By William Chandler
Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is an interesting beast indeed. When broken down into its simplest ideas, the game really is nothing more than a collection of tried and true mechanics from various other franchises. You’re bound to see numerous familiar elements if you’ve played Arkham, Assassin’s Creed, Infamous, Far Cry, or really any other open world game in the past few years. That said, these mechanics often manage to feel as though they were implemented better here than even in the games that inspired them. Thankfully, a consistently high level of polish, as well as the inclusion of the much touted Nemesis System and some absurdly satisfying gore, ensures that Shadow of Mordor transcends its seemingly average trappings, making it some of the most fun I’ve had in a game all year. This is an honest example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.
Knowing as little as I do about the Lord of the Rings as a franchise, I am completely unqualified to judge the game’s narrative as a part of the greater context, so I’ll leave that to the experts. As a standalone story to drive the game forward, it feels both uninspired and uninteresting. It starts out strongly enough; humanizing both Talion and the people important to him in an interesting tutorial sequence before The Black Hand of Sauron mercilessly rolls up and cuts everyone’s throats, including Talion’s. Death claims his wife and son but fate apparently has other plans for Talion and he is resurrected to become the human vessel for a wraith named Celebrimbor, who, funnily enough, also has the objective of fucking Sauron’s shit up. Together you go and do this and…. Gollum is there for some reason before he just decides to peace out randomly. Objectives that distract needlessly from the overall goal and abhorrent pacing throughout really sink the plot before it even gets off the ground.
You find out about Celebrimbor’s forgotten past by way of lost artifacts and these flashback segments prove to be the most interesting bits in the entire story, which is especially sad considering that they are really just backstory and not immediately relevant. The story missions are a glaring weak point that weave you through an absolutely fascinating tale of Talion fucking around in Mordor with characters so absurdly uninteresting that I legitimately cannot remember any of their names. Many of these missions aren’t exactly enjoyable to play either, as they shine a particularly bright light on any one of the aforementioned borrowed aspects present in this game for a span of time long enough to incur boredom. It’s also quite unfortunate that the story wraps up in such a poor manner, as it really just leaves a bad taste in your mouth by ending suddenly and without closure, only serving to continue the story’s trend of abject pointlessness.
If you can forgive Shadow of Mordor’s grave narrative missteps then you’ll find a game fun and compelling enough to not even really need a story. In fact, much of the purpose of the Nemesis System is to ensure that each player crafts a tale unique to them through emergent gameplay born from randomly generated, high ranking members of the Orc army that populate the world in a seemingly natural manner. Spoken plainly, your objective is to hunt these Orcs down, however, it becomes much more complex in practice. Each Orc officer is given a unique name, personality, appearance, and a set of strengths and weaknesses that are pulled from a rather large pool of possibilities. These Orcs react to you in a relevant manner to your actions in the game as a whole and, most interestingly, to the Orcs themselves. For instance, if you fled the scene of a battle that a particular Orc Captain was present at, he will make a point of commenting on the fact that you ran away from that fight like a big, smarmy jerk.
This is executed brilliantly thanks in no small part to well written Orc dialogue and well delivered lines that really gives these guys personality. Too bad none of them live long enough to make a lasting effect. I probably died under a handful of times in my entire playthrough and, contrary to the name of the tech, never actually managed to have an Orc survive long enough to become my nemesis. Perhaps this is why they decided to make Ratbag an NPC, just to show off some of the personality the game has to offer over an extended period of time.
Much of what I’ve said in this review has sounded negative. Honestly, the better I think a game is, the more glaring its few flaws become, and these complaints are small fry compared to what there is to enjoy about Shadow of Mordor. Namely, the game is really fucking fun. Fun often feels secondary in gaming these days and, because of that, I can say that this is probably the most fun I’ve had in a game this year since Dark Souls 2. Gathering intel, learning an Orc Officer’s strengths and weaknesses, and then plotting and executing a plan to take them out, or turn them to your side, never ceased being an enjoyable experience throughout my entire twenty-five hours with the game.
Combat is fluid and satisfying, and a decent amount of enemy variety ensures that you’ll have to actually stay on your toes in order to not let some stupid grunt become your downfall, as well as the next Orc Officer. That said, you do become drastically more powerful over time thanks to a relatively in depth skill tree that, unlike many other games of late, actually provides you with some extremely useful abilities to unlock. The stealth is functional but suffers from many of the same issues as Assassin’s Creed, mostly due to control inaccuracies. I lost count of the times that I mistakenly leapt from my hidden perch to the ground below, in plain sight of the enemy, rather than to a nearby pole or wire or some shit. Thankfully, though, a majority of the objectives in Shadow of Mordor do not call for the finesse or patience that many Assassin’s Creed objectives do, like tailing some moron, making the stealth feel much better in the former.
The game looks quite nice as well. There is an odd beauty to the mangled scenery on display in Shadow of Mordor, particularly in the latter half where mud and dirt give way to tall grass and rolling hills. The character models are rendered in great detail which does wonders to highlight the shocking magnificence of cutting an Orc’s head clean off. Yes, much of the fun comes from laying waste to hordes of enemies in horribly brutal ways, but if that’s wrong then I don’t want to be right.
As I said, Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is an interesting beast. Especially so in a review context. Not much about the game is unique or should warrant critical praise from a logical standpoint but that damning aspect of video game critique rears its ugly head once again. Fun is, after all, sometimes so elusive that we’ve even forgotten how to include it in video games any more. But, in the case of Shadow of Mordor, whether by accident or design, it is felt so strongly that I cannot help but to wholeheartedly recommend that others experience it for themselves.
TLDR: Shadow of Mordor gets a Fun out of Fun.