Licensed games have historically been the bane of the video gamer’s life. Typically they have been low-budget, shovelware intended to capitalize on their namesake’s popularity and soon be dumped into bargain bins where they languish for years. Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is the antithesis of those shoddy pieces of software. Monolith Productions was able to take the rich and highly acclaimed setting and history of the Lord of the Rings franchise and weave it into a unique product that doesn’t depend on riding the fame of the intellectual property it is based on.
Set between The Hobbit and Fellowship of the Ring, the game has players take on the role of Talion, a ranger stationed at the Black Gate of Mordor. As the story begins the gate is attacked by Sauron’s forces and Talion and his family are captured and sacrificed in a dark ritual to summon the wraith of the Elf Lord and creator of the Rings of Power, Celebrimbor. However, Sauron’s plans go awry when Celebrimbor, suffering from amnesia from the hundreds of years spent being dead, merges with Talion’s body reanimating him. After the two unite, they lend each other strength for two very different objectives, for Talion to avenge his family, and for Celebrimbor to rediscover his past. There are plenty of cameos by Lord of the Rings characters, as Gollum, Saruman and others. However, one does not need to be a fan of Tolkien’s works to enjoy this game as it stands on its own merit and makes itself very accessible.
The journey is filled with peril as Talion fights his way through the armies of Uruk that have laid claim to the lands of Mordor. Armed with bow, dagger, and knife, players will have to cut through swaths of Uruk to help the beleaguered humans being used as slaves and to draw out the Warchiefs of Sauron’s forces. Combat is very fluid, feeling like the developers fused the best parts of Assassin’s Creed and the Arkham series. Talion is a force to be reckoned with as his already substantial martial skills are augmented by his fusion with Celebrimbor, allowing him super-human strength and speed. Talion’s powers can be upgraded in an RPG-type progression with experience gained from completing missions and killing enemies. At first players may struggle with a handful of Uruk fighters, but by the end of the game Talion will be able to face down tens of combatants at a time without taking damage.
The crowning achievement of Shadows of Mordor is the Nemesis system. Groups of Uruks are arranged in a hierarchy, in which Captains are the first rung above the standard foot troop. Captains are unique individuals which have unique names, personality traits, and will level-up or be killed off independently of the player’s actions. If Talion faces a Captain and dies, that Captain will level-up and if faced again in combat will remember your encounter together. In addition, if you defeat a Captain, he may return to fight again and if killed enough times will engage in a vendetta against the player, seeking you out to take his revenge. The best part of this all is that it is dynamic, the generation of Captains is completely random and their stories will play out differently every playthrough. Independently of any purposeful game design you will feel yourself growing attached to the Captains, rooting for some as they duel for position in the Uruk army, respecting others for their combat prowess, or hating others as they mock and defeat you over and over.
The open world feels great, with lush scenery combined with crisp textures, Shadow of Mordor manages to be a pretty game even though its subject land is filled with browns and blacks. The character design is very well done, and each individual Uruk really looks like their own person instead of the cookie-cutter design work that is usually utilized in a game in which you face this many combatants. Motion is fluid and rarely does the framerate drop too far below the 50fps vicinity even with 50 or so Uruks on screen at once. Monolith outdid themselves with the controls as well, that allow players to defend themselves against a multitude of enemies at once without feeling clunky or inaccurate.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is an excellent start to what I hope will be a new and vibrant franchise. Rarely does a game do its subject material such justice while also remaining fun and interesting for those who aren’t fans of Tolkien’s universe. Aside from a few flaws such as a shortish story and being a bit repetitive at times, this game is an absolute joy to play. No where else in the gaming world have I seen enemies characterized in such a unique and enjoyable fashion as in Shadow of Mordor, the Nemesis system takes what could be a fairly good hack and slash and transforms it into one of the best games of 2014. Do yourself a favor and take a trip to Mordor as soon as possible.