Review: Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

Developer: Monolith - Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive - Platforms: Playstation 4, Playstation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC - Release Date: September 30, 2014

Concept: As a resurrected ranger, use your new wraith powers to manipulate Sauron's forces and crush your family's killers.

Graphics: Uruks are disgustingly detailed (in a good way) and repeated designs don't appear often. I like the contrast between the dreary, more mountainous area of Mordor and it's greener, lusher counterpart.

Sound: Excellent voice work (including a dead-on Gollum performance by Liam O'Brien). Listening to Uruks brag and banter about the numerous ways they're going to kill you is always amusing

Playability: A fun and responsive combat system gives you confidence even the face of a hundred enemies and the ridiculously brutal executions always left a sick smile on my face.

Entertainment: The Nemesis system transforms faceless encounters into strategic, built-up confrontations to great results. I suspect it'll be borrowed in other titles for years to come - and it should.

Replay Value: Moderate

Keeping Your Enemies Closer

Note: This review discusses the Playstation 4 version

Fans of either the works of J.R.R. Tolkien or open-world action games shouldn't miss Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor's engaging take on emergent gameplay. Sandwiched between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, you control Talion, a Gondor ranger garrisoned at Mordor's Black Gate. One fateful day, a siege by Sauron's forces results in the brutal slaughter of Talion and his family. However, Talion's soul becomes bound to a mysterious wraith and is resurrected.

The story has a couple of interesting wrinkles, such as the wraith’s true identity, but reminds me of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed in that it's inconsequential to the overall lore. The plot starts out hot but loses steam along the way due to characters that are introduced for a while before they're suddenly abandoned and a disappointingly underwhelming ending and final boss battle.

The complex Nemesis system is the epicenter of the entire Middle-earth experience. Uruk hierarchy places Warchiefs at the top, with their bodyguards and captains beneath. Should a ranking officer perish, another warrior is promoted to fill the void. To get promoted, an Uruk generally must either eliminate an enemy of Sauron or, perhaps more commonly, kill their own captain. This cycle of barbarism and betrayal ensures that only the strongest lead the rest.

Talion is privy to the entire network of captains and Warchiefs but individuals are a mystery until he gathers intel on them. This involves interrogating cowardly, loose-lipped Uruk underlings, gleaning scattered documents, or rescuing human slaves. Obtaining intel is absolutely critical as it reveals a captain’s location as well as a multitude of strengths and weaknesses to be exploited. Using this knowledge to determine the best method to confront leaders is a wonderfully strategic affair. It ensures players will approach each leader differently and rewards thoughtful planning by turning potentially lengthy battles into a quick assassinations.

For example, a captain could be invulnerable to ranged attacks but be instantly killed by a stealth maneuver. Maybe he becomes enraged when his bodyguards are murdered but is terrified at the sight of in-fighting. I encountered one leader whose claim to fame was his alleged gift for taming wild Caragors (saber-tooth, warg-like beasts). After gathering some dirt on him, I discovered that he was, in truth, petrified of the creatures. I found this fraud antagonizing a caged Caragor and shot the door, setting the monster loose. I laughed as it mauled him to death in an instant.

Uruks can also be branded, which puts them under Talion’s control to disrupt the army internally. What's cool is that branded foes basically act as sleeper agents until you trigger their allegiance, setting up awesome ambushes on their, now former, allies. In addition, you can guide their ascension to Warchief, a feature smartly explained through an entertaining series of story missions where you assist an cowardly wretch named Ratbag rise from rags to glory.

Intervening in Power Struggle missions is the main method for elevating your pawn. These special quests are confrontations between rival captains and it's your job to make sure yours succeeds - e.g. by killing his opponent. Power Struggles could have used a bit more variety in terms of objectives, but they're enjoyable enough.

Talion is public enemy number one, so butchering him guarantees a promotion for that lucky Uruk. Due to his curse, Talion is continuously resurrected but not after a considerable amount of time passes. During this lapse, soldiers will ascend the ranks. The next time you come across your killer, he won’t be the mere foot soldier he was before - he’ll wield the might of a leader complete with his own followers. Not only does this dissuade players from rushing into battles blindly (as you're effectively strengthening Sauron's army with each death), but creates a pretty neat continuity as well.

Continuing that thought, one of my favorite touches is how enemies remember your clashes with them. One particularly annoying and powerful captain thwarted several of my attempts at his life. During each of our battles, he’d mention our previous bouts and taunt me with the fact that I could never finish him off. Sometimes captains will flee before you can land the final blow. Face them later, and they’ll recall the scars you gave them before and swear vengeance against you. This creates real rivalries with memorable adversaries. Once I finally toppled the jerk who’d had my number for so long (who, by this point, had risen to Warchief due to his repeated victories over me), I felt a huge sense of satisfaction and closure.

In addition to smart enemies, dynamic events make Mordor feel even more alive. As I trekked across the forsaken land, I witnessed random occurrences like Uruk patrols being ambushed by packs of Caragors. During a horribly botched infiltration of an enemy stronghold, I was surrounded by dozens of soldiers until the sudden emergence of Ghouls, mindless nocturnal scavengers, forced many of them to shift their attention from me to combat this new menace. Incidents such as these added an air of danger and unpredictability and helped Mordor live up to its reputation as the most unforgiving realm in Middle-earth.

From a pure gameplay perspective, Shadow of Mordor will be instantly familiar to anyone who's picked up an Assassin's Creed game. Talion scampers up structures with the same nimbleness as Ubisoft's master assassins. Scaling silver towers reveals more of the world. Switching to wraith's vision identifies enemies in the same manner as Eagle Vision. Yes, it’s derivative but it's tough to complain when everything works as well as it does.

Talion's combat prowess is also not unlike a certain billionaire-turned-vigilante dressed as a bat. Like the Batman: Arkham series, combat consists of long combo strings and quick counters. Fighting is deliciously satisfying thanks to responsive controls and insanely brutal executions. I'd often go out of my way to pick fights just to see how many heads I could lob off in a row.

To increase your odds on the battlefield, your three weapons (sword, bow, and dagger) can be augmented by equipping them with Runes. These items grant special effects such as increased damage, health recovery, etc. and do a good job of accommodating different play-styles. I tend to play more stealthily, so I used runes that rewarded stealth attacks that. Leveling-up unlocks tiers of entertaining new abilities ranging from new finishers and combos to otherworldly powers such as Flash-like speed and new Uruk domination options.

Several diversions exist outside of your trail of vengeance. There are collectible glyphs that complete a mystical mural, Red Dead Redemption-esque plant gathering, hunting challenges, and more. My favorite pastime was gathering artifacts that yielded fascinating pieces of lore. Like the Power Struggles, side-quests are decidedly fun (mostly because they let you get into more fights) but some, like freeing slaves, are repetitive. Worse are the glyph and weapon challenges, which offer no meaningful rewards upon completion making them a big letdown given the considerable amount of time and effort that goes into finishing them.

With only twenty story missions, it won't take long to complete the main path and once you do, the game pretty much lends itself to achievement hunters. There's not much reason to continue engaging with the Nemesis system and once the side-content dries up (which also doesn't take long), Mordor becomes the barren wasteland it's destined to be. More narrative-driven quests would have bee nice as well as the opportunity to deeper explore Talion as a person.

During it's development, people mocked Shadow of Mordor's heavy borrowing of Assassin's Creed and Batman. In reality, both of those franchises would benefit greatly from incorporating elements of the Nemesis system into their own titles. While the rest of the game isn't perfect, it's a more than solid experience wrapped around a very strong core. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor's innovative approach to player/enemy interactions makes it much more than being just another Lord of the Rings game; it's one most unique and engaging experiences of the year.

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