Played on PS4
Shadow of Mordor is one of the very best of 2014, thus far.
Taking place between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings Trilogy, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor tells the story of a ranger named Talion. Tasked with guarding the Black Gate of Mordor, Talion and his family are killed by Sauron’s forces, led by the Black Hand of Sauron. Talion is saved from death via an amnesia-ridden Elf wraith, named Celebrimdor. Bound together as one, they set out to discover Celebrimdor’s history, as well as seek revenge for Talion.
The story is simple, and vengeance driven, but occasional light moments keeps the game pushing forward. For fans of Tolkien lore, there’s plenty of references and a few familiar characters to have fun with.
After the opening sequence that doubles as Talion’s death as well as a tutorial, the game leaves free to start exploring Mordor. As the game’s timeline occurs before that of LotR, Mordor is starting to crumble, but yet to be a complete wasteland. If you’ve played an Assassin’s Creed game, you’ll be at home when it comes to Shadow of Mordor. Different zones of the map are accessible, but everything they have to offer isn’t revealed until you climb a tower and activate an Elven forge. Multiple story missions for various weaving storylines are always accessible, as well as a flurry of side missions themed to each various weapon you have access to.
While missions almost always end up based around killing a certain number of enemies, they vary via types of enemies needed to kill, specific ways to kill them, killing them without detection, and more. It sounds like it should get repetitive, but given the variety of ways to finish off your enemies, and the excellent progression in which you unlock skills and power-ups, combat always seems to stay fresh.
The mission structure is excellent, but combat is king in Mordor. Building off of the combo-inducing fight systems found in Assassin’s Creed and the Arkham games, Mordor’s combat is my favorite yet. Initially simple, earning XP and completing missions allows you to allocate skill points on new skills, and spend the in-game currency on upgrading your health, arrow count, and more. I started out being able to take on a handful of orcs before having to flee and heal, but by the time I had finished the campaign I was able to freely dive into a never ending stream of enemies, generating combos in the 100+ range, barely taking a hit along the way. And executions are always brutal.
Outside of the combat, the big hype of Mordor was coming from it’s Nemesis system. With Nemesis, a grid of enemies are tracked and ranked, allowing certain orcs to to rise to power and rule over the rest. Attacking a ranked orc triggers a brief cutscene to introduce your enemy. If you kill them, their space is emptied, and a lesser orc moves up to take the fallen’s place. If you die in battle, that orc will be promoted, and may eventually rise to the top of the chain as a warchief. The system becomes a great deal of fun as you plan assassinations, plot warchiefs against each other, or even help a lowly orc move up the ladder. Later in the game you earn an ability to control orcs, meaning captains and warchiefs become your pawns to control, essentially giving you an army to control.
While dying has no consequences in regards to loss of resources, it can be cataclysmic when it comes to the Nemesis system. You may have taken over several lower ranked Orcs in hopes of using them against a warchief, only to find yourself out numbered and killed. You’ll then see the shuffle that occurs on the Nemesis board, and realize the captains you controlled are now under another warchief’s command, forcing you to start fresh or re-evaluate your strategy.
Beyond the Nemesis system and combat, the other obvious standout for Shadow of Mordor is the presentation. Visuals are top-notch – definitely among the best out there currently, and could be the strongest overall for next-gen consoles thus far. There’s some minor slowdown that occurs later on with the controlling effect, but it’s fairly minor. Sound is also excellent – music and voices fit right into the already established Lord of the Rings universe, with names like Troy Baker and Nolan North leading the cast. Menus and other touches also ooze the Rings namesake.
It’s a small detail, but I also want to commend Shadow of Mordor for it’s trophy list – being a single-player game, all of the trophies are relatively achievable by taking time to explore the game and complete all the side missions. There are a few challenges related to fighting, using skills, or messing with the Nemesis system, but I would say about 75% of the them come from taking time to complete and enjoy the game. At about 25hrs played, I’ve gotten over 90% of them, and will reach the Platinum in a few more hours.
As of now, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is my game of the year. It’s an incredibly fun experience, that balances challenge and progression better than any game of recent years. The presentation pays great respect to the Lord of the Rings brand, and the combat and Nemesis system make it a unique experience for fans of the series or not. Given recent games that slightly disappointed, like Watch Dogs and Destiny, it’s refreshing to have a AAA title that feels worthy of your $60.