Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor Review
Shoving Tolkien into the background, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor lives and dies by the novelty of its ‘nemesis system’- luckily it’s one hell of a mechanic.
The story starts with a Gondorian ranger on The Black Gate of Mordor, whose wife and son are promptly murdered in front of his eyes (and in a show of incredibly bad taste, ours). He then meets an Elven ghost and proceeds to go on the largest orc killing spree in the history of Middle-earth. I’m not paying much respect to the subtleties of the game’s story because it doesn’t deserve much- it’s an extremely thin script executed with the finesse of Ed Gein’s chainsaw, and I’m sure Tolkien is rolling in his grave. That being said, what little story exists is actually presented pretty well. The opening of the game moves at a steady clip, acting in the cutscenes is good, even great at times, and there are some genuinely memorable characters. Ratbag, a cowardly orc with dreams of becoming a warchief, is a standout- it’s a shame that he, and every other interesting character, is completely squandered. This is a game entirely about the means and not the end, as I can assure you what the story is building towards is nothing special.
On its surface, Shadow of Mordor is what has come to be known as a ‘Batman clone,’ a game that borrows the main combat mechanic introduced in 2009’s Batman: Arkham Asylum. It also throws some Assassin’s Creed traversal on there for good measure. On top of this tried-and-true foundation is where the nemesis system lives. At its highest level, it’s a mechanic that keeps track of which orcs you’ve fought and how you defeated them. If you kill an orc captain at one point in the game by slashing his face, he might randomly come back later with scars and specifically call you out for having maimed him. You might think it would be impossible to remember any one orc you’ve fought, but the game does a good job of showing off a name and personality for each captain you fight. Many of the orcs have interesting traits expressed through their costumes too, like a butcher with limbs stuffed into his pockets or a guy with a flaming helmet who’s impervious to explosives. They have a surprising number of lines to say too, usually being much more specific about your last encounter than you might expect. And because the main character is a ghost (they say ‘wraith,’ but it’s playing so fast and loose with lore that it doesn’t really matter), he’s expected to die and respawn within the game’s canon. There’s no punishment for this, but the orc who killed you will rise in Mordor’s ranks- even if he wasn’t a named enemy. During my playthrough, I had several long-running rivalries with orcs who essentially owed all their fame to my carelessness in the early game. This mechanic is supremely satisfying, and manages to make an otherwise average action game soar well above its station.
Otherwise, this is an open world game taking place in two regions of Mordor. There are a number of different side-quests to take, and while the map is littered with repetitive missions, the nemesis system makes many of them shine. At any time a named orc can invade a mission you’re trying to complete, usually with a snarky line of dialogue about how you didn’t expect to see him in that neck of the woods. It makes even the most boring quests exciting, because you never know when you might see an unwelcome face. There are also several missions involving specific orc captains, and if you don’t complete them before dying they’ll resolve themselves, making those orcs stronger. These can range from interrupting a feast, stopping an execution, or making sure a certain orc wins a duel. Combined with powers you get later, it really feels like you can make an impact on this game’s world. There’s also a huge tree full of powers to unlock, which can change things rather drastically- you’ll actually feel like a badass by the end, thanks to a well-tuned progression of skills over the course of the story. It should be noted however, that I’d become fairly weary by the third act because of just how powerful my character was. A later mechanic involves indoctrinating orcs to fight for the good side. I found it fun to set off mind-controlled orcs Manchurian Candidate style, but when my lackeys start killing bosses for me it became more of a curse than a blessing. Ironically, this wouldn’t be an issue without the nemesis mechanic- I’d built up some pretty complex relationships with some of these enemies, and I wanted to be the one to put a nail in their coffins!
Because the game doesn’t use the designs from Peter Jackson’s adaptations, much of Middle-earth will look and sound unfamiliar to fans of the films. Unfortunately, most of the concept design and soundtrack are not as inspired as I would have liked, leaving the game pretty squarely within the realm of generic fantasy- a small crime made infinitely more disappointing by the weight of the source material they’re playing with. Even stranger, some of the movies’ designs have been trotted out, only making the disconnect between Shadow of Mordor and Weta’s fantastic work on The Lord of the Rings more painfully obvious. The worst example of this is how the writers blatantly shoehorned in Gollum- whose design is then lifted straight from the films, complete with an Andy Serkis impersonator who gets the voice mostly right but doesn’t understand the character motivations. It would have been nice to see another take on Gollum, and considering how different Rankin/Bass‘ version was, it’s no excuse to simply settle for an existing portrayal.
The game isn’t necessarily that great looking, but I’ll be damned if they can’t fit a lot of enemies on-screen. The individual orcs have lots of fine detail too, and they can even be inspected close-up in a specific ‘Sauron’s Army’ menu. There’s also a remarkable quality to the sound design, in which musical hits will start syncing with your character’s sword blows when he’s in the zone. It’s a subtle touch, but goes a long way to making combat feel that much more cinematic.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is a strange game. It takes all the stigma about adapting Tolkein’s works and irreverently casts it aside, leaving universe building to the collectibles and focusing on a character that opposes almost every paradigm established in the novels. It’s still an extremely fun game however, and I spent several hours enjoying the universe it created against my better judgment as a fan of the source material. A day will come when Tolkien’s masterworks are faithfully translated into a video game, but it is not this day. This day, we turn off our brains for 20 hours and hunt some orc!
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor / Monolith Productions / Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment / September 30, 2014
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