The newest game in the Middle-earth world puts the focus on being a fun game over being a vessel of story and lore and benefits greatly as an awesome game for Lord of the Rings fans and newcomers alike.
What Is It?
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor features Talion, a ranger of Gondor that is helping to protect the Black Gate of Mordor with his wife and son at his side. Of course, Sauron can never leave things like this alone and sends out his Uruk forces to take out the outpost that is guarding the gates. They kill Talion and his family, sacrificing them in order to bring out a specific Elven wraith spirit to help them, but he instead possesses Talion to help him get revenge for the horrific death of his family. That is all you really need to know about the game and a deep understanding of the lore of Middle-earth is not required to enjoy the game, though there is a codex with information on all of the characters, items, and such that you come across in the world to give you more information on them if you want that.
Why Should I Care?
Shadow of Mordor at its basest level is an open-world sandbox game with a focus on action stealth in the vein of an Assassin’s Creed or Batman: Arkham game that improves on some of the key mechanics of those games. Getting around the world and up the many structures around the map has been tightened up a bit so you’re holding less buttons and moving around more easily, though I still saw a lot of the same issues that plague Assassin’s Creed games are here and it’s a little more infuriating with the promise that they had solved those problems. If you recall trying to run up walls in AC and getting that annoying animation where he runs up, falls back down, and runs back up again because you dared to be running at the wall at a slightly offset angle, that’s still here in Shadow of Mordor and it happened mostly late in the campaign when I most needed it to not happen. Another common AC issue that reappears in Shadow of Mordor is when you’re following preset paths that are set up by the layout of buildings and structures in the strongholds that bug out so Talion no longer wants to continue moving the way you’re headed, so you have to get frustrated and either take a different route or bust your head against that animation limitation wall until it magically works again. Those two issues are by far the biggest issues that plague Shadow of Mordor, which is a shame for a game that is so much fun and was supposed to be a form of Assassin’s Creed without those sorts of animation issues.
With that said, Shadow of Mordor is still a better controlling game than any Assassin’s Creed before and that makes it the best AC game around by default. It’s faster to get around when you can navigate around a big open space instead of more compact cities with an upgrade being available that gives you a speed boost after vaulting or small drops and basic things like fast travel to any unlocked towers on the map, which gets rid of the tedious nature of getting around most other open world games because this game doesn’t have to adhere to any sort of realism.
Getting around the map is really one of the best things about the game, as the core set of combat options really makes it fun to stop and smell the roses, kill a few Uruks, and earn some XP on the way to your destination. That sort of dynamic evolution of the metagame in Shadow of Mordor is enhanced by the there are only three weapons in Talion’s arsenal that pertains to each of the three styles of combat. His bow is for ranged attacks that taps into the wraith’s powers as time slows down while aiming that allows you to take out multiple targets quickly or set off explosions or other sorts of traps in the strongholds to confuse or terrorize the enemies within. The dagger is your stealth weapon that is similar to what you’d expect from Assassin’s Creed and the sword is your melee weapon for Batman-style combat that is all about extending your combos to open up opportunities for special moves that helps differentiate it somewhat from the Batman games. To further enhance these three styles of combat, you gain runes from taking out captains that can boost up a variety of stats to let you have little bit of room to tailor combat to favor your strengths or patch up your weaknesses. The one unique aspect to the combat here is that there is no guarantee that you’ll ultimately overcome any fight if you can counter any attack, so you will probably die a lot early on because very few games like this ever present you with overwhelming odds like this.
The Nemesis system is what sets Shadow of Mordor apart from the games that inspired it by injecting an ability to recognize actual context into enemy behavior and interaction. This means that if you fight a captain, get overwhelmed by his followers, and flee to fight another day, the next time you meet them, they’ll bring up the fact that you ran away as a taunt to mess with you. The same goes for random Uruks, as I heard plenty of groups talking about me lurking in the shadows due to my tendencies to take them out with stealth kills over any other means of combat. The captain aspects of the Nemesis system are enhanced by the need to gather intel on them to give you a full report of their strengths and weaknesses so that you can devise a plan of attack before facing them in battle, which becomes more important later in the game when most of the captains and warchiefs are immune to things like stealth kills, ranged kills, or other methods of attack that forces you to be a versatile fighter.
In addition to the Nemesis system, the bulk of how you play Shadow of Mordor is to tackle the big picture of the hierarchy of captains with the big, bad warchiefs at the top and three levels of captains below that can ascend based on the deaths of those above them that is a big focus of major parts of this game. The first two-thirds of the game are spent with your only means of controlling this hierarchy being to just kill the captains on the tree, but late in the game, you gain the ability to brand Uruks to be under your control. This means that you can make it a bit easier to sneak around stronghold by branding lookouts and others around their camps and branding captains leads to some fun missions later on due to the fact that they act as bodyguards for warchiefs, so you can turn the tables on the tough warchiefs in your favor when it most counts. It’s a shame that this cool hook to the Nemesis system isn’t introduced until you’re cruising towards the end of the game, as the early hype made this seem like the sort of feature you’d expect to show up early on as these ideas are presented to you.
The world of Shadow of Mordor has a ton of things to do in it besides the story missions, as you’d expect from an Assassin’s Creed clone but not nearly on that scale where the map is full of so much crap that you turn to the story just to keep from drowning in side stuff. There are a series of challenge missions that focus on the three styles of combat the game has to offer, which was a bit out of place for me since I prefer the sandbox nature of just starting fights with Uruks if I wanted to fight them. There are also hunting and gathering challenges that ask you to collect various herbs and kill specific types of creatures around the map, which offers bonus XP should you complete them as an easy source of XP while exploring. The game even makes sure to let you know if an herb on the list is nearby so you don’t necessarily have to go out of your way to look for them like I did. As a weird use of the online functionality, any time your friends died while fighting captains, special missions can spawn on your map asking you to avenge their death that is a cool timed challenge to at least offer some benefit to death in this game since you usually only see Uruks benefiting from your demise.
What Makes It Worth My Time And Money?
The sandbox nature of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is what makes it such a great game. Letting you tackle combat in a variety of ways based on how you prefer to play is why it’s so much fun to just head to strongholds and mess around with the AI as you think of new ways of taking out enemies that lead to me spending 60 hours with this game when the story missions probably don’t require nearly as much time to beat that part of the game. That’s why it is such a shame to see animation issues and a few bad framerate drops to spoil a bit of the fun. Even then, I’m still planning to go back into the game to finish the side stuff on PS4 and get the platinum, which is rare for most open world games for me. Get it at whatever price you have to pay for it, as this is easily one of the year’s best games.