The music does a wonderful job of keeping up the tension of a fight without being overbearing. There is an impressive amount of recorded voiceover in the game and it all works seamlessly with the emergent gameplay. An orc who has killed you before will taunt you with that knowledge. You can overhear orcs speaking to each other about the new boss after you've killed a war chief. When you die and the game is loading, audio will play from the speaker in the PS4 controller from one of Talion's memories. It is from this audio you learn biographical details about the ranger and his complicated relationship with his wife's father. The combination of all of these sound effects, not to mention the voice-acting from Troy Baker as Talion and the howls and grunts of the orcs, creates a vibrant, believable world. Play it with headphones on if you can.
Shadow of Mordor liberally steals from other games, and that's not a bad thing. There are towers you can climb to unlock fast travel and reveal collectibles around the map. You can ride beasts called caragors to traverse Mordor in style - it's simple to use the caragor to climb over any wall or up cliffs as you ride too. Fighting from the caragor's back is not only fun, but also sometimes necessary when your orc target is vulnerable to beast attacks. (Later, you can ride huge monsters called Graug into battle.) The stealth system is simple to use and rewarding - I found myself sneaking up and stealth-killing as often as I could.
It's tough to master the combat system at first, but once it clicks you'll have a satisfying time killing orcs and slaying undead ghuls with combinations and special moves. Talion fights with a sword, and can shoot a bow as the wraith, and switching between the two is easily accomplished. You can counter attacks and stringing together hits to increase your hit counter makes your attacks more fearsome. As you gain abilities, the system gets more complex and you'll soon have amazingly choreographed brawls. Jumping over an armored orc to strike at his backside, deftly moving to one side to counter an attack and then teleporting yards away as a wraith to deliver a killing blow is not an uncommon chain of events. The "shadow strike" maneuver - targeting an orc with your bow and then immediately teleporting to its side for surprise attack - is fun enough to build a whole game around. You can use it to zip around an orc fortress with ease, taking out archers in the towers above before zooming down to attack those below.
I especially loved the last chance mechanic. I always push the limit of my combat skills and getting surrounded by orcs is a quick way to get killed. But if an orc's blow is the one that will reduce you to zero health, time slows down and a button prompt appears. Moving the stick and pressing the correct button in the time allowed is not easy, but if you manage it you'll counter the killing blow and live to fight on. Smart players will run away to regroup and heal by picking one of the herbs in the wilderness like athelas or pipeweed - the only way to heal in the game - but you can also press the fight if you're feeling lucky. The next time that death blow comes the period you have to mash the button is reduced, so you can't lean on it indefinitely. The last chance mechanic is great when it works, but even if it fails you receive a glimpse of the orc that killed you and you want that revenge more than ever when he gets promoted to captain.
So many games set in Middle-earth fall into the same tired tropes of heroic fantasy. The theme of revenge is one Tolkien rejected in his writing, yet it is refreshing to see it explored in Shadow of Mordor. Boromir wanted to use the One Ring to attack Mordor but his views were ignored by the Council of Elrond - Tolkien did not support using the tools of the enemy and favored forgiveness over revenge. Shadow of Mordor posits what would have happened if the power of the Rings had been used against the orcs. Does committing evil act as recompense for the evil you have suffered? Is it more important to see justice served than to live your life? Talion and the wraith possessing him do not ask these questions explicitly, but the theme is clear from the dialogue and the mechanics of the game itself. At points, I was not playing the game in the most effective way because I was blinded by revenge against the orc who killed me. I can't say Shadow of Mordor was the deepest narrative I ever experienced in a video game, but it was more successful than most at conveying a human truth.
One the saddest things about the narrative presented in Shadow of Mordor is that it's over pretty quick. The 20 main missions will not take you very long to mow through - I did it in about 10 hours. The missions themselves have interesting characters. I liked the portrayal of two female tribal leaders and the genuinely funny orc named Ratbag, as well as the appearance of the ring-junkie Gollum, but for the most part the individual story missions are quickly forgotten. You'll defeat Sauron's lieutenants at the appropriate moments. There is a myriad of side content such as hunting challenges and item collections that will take you much longer to complete. Those who enjoy story and lore, however, will be pleased. Through every action in the game, you learn more about the specific characters in Mordor and Tolkien's amazing world.
Even so, something about the whole experience of Shadow of Mordor doesn't quite coalesce into a classic. The absolute best part of the game is the open-ended sections in which you interact with Sauron's army - that's where every component feels unique and wonderful. Outside of that, Shadow of Mordor is still an excellent game but not quite sublime.
Bottom Line: As an open world game set in Middle-earth, Shadow of Mordor delivers unique emergent gameplay, finely-tuned combat mechanics and a story which avoids typical fantasy fare. While the main storyline can be finished relatively quickly, there is a lot of content in Mordor for you to pursue however you like.
Recommendation: Even if hardcore Tolkien fans could be split on the themes of the game, interacting with the emergent system of the orc army of Mordor is a joy most gamers will appreciate as a step forward in design.