Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor full review
While it was one of the major triple-A releases of 2014, no one quite knew what to expect from Middle Earth: Shadow Of Mordor. Some camps were hailing it as the best action game of the year, while others rolled their eyes at the prospect of another tired retread of a familiar franchise. Read all game reviews.
However, unlike previous LOTR games, instead of forcing us to play as a bunch of D-list background characters while the real adventure happens off-screen (looking at you, War In The North), Shadow Of Mordor instead serves as a prequel, taking place during the slightly nebulous period in between The Hobbit and the start of The Fellowship Of The Ring. It stars an original character, a Ranger by the name of Talion. Possessed by an ancient Wraith after he and his family are murdered by the minions of Sauron, they set out to wreak joint vengeance on those responsible. Also see Best gaming laptops 2014.
It must be said straight off the bat that the graphics are beautiful. The textures are all exquisitely rendered, the animations are smooth, and the amount of detail is just astonishing, especially on the battle-scarred Orcs. Andy Serkis’ return as Gollum is also incredibly visually impressive, if slightly brief. While graphics of this caliber are pretty much expected for a major release these days, they’re stunning regardless. Also see: Best gaming PCs 2014.
If you’re looking for story though, you might leave a little unsatisfied. The backstory draws heavily on chunks of Tolkien lore that haven’t yet been put to film, and can get confusing for casual fans. The actual plot is also paper-thin; it’s the basic revenge quest that’s been done countless times, and with only 20 story missions to play out, it doesn’t have time to get particularly deep.
None of which is to say it’s bad - the writing is, for once in a LOTR game, halfway decent. The accents manage to stay in the same rough region and I don’t want to punch any of the characters in their hackneyed cliché-spouting throats (again, looking at you, War In The North). The interplay between Talion and the Wraith who’s wearing him like a Halloween costume is also pretty interesting, despite the fact that both of them are angsty, po-faced fun-sponges
But forget the broody brothers. The place the writing really shines is the Orcs. The incidental dialogue gives them real personality, arguably much more than the main characters; they’ll bicker and boast among themselves, along with spreading Chinese whispers about your terrifying abilities, which helps to make you feel like a legendary badass. They also spend an absurd amount of time loudly discussing what they’ll do to you if you try anything on them, which makes it especially entertaining when you drop three stories to stab them in the trachea.
And it has to be said that doing so is immensely satisfying - Stealth kills are brutal and violent. However, they’re also astonishingly easy. You can run even in stealth mode and it’s only marginally slower than sprinting, meaning you’ll probably spend most of the game running around doubled over as though you’re roleplaying the back of a pantomime horse. It’s a useful feature, but it removes a lot of the challenge of stealth sections, and means you can sneak up on pretty much any enemy without even trying.
On top of that, the Orc AI is staggeringly stupid. They’re not supposed to be the brightest creatures, granted, but when you can go through a single-file patrol by creeping up and methodically neck-stabbing each one in sequence, it gets a little ridiculous. The time it takes for them to spot you is also huge - you’ve usually got a good 10- to 20 seconds to silence the poor schmuck who’s seen you before he’s even twigged you’re a threat. Difficulty issues aside, though, the stealth elements are incredibly fun and well-implemented.
As they should be; after the first gameplay trailers of Shadow Of Mordor emerged, Assassin's Creed 1 and 2 developer Charles Randall accused the developers of using code and animations from the flagship franchise. While nothing has been heard from either party since, barring a short, non-committal sidestepping of the accusation from Shadow of Mordor developers, the games do bear an uncanny resemblance to one another. It’s especially evident in the use of Eagle Vis - sorry, Wraith world - to identify and track targets, and the presence of something very much like Assassin's Creed’s signature swan dives. It would appear that the stealth mechanics of this game have been lifted from Ubisoft’s series, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing for the player: Ubisoft does do stealth mechanics the best.
One place it doesn’t quite work, however, is the free-running. While Ezio and friends’ whole runny-jumpy-climby schtick suits a tightly packed environment like the rooftops of renaissance Italy, the predominantly empty, ruined landscapes of Mordor means that a lot of the parkour movement mechanics are underutilised. Interactive environmental elements, however, are more appropriate: grog barrels can be poisoned to discreetly eliminate a camp, fires can be satisfyingly exploded and caged beats can be loosed to terrorise their captors, allowing for multiple inventive ways to complete objectives.
Speaking of eerily reminiscent gameplay systems, the combat owes a lot to fellow WB Games alumni Batman: Arkham Asylum. It’s in essence the same attack-attack-counter-special move-finisher combination used in the Batman games, except switching out feet, fists and nonlethal takedowns with swords, spirit powers and multiple gruesome impalements. It’s a solid, if slightly repetitive, system and it works well here.
There’s a slight issue with balance, wherein the early fights have a tendency to overwhelm you with sheer numbers and the later ones are rendered relatively simple through your accrued upgrades, but overall the combat is fun and challenging. The Orcs have a surprisingly varied skillset, with certain types being resistant to specific moves, but not others. They can also rely on a continuing supply of reinforcements, meaning that you’ll wind up finishing some encounters surrounded by a pile of corpses big enough to give Conan the Barbarian an inferiority complex.
The upgrade system is nicely tailored for an action-adventure title. Rather than the oft-tedious routine of looting chests for upgrades and spending hours comparing miniscule stat differences, you have a perk tree for major skills, upgradeable attributes such as max health and arrow capacity, and various rune slots on your sword, bow and dagger, which provide different modifiers and effects, and can be swapped out depending on your own particular playstyle. A cool aspect of this is that the runes are dropped by defeated Orc captains, with higher-ranking chiefs dropping more powerful runes. Which of the three types you get can also be affected by how you’ve murdered your patsy du jour; take advantage of a captain’s weakness to ranged attacks, and he’ll almost certainly drop a bow rune.
Finding these weaknesses is coincidentally where the unique gameplay mechanic of Shadow of Mordor comes into focus, and where the real fun lies. The armies of the Dark Lord have a hierarchical power structure; a small number of warchiefs at the top, with a few dozen lower captains underneath them. By interrogating the Orcs in the know, you can find out detailed information about a captain’s strengths and weaknesses.
Alongside this hierarchy system is a rather cool mechanic whereby the ghost riding around in your meat suit can ‘brand’ enemies, bending them to your will. While converting unsuspecting grunts is great for garnering impromptu bodyguards or setting up elaborate ambushes, it really comes into its own once you get your hands on a captain. Once you’ve brainwashed your chosen lieutenant, all his followers become yours by extension.
More importantly, you now get to play puppet master. The Orc hierarchy is constantly evolving: captains vie with each other for power and status through duels, hunts, feasts and other activities, and once you have one under your thumb, you can send him off to gain power by murdering a rival, or attempting to become bodyguard to a warchief. You can either leave him to it, known as the Ivan Drago approach to minion management (“if he dies… he dies”), or you can personally ensure that everything works out for him, like a super-violent guardian angel.
This is a fantastic concept, and breathes fresh life into what is otherwise a fairly run-of-the-mill action-adventure title. However, it doesn’t show up until halfway through the game, which leaves barely any time to make use of it without going out of your way. It also renders all the optional activities pointless, as you’ve got no troops to take advantage of them, and as they’re basically the only thing to do outside the embarrassingly scant story mode besides collecting pointless knick-knacks or doing challenge maps, it makes the map feel both weirdly small and oddly empty. This feature could easily support a game of it’s own and it’s a pity to see it not taken advantage of more. Nevertheless, it’s still one of Shadow of Mordor's best bits.
The fact that all the Orcs are procedurally generated means that ostensibly, no player will encounter the same enemies twice, but it also creates a unique sense of identity for each individual captain and once you’re got one in your pocket, the game starts to feel like Nintendogs: The Michael Vick Edition, as you watch your own scaly little bundle of love murder his way to the top of the pile before stabbing his master in the back to become warchief. Knowing that Lord Gorgamoth Scumflagon isn’t just some stock character that every other player is taking on really aids the immersion, and builds a personal connection with your protagonist’s fight.
In a similar vein, the nemesis system also merits mention, as it’s genuinely one of the best things about the game. Not only can Orc captains increase in power and respect by fighting among themselves, they can also move up the ranks by slicing you open like a meat piñata filled with steak tartare. When you get smacked down by an Orc Captain, they’ll remember you and taunt you about it next time you meet; butt heads enough and they’ll become a revenge target. There really is a special kind of indignity to being run through by some snot-nosed punk of an Orc and then watching him get some spiffy new armor and a promotion as a reward, and it’s kind of hard not to take it personally.
There was one particular captain that I kept running up against time and again, only to have him carve me up like a Christmas ham. However, the more he killed me, the more powerful he got; where he had previously been vulnerable to ranged attacks, by the fourth time around he’d grown out of that, making him even harder to defeat. It’s an inventive way of punishing failure, and forms a real sense of investment in feeding this one particular guy his own legs, because screw you, Feldush. When it came to the final confrontation, he was leading the enemy forces and it really did feel like an epic clash of bitter rivals.
Well, almost the final confrontation; Shadow of Mordor has a huge problem with pacing. The story’s built around revenging yourself on the Black Captains, Sauron’s three head honchos. One might reasonably expect them to be equally spaced through the game, with each showing up a third of the way through. However, while the first one arrives on schedule, the second apparently overslept, popping up in the second-to last mission only minutes ahead of the last dude. The aforementioned final battle, involving your brainwashed army facing off against your nemesis and his followers, is actually the penultimate mission, and the actual ending is a huge anti-climax, and without getting into spoiler territory, is confusing, pointless and dull.
Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is far from flawless. The pacing is all over the place, the length of the story would embarrass a paperback, and the gameplay genuinely feels like Ezio Auditore and the Dark Knight had a baby and took him LARPing. For all that, though, it’s incredibly fun. The stealth and combat mechanics, while appearing to be shamelessly cribbed, have changed enough to keep things fresh, and the ability to form your own Orc posse makes this title surprisingly compelling, and the best Lord of The Rings game we’ve ever had without a doubt. Well worth your time.
Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor: Specs
- Windows Vista/7/8 (64-bit)
- Intel core i5-750, 2.67GHz, AMD Phenom II X4 965, 3.4GHz
- 4GB RAM
- nVidia GeForce GTX 560, AMD Radeon HD 6950
- DirectX 11
- broadband internet connection
- 25GB drive space