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Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor

It’s been said that when you steal from one source, it is plagiarism. If you steal from many sources, it’s research. This is most definitely the case with Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor [Read More…]

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It’s been said that when you steal from one source, it is plagiarism. If you steal from many sources, it’s research. This is most definitely the case with Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor. Set in between the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Shadow of Mordor is an original story grafted into the Tolkien universe. It’s an action-packed RPG adventure that not only gives you the feeling of great power, but also the dread of being easily killed if you do not plan your moves wisely. This is a game where defeat is not only a learning experience, but also a strong motivator for better strategy and planning.

Shadows of Mordor Glowing

Story Time

This isn’t your usual Tolkien or Peter Jackson foray into the land of orcs and elves. From the start, Shadow or Mordor sets a much darker tone than the films and books ever even attempted. A brutal scene sets the stage for your character’s existance. You are Talion, a former Ranger of Gondor whose spirit is bound to an elven wrath who, at first, doesn’t remember who he is or why he and Talion are reluctantly stuck together. In time, you will learn the wrath’s story and identity and for the Tolkien lore-nerds like myself, you will smile when you find out who he really is. For the Tolkien purists out there, the story will either delight you or give you pause.

There are some inconsistencies with the Tolkien lore; however it’s never enough to deter you from exploring the amazing game world or completing the main story. For example, (if I’m not mistaken) the Black Gate (which the Rangers of Gondor manned) was abandoned 1,300 years before the events of the game. So Talion being stationed there with other Rangers is a bit of an oddity. It’s never explained in the game if they came back to the Black Gate, but unless you want to nit-pick it to death, it really doesn’t matter. There is cannon lore a-plenty to satisfy your craving for Tolkien’s world, and yet you can completely ignore it and just enjoy the experience if that’s your thing too.

An Assassin is an Assassin

The game borrows heavily from other franchises, namely Assassin’s Creed and the Batman Arkham games. Your traversal across the game world is straight from Assassin’s Creed and the combat is practically identical to the melee hit counters of Batman. You can clamber up buildings, run across ropes and ledges, and sneak to your heart’s content. You even auto-hide when you enter bushes and tall foliage. However, when combat starts, you will be hacking and countering your way to victory with stun attacks, executions and special abilities gained through XP you earn.

Who Are You?

Talion is a master swordsman and skilled killer. You are equipped with a sword, a dagger, and a bow. Each weapon has its unique place in your arsenal. You will learn new skills for each that makes you feel powerful without giving you the false sense of being overpowered. This is a delicate balance that Shadow of Mordor pulls off extremely well. The player is given the choice of fighting up close in all-out combat, sneaking and stabbing silently, or picking enemies off at a distance. The wrath you are bound to also adds a number of supernatural abilities that add yet another layer to the gameplay. The combat animations are smooth, gory, and will occasionally blend Talion with the wrath when certain abilities are used. Having the newly added photo mode makes these visual effects all the more sweet and will give many gamers the perfect screen shot to capture their adventures in the land of Mordor.

Shadow of Mordor Assssination

Combat, especially countering, is far more forgiving than it is in the Batman games. Using the bow will slow time for a moment, allowing you to setup the perfect headshot. This is balanced with an ammo supply and limited slow-motion time. Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s Batman-lite. You can and will be easily killed if you get too careless and rush into groups of enemies you should have thinned out with some stealth or ranged attacks first. You will be outnumbered in most encounters and enemies can quickly call for reinforcements if near their strongholds.

As you level up you will gain abilities that make combat easier. However, you never feel all-powerful. Even when I had fully maxed out my skill trees for each weapon, had epic runes equipped in every slot, and felt god-like, I was quickly killed when the power went to my head and I tried to “Leroy Jenkins” my way to victory. Not all enemies are the same, even the basic non-captains you fight will have various resistances to your abilities and attacks and just like the Arkham games; you need to know how to mix things up to stay alive.

Playing Paton

Here’s where Shadow of Mordor shines above the source material it borrowed from. Every time you lose a fight to an Uruk, he levels up. Yes, enemies become more powerful when they kill you. They also remember you. This goes the other way as well. If you kill an enemy without beheading him, they come back. In one fight I caused an explosion which burned an enemy and left him scarred. When I encountered him again, he not only remembered me, but reminded me of the horrible wound I inflicted upon his dirty face and then  vowed revenge. I was careless and lost the fight. He went from an ordinary Uruk fighter to a captain in Sauron’s army gloating at his revenge victory. Arrrgh the taunts….the endless taunts, especially when they win. It never induced rage. It made me more resolute and eager to face them again; even in their powered-up state.

Shadow of Mordor Warlord

As you journey through Mordor, you will climb “towers of silver” which act similar to the synchronization points in Assassin’s Creed or the radio towers in Far Cry 3. These allow you to survey the land and will unlock new quests and show the location of collectibles on the map. These towers also allow you to advance time which not only allows herbs to regrow, but also advances the Uruks and their power struggles in Sauron’s army. This positioning plays heavily in the nemesis system.

A Friend of My Enemy is My “Frenemy”?

The nemesis system is the biggest attraction in Shadow of Mordor. Every time I purchase and play a game I always wonder if there is going to be any real replay value. Sure, I love replaying games just for the stories I enjoyed. But grinding a second time through the tedium associated with most open-world games and their hundreds of collectibles always makes me cringe. With the nemesis system in Shadow of Mordor you literally have endless replayability after you finish the story and collect everything. It blew my mind how varied the orc encounters were and just how different each captain was that I had to face. The nemesis system is laid out in a similar fashion to a flow chart and as uruks gain power, they move up the ranks from captain to warchief. The system allows you to examine the uruks and study their strengths and weaknesses.

Shadow of Mordor Nemesis

This information isn’t always revealed and you will have to gather information on them through intel drops or from interrogating uruks whose minds you invade. Yes, another perk from being bonded to a wrath. You can invade the minds of uruks (captins and warchiefs too) and eventually brand them. This branding allows you to build an orc army and command them to do your bidding. This is a whole other mechanic in itself. With this power you can order them to start a revolt, kill other uruks, betray their captains and warchiefs and issue death threats to uruks. These death threats increase the chance of them dropping an epic rune for your weapons when you kill them. One of the best parts of the game that never got old to me was the outbursts of rage Talion/wrath would scream at the uruks as he dominated their minds. If you stop for a second and look at the uruk’s face, you will see pure fear and terror. For a foe as gruesome and frightening as an orc, the satisfaction of seeing them scared out of their minds was almost palpable. Without feeling like endless busy-work, the nemesis system strongly plays into the story and is always engaging.

The Journey and the Destination

The story in Shadow of Mordor isn’t one to get overly excited about. Like Tolkien’s novels, the journey is always more important than the destination. Watching Talion’s journey go from one motivated purely by revenge to something slightly more self-less is interesting, but never developed all that well. It is a decent story and one you should see through to the end. But for a game set in Tolkien’s world, it seemed a little sparse and simple at times.

Gollum does make an appearance and his presence and missions are some of the best parts of the campaign. The game’s final boss felt rushed and very unsatisfying. However, there is quite a bit of planned DLC, so hopefully it fleshes things out a bit more. I found myself being more engaged with gameplay throughout the campaign. In open-world games I usually get so wrapped up in trolling the enemies, side quests, collecting, etc that I all but forget what the story was about. If you catch yourself doing the same, you will feel right at home in Mordor.

Shadow of Mordor Orcs Close Up

There are not only side quests, but also power struggle missions where you can go from interrupting an uruk’s great beast hunt, to poisoning grog at a feast, to killing captains as revenge for killing your friends in their own games. Oh how I loved that. Every time I saw my friend Dave was killed in his game and I was given a revenge mission on my map, I always rushed to get vengeance for my friend. It’s just a fun addition to an already fun and varied number of quests you can do. The poisoning mechanic can be used in every mission after you first learn it and it’s a wonderful tactic to get uruks to turn on each other and do your work for you.

Technical Notes

On the technical side, the game ran smoothly on PS4 with only a few small frame rate dips. The lighting and draw distances were impressive at times, but with the exception of a later area in the game, Mordor is bleak and harrowing to look at. Just like in the books and the films, it’s very clear a dark presence dwells here and you definitely don’t want to build your summer vacation home there. Troy Baker, as usual, does an excellent job voicing Talion and the rest of the cast is commendable as well. You meet a very snappy dwarf who teaches you how to hunt and mount the various mounts in the game. However, the characters aren’t developed beyond their need in the story and how to get Talion more tutored on skills you probably will have already figured out on your own.

The End

Middle Earth Shadow of Mordor has incredible depth. It’s something you will want to play this year. Despite some missteps in the story missions and character development, the game borrows the best of two of the best franchises and succeeds in making it its own experience. The endless replayability of the nemesis system and the depth of tactics given to you in the gameplay create a unique experience not often found in open world games. The nemesis system and seemingly endless variations in orc captains will keep you in Mordor for a long time after the story is finished and your abilities are maxed out.

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