Analogous to the Star Wars Expanded Universe, Monolith’s Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor goes beyond the writings of J. R. R. Tolkien to etch itself rightfully between the events of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings”. It successfully crutches on what can be considered as faithful to the source material without being belligerent with the ways it creates something new. With excellent combat, exciting and smooth traversal, and meaningful upgrades, this is a sleeper hit that’s possibly “Game of the Year”.
Talion, a Ranger of the Black Gate, watches as Sauron’s forces invade in overwhelming numbers due to the Guard pulling back forces due to inactivity. In the following vicious scene, Talion, alongside his family, are savagely murdered by the Black Hand. Now having been banished from death, he is inhabited by an elf wraith and is able to roam the lands of Mordor again.
Over the course of the 20-mission campaign, you’ll make new friends and see some familiar faces. The campaign does a solid job of teaching you the basics, and even at around the 75% mark of the game, you’ll still be receiving tutorial missions that teach you things and unlock new powers. I’d really recommend that you do all of the story missions first, to unlock certain powers that will have an important uses during the side-missions later on. The story of Talion and the Wraith sidekick is new, but not the most interesting – given that is a tale about revenge. But Talion isn’t so vengeful that he becomes arrogant, a dick to those around him, or starts making rash decisions. He’s thoughtful, considerate, and compassionate towards those he meets along his journey.
It’s probably no surprise that Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor shares many similarities with Warner Bros’ other published titles, like the Batman Arkham series. It also bears a resemblance to the open-world and traversal of Assassin’s Creed. By and large, these two games are terrific on their own. The resulting combination of these two games is much more than appearances. Shadow of Mordor features deep customization and upgrades that make Talion more powerful, dangerous, and threatening to the Uruks now inhabiting Mordor. And the free-wheeling combat that is available to can make you almost unstoppable once you get the game’s many combinations down.
While the open-world is devoid of human life and society, the wilds of Mordor allow for you to explore as you please – but I can’t help but feel bored or frustrated by being constantly harassed. These feelings fade quickly as you level up Talion’s skills and open up his combat abilities. There are two types of ways to enhance your Talion, through earning experience and spending mirian. Mirian is the currency of the game, earned by completing story and side missions among completing challenges. Earning enough experience will turn into one ability point that can be spent on skills such as the Shadow Strike, which will allow him to teleport to an enemy and stun them. Or Elven Swiftness, an essential upgrade early on that, when you land from mantling a surface, will allow Talion run at super-speed with a well-timed button press. Every upgrade is meaningful, and therefore every choice is careful and must be well-thought out.
In a typical RPG-style game, loot comes in the form of new weapons with abilities or attributes, and are bound to the weapon. Here, Monolith smartly acknowledges that Talion would not part with his weapons. So instead, and only by killing Uruk Captains and Warchiefs, will you earn runes. Runes range in level from 1 to 20, and will include random attributes and abilities that benefit Talion. At first, Talion can only equip two runes to each weapon, but by spending mirian can you unlock more slots that will add passive increases to Talion’s effectiveness in combat and during stealth.
Engaging in combat is incredibly responsive, fast, and brutal. A hit counter much like anyone familiar with Batman Arkham series will recognize, allows you to maintain a chain that can be “cashed in” when you reach x8 (or x5 if you’ve purchased the upgrade) to perform an execution move. When enemies go to attack while engaged with another, a button will flash, allowing you to immediately counter and maintain your hit streak. Some enemies are tougher than other, who cannot be grabbed or even parried, must be mantled over. A later game ability, allows you to stun while you flip over them, giving you an opportunity to unleash a flurry of attacks and will seal there fate by popping their head like a zit.
What really sets this apart from any comparisons is the use of the Nemesis system. Since death is no obstacle for you, a grunt orc or uruk captain can kill you, and become your nemesis. Talion will respawn with no loss of progress, and the balance of power grows stronger as a result of your death. And if he continues to be successful, will only become harder to defeat. As time passes, power struggles occur. Captains will often go on hunts to kill to intimidate those around them, or will try to overthrow other Captains for dominance. The way this evolves and changes is like a living organism, and it occurs with or without you.
The hierarchy starts with the Warchiefs. Their bodyguards are Veteran Captains. And those who are not selected to be bodyguards, are simply Captains who command groups of Uruks. The dissension amongst the ranks is something to admire. Tensions are high, and they are willing to do battle with each other to gain influence and power within the ranks. You can kill as many Uruk Captains as you desire, there are seemingly an infinitesimal number of new ones to take their place, and those willing to fill in the gaps below them.
Side missions are rarely a drag, asking you to collect artifacts, free enslaved humans, and completing weapon challenges with specific limitations which are incredibly fun despite the restrictions. Often times, you’ll see your friends bleed into your game. Whenever someone from your friends list has died, a special side mission allows you seek revenge for a small amount of power in return. It’s not a large portion of the game, but there’s a nice bit of dimensional rift between you and your friends’ games.
With a never-ending stream of Uruks in a dynamic, evolving chain of command, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor provides nearly endless replayability in a somewhat uninteresting open-world filled with death. But the open killing fields provides for the great combat engine to be capable of handling dozens of enemies encircling you as you stave them off. There are so many emergent moments that are unique, as stories shared between friends will rarely be the same. Shadow of Mordor has so many complexities, systems, mechanics, and things to discover that can’t simply be covered here. The dynamic discovery of Mordor is part of the enjoyment. You don’t have to be a fan of “The Lord of the Rings” to appreciate what Monolith has created here, you just have to be a fan of games that have taken the steps necessary to be rightfully called “next-gen”.
A PS4 copy was provided by PR for review purposes