It’s been widely expressed in the gaming community that Shadow of Mordor is a “clone” or “re-skin” of Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham series and Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed series. It’s common practice to draw comparisons of everything new we encounter in life: young athletes remind us of the great ones from the 80’s; comedians have similar styles or draw inspiration from those that came before them. This isn’t a bad thing, but it can be misleading. It’s natural because it helps us explain our perspective in fewer words. But in the case of Shadow of Mordor, it’s much more than a clone of other great games. The games it’s compared to only paint a portion of the truth. Sure, it borrows heavily from them, but Monolith Productions have created a brand new system, not yet seen in video games, that will certainly be reproduced in other games in the future. This one system alone makes Shadow of Mordor different enough that it should be considered an evolutionary step forward in 3rd person action games.
In Shadow of Mordor you play as Talion, a ranger of Gondor who witnesses the execution of his wife and son, prior to being subjected to a ritual human sacrifice in the name of the Black Hand of Sauron. This gruesome scene sets the stage for what is a very violent game - not unlike the Lord of the Rings movies, particularly the original trilogy. The way the prologue unfolds is with a combination of cut-scenes, flashbacks, and player-controlled gameplay. I can’t recall the last time I participated in an introduction quite like this. I was immediately invested in Talion and his family as these scenes showed powerful imagery of a loving family slaughtered by the repulsive Uruk-hai. I’m a sucker for revenge stories - I was quickly hooked.
Following Talion’s death he is met in the Wraith world by a nameless elf who acts as a guide in both the tutorial and the game’s story. The circumstances of their encounter appears to be more than coincidence - as if their fates are tied together. Eventually you’ll learn that elf is none other than Celebrimbor; the elf that forged the One Ring. This is the reason we get to chase Gollum around. He views Celebrimbor as a god-like figure for having such power as to craft his “precious.” Gollum is very well represented in the game and rivals the performance seen in the films. You also learn more about Celebrimbor by uncovering the artifacts spread throughout the world. By rotating the object in the game menu and finding a particular spot on it, you can activate an audio log that gives a snippet of data about Celebrimbor’s past.
If you’re expecting a sweeping epic story like Tolkein’s original work, you’re going to be extremely disappointed. This is not a big story with amazing characters. This is a fairly average tale of revenge - rather how two protagonists seek revenge. Don’t play this for the story - play it for the combat.
The Nemesis System
The defining characteristic of this game is the Nemesis System. There are several components to this system that Monolith have weaved throughout the game. It can be found in death, interrogation, character level progression, and dialogue with NPCs. The best part about it is that it fits so well within the world of Lord of the Rings that without it, fans would probably complain that the game isn’t really a Lord of the Rings title. Here is how it works: Sauron’s army is full of orc soldiers such as goblins and Uruk-hai. Fans of the Lord of the Rings universe know that these soldiers are fickle and competitive; always vying for power and their ranking within the army. So, Monolith created a system that brings orc nature to the surface and weaves it into the fabric of the game. When you are killed by an orc, which will happen a lot, that orc is promoted to a higher level, such as captain. As they gain rank their Power Level also grows, granting them resistances and immunities to some of your abilities. You can view the full list of captains in the game menu. From here you can target one captain and using the intel you gather from other orcs, learn their location, strengths and weaknesses. The ways to hunt orcs are not highly varied. You may take down a captain that is trying to recruit followers. Or two captains are battling for power and you can choose to interrupt or jump in and kill them both. Captains have a tendency to flee - and you should too when you’re overwhelmed. But the combat is so tight that you’ll hopefully forget the repetitive nature of the Nemesis missions quickly.
It’s all about combat. Talion is armed with a sword, dagger and bow. Each of which can be upgraded with runes that are found on the corpses of fallen orc captains. The higher the ranking orc captain, the better the rune that drops. But each weapon can only slot a limited number of runes so choose wisely. And note that you can swap runes at any time. The game can be tackled in a variety of ways. You may choose to strictly follow the story, embark on countless side quests, collect artifacts, or simply hunt the orc captains. The open world is sectioned off by territories. I’ve been using these territories to manage my progress. By completing each territory, one at a time, I feel like I’m progressing my character and the story. This is the same logic I’ve applied to the Infamous series. Some territories have Forge Towers that serve as waypoints for fast travel. If you’d prefer to run through the fields and parkour your way to each mission, have at it. The world isn’t Skyrim sized but I still recommend you mount a carigor for faster travel. Along the way you’ll find a lot to do. There are several types of activities that all have a way of making Talion stronger. You can hunt Uruk Captains, which grants you Power points used to upgrade abilities. There are many ways to acquire Ithildin, a resource for attributes such as increased health and rune slots on your bow, sword and dagger. If you want an open world experience with a lot to do, Shadow of Mordor has you covered. Be advised, you’re mostly doing the same things but within them there is some variety. There are several types of missions: main story, hunting and survival challenges, and weapon challenges separated into bow, dagger and sword quests. The missions vary from stealth-based to poisoning grog - the orc soup of choice.
Players are also presented with non-story related content. The Trials of War is a challenge mode with a variety of maps and scenarios designed to challenge your combat abilities. Rumor is there will be more content in this section to Season Pass owners.
If the game took place in Lothlorien, passersby would declare this a true next gen title. Since we’re deep in Mordor, there isn’t much to see graphically. It’s actually a beautiful game if you can put your sword down for a minute and take in the scenery. The world is static; meaning you can’t destroy the huts, scratch the rocks or cut the grass. Monolith put the GPU to work instead by allowing 30FPS in 1080p (tested on PS4) with incredible draw distance. Unlike other titles, you won’t see towers and hills render as you step closer. They appear to always be there. It helps immerse you into the world.
The characters and structures are repeated often. But Monolith did a good job matching designs, both environmental and character, from the movie series. I had this thought while decapitating an Uruk captain: didn’t that guy get squashed by Treebeard? It’s not the same bad guy but it looks a lot like him. These details helped flesh out the world Monolith built, and really adds to the game.
The Little Things
Monotlith did a great job bringing the world of the Lord of the Rings to the video game scene. The story and new characters may be lacking, but they’ve added a lot to immerse players into the world. The Gollum representation, for example, is very close-to-film. From the voice acting to the motion capture, this feels like the same Gollum we know from the films. Walking through bushes plays an appropriate sound through your PS4 DualShock. The same happens when you attract orcs using your wraith powers. It’s creepy the first time you hear it. I also love the moment when you encounter a warchief. You’ll hear chanting of the warchief’s name as if his orcs are pumping their fists in the air to celebrate his power. But then you kill the warchief and the orcs run away from you. Now that is believable! The biggest, little thing Monolith did was create a game that is short enough to master. You won’t find 100 hours here. 50? Yes.
After nearly 1 year of next-gen consoles, I’m delighted to say this is a true next-gen gaming experience. Shadow of Mordor is the best game in the Lord of the Rings franchise. It’s dark, compelling, and fun to play. It’s also extremely violent and shouldn’t be presented to children or anyone who can’t distinguish video games from the real world.