It’s been a long, long time since there was a game set in the Lord of the Rings universe that I thoroughly enjoyed. I did quite enjoy The Two Towers, Return of the King and The Third Age back in the day, and most recently I had a blast with Battle for Middle-earth 2 (make a third please), but within that short list of Middle-earth games that I enjoyed an open world-esque game was missing. And that’s where Shadow of Mordor steps in, and succeeds in filling that space.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor follows the story of Talion and his quest for revenge following events that begin the game. I’d rather not spoil any of the story for you since there’s a pretty good tale told here within the lore of Middle-earth, but what may surprise you is that this isn’t exactly Talion’s story. There’s another story to be told within the game which follows the events of the Wraith that’s attached to Talion, Celebrimbor, and it’s a much more interesting one if you’re a fan of the Middle-earth lore.
On the opposite side of things, this is also a tad bit disappointing as there is room for a good story to be told with Talion as the lead character, but events in the beginning of the game happen so fast that there’s little time to get attached to the character and feel sympathy. That’s not to say Talion is a bad character, but just very undeveloped, which just doesn’t mesh well with a universe full of developed characters with interesting stories to be told.
The main reason you’re probably picking up Shadow of Mordor (besides LotR love) is to experience the Nemesis System that Monolith Productions has been touting since the game’s announcement.
A lot of times when a developer announces a new “innovative” feature in their game, many grandiose claims fall flat when the final product is released and that innovative feature doesn’t exactly live up to what it was hyped up to be. The Nemesis System says screw that and brings a truly unique next-gen feature that will undoubtedly change the way open world games are played from here on out. It’s a system that would mesh well with almost any open world game, be it Skyrim, Batman: Arkham City, Assassin’s Creed or what have you.
If you’ve never heard of the Nemesis System until now I’d like to direct you to the video I’ve linked below so you can learn all about it and see what it does. Keep in mind that this system actually works in the finished product and is the main reason I’m pushing you to try out Shadow of Mordor.
The Nemesis System can and probably will provide players with literally hundreds of hours of gameplay as the power struggle in Uruk society is a constantly changing process. You can defeat a rank, only to have another Uruk take his place or if you are defeated then that Uruk’s power will increase making him an even more challenging foe. Uruks that you thought you had completely defeated may even reappear and remember what you did to them be it burning them or mauling them with a Caragor and so on.
From there the Nemesis System goes even deeper giving each Uruk a name, specific traits that range from being invulnerable to stealth attacks, or being terrified of Caragors after being mauled by one in a previous battle.
At the top of the chain are the WarChiefs who have their own bodyguards within the lower ranks that if taken out first will make the fight against the WarChief a much easier task. If you decide to not take them out first, well, let’s just say your battle with that WarChief may have you biting off more than you can chew. Of course, once you get far enough into the game where you can dominate an Uruk and give them their own commands to shake things up within the ranks, things get even more interesting within the Nemesis System. I’ll abstain from explaining everything about it to you so you can see the system for yourself, but just know that it’s addictive.
The Nemesis System also creates a ton of side quests for you to do as well, but again, I’ll let you see for yourself everything that the Nemesis System does when you play the game.
The gameplay of Shadow of Mordor is also another standout feature. As you’ve probably already noticed from previews, the combat system is very similar to that of the Batman: Arkham series and while some will say it’s just copying, others will say it was a perfect choice. Well, it was the perfect choice and I sure hope other games in the action genre follow suit and continue to expand on the combat found in the Arkham series and now Shadow of Mordor.
Combat is just as fluid as the battles found in the Arkham series with an added bit of flashy executions that make it all the more fun. Every execution you pull off is as satisfying as the last and quite gory to boot. Starting off, the combat isn’t all that challenging but once more enemy types are brought into the mix the difficulty level can ramp up quite a bit. This will force you to be strategic with what enemies you take out first, dodging at just the right moment or even retreating when you need to.
There are unlockables a plenty as well as your skill tree for both Talion’s skills and the Wraith’s skills for unlocking which new combat features you want as you progress through the game. Unfortunately there isn’t a whole lot of customization to be found so don’t expect to be picking up loot for new gear or weapons. The only loot that can be found in the game are runes that are dropped by captains which you can assign to either your sword, dagger or bow and arrow. These runes will give them certain attributes like regaining some health for getting a 30 hit combo etc.
Shadow of Mordor is also a strikingly beautiful game. The cloth physics, weather effects and especially the environment look quite fantastic as you roam around the sandbox environments. I do think there could have been a bit more variety in each location though as there’s not a whole lot of places that you’ll remember as landmark areas. There are a couple strongholds in each location you’ll visit and some great looking scenery, but the actual playable areas are a bit too boring and generic for my tastes. I mean, you are in Mordor, but I’m sure there could have been some more interesting structures to investigate and areas to traverse with a little more imagination from the developers.
Going back to the Nemesis System there’s also a very surprising amount of different character models for the Uruk captains. Throughout my 25 hours of playtime with the game I don’t recall seeing the exact same captain once, and I went through a lot of captains over that time period. There were also plenty of different voices for the captains which kept things fresh audio-wise.
The soundtrack for Shadow of Mordor was also pretty good. I didn’t really find any super memorable songs while listening to it, but it at least felt Middle-earthy. I was secretly hoping for a soundtrack that would rival that of The Lord of the Rings movies, but what is presented gets the job done. Troy Baker takes up the role of Talion as well which provides some great voice acting to a somewhat boring main character.
Games that bring innovative new features have been few and far between as of late, or at least the ones we’re waiting for are still a ways away, yes I’m looking at you No Man’s Sky, but Shadow of Mordor and its Nemesis System has completely blown my expectations out of the water. The Nemesis System is a fantastic feature in a fantastic game and I sincerely cannot wait to see the Nemesis System expanded on in future titles in the franchise or any other franchise that Monolith lends it out to. If you’ve been waiting for a game that feels like it has a truly “next-gen” feature aside from better graphics, you need to play Shadow of Mordor.
Reviewed on Xbox One, review copy provided by Warner Brothers