Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor Review: Tolkien Care of Business

For all the mainstays of nerd culture I’ve embraced in my lifetime, Lord of the Rings has never been one of them. After sitting through nine hours of movies in theaters and casually seeing what the brand  had to offer in the world of video games, I had conceded to the notion that the universe of Middle-earth just isn’t for me. Initially, when Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor was announced, it didn’t do much to pique my interest. As more information and trailers were released—namely the hype surrounding the nemesis system—my intrigue grew. This led to me breaking down, as I usually do, and giving the universe another shot. I can’t attest to what I’ve played as being a great Lord of the Rings game; that’s not really my place. What I can say is that Shadow of Mordor is a fabulous achievement in gaming, an IP bearing fresh ideas in a genre that has been thirsty for them for some time.

Within the first five minutes of the game your hero, Talion, is thrust into combat. The similarities between Mordor and Rocksteady’s Arkham series are so apparent, they border on comical. That being said, the combat basics, as unoriginal as they may be, are as tight and responsive as you would hope for in an action game of this caliber. This sets a good foundation for the new powers and abilities that come later, which helps the combat evolve from stale and uninspired, to later in the game where some battles can be downright exhilarating. Mordor never allows itself to become complacent in terms of action. You are constantly being rewarded with new abilities that add enough diversity to the combat to keep it from growing stale. The game never really deviates from its simplicity, but it’s the ability to shine through that simplicity that makes Mordor all the more satisfying.

Do they have toothbrushes in Mordor?

Do they have toothbrushes in Mordor?

Another core component of what makes Mordor work is its unapologetic approach towards violence. This game is not for the faint of heart. Your journey will result in hundreds of Uruks (think Orcs with a fancy name) spilling their blood and losing their heads on the battlefield. Normally this would be something that would disturb the flow of combat in a game like this, but everything fits and never seems forced. You can even choose to go for an “execution” maneuver by compiling combo points and unleashing hell upon your enemy in the most brutal fashion. All this gratuitous violence is by no means necessary to Mordor’s success, but it does well to supplement the grim and dark art style. In the 13 hours it took me to beat the main story, never did I find myself failing to crack a smile watching an Uruk’s head float in the air in slow motion.

Embedded within Mordor’s bloody combat and huge open world is a cookie-cutter mission layout. Similar to what we’ve seen in the inFAMOUS and Assasin’s Creed series, we’re taken along a hand-holding exposition of “go here, do that, get that, save her, kill him,” etc. The plot is centered around a typical tale of revenge which, at the the risk of spoiling anything, I won’t delve into. Just know that a bad thing happened to our hero Talion and someone is going to pay for it. The missions contain some hit-or-miss moments of fan service which, depending on your enthusiasm towards the lore, may or may not tickle your fancy. These moments struck me as dull and unnecessary, but never reached the point of frustration. I never spent too long rolling my eyes at the absurdity before I was thrust right back into combat to continue my slaughtering ways.

With all the focus on what is or isn’t good in Mordor, there is one thing that is absolutely amazing, and that is the nemesis system. Death without consequence has become a disappointing yet prevalent trend in video games recently, and Mordor fixes that problem. Minor spoiler: Talion has the indefinite ability to resurrect himself. Through your death, Uruks will gain experience and promotions within their army based on their ability to kill you. They will become stronger and more capable warriors at your disposal which will lead to them being tougher enemies for you in the long run. This penalty for failure adds a welcome dimension to how you approach a hostile situation. Gone are the notions of going all out and hoping for the best. In Mordor the best option is often the coward’s option. Not only does running away from a battle make you feel defeated, but it forces you to hone your skills and gain experience through lower ranked enemies, in hopes that you don’t mess up and fall victim to their recruitment trail. It cannot be overstated how much fun and depth this adds to Mordor. It won’t surprise me at all if developers are taking notes at their desks this minute, finding ways to replicate and put their own spin on the nemesis system.

Not the most appropriate place for a face massage.

Not the most appropriate location for a face massage

Through the nemesis system you can also interrogate other Uruks to discover the identity of other soldiers and their weaknesses, and there’s a few other surprises along the way. I won’t spoil any further aspects of what makes the nemesis great, as it is core to the story progression and gameplay mechanics of the second half, but trust me when I say it’s pretty damn cool. Unfortunately, the nemesis system doesn’t carry over to the few event-style boss encounters, which makes all the bosses fall a bit flat. This especially rings true for the final boss which is a disappointing, unacceptable blunder. It feels like, and most likely was, a rush job. Games falling victim to a production deadline is not anything new in this industry nor will it ever go away, but the final encounter left a bitter taste in my mouth for what was an overall amazing experience.

Shadow of Mordor has all the makings of a powerhouse franchise. With publishers constantly seeking opportunity for annualization and developers often at the ready to oblige, I won’t be surprised if Monolith is cranking out Mordor games for the next decade. The nemesis system is an innovative gem that has room to grow and evolve as the series grows with it, and my excitement for the series’ future is as high as any other so far this generation. The game is not without its flaws, but nothing ever veers too far away off track from what makes this game great. Whether you’re a completionist looking to nail down that 100% or a minimalist looking to stick through the story missions, Mordor is definitely worth your time.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor was reviewed using a retail version of the game on Playstation 4.