Much of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is completely unoriginal. From its combat to its traversal to the very foundation of its narrative lore, this is a game that stands wholly on the shoulders of those that came before it. Even its most distinguishing feature (the Nemesis System) brings up old flavors of racing rivals. And despite all that, Shadow of Mordor is still one of the most inspiring and well-executed games made this year.
The crux of the game is that you play Talion, a Ranger guarding the Black Gate between Mordor and the less sticky-looking part of Middle-earth. Set somewhere between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, your watch is attacked by Orcs, resulting in a dead squad, a dead family, and a dead Talion. But when he wakes up inextricably attached to a wraith, things get really interesting.
Strangely enough, it’s almost entirely the things not related to Talion’s quest that are most enticing. Well to do the story justice, it’s important to note that it actually goes some cool places and introduces nuance to an otherwise straightforward tale of vengeance. The dead family and revival thing rings a bit hard for God of War, but after coming across some twists and layered characters, the quality writing becomes apparent and showcases an engaging story, if you can ignore a few misguided delves into the land of tropes.
But the big highlight is the aforementioned Nemesis System. Shadow of Mordor is an open-world game replete with the usual and well-strewn smattering of collectibles and what not, but it feels far more like a living, breathing organism than most other open worlds before it. The Nemesis System complexly but intuitively replicates and integrates an Orc hierarchy into the game’s emergent narrative.
There is a continual upheaval of both what you would expect fodder enemies to do with their time and what you would expect from a game otherwise centered on delivering a predetermined, discrete tale. You see, as time passes, these Orcs and Uruks go about their lives with their weaknesses, strengths, desires, vices, and history. For instance, one lower ranking grunt may make a power grab at the captain above him. If successful, he will move up. If not, he leaves a hole for an even lower foe to advance.
You will develop a personal history with your ladder of Uruk. One warchief of never failed to call me a coward, relishing that he forced me to retreat once. (Like, once, dude. Let it go!) Another bore the scars of my sword from our first encounter to our last, ending with my blade finishing what it started so long ago. And it’s remarkable just how much they can react to and, just as importantly, vocalize. They call you out with incredible specificity, especially when you meet the hand that fell you.
More than advancing graphic fidelity and 3D-modeled, physically accurate sound echoing, this is one of the first things you will encounter in the new generation and realize what beefier machines can offer. It is emergent yet personal, feeling both wide open to reaction and designed with staid consideration. It is finally an open world that feels entirely open while being an actual world. And once you are able to directly manipulate Orcs in the hierarchy, a modicum of unexpected political strategy enters the mix.
It’s important to mention alongside this fantastic systemic development that it integrates a refined retelling of some previously explored mechanics. The combat is wholly lifted from the Arkham series, using unreal acrobatics to enable a fluid, combo-oriented fighting system. Attack, dodge, and counter, with special variants directed towards specific enemies. For instance, shielded enemies require you to flip over them, and others only can be killed by stealth. Sound familiar?
It is especially evident where the inspiration came from as you earn upgrades to your combat that allow you to use your special moves that would normally require a high combo to only need a small one. And as you sneak around, using arrows to attract and sonically manipulate wandering guards, you realize that both Arkham managed to nail action and stealth all in one go and that Shadow of Mordor managed to not fuck it up. (More superficially, the way Talion’s cape flows around him in a fashion eerily identical to Batman’s cape.)
And in a smart move, opting to fuse with a more interesting and more appropriate method for traversal, the freerunning over obstacles and up walls comes straight from Assassin’s Creed. It’s simple but satisfying pushing your stick a direction and having Talion figure out a badass way up there, making huge leaps from window to window and leaping sizable gaps.
But the game also makes wise improvements. For instance, rather than have to climb down or jump down from only particular points, you just leap and it’s all good on the ground. And if you run for a bit, you engage with a super fast wraith run, speeding up otherwise tedious late-game maneuvers. Also, believe it or not, the stealth actually works.
Then, rather than piling on more and more gadgets and weapons, you only ever have you bow, your dagger, and your sword and then get to bind with runes that enable special abilities. Some allow you to regain health as you inflict damage while others or prevent Uruk from running away. Most of them, though, allow for experimentation and noteworthy shifts in play styles.
Combined with increasingly complex enemies and terrain, fighting becomes as interesting and as personal as the Nemesis System. Rather than being a set of mechanics that fill out some arbitrary (and potentially imaginary) content requirement, combat in the game only serves to become more layered and nuanced but never complicated or rote.
Unfortunately, and somewhat surprisingly, the scripted parts of the game are the bits that are lacking. Missions are often simplistic and lack any impetus to internalize its context. So much of what was made to be deliberately fun and engaging ended up being obstacles to the juicy bits of Nemesis. Then the instilled drama of slow motion sword-bashing and head-rolling can eventually take its toll on your patience.
There’s also a distinct lack of an endgame regarding the Nemesis System. It ambiguously (yet strongly) motivates you to engage with its advancing slots and players but never reaches a conclusion beyond having reached your self-proclaimed goal of overtaking the Orc military society. And while a sharp-looking game, it only becomes a good-looking one after it opens up in the second half.
Those, however, are middling affections floating amidst the scope of a feature that should define other open-world games that follow. Innovation lacks in the majority of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor‘s designed feature set, borrowing from successful and tested franchises that have come before it, but refinement is not lost on this melting pot. It all supports the Nemesis System, a network of intrigue and personalization meant to drag make-believe vendettas into a shifting, systemic tableau. It comes together in one of the best action packages of the year.
+ Borrows and refines combat and traversal from tried and true methods
+ The Nemesis System makes slaying hundreds of Uruk (and even death) interesting
+ Rune system makes meaningful changes to your play style
– Lack of goal to Nemesis makes the climb up the ladder eventually feel fruitless
– Terribly bland campaign missions
Final Score: 9 out of 10
Game Review: Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor
Release: September 30, 2014
Genre: Third-person action
Developer: Monolith Productions
Available Platforms: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC