Developed by Monolith Productions. Published by Warner Bros. Interactive. Available on PC, PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One. Released September 30, 2014. Copy provided by publisher.
I have made no secret of the fact that I love the works of Tolkien. I have read The Lord of Rings multiple times, and have delved (too deep) into the collected notes published by Christopher Tolkien after his father’s death. Jackson’s film adaptations mean a lot to me too but I admit my everlasting love of Tolkien has begun to wear thin. I liked the first Hobbit movie well enough, but I haven’t found the time to see the most recent one. Games set in Tolkien’s world such as The War in the North and LOTRO are well-crafted but failed to spark the same love I felt reading The Fellowship of the Ring as a child. After so many staid adaptations and boring retellings, Shadow of Mordor is the first game set in Middle-earth that explores new themes and executes mechanics that allow you to interact with Tolkien-esque characters in a truly emergent way.
You enter the open world of Mordor practically immediately upon booting up the game. There’s a short scripted sequence introducing the ranger Talion, his son and his wife living atop the Black Gate and the lieutenants of Sauron that lead the attack against the Gondorians defending it. One of the bad guys, called the Black Hand, seems to have magical powers and he utters some language in the Black Speech as he slaughters Talion and his family. Somewhat mysteriously, you then awaken beneath the Gate possessed by a shining wraith who speaks to you. The wraith doesn’t really know who he is or what’s happening, but he does offer you the power you’ll need to take revenge against the forces of Mordor. Like a finely-tuned film script, you are given a very strong motive after this deliberate inciting incident and then you’re thrust out into the world. That short 15 minute sequence effortlessly gets you accustomed to the third-person action stealth mechanics and the setting. You are then free to do whatever you like in Mordor.
(Note: The identity of the wraith has already been spoiled by the makers of the game but in the interest of our readers I will not be divulging that information in this review. Click here to be spoiled.)
Like most open world games, you have a map of the area at your disposal populated with mission locations and some random encounters. What’s unique is an interface you can use to interact with Dark Lord Sauron’s army. The orcs are ruled by five war chiefs, who have captains to guard them and regular troops such as infantry, archers and berserkers who follow their leaders. With the exception of a few important plot characters, all of the “officers” in Mordor are randomly named characters with evocative personalities and monikers. It really can’t be understated how oddly endearing these little devils are. Lug the Drunk, for example, has a skin of orc grog on his person and delivers all his threats and challenges with a slur. Snagog the Beheader is all about wearing fashionable skulls. Kothog the Slippery is difficult to put into a hold. At first the field of captains on display is blank, and you learn about the orc captains by interrogating orcs or discovering them in the open world.
Getting this “intel” on your enemies is vitally important. The war chiefs have elite captains as bodyguards, and discovering the captain’s whereabouts and taking them out so they’re not around to help is a good idea. Each one of these orcs has strengths to avoid and weaknesses you have to exploit. Some are immune to ranged attacks and vulnerable to backstabbing, for example, so you’ll have more success sneaking up for a quick kill. Some have a fear of insects, so dropping a nest on them will send them running. Some can be killed by explosions, or have a tough armor so will take more effort to kills. There’s enough randomness that it all feels organic. Shadow of Mordor does an excellent job of rewarding smart play without browbeating you with pop-up reminders and ham-fisted mechanics. You quickly learn ignoring the intelligence you discover means death, which brings its own sort of joy/exquisite pain.
When you die at the hands of a regular orc, he will be promoted to the first rank of captain and gain in power. The story highlights that Talion is denied passage into death, so every time you perish in the game you will be resurrected at one of the towers that dot the landscape. While that happens, the orcs have their own power struggles and those get resolved as time passes. It’s very interesting to watch the results of a duel between Lugnak and Azdush. The system deftly displays which orcs have killed you, and I spent way too much time trying to kill the bastards who got me. If you die multiple times at the hands of the same orc captain, it gets even harder to kill them because they start to lose weaknesses and gain strengths as they gain in power.
It is difficult to sum up in words just exactly how this system is so fun to play around with. Once you learn the rules, it’s a really a strategy game you play out in third person action. In order to take out the war chiefs, you have to target the bodyguards first. To discover the weaknesses of the bodyguards, you have to get intel on them. You get intel by interrogating specially marked orcs called “worms” which means keeping them alive while you murder the group they are with. Once you finally get the intel, you use it to find the captain’s location and exploit his weaknesses. You lure him near a caragor cage and release the beast just at the right moment for it to throttle the poor bastard. You put together plans and see them through. Or, you improvise when things go wrong. You create diversions. You maximize advantages and try to minimize disadvantages. All this is done to avenge your family. It’s remarkable.
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.[rating=4.5]