackson’s films featured. Each Uruk has its unique look, scars, weapons, gear, and voice. The voice-acting on these characters reaches a new level for enemy appearances, so the player feels the hate in each Captain and Warchief he faces. On a broader level, being able to observe and participate in the orc lifestyle fleshes out the meatbag persona presented in the films.

Environment and Graphics

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Shadow of Mordor seems conservative in its presentation of Middle Earth. Monolith’s world is mostly comprised of ruins, camps, and orc-made strongholds & structures that give way to small battle scenes -- some of which expand to one another if the conflict escalates. There aren’t many details in each environment on the surface, and most of the humans Talion comes across are generic slaves that have very little interaction with him. Weather shifts and particle effects are rare.

The greatest strength Shadow of Mordor presents is the varying tactical opportunities in its environments. There are so many ways to kill and dominate packs of orcs that battles will frequently allow the player to try something different. I, an Assassin’s Creed player, am still not tired of “death from above,” so there’s nothing more satisfying than sneaking around a fortress, climbing the tallest structure, and then pouncing on my enemy with a juicy squish from my blade. I can also charge into conflicts or sneak around the back, moving from bush to cover.

Environments present several interactive opportunities: Turn orcs against each other by poisoning their grog (orc mead) barrels; shoot explosive barrels to wreak havoc or cause distraction; free a caragor (BAMF) from its cage and ride the mounted beast, slashing away at foes. I have my playstyle, but I still feel encouraged to try out most of the environmental tactics.

The Xbox One version does not looks as sharp as the version we played on PC, coming off more as an impressive tail-end title from the previous generation. This is somewhat understandable given the large number of animated enemies at any given moment. There are few framerate stutters during the most animated effects and action scenes, but otherwise, Shadow of Mordor runs very smoothly. The combat animations are fluid, and it’s rare that I see Talion abruptly ending an animation to start another one upon pressing a button.

Core Combat and Mechanics

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Shadow of Mordor tackles open-world action and exploration similarly to other titles in its genre, like the Batman: Arkham series and Assassin’s Creed games. It uses a free-running system for Talion to scale structures and cliffs and includes a fast-travel system that loads fairly quickly. Talion can also roam around on a caragor or a larger graug.

The free-running system is a little clunky, moving deliberately more slowly than Assassin’s Creed, but it’s also hindered by occasional invisible walls. Fortunately, the player seldom has to rely on free-roaming to be successful, unless that’s her preferred playstyle. Riding a beast takes getting used to because the player has to use the twin-stick controls more than on-foot combat, but once mounted, it works fairly easily.

Talion confronts enemies head-on with his sword and bow. Sword combat runs very smoothly, with Talion fluidly switching slashing one enemy and moving onto another with very few breaks in the animation. Landing more consecutive hits will fill up Talion’s hit meter. Once full, he can unleash a couple of special attacks, such as dealing a radius of damage to multiple enemies or pulling off a brutal finishing move on a foe in a quasi-cinematic presentation; those executions never get old. He can also “brand” an enemy in order to build up his hit meter more quickly or “drain” the enemy to get it to fight for him.

The combat engine indicates an incoming enemy attack with an icon above the enemy. Pressing the counter or dodge button, even at the last possible moment in most instances, will prompt Talion to fend off the blow.

Triggering bow combat switches the character over to Celebrimbor, who uses his wraith power to slow down time. His signature move is teleporting to another enemy’s position by firing an arrow at an enemy that he attaches himself to -- a “Shadow Strike.”

Talion can also perform a variety of stealth combat maneuvers. There’s the classic kill-from-behind approach, but there are also plenty of opportunities to execute death-from-above or from a ledge.

All in all, I can easily draw comparisons to Shadow of Mordor’s core combat and that of other action titles, and I find little fault that can be improved but is not tarnishing. Combat runs smoothly and offers enough variety with Talion and Celebrimbor’s specialty moves & executions; however, with more enemies on screen, it becomes more difficult to accurately target the enemy I want to attack. The camera struggles in close-quarters environments at times, but otherwise, it’s fairly easy to dissect the battle.

Nemesis System

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Shadow of Mordor’s Nemesis system is the game’s most unique feature and one of the most innovative features an AAA title has offered in recent years. It integrates into the campaign, but ultimately, it’s the “fun factor” in Shadow of Mordor that takes up a majority of the player’s time.

The Nemesis system, referred to in-game as “Sauron’s Army,” presents a dynamic chessboard-like plane of Uruk Captains, Veteran & Elite Captains, and Warchiefs. Talion defeats each Warchief by controlling or taking out the chief’s captains, causing the chief to come out and fight him or his controlled captain. Talion can employ several strategies in pursuing Captains and Warchiefs: He can tactfully defeat the Warchief hierarchy by gaining intel on officers; he can go after the weaker captains to easily dominate and control them, or kill them off to weaken the hierarchy; and Talion’s most intimidating strategy is controlling an officer and then sending him off to betray his superior.

The Nemesis system generates several types of missions that prompt the player to go out and take down an officer. Raids, Feasts, Hunts, Trials, and Duels all start differently in that Talion may want to infiltrate the battlefield, choose a side to weaken, or wreak havoc while mounted on a caragor; but ultimately, they all have the same purpose of surveying the battlefield, attacking in the player’s preferred style, dominating the enemy, then executing or controlling any officers if necessary.

Coming face-to-face with an officer builds nearly as much tension as a boss battle. Upon encountering an officer, an in-game cinematic will play and the Uruk will taunt Talion. If the Uruk has faced Talion before, he will often refer to their previous battle. The taunts aren’t entirely unique from each other at first, but the enemies that give them out certainly are.

Uruk officers function like their own characters in the game, even though there are hundreds of them in a lengthy playthrough. Officers who climb the ranks can upgrade their armor and appearance, each piece of gear procedurally generated. These Uruks also carry over battle scars from their previous battles against Talion. They’re constantly changing their whereabouts, sometimes teaming up together inside a fortress or commandeering a posse around the fields hunting caragors. The chaos of entering a battle scene with an objective in mind, only to have it interrupted by an officer that comes out of nowhere to take down Talion in their fourth clash, erases the static pursue-execute model of many other action games. The Uruk are always purusing Talion, and they are more fun to kill off as a result.

Adding to the dynamic of encountering officers is the varying strengths and weaknesses for each Captain and Warchief. These indicate how Talion can be successful in dominating each officer. There are officers who are susceptible to beasts, ranged attacks, stealth, and even being burned alive, among other tactics. They also have resistances to these tactics, helping them perform stronger in battle. Talion is sometimes limited in which tactics he can effectively employ, forcing the character to get a little more creative. For example, he may have to lure the officer to an area that has a fire pit so he can get into a battle and shove the officer into the flames to wear him down -- or even kill him.

From what we can tell, there’s unfortunately no feature for logging or tracking a player’s history against a given Captain or Warchief in the Nemesis system; with the ability to fast travel from one world to another, the player might forget which Uruk he failed to air-assassinate and then nearly got away with burning alive.

The other minor gripe I have with the Sauron’s Army side missions is that they pop up for enemies that Talion does not necessarily have control over. Rather than seeing a new mission and jumping in knowing the officer’s strengths and weaknesses, I might have to wander around the map looking for an orc carrying intel, and they’re a little few and far between.

These gripes aside, the Nemesis System is still immensely entertaining and replayable. Entering a mission or objective with no idea of the madness that will come at Talion is something I can’t get enough of.

There is also a social integration feature that allows a player to avenge her friend’s death by completing a “vendetta” mission against his Uruk killer. It comes across as tacked-on, but it’s pretty fun for the player to see if she meets a similar fate as her friend.

Player Progression

Talion progresses by upgrading his weapons and unlocking abilities. XP is gained for kills, from the hack-and-slash to stealth varieties, as well as by collecting herbs, freeing slaves, and other side-questing activities.

Building up Talion’s XP unlocks Ability spots so that Talion can learn how to Shadow Strike or ride a graug. The in-game mithril currency helps unlock standard stat-boosting spots for increasing health, Elfshot capacity, and the total number of unlocked rune slots. Runes are markings on each of Talion’s weapons, and each rune carries a different weapon booster. For example, a rune on Talion’s bow may restore his Elfshot, and perhaps a rune on his sword may increase his chance of landing a critical strike. Talion acquires a rune for every Captain or Warchief he defeats, encouraging players to spend more time taking down Sauron’s Army.

There’s no “epic loot” like in an action-RPG (Diablo, Torchlight, etc.), but there’s good pacing to unlocking abilities and runes; Talion unlocks something new and valuable frequently.

Conclusion

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I’ve found Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor to play it safe on the presentation of its version of Middle-earth while spicing up the action genre with a killer app of an AI system. Monolith will have some improvements to make to its formula if it wants to continue this franchise or integrate into a new franchise, but its first title on the new consoles offers countless satisfying executions and tactical opportunities. Certainly, it makes for an exciting romp while waiting for the third Hobbit film, There and Back Again.

I recommend Shadow of Mordor for those who want to influence the enemies that surround them and discover new battle scenarios and challenge themselves. The campaign component is not enough alone to warrant a purchase, but that’s likely because it introduces many of the concepts and tactics that the player can pull off more dynamically with the Nemesis System.

Tolkien and Peter Jackson fans will appreciate some of the cinematic and production elements that speak to the franchise and, in the case of the dozens of Uruk officers, improve the franchise from that perspective. The voice acting and some of the cutscenes provide a pleasant break from jamming the strike button -- with counters and combat brand maneuvers inserted periodically. There are some hiccups in the free-roaming mechanics and the free-flowing combat could use better targeting, but overall, killing thousands of Uruks only gets better with more severed heads and limbs.

Got any questions about Shadow of Mordor or have you already played Shadow of Mordor? If so, leave us a question/comment below below or on Twitter @GamersNexus.

- Nick "stuBEEF" Pinkerton.

Last modified on October 10, 2014 at 12:47 pm

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