Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor - Review
Playing Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is like a giant bout of déjà vu. It's got very little originality to it, instead choosing to plug in the most popular gameplay elements from the last five years or so, hoping to that the Lord of the Rings flavour will mask that feeling that you've done this all before.
As a setting, Tolkien's universe should be perfect. There's been plenty of games set in the Lord of the Rings universe, and developers Monolith Studios have opted for the prequel approach.
Set shortly before the events of the book/films, you play as Talion, a Gondorian ranger who's resurrected and bound to a wraith. It's a humdrum revenge plot, and frankly, speaking about the game's story isn't going to do it any favours. Much like Watchdogs earlier this year, it has the opportunity to tell a bunch of different stories but instead opts for the most predictable plotline possible; one full of angry violent men, doing angry violent things because their wife or child has gone and gotten kidnapped or killed.
The gameplay isn't filled with all that much originality either. The general minute-to-minute gameplay of Shadow of Mordor is much like an Assassin's Creed game. Giant towers need to be activated in order to get the lay of the land, and each area houses a bunch of trinkets, and collectibles, along with the customary side quests that can be undertaken.
The combat meanwhile, is lifted straight from Rocksteady's Batman games. It's the typical rhythm-action style that has you slowly building a hit meter, while you strike enemies with one button, and counter with another. It's a great combat system, but there's been no attempt to build upon it. Where Batman has his gadgets, Talion has wraith powers, but you can't tell the difference, because they essentially do the exact same thing.
Stealth also gets lifted straight from Batman, with a helping hand from Assassin's Creed. It's a generous system, Orcs suffer from tunnel vision and shocking levels of myopia, unable to see you even several feet away. To be fair, this is a good thing, it ensures that you, the player, always feel empowered in situations. Much like Batman, even when he's vastly outnumbered Talion usually has the upper hand. Still, it's suffers from offering nothing new, and isn't helped by the fact that the game environments aren't all that interesting either.
A selection of upgrades are on offer to help keep things varied. Minor upgrades are added to your weapons (your sword, bow and dagger), by killing Orc chieftains, whilst new moves are unlocked by completing missions and being rewarded experience. There's a host of side missions but they run the gamut of the usual open-world filler. Combat challenges, stealth challenges, and so on, rarely do anything new, and feel like harder versions of the missions you face in the main story.
Shadow of Mordor's one saving grace, and, frankly, it's only original idea, is the Nemesis System. The system allows Talion's enemies to adapt to new situations; fight a chieftain but let him escape and he might come back stronger. Get killed by an Orc at any point and he's likely to get promoted, increasing his power as well as giving you a target to get revenge on. When it's working well, it's an impressive mechanic, breathing life into the game's enemies rather than them simply being pawns to swat aside.
Later on in the game, things get even more interesting in this regard, as you get to dabble in Orc politics; offing rival chieftains and installing your own. A skill enables you to "brand" Orcs, taking control of their minds and having them fight on your behalf. Where things get exciting is when you start taking control of Orc leaders and have them start fighting one another. There's a malicious sense of fun in having one big, dumb Orc send his mob to start fighting another big mob of Orcs, using the ensuing chaos to assassinate your target.
This kind of "play the way you want" aspect, has a touch of Hitman: Blood Money about it and is easily the game's most intriguing feature. It's annoying then, that the game seems so set on holding your hand the entire time. Thinking up the most efficient ways to install your own Orc leaders is not nearly as thrilling when the game demands you do it as part of the main storyline.
Take the Nemesis System out of the equation though and things become rather disappointing again. A good chunk of the story missions feel like filler, suffering from the same problems that have plagued Assassin's Creed installments for several years; having you do very little but wander around, collecting a few items and then killing an enemy or two. And the game's boss battles are horribly inept, with the final fight with Sauron being nothing more than a dull, awkwardly animated quick-time event.
The big question, then, is, does the Nemesis System makes the rest of the game worth playing? The honest answer, is probably not. It's a great mechanic, and will most likely make another appearance in any sequels, but, in this game at least, it's strung together with such a by-the-numbers approach to level design and writing that you get the impression the entire game was cooked up simply to try this one mechanic out.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is not necessarily a bad game, just one that's stuck with an astonishing lack of ideas. Beneath the glossy visuals there's just a host of regurgitated gameplay that's all been done before. No doubt we'll see a return of the Nemesis System with Shadow of Mordor's sequel. Provided it doesn't forget to make something of the rest of the game, we might be onto something.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor was released on October 3rd for PS4, Xbox One and PC. A PS3 and 360 version were also released on November 21st.
This review is based on the PS4 version.
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