I have a bit of a history when it comes to playing Shadow of Mordor. I can remember being maddeningly excited for it back in 2014; I still had glorious memories of playing the old The Return of the King game, not to mention the fun RPG The Third Age, but both of those were back on PS2, and that’s a long time to wait for a game of similar quality. I was so hyped for Shadow of Mordor, in fact, that I committed a grave error and bought the game on PS3 and let me tell you, that is a torturous experience. I’ve been meaning to replay it on a proper system and give it its dues ever since, but every time I sit down with it I can’t help but recall the sheer teeth-grinding pain of that first playthrough. It would be unfair of me, however, to judge this game purely on that one bad release, so I managed to finally push those memories aside and take a proper trundle through Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor (PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One [reviewed])
Released Sep 2014 | Developed: Monolith | Published: Warner Bros
Genre: Action-Adventure | HLTB: 16 hours
The first question that might perhaps strike the mind of any fan of Tolkien’s legendarium is, “Is this a The Lord of the Rings game? When is it set?” (these sorts of questions are very important for fandoms). Our story is actually taking place between the events of The Hobbit and the beginning of The Lord of the Rings, so we’ve got a little degree of separation here from both Tolkien’s books and the famous Peter Jackson movies. That separation proves important as it allows Monolith a bit more space and freedom to tell their own story, and as such we see very little in the way of cameos or characters from the movies popping up, and it also allows the game to be placed in some more interesting locations than we typically get in a legendarium licensed product.
In fact, the setting for this game is Mordor itself, which is definitely rarely seen beyond the ashen slopes of Mount Doom. We begin our tale on the ominous walls of the Black Gate itself, in the last days of its occupation by a tiring and understaffed Gondorian garrison. Our main character is Talion, a captain on the Gate, and we kick things off with an invasion of the Gate by Sauron’s Uruk forces. Led by a sinister cabal of Black Numenoreans, the Hammer, the Tower, and the Black Hand of Sauron (he was nothing if not idiosyncratic in naming his lieutenants, really), orchestrate a ritual murder of Talion’s wife and son, before cutting our hero’s throat and dumping his body into the churning muck below.
So far, so bad for poor Talion. Thankfully, his story doesn’t end there as he winds up waking up in a bit of a shock. He finds himself revived from death, and he’s not alone; his body is possessed by an elven spirit, a wraith who speaks to him, guides his hand when fighting, and allows him to see into the shadowy wraith-world as if he were wearing the One Ring itself. It’s an intriguing concept, and one which we’ve never seen before in either the films or the books; usually wraiths are pretty universally bad in the legendarium, so to see one with a more positive framing is an unusual feeling. I’m not sure how I feel about it from a lore perspective, but it’s all done in service of the gameplay, so it’s quite easy to look past at least. Anyway, both Talion and the wraith are pretty angry chaps, and so both work together in order to wreak havoc on Sauron’s army and enact revenge against the people who murdered Talion’s family.
I brushed off the lore implications of this game rather facetiously there, but I do think it’s representative of something wider in the approach to the narrative of Shadow of Mordor. I can’t speak for everyone but when I think of The Lord of the Rings, and certainly The Hobbit, in my head there’s imagery of heroic adventures, vast, sweeping landscapes, great heroes and shadowy villains clashing swords in massive pitched battles. The works of Tolkien paint what is undoubtedly one of the quintessential pictures of epic fantasy ever made. It’s notable then that Shadow of Mordor all but entirely eschews that in favour of a far bleaker, grimmer story. No one hams up their lines like Mortensen or McKellan; instead everyone speaks in a gritty growl, grumbling their way through what are frankly very turgid lines of dialogue. Talion and the wraith are barely heroes, instead preferring to speak of revenge and spending their time sneaking through enemy lines, tearing throats apart with Talion’s shattered sword. While many humans left in the Black Land are enslaved, there’s a small resistance trying to fight back and shuttle other people out towards Gondor, but when Talion engages with them it’s in barely-restrained tones of hatred because some bloke who leads them once deserted the Black Gate garrison. It’s all very cynical and bitter, and I can’t help but feel like it’s not very Tolkien-y.
Of course, Shadow of Mordor’s main draw, without even the slightest shadow of a doubt, isn’t the story, but the Nemesis system. This is kind of this game’s thing, and by far the main reason like, 99% of people will ever choose to play this game (well, I guess some people play it also because it’s a The Lord of the Rings game, but even then I think it’s mostly the Nemesis system doing work). In fairness, it is a fantastic mechanic. The idea is that our game world, which comprises of the towering Black Gate at the entrance of Mordor and the grass plains of Nurn, is populated by the growing Uruk forces of Sauron, and these forces are in turn led by a twisting and ever-changing hierarchy of leaders in the form of Captains and Warchiefs. Each of these Captains and Warchiefs are unique, named characters, and the Nemesis system is a mechanic which uses random procedural generation to build brand new Uruks to fill any gaps as the Uruks vie amongst themselves to maim, kill, and connive their way up the ranks.
If it were just something as basic as procedurally generated orcs though, the Nemesis mechanic wouldn’t be anything to write home about. What makes it compelling is the sheer unrivaled depth on display. Monolith haven’t just randomly smushed some assets together and slapped a name with too many vowels and apostrophes and called it a day, oh no! In fact, each Uruk comes with a name replete with epithet and an array of strengths and weaknesses defining how they can be fought and how they interact with certain situations as they occur in-game, and exploiting these weaknesses and playing around their strengths is often the only sure-fire way of besting these formidable foes.
The reason it’s called the “Nemesis” system though becomes clear the first time you die. You see, Talion is basically an immortal zombie man (yes, really). Obviously when you get merked in a game you respawn but Talion literally does so in the context of the narrative; every time you fall in battle, time advances a little and any empty ranks of the Uruk leadership are filled by new members. Crucially, the orc that killed you gets a bonus to their own power and hotfoots it up the ranks and any orc that gathers enough power can begin challenging and in-fighting with the other captains, eventually shanking, stabbing, and slaughtering their way into being a bodyguard for a Warchief, or even a Warchief themselves. The end result is a vibrant and very lively depiction of Uruk society as the ebb and flow of power and the vacuums created by Talion’s murderous path all come together. Uruks react quite naturally to Talion’s success, with a wide range of responses among their banter; kill tons of captains without dying and the orcs are understandably terrified of you, bringing you up in hushed tones and jumping at shadows, but get killed a few times and Talion starts to be a joke to them and they’ll joke about queueing up to kill you in turn.
You don’t just get to kill Uruks though to have an influence over Sauron’s army. The presence of the wraith gives Talion access to a bevy of supernatural abilities. Well, some are a little mundane, like being able to sprint and climb more quickly and without tiring, and if ever want to fire a bow you slip into the spectral realm and let your elven occupier take over, but the useful and interesting power you get from your phantasmal pal is being able to both raid the minds of Uruks, ripping information about the various captains in the army, and to brand them. This latter ability marks those Uruks as your own and Talion is able to exert some small amounts of control over them, directing them against their fellows and forcing them to take up arms alongside him in combat.
Still, once you’re past the Nemesis system, what’s left is a fairly bang-average open world action-adventure title. The overworlds – both the Gate and Nurn – aren’t filled with much to do; there’s some collectibles littered around the place, like artifacts of the people who lived in Mordor before Sauron steamrolled over them, and tiny fragments of elven speech which speak of the ancient history of Middle-Earth, and there’s a set of running challenges where you need to harvest specific plants or shoot some wildlife, but none of that is any more than bog-standard open world busywork. You do get a smattering of missions themed around your weapons – sword missions are combat-based, bow ones are tests of your ranged skill, and knife ones require you to be stealthy – and completing them eventually upgrades your weapons, but they’re not story-focused and mostly they just ask you to mess about more in the world doing stuff you’d be doing already.
Can I also say just how crappy Shadow of Mordor looks, especially for a release of this stature. I love that it’s set in Mordor, at the Black Gate and Nurn, because they’re locations we really just don’t see very often, but it’s unfortunate that the game opts for such a grimy, bland look for both of them. There’s nothing in the way of interesting locales or landmarks (hell, we even blow one of the few actually visually interesting bits of the first overworld up, reducing it to slag and slurry), and in general there’s not much to see. This also extends to the character models, many of which look like they belong in the previous gen. Notably this also includes our hero Talion, whose flat face wouldn’t be out of place on an Assassin’s Creed NPC. The real care was saved for the Uruk captains and warchiefs, who look fantastic, with lots of facial deformities and bumps and unique bits of gear and armour.
Aside from looking like a middle-shelf PS3 title, it also offers little in the way of exciting gameplay. Sure, messing about with the Nemesis system is fun, but once you get right down to it, many of the core mechanics were lifted from games which use them a bit more competently, quite frankly. Talion leaps and bounds around like he’s an Assassin’s Creed protagonist, but it’s a one button system. There’s no strategy or thought to the climbing; you just hold the run button and Talion more or less will scale up and down everything in a single unbroken run; even the apparently required viewpoint towers you need to climb are absolutely identical. The combat is also copied from a better game, namely the Batman: Arkham series, so it’s the same attacking and counter-attacking stuff as every major action game contemporary with Arkham. Shadow of Mordor even goes so far as to copy the special commands from those games, with instant kill attacks and special area attacks available once your combo streak is high enough.
I mentioned right up top that I played this game originally on PS3, but Shadow of Mordor was definitely released as a next-gen title at the time. In 2014 I still only had the older consoles, and I was naive enough to think that a game releasing on both current and older consoles meant it must work on them both. Not so; in fact the older gen versions of Shadow of Mordor are truly abhorrent, an unplayable mess of jagged, barely loaded textures, huge framerate drops into single-digits, wildly desynced audio, and up to 10-15 second waits to load the map or Nemesis screens. The previous generation releases were a move of the purest greed on the part of Warner Bros.
Shadow of Mordor certainly has more than its fair share of fans, and I do understand why. The setting, the Nemesis system, and the simple fact that it is a competent game set in the legendarium and clearly drawing in some ways from the imagery of the Jackson films are all easy points to score. However, I might be going against the grain here, but I honestly think it offers very little beyond its exciting core mechanic. Sometimes that’s enough, and that’s fair; it would be easy for some to argue that underneath, Shadow of Mordor’s platforming and combat are all still well-built systems which have worked for plenty of other major releases as well, but they mostly just left me cold. It feels a little lifeless to me, personally. I don’t especially enjoy the “grittying-up” of Tolkien, and particularly because here it’s done in so lacklustre a way; Talion’s grunts and grumbles don’t make him an endearing character, and the attempts to push into wider legendarium lore are clumsy and often needlessly grim. Once the game lost me on the story and I realised I was only playing for the Nemesis system, my interest dwindled rapidly. As the endgame rolled along, I was struck with a strong sense of ennui, that after the disastrous first time I played it on PS3 I’d spent multiple attempts on trying to give Shadow of Mordor it’s fair due but in the end it’s just another largely soulless AAA action-adventure that fails to include anything terribly worthwhile in its content.
3/7 – MEDIOCRE.
A game that makes you go, “Well, it’s alright…” but it’s a kind of drawn-out, unsure, and reluctant decision? These are those games. Might just be worth playing if you can get it on the cheap.