by Josh Vollmer
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is a third person action game developed by Monolith Productions, a studio owned by publisher Warner Brothers Interactive. In it you play a ranger named Talion who dies alongside his family at the hands of orcs, and who, in a dark ritual, is seemingly brought back to life bound to a shade. The shade imbues Talion with a wide array of ghostly powers that he uses to extract his revenge on Sauron’s growing Uruk army. Even with the shade’s strength however, Talion is still only human, and one man versus an entire orcish army is tricky business. Instead of trying to single-handedly cut his way through their superior numbers, Talion wisely focuses on picking off higher ranking Captains and War Chiefs in the hopes of luring out their general, the Black Hand of Sauron, and destroying the army by severing its head.
For you Lord of the Rings fans out there, Shadow of Modor‘s story could be considered pseudo-canon. Obviously, J.R.R. Tolkein didn’t write this stuff himself, but the team at Monolith Productions did make the effort to collaborate with Middle-earth Productions, as well as the director of the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films, Peter Jackson, to make sure that game’s events aligned with the existing Middle-earth time lines and lore. This should ensure that there’s nothing in the story or its developments that will enrage purist fanboys, and since it’s plot is ancillary to the events of the books and films, the game is accessible to everybody even if you don’t know what a Frodo is. As far as story quality goes, the script has its moments, but is ultimately pretty average in my opinion. This is a shame since head writer Christian Cantamessa is also responsible for one of my favorite video game tales of all time in Red Dead Redemption. With overused tropes like revenge and amnesia, and a somewhat muddled introduction and walkthrough, it regrettably wasn’t Shadow of Mordor‘s story that hooked me. Instead, it was the game play.
It’s very clear from the outset that Shadow of Mordor takes its cues from other popular third person action-adventure games, especially the Assassin’s Creed series and the Batman games that have come out of Rocksteady Studios these last few years. Talion climbs watch towers and stalks his orc prey with the stealthy surety of any white-hooded initiate, and with similar ease. Combat is a bit more challenging. If they want to survive, players will have to make use of their combo meters and finisher abilities in a similar fashion as the takedown system from the Arkham games. Luckily the combat is just as fluid, and within a couple short play sessions, you’ll have Talion jumping over enemies’ shields, dodging arrows and spears, performing stealth finishers, and seamlessly counterattacking. Even with all of these abilities at your disposal however, it is easy to be overwhelmed by a crowd. Stealth is sometimes the smarter option. Engaging even a single orc in open combat can quickly spiral out of control if a nearby Captain comes to his aid, or a passing patrol sees you and raises the alarm.
While Talion’s fighting style may resemble the Dark Knight’s, his ethos on the sanctity of life does not. In fact, Shadow of Mordor is arguably more violent than the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings films. Some of Talion’s executions are especially gory, with decapitations being common sights. Depending on your skills, one stealth execution ability allows you assassinate an orc so thoroughly that it makes other orcs flee the area. To put that into perspective, orcs eat people! Considering that it’s brutal enough to make monsters that eat people run away screaming, it should be no surprise that Shadow of Mordor is intended for mature audiences, and certainly earns its M rating.
While an Arkham/Creed mash-up set in Mordor might seem derivative on its surface, Monolith studios manages to transcend ‘knock off’ status by adding some cool mechanics of their own. One is the ability to gain intel on Talion’s targets before facing them in battle. Shaking down a lower level orc to learn the strengths and weaknesses of their Captain is not only fun, but integral to the player’s survival. Knowing ahead of time that your target is invulnerable to stealth attacks, but susceptible to a single headshot from a bow, will save you a lot of trial and error in the long run.
Don’t think you’re the only one out hunting on this side of the Black Gate either. Some Captains and their bodyguards will stalk Talion as he slays his way across Mordor, and the Uruk Captains will even fight internal power struggles amongst themselves. When a Captain falls, their position isn’t vacant long, as countless others are eager to step into their place. Orcs that win duels amongst themselves, or that manage to kill Talion or survive an encounter with him, will increase in power and likely be promoted to Captain themselves. It’s these types of dynamics, coupled with the tight and fluid (if borrowed) combat and movement mechanics, that make Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor a standout in its own right. Throw in your usual open world meta objectives like hunting critters and collecting artifacts, and there’s plenty of content to keep you busy aside from the main quest as well.
Recommended for fans of third person action games, the Assassin’s Creed series, and New Zealand. Look for Shadow of Mordor on PS4 or XB1 at your local Slackers today, or come in and preorder the PS3 or Xbox 360 version, currently set to release on November 18th, 2014.