I’m just going to come out and say it: Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is easily the surprise game of the year. I mean, come on. This is a Lord of the Rings game that is actually GOOD. Better than good, it’s great! Who would have thought that’d be possible? Yet here we are with THE standout entry in the series which is not only a solid and fun title, but one that actually does something that is truly “next-gen.” Shadow of Mordor has a lot of elements that could have worked against it but it manages to take all of these disparate parts to create something that is exceptional. Again, I can’t believe I’m saying this about a Middle-Earth game.
A lot of developers have talked about how next-gen their recent games are but not a single one of them has actually fully lived up to that title. inFAMOUS: Second Son came the closest but even that was just a small sliver of what next-gen could be. Shadow of Mordor does away with the blustering and actually delivers something that has never been seen in a video game before: a system where enemies remember their encounters with you and where your actions determine who will be your foe… who will be your nemesis.
The best way to explain the Nemesis system is to tell you about some of the encounters I had. One enemy which I threw into a fire came at me later looking a bit singed and telling me how I would now be the one to burn. Another enemy which I ran away from made fun of me for being a coward. Another told me how he’d put a spear into me again. Whenever you die, the Uruk who killed you gets a promotion as do several others thus making the game feel even more personal. I’ve talked to several of my friends who have played the game and none of them have had the same experiences with the enemies that I have. Knowing that these Uruk-hai are my personal enemies gives the game a real sense of being my own story and not someone else’s.
The Nemesis System becomes even more interesting halfway through the campaign after you gain the ability to control the minds of your foes. Each Uruk warchief has warriors who follow him around. You can control their minds and make them betray their leader. If the warchief is killed then the Uruk you control will take his place. This led to letting myself be killed on purpose so that Uruks under my control will ascend from lieutenant to captain to warchief, thus letting me gain influence over entire armies of Uruks. I could also just go directly to the warchief and subjugate him if I wanted to, the choice was completely mine to make. You can also cause warchiefs to fight each other or have any of their minions fight amongst themselves to disrupt Sauron’s hold on Mordor. Again, all of this will differ for each player since their strategies will vary.
The rest of the game’s mechanics should be familiar to most. Actually, they’re flat out inspired by some recent AAA titles. Gameplay wise, this is a mix of Assassin’s Creed and Batman: Arkham. While many games have already taken inspiration from these two franchises, they haven’t been able to really get the core mechanics to feel right. Shadow of Mordor pulls it off and does so exceptionally well. There is almost no discernable difference, especially in the combat, between the way this game plays and the way the aforementioned titles do. This is actually to the game’s benefit since it significantly reduces the learning curve for anyone who has played a Batman: Arkham or Assassin’s Creed game. People can pick up the controller and let their muscle memory take over.
You could say that Talion, the game’s protagonist, is a super-human version of Batman or Ezio. He has the same ability to platform throughout his environment and fight off hundreds of enemies single-handedly but can do so in a more over the top way. He can scale sheer cliff walls with ease and drop down from any height without sustaining harm. In combat, he is a whirlwind of death, severing Uruk heads with a slice of his sword and sending their black blood flying across the air. There is a certain grace that Talion has whether he be traversing his environment or brutally killing everything around him. Since the mechanics are familiar, it’s easy to let yourself get lost in the pure joy of playing as this character.
Combat in particular is handled very well. This is Mordor so there is no shortage of nasty Uruks or vicious monsters that want to kill you. It’s easy to learn the basics but mastering the nuances of the battle system can take a while since it is better to just go with the flow and not over-think things. Even if you’re surrounded by Uruks, you’ll be victorious as long as you utilize all of the tools at your disposal. Jump over foes, stun them, throw them, mind control them, there is a lot you can do in combat that will help you survive and make you feel like a bad-ass later when you’re standing on top of a pile of Uruk corpses. The combat is perfect. It can be tough but it is rewarding when you defeat everyone and everything around you.
Outside of the main story, there are many sidequests to complete. This is an open world game or sorts after all. You can do quests which will enhance the abilities of your weapons, find hidden artifacts and inscriptions and do missions which will disrupt Sauron’s forces. These missions vary from breaking up hunts and feasts to stopping executions and duels between Uruks. You can also do missions for the humans who live in Mordor who are now slaves of the Uruks. All of these sidequests are useful for upgrading your weapons and abilities. They mostly involve you killing a lot of foes but since that’s one of the best parts of the game it’s not a problem.
Graphically speaking, Shadow of Mordor isn’t too impressive but it does look good most of the time. In particular, the fertile and lush part of Mordor looks very nice and the dynamic weather effects, especially when it rains at night, look great too. I liked how there would be hail from time to time since this is a weather phenomenon which I don’t recall ever seeing in a game. The only hitch on the graphical side would be the cinematics which had some graininess to them. You can tell that these were straight up videos and not running in real time which is a bit of a shame.
I really liked the sound design in this game. The music is very reminiscent of the Lord of the Rings movies with its bombastic and epic orchestrations mixed in with subtle melodies. I also liked hearing people and Uruks singing in the background from time to time. The random banter (influenced by your actions in the game) was a nice touch as well. The growls and snarls from monsters and Uruks were very well done and I loved how visceral the sounds of combat were. You feel every single head slice and stomach stab that you inflict. All of the sounds made the world feel more believable and authentic.
Story-wise this game is entertaining though a bit humdrum. We’ve played hundreds of games where the protagonist is motivated by revenge for the murder of his family so seeing it here didn’t do much for me. However, the larger story of trying to stop Sauron from gaining more power was interesting and I liked how the game had Celebrimbor, the creator of the rings of power, as a main character. All of that wonderful Tolkien lore is present in this game and that helped elevate the somewhat standard revenge story into something more. Yes, ultimately you know that your efforts are in vain because Sauron does return to Mordor but that doesn’t seem to matter much since the story and game are so enjoyable.
It’s good to see Warner Bros. Interactive take yet another licensed property that has languished in mediocrity and make a great game out of it. So far, everyone that I know who has played Shadow of Mordor absolutely loves it and with good reason. Not only is it just just a fun title to experience but it’s also one which does something truly unique when it comes to enemy A.I. The Nemesis System is the first step towards another evolution in gaming and I have no doubt that it will inspire other developers to make games which will craft themselves to the individual player.
As far as I’m concerned, Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is the first real “next-gen” game and one that everyone with a current-gen console or PC should try out. It’s taking video games in an interesting direction and it’s also fun as hell. This isn’t one to be missed.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is available now for the PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, and Xbox One. This review is based on a PlayStation 4 retail copy provided by Warner Bros. Interactive.