Shadow of Mordor, the latest game based in the Lord of the Rings fantasy universe, was all but written off in my mind just due to the LOTR title. Don’t get me wrong, I can’t imagine much better than a twelve hour extended edition marathon but the games have left a lot to be desired. The games spun off from J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings have been decent contributions to a variety of gaming genres, with both highs (Battle for Middle Earth) and lows (War in the North), its left the LOTR gaming world longing for more, often relying on a mediocre title just to remind everyone of the potential these games possess. Shadow of Mordor is the latest in the LOTR line, by Monolith Productions and of course Warner Bros, and it may come as a surprise to many that it might be pretty good.
Shadow of Mordor’s system of controlling and manipulating entire armies of orcs has involved me in the characters and unique differences of some of the most famously generic and grotesque villains of fantasy.
Shadow of Mordor begins with the story of Talion, a ranger from The Black Gate who watches his family and homestead slaughtered by the hands of Orcs from beyond the wall. While this story isn’t in any means unique, or really engaging it simply explains Talion’s motivation and makes you feel slightly better about the merciless slaughter you are about to unleash on the unknowing forces of Sauron. To help guide you through your revenge bloodbath is a fellow cursed soul, that of an elf wraith.
The game uses three main forms of combat and revolves missions around these three approaches: Stealth, Ranged and Melee. SoM does well to mix up these different styles of combat, and keeps you switching between the three as the enemies develop different defenses and weaknesses to each. Stealth is limited to largely hiding behind walls and the standard thick bushel, but while it may be simple, it doesn’t detract from the overall sense of simple, fun, and consistently brutal combat that keeps you playing the game. The wraith offers you a second skill tree and creates a new dynamic to the development of your character throughout the game as you can choose to focus on either tree slightly more or balance between both. Alongside all this, the orc captains keep combat interesting as the story progresses, new captains you meet gain skills bolstering their defences against new skills you have learnt. Through the game it remains key to scope out your enemies first, gaining intel to find out one or many of their various weaknesses and changing how you approach the coming battle.
Shadow of Mordor’s Nemesis system is the real selling point of this game, which makes you wonder how the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions will fair without this key component. Shadow of Mordor’s system of controlling and manipulating entire armies of Orcs has involved me in the characters and unique differences of some of the most famously generic and grotesque villains of fantasy. The Nemesis system allows orcs to develop within the ranks of Sauron’s army, from the footsoldier uruk that gets a lucky final blow on the ranger, to the warchief they could eventually become. Even if you stab an uruk through the chest, it doesn’t stop the game from bringing them back with their scars proudly on show and ready to fight for that sweet revenge kill. There is a flip side however, while the captains and warchief’s enjoy a sense of intelligence and unique thinking, the standard base orc enemy you encounter throughout the game are less than dumb, they are truly the orcs you know and love from The Two Towers siege of Helms Deep, helplessly running into slaughter until their corpses provide some kind of strategic advantage for more suicidal orc kin.
The game has developed the fun, quick aspects of Assassin’s Creed’s freerunning system and made a game purely based on flowing across the map without the hurdles and large vertical climbs that can often break up the smooth transition between missions that many of us suffered painfully in AC3. Luckily SoM helps develop your movement along with combat and hunting technique with skills, some supernatural and some focused on ranger training. The skills are half controlled through experience and half through the development of the main story missions. The skills are well developed to end what could be potentially boring or tiring sections of the game. Travelling the map quickly becomes tiresome, and the game solves this quickly through the early skill of granting a speed boost while vaulting obstacles. After 10 hours of gameplay, even the extra boost becomes too slow, but the game grants you another relief, the ability to teleport directly to enemies within a bow’s range. With this skill and the map fast travel system, you do not find yourself bored of travelling even in the fairly bland map. SoM isn’t the prettiest in terms of scenery; then again it is set an area of middle earth when a grey cloak will save you from being spotted by entire armies. The game is very crisp and runs incredibly smoothly. Even when the majority of colours are grey, SoM looks surprisingly bright and clear, if anything this makes the game seem like true next-gen more than any other feature.
Shadow of Mordor is different from its predecessors. Even with it’s creation from obvious aspects of huge successes in the Batman Arkham series, it has brought something new to the table, the Nemesis System, which has avoided being a gimmick or novelty and added some much needed depth and ingenuity to the LOTR gaming universe. The key part played by this system does worry me for the last gen ports that are currently poised to lack it and it will be interesting to see whether the game still holds up in its absence. The game is constantly developing and it promises to stay interesting for a while. It is an amalgamation of some of the best features of its ‘spiritual’ predecessors and it certainly has been one of the most enjoyable gaming experiences of the year.