Lets get this out of the way, I am not the biggest Lord of the Rings or Hobbit fan. In fact, when Shadow of Mordor first was announced I looked at it like most people did and cried plagiarism at the fact that it looked like an Assassin’s Creed knockoff with a Tolkien skin. Shadow of Mordor could have been another cookie cutter hack and slash game with open world elements. Instead I was pleasantly surprised by tight, challenging combat and an amazingly innovative progression in the form of the awesome Nemesis system.
Skoth the Bleeder. This damn Ur’uk gave me no end of trouble in the early stages of my time in Middle-earth. He would always show up when I least expected, waxing lyrical about how he battered me senseless in our many encounters. He was my nemesis. A constant thorn in my side as I battled the combined might of Sauron’s army to try and restore peace to Mordor. As my battles with Skoth entered into my favour he would wear battle scars each time we met. One time he had burns over his face which I had given him by throwing him into a campfire the battle before, the next time he had a fetching eye patch which was welded to his face after I ran his eye through with my dagger. The last fight was the most poignant, as his head left his shoulders I couldn’t help but feel a slight tingling of remorse, knowing that I would never cross swords with him again. I have never felt that way about an enemy in a game before, let alone a character that to most would be indistinguishable from the many others.
Skoth was but one orc though. there were many others that make up Sauron’s army and the whole system shows how the hierarchy works. Each orc has the opportunity to overthrow another to ascend ranks and become bodyguards to captains or even war chiefs themselves. I loved being able to manipulate the ranks by taking out stronger orcs and letting weaker ones replace them, Laughing maniacally as they fumble through battles with no respect from their comrades and glaring weaknesses that are easily exploited. I could go on describing this innovative addition for what feels like forever but that would be crazy talk. All you need to know is this is Shadows of Mordor’s trump card and for a first try it is impeccably implemented. I cannot wait to see how this system is used in the future.
The main character is perhaps less interesting. You play as a ranger of Gondor known as Talion, whose story is a bleak one. The introduction to the game sets up a pretty standard revenge affair as his wife and son are murdered in front of his eyes before he has his own throat cut with a fade to blackness. Rather than dying he is bound to a wraith spirit who happened to be a pretty big deal in his former life, but as this is a spoiler free review I will leave that for you to figure out his identity. While being quite standard at first it does provide a decent amount of intrigue as to who your elf companion is and just how this immortality thing works out in regards to game balance.
It turns out that it works quite well. Although you cannot die there is a consequence each time you do bite the dust. If you are killed by a captain or a grunt then they become more powerful in the ranks of Sauron’s army, making them able to ascend to a higher status as a captain, gaining favour with their followers and other captains to make your life that little more difficult when you face them again. This may sound unfair but on the flipside you do gain experience. Even through death you can improve Talion and give him new abilities to tackle these orcs head on, making you ready to face the challenges while you learn the mechanics of the game.
You will die often in this game. Early on you will find yourself being outmanoeuvred and swamped with orcs. At first I thought that this was bad design and I hated it. Talion felt too slow to match the fluidity of Batman‘s free flow combat which this game so obviously mimics. After a while the combat clicked and everything fell into place, particularly with the upgrades which allowed me to finish enemies off quicker. Very rarely does a game feel like its getting easier as you progress and it was a refreshing change from the norm, it felt that I was improving and beating the game as opposed to hitting my head against a wall as it ramped up.
Upgrades in Shadow of Mordor works like most games with an progression tree. You gain new abilities as the game progresses and you can enhance them to your liking depending on where you spend your hard earned points. Although the menu’s are pretty standard affair the upgrades actually do feel decent and useful depending on your play style. I particularly enjoyed the upgrades for the branding ability which allows you to control Orc’s and use them as allies to when you get swamped by enemies. Upgrades allow you brand enemies faster in combat, quickly turning the tide of combat swiftly but they can also enhance out of combat situations such as stealth or being able to ride progressively larger beasts in the open field.
Shadow of Mordor looks the part too. As the story is based on the moment before The Lord of the rings started you get to see Mordor before Mount Doom’s eruption and the ensuing conflict. Lush greenery and rolling hills are the order of the day, providing an attractive contrast to most of grey and brown AAA titles out there. When things get dark and moody though things don’t let up, particularly with the weather; rain pours down, saturating Talion’s cloak as it billows in the wind. The water bounces off his armour and sword as it flies towards a Ur’uk’s face.
There is so much going for this game that I could only think of a couple of minus points for it. The soundtrack lacks that epic feel from the Middle-earth saga movies, its all a very downtrodden affair compared and although it suits the revenge story fairly well it is a far cry from what we are accustomed to. Speaking of the story, It is a very typical revenge tale with Talion setting out to tackle those that killed his family in cold blood. I can’t complain too much as it features some memorable characters from the larger Middle Earth saga which fans will go ape for and the voice acting is fantastic, even if most of the Orcs sound similar.