There have been a number of attempts to replicate Middle-Earth. Some have been worthy of high review scores while others deserved to be cast into the fires of Mount Doom. It is safe to say that a Lord of Rings game is a risky endeavour but let’s find out if Shadow of Mordor is a worthy contender!
Game: Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor
Developer: Monolith Productions
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is set between the events of Bilbo’s adventure in The Hobbit and young Mr. Frodo’s weighty task in Lord of the Rings. Talion, our main protagonist, is a Ranger who was stationed at Mordor. After Sauron’s initial defeat by Isildor, many years before, over 2000 Rangers were based at Mordor in order to prevent the Dark Lord’s return. After years of nothing really happening, followed by a terrible plague that ravaged the Rangers numbers, only 200 remained to guard the walls of Mordor and the Black Gate. Talion is one of these Rangers who fought to the very end in the defence of Gondor. Sadly for him, Sauron’s Black Hand showed up with an unstoppable force that the few rangers left on the wall could defend against. They were all killed and for Talion, his wife and son were killed before his very eyes. After witnessing their deaths in what can only be described as a form of sacrifice, Talion has his own throat slit. This my friends is not the end, but the beginning of SoM…
Talion awakens in the Wraith world where he meets an unknown Elvan…Wraith with amnesia who is unsure why they are both kept from full death. The two of them are bound to each other so accept this fate and begin to figure out why. Enacting some much deserved revenge along the way. The main story is somewhat of an odd point for me. It starts off quite confusing and you feel like you missed something somewhere (which I suppose links us somewhat to Talion and the Wraith). As you progress it all becomes a bit clearer and is a great insight into the law of Lord of the Rings. After this there’s a point where it digress’ for the most part to unlock new abilities for you, but all in all it works. The best part of the game has to be the gameplay which easily carries the story for anyone who is not entertained by it.
SoM is everything you’d expect from a game of this style and if you’ve seen the Lord of the Rings films, then you wouldn’t be disheartened by them at all. The buildings look suitably run down, the landscape in Mordor is filled with dirty browns and barren landscapes. You can tell that they aren’t pushing your console to its limits but they don’t offer up any notable mistakes. Something that annoys me greatly with a lot of games recently is there need to make everything so damn shiny when it rains! It’s like they do it because they can. Other than that the rain effects are good, and when you see Orcs huddled round a fire, you will be excused for feeling like a moth as you are drawn by the warm glow.
You may also be pleased to know that even though the Orcs are numerous, facially the developers have done well to make sure you see as much variation as possible. Although I haven’t seen any left handed Orcs in my play through so far but that’s just me being pedantic. Perhaps they were bred that way?
As you take a stroll through Middle Earth, you can often hear Orcs chatting amongst themselves. They are a race of simplicity and can leave you in stitches (or needing them if you end up on the wrong end of their blade). “Spears are the best weapons, it’s got long and it’s got sharp” has to be a favourite quote of mine. The whole game is voiced very well and the difference between men and elves is captured perfectly within the two characters bound to each other.
The combat noises are equally well done. Each time you counter a blow the *CRACK* that comes with it adds to the feeling of being awesome. The numerous times you will execute an enemy, the resonating noise of your blade is brilliant! Everything just clicks in to place. There are also these “last chance” moments when your health reaches zero. The Orc that inflicted the killer blow then has a chance to finish you unless you can move the left stick into a designated circle and press A, B, Y, or X in time. If you’re successful, you end up owning the Orc with huge amounts of visual and sound based satisfaction.
Many will have heard that SoM can be likened to an Assassins Creed open world mixed with the combat of Batman. To be fair to those comments they are spot on however that is by no means a bad thing. I would also argue that the open world aspects can be likened closer to batman due to their size. In fact SoM is basically Batman in a different skin with a hint of Assassins Creed. The combat is a case of pressing X to attack, Y to counter, B to stun and A to hop over an enemy/dodge a ranged attack. This has been refined and perfected so that Talion can stop the attack you have asked him to perform, if countering an imminent blow is a higher priority. It doesn’t look out of place doing so either. Stinging combos together will give you the chance to perform special finishers, which it must be said, look fantastic! You will never grow old of carving up an Orc. What SoM captures so well in video game form is the awe and epic feeling of being a main character. For those who have seen any of the Lord of the Rings films, you will know just how bad ass a skilled ranger is. Aragorn makes light work of so many Orcs it’s hard to keep count… in SoM it’s not Aragorn but you, Talion, acting as a one man army.
Other main functions to the game play are that you can enter the wraith world without the use of a ring. This handy little trick comes at the push of LB thanks to the Wraith whose path intertwines with yours. In the wraith world you can track footprints and see where Orcs are moving about. This is most definitely like the detective mode from Batman. The main likeness to Assassins Creed are the Forge Towers. You climb these and use them to reveal areas on the map like you would a view point. To then disembark the tower, you walk to the edge and perform a “leap of wraith” as I like to call it. This is a swan dive with a perfect landing, but it doesn’t require any hey to cushion the fall. So when you have taken the great success of Batman, something you did very well, then thrown in a pinch of Assassins Creed to add a variation on the fact that you can’t fly or glide around Middle Earth, what do you add to keep everything fresh?
Queue what Warner Brothers call the Nemesis System. This does so much for the game. Not only does it try it’s best to ensure that my play through of SoM will greatly differ to yours, it also increases the personal grievances you may have with certain boss’. In the past you will have played a game and got stuck on a boss that others may have got stuck on too. The experience would ultimately be the same. The nemesis system means that if you are killed by an Orc (trust me, it will happen), they become your Nemesis. As well as them getting one up on you and reminding you of such things when you next face them, they also increase in power and become harder to kill. Now this isn’t to say that there are not boss type enemies in the game because there are, but the Nemesis System couples with Saurons Army, to create a constant stream of Orcs that are varying degrees of difficult mini boss’. Each time you slay an Orc captain, then a spot opens up. This spot can then be taken by another Orc, be that one who is promoted and getting their foot on the leadership ladder, or one who bites and fights his way to becoming a Warchief.
A slightly odd feeling comes from the fact that you are running around in Mordor (followed by Orc infested Nurn in the latter part of the game), but it’s this very fact that offers up so many varying battles and stealth moments or combinations of the 2! When on route to whichever task you have selected, you may stumble across an Orc hunting party, or patrol, or camp fire, or find that you have to travel straight through the middle of a stronghold. Sometimes getting stuck in is just too much fun to avoid! During the early stages of SoM it’s very easy to become overwhelmed because health doesn’t regenerate until you are out of combat, so a good old fashioned GTA rampage is often far better when you enter it after picking off a couple of the more advanced enemies with your elven bow. You can also find yourself in a tricky situation if during a combat you disturb 3 or 4 Orc captains. They love a fight and will come after you. Each one has their own set of strengths and weaknesses, some for example are epic warriors so you cannot perform an execution on them. Others will drop with one well-placed arrow to the cranium. The only way to find out just what you can and can’t do to them is to gain Intel from Orcs and slaves dotted around the map.
These massive skirmishes are like a bad tap in the shower. The miniscule difference between hot and cold is exactly the same as going in to a fight and dispatching endless Orc captains and their posy, or finding yourself with a brand new nemesis. It’s a fantastic feeling when you come out of a successful brawl littered with Orcs at your feet. This whole system brings so much more value to each fight you survive and every single death. The only part of the game play that caused any annoyance to me was the handling (if you can call it that) of the beasts available for you to mount. Carrigors are like Wargs which in turn are basically a very big and very scratchy cross between a wolf and a lion or other big cat. After getting on to one the controls feel a little bit sluggish and the turning circle is less than ideal, but it’s a minor flaw in otherwise fantastic gameplay.
There are exactly 20 main story missions so if you wanted to plough straight through then it would probably take you somewhere in the 12-14 hour mark. On top of these missions there are weapon specific side missions to help you upgrade your arsenal, as well as an abundance of artefacts and Ithildin (fragments of a Middle Earth picture carved in stone… like the one that lights up by the gates of Moria in the films if you’ve seen them) for you to find which unlock a few titbits about middle earth for those who like to immerse themselves entirely in such things.
Coupled with this, the Orc hoards are always ready to replenish and offer up new adversaries for you to knock right back down. Amongst the side missions are some that directly affect Sauron’s army. Yes Orcs want you dead, but they also want each other dead if it means a lesser Orc can get more power. If you choose to, you can manipulate an Orc you control (that’s a treat for later in the game) to progress through the ranks and make your own army. The possibilities are endless so it’s really a game that is as long as you want to make it!
If more stories from the Silmarillion are told in the same way as this one then the world would be a better place. Yes there are huge similarities to the way it plays compared with other titles, but using a skeleton that works to introduce something new is fine be me. Shadow of Mordor is assuredly a step in the right direction, as long as it’s the first of many new steps that keep adding to the experience for the better.
I simply cannot fault the game play, it works so well which is a massive win considering it’s a game and that’s why we’re all here. Within any great game there are minor points of annoyance, but they are few in this title. All in all SoM is a fantastic addition to the Lord of the Rings franchise and it’s thoroughly enjoyable. Well done Warner Brothers, you shall pass!