Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor review: simply walk into Mordor

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor wears its influences on its sleeve, but integrates them so well with its own ideas that it stands up as a unique achievement on its own. Our review.

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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.

Nemesis Mine

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.

Paying Respects

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.

Conclusion

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 Score9 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.

Editor-In-Chief

From The Chatty

  • reply
    September 25, 2014 9:01 PM

    Steve Watts posted a new article, Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor review: simply walk into Mordor.

    Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor wears its influences on its sleeve, but integrates them so well with its own ideas that it stands up as a unique achievement on its own. Our review.

    • reply
      September 25, 2014 9:51 PM

      I have 200+ games in my backlog and I'm trying very hard not to buy this. Now that task is much more difficult.

    • reply
      September 25, 2014 10:13 PM

      Good review. How long was the campaign?

      • reply
        September 26, 2014 5:26 AM

        My game clock currently reads almost 24 hours. Counting the couple of hours I played last night and how I meandered through the first half doing a lot of side-stuff before I had to hoof it towards the ending, my guess would be in the 14-16 hour range.

        I'm still planning on playing it in my free time. Lots of missions and collectibles yet to do.

        • reply
          September 26, 2014 5:30 AM

          Nothing sells me more on a game than a reviewer who continues playing it afterwards in their own time :)

    • reply
      September 25, 2014 10:20 PM

      Nice! good news indeed ^^^^ thanks for the review glad I pre ordered it for the PC.

    • reply
      September 25, 2014 10:24 PM

      I'm glad this one turned out well. I've been pretty excited about it. Definitly getting it day 1.

    • reply
      September 25, 2014 10:25 PM

      Monolith has been making great games for 20 years. Great to see they managed to deliver with Mordor. I hope it's a monster hit for them.

    • reply
      September 25, 2014 10:45 PM

      day 1 purchase

    • reply
      September 25, 2014 10:58 PM

      This game was not on my radar at all.

      • reply
        September 25, 2014 11:09 PM

        Ditto.

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        September 25, 2014 11:37 PM

        Seems like a great game but I lost interest in the LOTR universe years ago, and when I see how much it resembles other game series I've grown tired of (ASSCREED, BATMENS) that's like a double put-off. I'll probably grab it on sale next year.

      • reply
        September 25, 2014 11:45 PM

        I started thinking it was an Assassin's Creed rip off unitl they delved more into the meta game of killing captains and such.

      • reply
        September 26, 2014 12:57 PM

        Never heard of this game before it came out. Like there was no hype for it.

    • reply
      September 25, 2014 11:33 PM

      PC-version blurb on the IGN review:

      On the PC side Mordor also compares to the Batman games, in that it’s of good quality. There are even some enhanced graphics settings, including an ultra-high texture setting that requires a full 6GB of video memory. My only issue with it is some awkward menu controls, but most of those are customizable and those that aren’t aren’t too inconvenient to get used to.


      They gave both the PS4 and PC version a 9.3

      http://www.ign.com/articles/2014/09/26/middle-earth-shadow-of-mordor-review

      • reply
        September 25, 2014 11:53 PM

        So 6GB of Vram for this and 4GB of VRAM for Evil Within. Basically we should all wait because the next gen of PC gaming is shitty console ports with no optimization. Can't wait to see how much VRAM GTA V requires.

        • reply
          September 25, 2014 11:56 PM

          Is this because the new consoles give devs access to ~7GB of potential VRAM or bad optimization like you say?

          Once we start getting 8GB cards that cost as much as both consoles combined it won't be an issue!

        • reply
          September 26, 2014 12:01 AM

          That's 6GB for an optional Ultra HD texture pack to be supported. Chill.

        • reply
          September 26, 2014 12:37 AM

          6gb for ultra setting. Evil Within was 4gb just for recommended.

        • reply
          September 26, 2014 6:22 AM

          There's only so much you can do to optimize away VRAM requirements. It mostly consists of reduced texture resolution and more repeated textures. In other words, making the game look worse.

          • reply
            September 26, 2014 6:57 AM

            Any modern engine _should_ be capable of streaming in textures faster on a pc somewhat countering the mismatch in texture memory from the consoles, especially if you run the game from a fast SSD. However, given the quality of most PC ports and this being fairly low level engine stuff, i don't think the consumer can always expect this work to be done, especially by smaller dev's.

            • reply
              September 26, 2014 7:21 AM

              Sure, but if you're using 4096x4096 (or bigger) textures, it's not that hard to blow past 2GB in a single scene. Streaming can help, but if you actually need most of those 4GB of textures at the same time, you're boned.

        • gmd
          reply
          September 26, 2014 7:15 AM

          Both run great on the PS4 !

      • reply
        September 26, 2014 5:30 AM

        You can snag this at GMG for 25% off with code SEPTEM-BEROFF-ER25XX

        http://www.greenmangaming.com/s/ca/en/pc/games/action/middle-earth-shadow-mordor/

      • reply
        September 26, 2014 6:14 AM

        This is super good to hear! I think I will be picking it up now!

      • reply
        September 26, 2014 9:53 AM

        Wait, so this setting was made just for Titans? I don't think any other gaming card has 6gb vram?

        • reply
          September 26, 2014 10:40 AM

          It's probably more like "Whelp, we've got the textures, making them available requires minimal effort, so we might as well."

          I figured some of the 980s would have 6GB, but apparently I was wrong.

          • reply
            September 26, 2014 10:50 AM

            Yeah. This way when people pick this up in a couple of years for $2.50 on a Steam sale it will still look great! And 6GB VRAM will be the norm!

      • reply
        September 26, 2014 1:20 PM

        Nice Titan ftw 6gig [check]... x... Twoooo :)

    • reply
      September 26, 2014 1:11 AM

      I was uncertain from the trailers but this was a good write up, might not wait with this one

      • reply
        September 26, 2014 5:09 AM

        Ouch that destructiod piece. I wonder where it will land after it comes out.

        • reply
          September 26, 2014 7:55 AM

          I dunno, that Destructoid reviewer seemed intent on being a sad sack and not having fun. It read like he nitpicked the game to death without ever saying whether or not it was fun to play it as a whole. I guess we'll find out when the game is released, though.

          • reply
            September 26, 2014 12:58 PM

            his review really isn't that bad. He said it's fun, but boss fights are tedious and mentions a couple more things that were annoying.

    • reply
      September 26, 2014 6:22 AM

      That sounds pretty badass!

    • reply
      September 26, 2014 6:55 AM

      This game came out of nowhere, it sounds quite awesome.

    • reply
      September 26, 2014 7:07 AM

      Interesting review - thanks

    • reply
      September 26, 2014 7:11 AM

      If you kept up with the dev diaries you knew as a gamer that this needed to be in your library. Game on!

    • reply
      September 26, 2014 7:39 AM

      Hype rising.

      Glad I already got a deal on the pre-purchase.

    • reply
      September 26, 2014 9:33 AM

      I keep reading the title to this article because I love it so much.

      • reply
        September 26, 2014 10:52 AM

        Looks like this dude is getting out of PC gaming!

    • reply
      September 26, 2014 1:02 PM

      I wish I wasn't on a game-buying lockdown now. This looks right up my alley.

    • reply
      September 26, 2014 1:31 PM

      How is the PS3 version for us poors?

      • reply
        September 26, 2014 2:25 PM

        The poors don't get it till next month.

      • reply
        September 26, 2014 2:30 PM

        Yeah, unfortunately I can't speak to the poors version. I didn't see anything about it that seemed absolutely impossible for the last generation, but I can't say whether or not it simply has performance issues.

      • reply
        September 26, 2014 2:53 PM

        It's just a 4:3 dvd copy of The Hobbit.

    • reply
      September 26, 2014 3:03 PM

      Is this a review of the PC version or the PS4 version?

      • reply
        September 27, 2014 3:51 AM

        "This review is based on a retail PlayStation 4 disc provided by the publisher. "