Taking inspiration from the Lord of the Rings movies, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor depicts events between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. But, while it has a clear story to tell, the focus here is not a prescribed narrative but an emergent conflict system. This has every battle you fight influencing the hierarchy of the forces you face, allowing you to manipulate their structure for your own ends and creating unintended rivalries along the way.
Shadow of Mordor immediately establishes a violent, somber tone. You take control of a ranger named Talion, who awakens struggling to remember his past. The memories return in a series of rapid flashbacks chronicling his life and death.
These memories double as the games tutorial. The first is a precious moment with Talion’s son as he teaches him - and by extension you - the basics of combat. The setting changes, and you are treated to a basic stealth tutorial with Talion sneaking up on his wife to kiss her. This touching scene quickly establishes the ranger’s relationship with his family while also laying out their back-story. It is an elegant way to mix story and tutorial, without bogging you down the pace.
The final scene of the opening shifts to the last moments of Talion's old life. It is a brutal scene that depicts his and his family’s death at the sword of The Black Hand of Sauron. But, at the moment his life leaves his body, his anger and pain bind him to the Wraith of the elf Celebrimbor. The bond between them gifts Talion new powers and, as one, they embark on a quest of revenge against Sauron.
With the scene set, it is straight into Mordor’s open-world combat sandbox. At the heart of this is a constantly evolving, gameplay mechanic called the the Nemesis system. The feudal orc army is ruled by a handful of Warchiefs and their generals. By gathering intelligence from lesser green-skins using Celebrimbor’s ability to control minds, you can reveal the identity, location, and strengths or weakness of their commanders.
Where this excels is that you are not the only force at work in the world. Though your actions have an effect (such as killing a commander to create a power vacuum), individual power struggles alter the hierarchy behind the scenes. As they grow in rank, orcs become stronger and gain new resistances making them harder to defeat. For example, some cannot be killed by ranged attacks or stealth, but are prone to animals.
In the later game, this sees the need to utilize more subversive methods to dispatch warlords. With Celebrimbor able to enter orc’s minds in order to control them, I found myself commanding lower generals and bodyguards to betray their master. If "my" orc won then I would control the new warlord, and their army, without ever needing to confront the Warchief directly.
Shadow of Mordor's evolving social structures provides new meaning to the open-world cliché of a "living breathing world" - and an exciting look at what may be the new generation of gaming that is being heralded by the new consoles.
Despite the opening drama, the focus on combat means that there are times when Shadow of Mordor’s tale loses its way. The maps are covered in possible mission icons so, without focus, you can find your progress stalling. Fortunately, the moment-to-moment gameplay is great and Talion has plenty of tools to aid in his battle against the orcs.
The almost rhythm based nature of the combat will be instantly familiar to anyone who has played the Batman: Arkham games. Standard attack and stun options are joined by counters and dodges that can only be activated in response to on screen prompts. Successfully chaining these together into combos activates additional powers, allowing Talion to execute or brand enemies instantly.
New abilities can be earned, purchased with gained experience, or equipped to rune slots on your weapons. Luckily, the various menu systems are intuitive, so deciding how to spec your hero does not require the creation of intricate follow-charts.
If a full frontal assault is causing you too many problems, then you can always choose a stealthier approach. Activating Celebrimbor’s wraith vision you gain a new perspective of Mordor, highlighting any possible threats - even if they are hidden behind walls. Combine this with Talion’s surprising stealth and dexterity - which allow him to scale the even highest of walls to kill an orc archer in silence - and you have a character with skills that would make even the most fervent Assassin's Creed fan jealous.
There is no doubt that Shadow of Mordor looks impressive. The voice acting and motion capture do a superb job of conveying motive for each character, and manage to hold your interest when the momentum of the main story falters.
The reliance on the Nemesis system does result in the game’s twenty story missions following a repetitive structure. It is left to you to elevate these missions, and the whole narrative arc, through the rivalries you form. This certainly works to a point but, given Talion's drive and passion at the start, I couldn't help but feel that there should have been more structure and scripting to the tale.
Fortunately, the narrative threads do build towards the end which, with some help from a few stand-out characters, managed to pull back may attention when it wavered. A personal favorite, the orc Ratbag, adds depth to his whole race - personalizing them from mindless killers. The cowardly creature has high ambitions (despite his cowardice) and uses Talion to advance his position by taking credit for his deeds. While at times his humor feels a little odd in context, it helps cement the orcs as more than beasts… which is almost a problem given the detailed, graphic brutality of the kills.
Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor takes a number of other games' mechanics and blends them with its own innovations to make something wonderful. The Nemesis system is by far the highlight of this, and provides an exciting and original way to interact with the world unlike anything previously seen - even if it does occasionally become repetitive. While, personally, I was crying out for a little more scripted direction to the story, the backbone of the gameplay and the systems are incredible. If this is what we can expect from the new generation of gaming, then even in the shadows the future looks bright.
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