Games Review: Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor (Xbox One, 2014)

On first inspection, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor wasn’t a title that interested me overmuch when it was announced last year. It looked too derivative of games like Assassin’s Creed or Batman: Arkham City, with its parkour-happy ranger and free-flow combat. This year’s holiday season games crop has been very good at subverting expectations, though, and Shadow of Mordor is no exception.

Set in the time period between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the game revolves around a Gondorian ranger named Talion (voiced by – who else? – Troy Baker) who is stationed at the Black Gate of Mordor. Talion, and his wife and son, are killed by three Black Númenórean captains – The Hammer, The Tower and The Black Hand of Sauron in an attempt to summon the wraith of a mysterious elf lord. The Númenórean’s plan goes awry, however, when the wraith instead merges with Talion, resurrecting the dead ranger. While the wraith is suffering from amnesia and wishes to know more about it’s past, Talion is fueled by a desire to avenge the death of his family. Within one body, the two right the wrongs perpetrated against them, one Uruk beheading at a time. Talion and his wraith friend will disrupt Sauron’s Uruk legions by killing captains, generals and war chiefs to make his takeover bid that much harder.

The story is serviceable as a means of getting the ball rolling narratively, but it’s far from being especially original. Shadow of Mordor was written by Christian Cantamessa, who also had a hand in writing Red Dead Redemtpion for Rockstar, so it’s surprising that the story is one of the game’s weakest aspects. Talion is also fairly boring as protagonists go. He’s cut from the same stoic, grim, gruff cloth as almost every other video game tough guy of the last ten years and, despite Troy Baker’s efforts to infuse Talion with a bit of character (his Sean Bean impression is flawless), he’s fighting a losing battle. The wraith, too, is resolutely bland and his interactions with Talion are generally limited to the two of them being foreboding and gruff at each other.

It’s the Uruks themselves that possess the lion’s share of the character in the game. Each one looks and behaves differently. Their designs are both grotesque and are completely reflective of the look of the Uruks in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film trilogy. While they only have a few voices between them, they do have an awful lot to say and their jeers and catcalling are usually enough to goad you into leaping from cover to cut them down.

As I mentioned earlier, the borrows rather heavily from other stealth/action/adventure titles like Assassin’s Creed and the Batman: Arkham series. Talion sneaks along overhead cables, scales walls and buildings, has lots of side missions and unlocks vantage points just like Ezio. He fights, counters, grapples, busts finishing moves and has a system of upgrades to level up his moveset just like Batman. But developers Monolith have had more on their mind than just those two design manifestos – felled captains and generals drop runes that can be used to modify your weapons, there are moves like Shadow Strike that allow players to zip from enemy to enemy and cover large distances quickly, there barrels of grog to poison and subdue large packs of Uruks.

It becomes apparent very quickly that Monolith have worked hard to make Shadow of Mordor stand apart from it’s very obvious inspirations. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the Nemesis System. Talion can extract information from Uruks about the captains, generals and war chiefs in Sauron’s army. While rank-and-file Uruks will only give up names and locations, Talion can pull together further information by interrogating the higher ups – doing this allows him to uncover the weaknesses, immunities, fears and hatreds that each Uruk possesses. You can then exploit this information to mount more effective attacks on the Uruk leaders. Having said all of that, if you fail or are killed by an Uruk higher up, they will remember the tactics you used last time and will adjust their defenses accordingly. Dying in combat will also cause significant reshuffles of the Sauron’s army – Uruks will rise and fall from in-fighting and backstabbing, new players will start to rise from the bottom and veterans will grow in power to become truly formidable opponents. It means that fights are always exciting and interesting to get caught up in and it’s a system I expect to see replicated all over the place in future games.

The game is rather hostile to players in the early stages, though, with a rather significant difficulty curve. I found myself dying over and over in the first half of the game until I was able to accrue a few decent upgrades. And once you start that upgrade ball rolling, Talion really does become a force of nature, able to dispatch many Uruks with surprising speed and efficiency.

The missions themselves are a bit of a mixed bag with many of them amounting to standard escort or “go here, stab that” style objectives. It helps that it’s fun to do both of those things, but a touch more variety would have been nice. There are plenty of hooks for the die-hard Tolkien enthusiast to sink their teeth into during these missions and while that will be enough to pull those people through, they struggled to keep my attention and I’d often find myself wondering when I could get back to decimating the local orc population.

The map is also quite reasonably sized and doesn’t take very long at all to traverse, which is another area that seems like it could bring the game down but actually enhances it. Not having to march over hill and dale to get around keeps the game’s pace punchy and it means you’re in and out of combat more frequently.

As for the game’s visuals, they are a bit up-and-down as well. While the Uruk character models are highly detailed and great fun to look at, and much of the world is covered in some very nice textures, there is also rather noticeable texture pop in and more than a few occasions where I ended up swamped with Uruks and the frame dropped dramatically. These technical hiccups aside, the game glides along at 30fps for the most part and the mo-capped character animations are extremely solid. It looks nice, but nothing about it screams next-gen.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is a functionally solid and enjoyable experience. While it has a few chinks in it’s armour through which it can be damaged, taken as a whole it is fast, fluid and a lot of fun to play. The combat is rewarding, the Nemesis System offers something truly different and it shows that Middle-earth is a setting that is truly ripe for original, in-canon storytelling. It has the feel of a venerable series in it’s infancy, and it will be interesting to see where the developers take things from here as, at this point, a sequel is as inevitable as it will be welcome.

Review Score: 8.0 out of 10
Highlights: Satisfying combat, Nemesis System is a game-changer
Lowlights: Bland characters and story, some samey mission design
Developer: Monolith
Publisher: WB Games
Released: October 8, 2014
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360

Reviewed on Xbox One


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David Smith

David Smith is the former games and technology editor at The AU Review. He has previously written for PC World Australia. You can find him on Twitter at @RhunWords.