Monolith Productions are the American studio behind the terrifying F.E.A.R and Condemned series and are the masterminds behind Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor. The Lord of the Rings universe has huge potential for a truly incredible game because of the fantastic lore that Tolkien has created, dozens of titles have attempted to fill that void but failed over and over again, until now.
Shadow of Mordor takes place between The Hobbit and Lord of the Ring trilogies, you play as Tailon, a Gondor ranger set with the task of guarding the Black Gate. Within the first 60 seconds of the game, this poor chap has his entire family brutally sacrificed in front of him and then being killed himself. This then leads to an Elf Lord spirit being summoned, bringing Tailon back from death’s grasp and the pair go on an epic journey across Mordor, slaughtering everything in their way until they get their revenge on the Black Hand.
That’s about the story in a nutshell, not the most eventful and it’s not helped by the fact that Tailon is a fairly dull character. His facial expression barely seems to change between confusion and boredom, no matter what is happening in front of him. Thankfully, the quests that Tailon sets out on keeps the main story missions interesting, usually involving the player stalking an enemy, following a trail or defending a certain object/person in a variety of different locations across the map. You’ll stumble across characters that you love from the main books and movies such as Golem, who is possibly one of the creepiest characters I’ve ever witnessed in a video game.
The stand out feature in Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is the truly incredibly Nemesis enemy system. It’s hands down one of the best features to be introduced into a video game for a long time and it creates endless opportunities. The Nemesis system is an active, constant roster of enemies that refreshes and changes as you play the game. Shadow of Mordor revolves around Orc’s battling their way up the chain of command, eliminating higher ups and defending their positions as the top dogs in Sauron’s army, they could start out as a grunt patrolling a guard tower but could make their way up the chain by killing Tailon, becoming a captain and eventually a War chief if they survive long enough.
The player will constantly stumble across these enemies who have a variety of different weaknesses and strengths which the player can choose to take advantage of by carefully watching the area and waiting for the perfect moment to strike. They could be immune to stealthy takedowns but terrified of Caragors, so the easiest choice would be to tame one of these wild beasts and eat the Orc alive. This is just one of hundreds of different combinations that the enemy could have. Every time you battle one of these beasts, you’ll have the chance to use your Elf-wraith powers to interrogate them, learning intel about other commanders weaknesses and strengths which is always helpful.
Shadow of Mordor’s Nemesis system makes the game feel alive and completely unique every time you jump on to play, simply hitting Y to advance time after opening the menu could potentially completely change the battlefield as you know it. A lonely Orc could suddenly dominate the chain of command, brutally executing everyone above him or you could even manipulate the system and brand (control) a basic captain, help him become one of the most powerful creatures in the land by killing his superiors and then turning him against the rest from the inside, the possibilities are endless. I just can’t stop toying with the system and seeing what is capable next. You can’t help but feel slightly cruel at times but hey, they killed my family and deserve everything they have coming to them.
Developer Monolith Productions have created some extremely impressive visual games in the past and Shadow of Mordor certainly doesn’t disappoint in that area. The world is beautifully detailed from the tallest towers to the deepest, darkest Ghaul-filled caved, you’ll struggle to not be impressed. After a notable amount of time with this game, it’s still satisfying just watching the world go by, animals bouncing through fields while the Black Gate towers above in the background. It’s worth pointing out that there are a few frame rate hiccups here and there, especially when you’re battling dozens of enemies inside major strongholds, which is something you’ll want to avoid anyway.
The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies are well known for their stunning soundtracks and it’s continuing in video game form. The music is just brilliant from start to finish, it fits every moment exactly how you’d imagine it happening in the films and when the war chiefs enter the battle? Horrifying. The music alone manages to show the power of the enemies you’re about to battle or what you’re going to run into just around the corner.
Combat in Shadow of Mordor will be extremely familiar to players who’ve sunk time into the Batman Arkham series. It’s almost a like-for-like copy but that’s not exactly a bad thing, as it’s about as good as combat in video games is going to get. The player simple uses X, Y and A to attack, counter and dodge enemy blows but becomes increasingly more complicated the more skills that you unlock. Eventually, even the most powerful war chiefs will be a breeze, it’s just a matter of trying to remember the different button combinations and hitting the dodge or counter buttons once the button appears above the enemies heads.
The combat is pretty much spot on but the free running and general movement around Mordor can be painfully frustrating at times when it comes to exploring the world. Similar to the Assassin’s Creed games, you hold the right trigger to ‘activate’ the free running, then using A and B to jump and drop. It works quite well when jumping around rooftops but when it comes to navigating small areas, you’ll find yourself running into walls or just getting stuck in awkward rock placements in the middle of combat and leading to a certain death.
Don’t worry, there’s plenty to do in Mordor, the main story will keep you entertained for a good 10 hours at least and there are dozens of other events, missions and collectables. The player could participate in hunting for wildlife or collecting herbs, freeing slaves from the gruesome Orcs, attempt to battle waves of enemies with your bow and sword or even track down the 100 or so collectables scattered across the region. There’s plenty to keep you entertained for a good 20-30 hours, ignoring all the fun you can have with the Nemesis system.
All of these tasks above earn two types of experience; either ‘power’ from defeating powerful Orcs in the Nemesis system which eventually unlock higher tiers of abilities or experience from finishing missions and events which earn the player skill points when you level up, which can then be spent on some truly badass abilities which help Tailon go on some monumental killing sprees. The best part about this system is just how powerful Tailon becomes when you’re reaching the later stages of the game, everything has a use and worth unlocking.
As of right now, Shadow of Mordor is without a doubt the best Lord of the Rings title to date and easily my Game of the Year so far, it’ll take something truly special to take its place. It’s a damn enjoyable experience from beginning to end and tonnes of things to keep the player entertained for dozens of hours. Hell, even after collecting everything and finishing the main story, manipulating the Nemesis system is a game on its own. All that is missing is a slight bit of polish around the edges, I can’t wait to see what happens with this series in the future.
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