What do you get when you mix the Batman Arkham games, Assassin’s Creed, and Lord of the Rings? Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, the new action roleplaying game developed by Monolith Productions and released by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment for PS4, Xbox One, PC, and eventually for PS3 and Xbox 360
Taking place between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings movies, Shadow of Mordor allows you to play as Talion, a Ranger of Gondor responsible for guarding the Black Gate of Mordor. In the form of a tutorial you’re shown flashbacks of how forces led by the black hand of Sauron invade the black gates, kidnap his family, and ultimately murder them in a ritualistic sacrifice. The ritual was an attempt to summon the wraith Celebrimbor, an Elf Lord, who was the greatest Elven blacksmith of the 2nd age and the maker of the rings of power. However, Celebrimbor ends up merging with Talion instead causing him to be stuck in a state between life and death and allowing him wraith-like abilities. The two join forces to uncover Celebrimbor identity (he suffers from amnesia) as well as to avenge Talion’s family.
For starters, the cut scenes and voice acting in this game are superb.Troy Baker (The Last of Us, BioShock Infinite, Batman Arkham City) does his customary excellent job as Talion while Alastair Duncan brings a haunting presence to the voice of Celebrimbor. The way the various characters speak harken back to the Perter Jackson movies. There is even a ranger, who ultimately teams up with you, who sounds like Sean Bean’s Baromir.
When the game first begins, it can be overwhelming, as you’re thrown in the middle of a vast, open world with no clue as to what to do next. It’s very easy, in the beginning, to get jumped by a bunch of orcs as you’re getting acclimated to the environment. But this also adds a feeling of tension, as it seems someone or something is always lurking behind you. During your adventures, you eventually meet up with Gollum, looking and sounding straight from The Lord of the Rings movies, who senses the connection between Celebrimbor and the One Ring and helps Talion find ancient artifacts to return Celebrimbor’s memories of his identity — in hopes that it will bring him closer to the One Ring.
The world of Mordor, although not as barren as depicted in the movies, is a sea of brown: rock formations, puddles forts are all lifelike and look beautiful. When it rains, it actually feels like Talion is getting wet, as his clothes glisten with dew.
The world map is setup like the Batman Arkham games (a recurring theme) where it’s broken up into sections, each with their own quest. Each section also has a fort base — not unlike the watch towers in Assassin Creed’s, whereby once they are discovered you can quick-move to them.
As I mentioned previously, Shadow of Mordor plays like an amalgam of the Batman Arkham and Assassin Creed’s games and, for the most part, they succeed in taking the better of those two franchises, while adding their own twist. Traversing the open world of Mordor will feel like home to veterans of Assassin Creed’s, as the way the character moves, scales buildings, walks along ledges and ropes, and performs diving assassinations from above are straight out of the Assassin’s Creed games. Scaling buildings is done by hitting the action button causing Talion to go into free climbing mode where he climbs parkour-style, and you direct him with the analogue stick. One adjustment that Monolith made from the Assassin’s Creed games is that because Talion can’t die, he doesn’t need a pail of hay to jump off like in Assassin’s Creed. He can jump off anywhere and land without harm taking away the frustration of mistakenly jumping off to one’s death as experienced in the Assassin’s Creed games.
Combat in Shadow of Mordor is set up just like the Batman Arkham games where you have one button to strike, one to counter, one to stun, and one to dodge/vault in a free-flowing style as the camera pans around in 360 degrees to give you a better angle. As in Batman Arkham you can accumulate a hit streak meter (8 straight hits that can be upgraded to 5) that will allow you to use two buttons combos to pull off a different type of one-shot kill. These animations are gruesome and never get tired, as you’re fighting 40 orcs all at once you come to depend on the various assassinations to whittle down the orc ranks. Later on, you can unlock abilities that let you freeze time and perform unlimited assassinations for 20 seconds.
You have three weapons with which to dispatch the countless orcs that you will encounter. A sword that’s used for close combat, a bow that’s used for range, and a dagger that’s used for stealth kills. As you kill orc captains you get to pick up runes whose power is determined by the power of the Captain you just dispatched. For some reason I didn’t really find the runes to be useful as the benefits they provide are percentage based. For example: You get 17% chance of getting 5% of your health when you kill someone with a headshot. Later on they become more useful like get 25% health for every kill, but for the most part I ignored the runes or sold them for Mirian, which is the currency used in Shadow of Mordor and it’s used to unlock attributes which increase your Health, Elf Shots (how many arrows you can carry), Focus (slow motion when in range mode), and rune slots for you three weapons. Also you can perform quests to further augment your weapons which will consist of something like killing 50 orcs with your sword, killing x number of archers with your bow or stealth killing in a certain amount of time without being noticed. You can also unlock 39 abilities which are organized in five tiers, and divided into two unique skill trees (Ranger and Wraith). In order to unlock a new ability (skill) you have to earn Power which will be used for unlocking abilities tier and XP for gaining ability points. You earn power by killing Captains and Warchiefs and completing Power Struggles mission. Which leads to the star of this game, a possible game changing revolutionary element called The Nemesis System.
The Nemesis system consists of a hierarchical caste system designed for the various Uruk tribes in the game. Based on your interaction with the different factions, Uruks, who are randomly generated and have their own personality, will rise and fall within their social structure as the game progresses. So let’s say you kill an Uruk Captain. You’re taken to a screen showing a top view of the hierarchical system and you see the Captain you kill go down and taken over by a new captain. Consequently, if you are killed by an Uruk you see him get promoted to Captain or a higher rank. As the game progresses the Uruks continue to gain power and climb up the ladder until they become Warchiefs or you take them down. This allows the Uruks you face to become more than just mindless goons and allows you to build genuine hatred for your enemies.
Early on in my play-through, I kept getting ambushed by this skinny Uruk named Kragga the Heartless (or something like that) who basically kept sneaking up on me while I was in the midst of fighting a gang of orcs. Because he was the one that kept getting the kill shot he was continuously promoted and getting more powerful until he became a level 20 Legendary Elite Captain while all other captains were levels 6 – 12. I felt an irrational sense of rage every time I saw this skinny bitch-ass Uruk, partly because whenever you meet up with an Uruk who killed you they ALWAYS talk smack about how they killed you and partly because of the cowardly way he killed me. I cannot explain the immense satisfaction I felt when I finally got him alone and put him down for good.
I was on the verge of killing another Uruk Captain, but he was saved when I was ambushed by good ol Kragga. When I met him again his right eye was missing and he commented “Look what you did to my eye.” It’s those dynamics that make the Nemesis system work. As the Captains (or Nemesis) become more powerful, it becomes harder to kill them. So you can gather intel on the various Captains by interrogating certain Uruks. When you go into Wraith form, Captains appear Red and Uruks with intel appear green. When you beat up on these Uruks instead of killing them you can choose to interrogate which leads them to tell you the weakness of whichever Captains are in the hierarchy. Exploiting these weaknesses really makes it much easier to kill them than to just straight fighting them normally. Later on when you uncover the ability to Brand Uruks, you get to control them. You can setup sleeper cells within the Uruk Caste system and plot to have the Uruks under your control duel other Captains, recruit other orcs and Uruks, and ultimately betray and takeover the Warchiefs in their tribes.
The Nemesis system truly works and I wouldn’t be surprised if other franchises start utilizing something similar in their games as well. Orcs and Uruks are not the only creatures that you will encounter throughout your adventures, as there are Caragors (half wargs half cat creatures that you can ride, Ghuls and the immense Graugs (think giant Troll). One aspect that I enjoyed is that different types of monsters will attack other types. For example a pack of Caragors will attack Graugs or tear apart Orc bands. One time I was being chased by what seemed like hundreds of Ghuls (shadow like creatures) and I came upon a camp of Orcs and just let them rip each other up. Eventually you can use this strategically because as you gain intel on the various Captains, you’ll learn that some of them are scared of certain types of creatures and you can use that to your advantage when confronting them.
There are a few issues I encountered and that kept me from giving the game a perfect score. The controls, for the most part, are fluid but there are times when you tend to stick to walls or rocks. It doesn’t happen often and they are not egregious as it usually happens when you’re sneaking around. The more flagrant issue, and a problem that also affects all Assassin Creed games, is whenever there’s a chase scene. Because of the cowardly nature of the Uruks, Captains tend to flee whenever things are not going their way and it’s something you want to prevent because a) Captains get more powerful, the longer the game progresses and b) allowing them to escape can be detrimental to your quest, causing you to restart that particular one.
The problem lies in the mechanics because the run button is the same as the climb button. Every time you’re running and you get near a wall, you automatically start scaling the wall, and once that animation starts, it’s hard to derail from it. Also, there are two ways to get down from a wall (three if you count assassination jumps): you can either swan dive or slowly go down section by section. If you don’t time your jump precisely, you will start the animation to scale down the wall slowly, and to get out of it, you either have to climb back up or just finish the slow climb down. This all leads to an exercise in frustration as your Captain escapes, while you’re trying to navigate these walls you don’t want to climb. Another complaint has to do with the final bosses. Man, talk about anticlimactic. All I’m going to say is that a final boss should not depend on a Quick Time Event
It would’ve been easy for Monolith Studios to just create Assassin Arkham and splash it on the Lord of the Rings Universe and call it a day, and they probably would’ve still made shitloads of money, but with the Nemesis system, Monolith has created a truly revolutionary system that not only adds a great deal of depth to the game but allows it to differentiate itself from its predecessors and be its own game. If you’re a fan of the fighting mechanics in the Batman Arkham games, the parkour-style climbing and assassinations of the Assassin Creed games, or you’re invested in the Lord of the Rings lore, you should definitely get this game; conversely, any fans of action roleplaying should get this game, as it’s filled with a good-not-great storyline, topnotch voice acting, and an engaging Nemesis system that will eat away at your free time but most importantly a lot of fun. Highly recommended.