Middle Earth: Shadows of Mordor (PC) Review

Middle-Earth: Shadows of Mordor

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor was reviewed on the PC version of the game


The Short


Pros

– Perfect medley of the Batman: Arkham games and Assassin’s Creed

– Graphics are gorgeous, showcasing the potential for next gen

– Lots of stuff to do, with two different locations within Mordor to explore

– While it may blaspheme a few parts of the LOTR mythos, it is clear the writers did their research

– Story is compelling and the voice acting superb

– Nemesis system is a good start to what could be a defining system in future open world games

Cons

– Nemesis system at times feels more like an experiment than a fleshed out mode

– Also the best addition to it (branding/mind controlling Orc leaders) is locked until the last third of the game

– Also also it’s completely gone from the 360/PS3 versions, which is pretty rough

– Like Assassin’s Creed, quests can get a little repetitive after a while

– Ending is a bit of a letdown

– Attempts to include Gollum in the story feels misguided, especially since there are no other characters from LOTR “canon” in the story

You’re here to show orcs a bad time.

The Long

It’s pretty well established at this point that people (developers and gamers) love the Batman: Arkham Asylum style combat. A fluid, essentially two button system (for the most part) designed around quick flowing action, easy counters, and looking sweet while doing it, it’s surprising how few games have stolen its system for their own games (a 360 Captain America game comes to mind, but it isn’t of particular note). Similarly, Ubisoft’s brand of open world games (Watch_Dogs, Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry 3/4) all seem to be basically the same formula at this point: open worlds with lots of activities to boot your stats, climbing towers to scope out new areas, and so on.

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is pretty shameless, should you be familiar with these games. Aping both the Batman combat and “Ubisoft open world games” (we’ll just say Assassin’s Creed, since it started that mess) wholesale, anyone familiar with either of those game will be instantly at home with Mordor’s systems. But as we’ve seen, a copy of a good idea can still be a good idea (there’s a reason League of Legends is so popular, after all), so does Shadow of Mordor deliver on its blatantly stolen ideas?

You’ve got a ghost friend, which is like Bill Cosby’s “Ghost Dad” only actually good.

Shadow of Mordor apparently didn’t start out as a Lord of the Rings game, and due to either licencing issues or lack of faith in the game it doesn’t even bare the film/book’s titles. Which is a shame, considering how much better this game is than any other Lord of the Rings game that’s ever come out. Mordor’s grim story feels more in line with a George R. R. Martin A Game of Thrones style story than the somewhat sterilized Lord of the Rings franchise. You play as Talion, a ranger (much like Strider/Aragorn) stationed in Mordor with his wife and kids. Why someone would take their family to Mordor is freaking beyond me, but as you can imagine it doesn’t end well. They’re murdered, Talion is murdered, everybody is sad.

Until a magical ghost elf wraith brings him back to life. Apparently stuck between life and death as well, Talion and his new ghost buddy journey to avenge the death of Talion’s family, find out what’s up with Ghost Dad, and finally be released from this limbo so Talion can be with his family in the West or wherever dead people go in Lord of the Rings.

On the way you’ll meet a handful of interesting characters, human and dwarf (well, one dwarf, but he’s awesome so it makes up for a lot), though you’ll spend most of your time hanging around with orcs. There’s also a rather in-depth backstory to your wraith buddy, one that got a lot of hardcore LOTR fans up in arms because “muh canon,” but all things considered I felt his story was actually a solid connection to the overall world (the game takes place in the break between The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring).

The only thing that felt really out of place was the inclusion of Gollum. Yes, his connection with the wraith ends up making a good deal of sense, but the story felt stronger as an isolated incident within the universe, and attempting to connect it to the “greater whole” felt a bit pandering. Still, the voice acting is superb (particularly from the wraith, who provides copious amounts of lore dumps everytime you do just about anything interesting, which I loved) and the story dark and interesting, and as a whole it drives the gameplay very well.

But let’s not fool ourselves: this is what you are here for.

Gameplay is split between three key parts: exploration, power manipulation, and combat. And two of these three is completely aped from other games, so we’ll cover them first.

Exploration is Assassin’s Creed 2. Do I need to say more? Well, probably. If you’ve touched a game by Ubisoft in the last half decade you’ve seen this system before: a wide expanse with lots of stuff to traverse and climb over, towers you have to climb to unlock fast travel and view available events in areas of the map, lots of dynamic events to participate in either to give you more experience, upgrade your weapons, or garner more skills. You can even do an Assassin’s Creed style dive off the watchtowers. It’s that. Which isn’t a bad thing.

This is a proven system (so much that, and I’ll keep hammering this in, Ubisoft uses it on every single game they make) and it works. Mordor trims the fat in a lot of areas, and ties most events well into the Nemesis system (which I’ll cover momentarily). There’s a good amount of combat missions, archery missions, stealth missions, and rescue mission. Then there’s the “weaken the warchief” missions, which are more optional than the rest as they focus primarily on manipulating Nemesis warchiefs. They’re all fun (though some stealth missions are frustrating in their rules) and I never got bored of them, and right when you’re getting tired of them you finish and the game ends. So kudos on that, no “walk around following a guy” quests like in Assassin’s Creed.

That’s losing your head.

Combat is Batman: Arkham City. You have a standard attack that can be timed to double combo strikes, a counter (which is easily indicated by lines over enemies heads), a “stun into flurry” move for harder enemies, and the ability to vault over enemies (which Batman stole from Prince of Persia). You also can kill enemies when they’re down should you be uninterrupted for a period of time, and a high enough combo meter will allow for finishers executed by pressing two buttons at once.

Literally. The. Same.

However, Mordor does have two major improvements. Because the enemies are more plentiful (and weaker), the game has no qualms making you a super-badass very quickly. Combos are harder to break and quickly scale to giving you finishers faster. Finishers are quick and can be stacked (including a combo that will literally murder every orc in range). Orcs can be Marked so they’ll fight on your side, including being marked during combat, which is kind of hilarious. On top of that, Tallion’s stealth and traversal is a perfect blend of Batman and Creed, with him being both limber enough to remain hidden and stealth kill easily, as well as combat-ready well enough that failing at stealth isn’t the end of the world.

Point being, I liked it better than Batman‘s combat, even though it was an obvious ripoff. Maybe because it was easier, maybe because it felt like it flowed better, who knows. All I know is: your move, Batman: Arkham Knight.

Then there’s these jerks.

Then you have the unique twist on the formula: the Nemesis system. Essentially, Mordor is populated by a bunch of warchiefs (like 30 or so) that are all in a hierarchy. Each warchief has certain strengths and weaknesses. For example, one might be weak to stealth finishers (the best kind of weakness!) but is always surrounded by a horde of followers and is immune to archer fire. One might have a fear of dogs (causing him to flee in terror and leave himself exposed) but his hits cause you to bleed. The worst kind are the ones that are immune to everything (yes, they exist) and you have to find their exact weakness in order to exploit them. Crazy stuff.

Killing these warchiefs not only grants you power (and runes to modify your weapons, another system that is interesting but borrowed from other games. There’s also an xp and ability tree system too. There, I mentioned it in the review, I don’t really have to elaborate a skill tree, do I?), but also shifts the power structure. Orcs that were once week, lowly Captains upgrade to Chieftans, and gain new abilities while they’re at it. Killing an orc directly above another one can cause a shift in the ranks, for good or ill. Die to one of them and (in probably my favorite twist in the game) they’ll not only get promoted, but remember you when you come back to fight them again. It’s this manipulation of power that is essential, and is Mordor’s only real thing it can call it’s own.

While it’s a very cool idea, two things about it irk me. The first is that branding (basically mind controlling an orc or chieftan to serve you) doesn’t come in until way into the second half of the game. Manipulating the struggle to push orcs you control into leadership is the funnest part of the game, and it’s hidden away on the tail end, which was a mistake. The second is the system, while clever, feels a bit bare-bones. Sure there’s lots of clever gimmicks, but you can’t really do a ton with it, aside from shift the power around a bit. I’d like to see the system fleshed out in future games (or a sequel, or maybe Ubisoft could steal it for their bajillion open world games…I’ll stop now), as right now it feels almost like a tech demo. This isn’t bad, not by a long shot, but it should be better, and really isn’t as mind blowing as some other reviewers have made it out to be.

It’s lonely at the top.

Graphically, Mordor looks phenomenal. While the area of Mordor canonically doesn’t offer much in terms of variety of scenery, the do well in breaking up the dirty, mine-style vistas of the first area with a greener, fleshed out version in the second zone. Orcs, particularly warchiefs, are incredibly detailed, and mixed up so that no two look exactly the same (though you’ll notice similarities). Combat is visceral and fun to engage in, and there are lots of clever tricks (like having the wraith appear during certain combat combos and archery segments) that keep the entire thing visually stimulating. It’s not quite “next-gen,” but it’s getting there. Also they put a billion orcs on the screen at once and the framerate doesn’t hitch (at least not on a GTX 970 equipped PC), so there’s that.

Music is also phenomenal, going above the simple “background music” and providing a sullen, yet interesting environment. In a smart move they completely avoid the Howard Shore film soundtracks and opt to make their game entirely unique, again…good idea. It does sound a bit Game of Throney from time to time, but I’m sure not complaining about that.

 

 

 Middle-Earth: Shadows of Mordor is greater than the sum of its parts. Broken down, you’re looking at essentially a copycat, the first M-Rated Lord of the Rings game and Nemesis system being it’s biggest draws. But it does the things it copies so damn well (and better than the games it emulate, if we’re being honest) that the setting and Nemesis system is just icing on the cake. It could do better, maybe experimenting with the systems it’s borrowing with a little, and the game does start to get a little tired as you near it’s finale (and the ending sucks, both as a boss and as a story finisher), but for an open-world combat game with stealth elements where you manipulate orc power struggles…it sets the bar. Not that there’s a whole lot of games competing for that particular space.

It’s familiar, but that’s ok. Shadows of Mordor proves that copycat games can exceed their source material given enough heart and work. It’s a standout title, and a must-buy for both Lord of the Rings fans and fans of any of the types of games it rips off.

Final Comment on Versions: The PC version is by far the best for this game, but the next-gen versions (Xbox One and PS4) are just as good. With the PC, as long as you have a decent card (I first ran it on a GTX 570, which is about 4 years old) it’ll look better than most next-gen systems, though you do have to have a hefty dedicated GPU. The Xbox 360 and PS3 versions, however, have no Nemesis system at all, it’s completely gone. I don’t know how the game works because of that (given some plot points tie into the system directly), but honestly the game is still fun without it. If you have the choice, get the PC version, then the next-gen version. If you have no other option, the PS3/Xbox 360 version works, but you’ll miss out on a lot of what makes the game unique. 

Final note: Apparently the Xbox One version runs at 720p and 30 fps, while the PS4 runs at 1080p and 60 fps. So obviously, if you have both consoles, get the PS4 version. 

Best. Tutorial. Ever.

Author: Nathan Major

Spirit Shark: Hammerhead. Retro game collector, true ginger, and SNES fanatic. Goal in life is to become Karnov from the NES game Karnov.

Share This Post On

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *