Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is the kind of game that invites easy comparisons to other successful franchises. Even when I first saw footage of it in action, the pieces seemed so obvious: Batman combat, Assassin’s Creed traversal, all wrapped in Lord of the Rings lore. While those descriptors are certainly accurate, I was surprised to find that Mordor delivered so well on its inspirations. More importantly, it mixes those ideas, along with a few of its own, into a cohesive whole that feels unique in itself.
Monolith made a big deal of its new Nemesis system, and it's easy to see why. The Uruk, a special breed of Orc, are not only the regular foot soldier fodder, but also named characters with their own strengths and weaknesses. When one kills you in battle, he can ride that wave of popularity to gain status as a captain in the army or rise the ranks among veteran captains. Since you come back to life, killing "The Gravewalker" is something of a status symbol, even if they know you'll just come back again sometime. Plus, the Uruk are constantly infighting for status with or without your involvement, as constant updates will let you know which of them has been deposed or killed in favor of another who challenged him. You can intervene in these conflicts to help a preferred outcome or simply to have a handy spot where you know a captain will be ripe for a kill.
Keeping track of the intricacies of bloody Uruk politics felt extremely satisfying, interrupting their power grabs or even corrupting them to my cause. But in the early game, it is easy to let this snowball out of hand. Captains don't have to be the ones to deliver the killing blow. They gain power just for being nearby when you're killed. Since I kept finding them by chance while trying to take on lower-level encounters, it wasn't long before a couple of them were far too powerful for me. Their power rating ballooned to almost level 20; by comparison, the big bad Warchief bosses were only around 13.
That concern aside, the Nemesis system really is revolutionary. In an era of games where death has lost its sting, more developers are looking for ways to integrate the penalty for dying into the game proper. Having enemies who remember your fights and reference them, as well as the ever-present danger of your demise helping to feed them more power, is proper motivation to stay alive. Even after you start to see the patterns of the system begin to emerge, especially thanks to some repeated Uruk face models, it still feels authentic. I especially enjoyed the wide variety of personality traits and quirks that made for glimpses of dark humor.
The best part of the Nemesis system is how it dynamically creates stories all your own. At one point, after taking down an Uruk Warchief, one of his bodyguards ran away. Not content to let him survive the encounter, I chased him down. I referenced his weaknesses, as obtained by interrogating a lower-level thug, and found that he was invulnerable to ranged attacks. That ruled out striking him with an arrow to slow him down. Instead, I had to give chase, looking for rocks to leap over to trigger a special dash. Just as I almost caught up, a roaming pack of Caragors (large, carnivorious beasts) attacked him. I could have left them to finish him off, but by that point I was insistent that the kill was mine. I helped take down the beasts, ostensibly saving his life so I could be the one to take it. That's the kind of story that didn't come from any author. The game gave me the tools to write it myself.
None of this is to say that the authored pieces are left wanting. Shadow of Mordor focuses on Talion, a ranger of Gondor, who watched his wife and son murdered by the Black Hand of Sauron. His throat was slit as well, but he wasn't allowed to die. Instead, through a mysterious curse, he's kept alive and partnered with the spirit of a Wraith, which also grants him extra powers. Hence the constant revivals and spirit powers.
The tale of Talion's grief and desire for vengeance is nicely delivered, between a tutorial segment that sets the emotional stakes and audio loading sequences that gives insights to his happy but not altogether perfect life. It also sets itself against the backdrop of the Lord of the Rings lore, while managing to feel like a substantial part of it. Obviously Talion can't be the one to destroy Sauron, but by the end his actions make a difference in the world. I'm not enough of a Lord of the Rings stalwart to say whether it fits neatly or counts as a ret-con, but as a fan of the films and casual reader of the books I found it squared with my knowledge of the series.
Imitation and Innovation
Then, of course, there are the aforementioned influences from Batman and Assassin's Creed. Far from mere imitation, thanks to some smart integration with each other and the various RPG systems at play, both come into their own and blend seamlessly.
Plenty of games have attempted to imitate the rich fluidity of Batman Arkham's freeflow combat, but very few have nailed it like Shadow of Mordor. Just as Rocksteady established the empowering feeling of incapacitating a gaggle of thugs, Monolith has made it just as fun to walk into the midst of an orc horde and leave them dead on the ground. The Nemesis system in play means that any encounter can suddenly turn into a boss fight, since captains wander freely around the world. Assassin's-Creed-like traversal kept the movement smooth and efficient, which was especially important for the stealth segments. In a mixture of Batman's Detective Vision and Assassin's Eagle Vision, you can enter a Wraith world (complete with creepy Nazgul-like whispers) to scan for enemies and find hidden items.
An extensive upgrade tree let me customize Talion to my liking, and it was easy to see how alternate playstyles would lend themselves to different paths. I chose to accent my bow as much as possible, for the convenience of long-range attacks along with a handy slow-down power in a brawl if I got into a pinch. I particularly loved the "Pin in Place" ability; nothing feels satisfying quite like sticking an arrow into an orc's leg to keep him from running away. Sword combat and stealth are just as viable, though, for those who prefer the combo-heavy direct combat or sneaking up on foes. Transitioning between the two is as simple as choosing how to engage, so it's always fun to plan out a combination of ranged, stealth, and melee and then execute on it.
The customization is accented even more enhanced by the Rune system, which offers stacking, minor buffs to weapons upon meeting certain conditions. If you find yourself scoring a lot of headshots, for example, you can equip a Rune that gives you back part of your Focus meter upon a successful one. Like everything else in the game, it's augmented by the Nemesis system, since higher-ranking bosses are more likely to drop legendary runes upon defeat. One of the upgrades even lets you threaten bosses, powering them up but greatly increasing the chance of legendary drops. Each of these systems plays off each other beautifully.
Shadow of Mordor is influenced by other games, but not defined by them. Instead it takes pieces from some of the best games of the last few years, augments them with RPG mechanics and the new Nemesis system, and integrates them all so well together that it's sometimes hard to tell where one system begins and another ends. It's a remarkable achievement, and should justifiably establish Monolith as the torch-bearer for the Lord of the Rings series.
Final Score: 9 out of 10
This review is based on a retail PlayStation 4 disc provided by the publisher. Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor will be available for PC for $49.99, and on PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, and Xbox One for $59.99, on September 30. The game is rated M.