Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor
Considering the reputation licensed games had in the early 2000s, the Lord of the Rings movie games made out fairly well. The Two Towers and The Return of the King games were, at the very least, good action games that made decent use of their license and delivered something fans of the films could enjoy without telling themselves “well, it’s good for a movie game.” Compared to the crap tie-ins that Harry Potter and Narnia and other contemporaries got, they were positively brilliant. The Final Fantasy X knockoff The Third Age and the puzzling Battlefield-alike, Conquest, were rockier, but overall the brand wasn’t dragged through the mud as time went on.
Lord of the Rings games fizzled out a bit after that. When WB acquired the license, they seemed to play things relatively safe: The War in the North was a serviceable return to the style of hack and slash gameplay that proved popular with the movie tie-ins, and Guardians of Middle-Earth… well, “Tolkien MOBA” probably made a lot more sense in pitch meetings a few years ago. The lack of a big, marquee game based on the franchise became increasingly stranger as time went on, however. It had to be somewhere. So while Shadow of Mordor‘s announcement may have been inevitable, it’s still massively surprising what a risky move the game is on paper.
“The biggest fanservice moments are designed for people who know who Celebrimbor is”Well, okay, maybe mashing together Batman: Arkham City and Assassin’s Creed isn’t exactly risky. What is interesting, however, is just how far Shadow of Mordor wanders from typical movie license territory. Outside of some slightly ham-fisted Gollum missions, there’s nary a famous film character in sight. The game’s biggest fanservice moments are designed for people who know who Celebrimbor is, and Howard Shore’s iconic score is nowhere in sight. “The Lord of the Rings” isn’t even in the title. This is a surprisingly clever move that manages to aim the game at two audiences: Tolkien fans who desperately want to play something other than scenes from the movies, and people who don’t care about whatever the hell a Shire is.
Shadow of Mordor is essentially a revenge film with a Middle-Earth coat of paint, which is immediately arresting for both fans looking for something a little different and newcomers who don’t want to read all the novels to get up to speed. You are a ranger named Talion who, through a botched blood sacrifice, loses his family and becomes cursed to walk Mordor bound to a wraith (which, as defined in the Tolkien Legendarium, is “a really cool ghost”). Talion must carve a ridiculously violent path through an endless sea of uruks to find the Black Hand, the servant of Sauron responsible for the curse. It’s incredibly schlocky, but it does a good job of getting the ball rolling quickly and providing context for the huge body-count.
Since rangers and wraiths are, at least according to the films, two of the baddest-ass things in Middle-Earth, it’s only natural that a ranger-wraith combo would be an unstoppable killing machine. That’s certainly the case with Talion, who fights like Batman in the Arkham games without that pesky no killing rule. Combat is the bulk of Shadow of Mordor, and it’s incredibly satisfying. With an attack button, a counter button, and a stun, Talion can handle crowds of uruks with ease. However, while it’s not difficult to cut through groups of foes, Shadow of Mordor throws enough different enemy types at you to keep you from getting stuck in patterns. Spear-wielding enemies, in particular, can be a huge problem if you’re not careful. As the game goes on, Talion’s murder toolbox grows to accomodate virtually every situation – dodging over enemies can eventually stun them, and it’s also possible to lower the number of hits required to earn an instant-kill move, for example – and the amount of moves available keeps things fresh, for the most part. Swarms of enemies, however, will almost always bring you down after one or two mistakes.
Dying isn’t a bad thing, though – at least not in the grander scheme of things. It’s here that the game’s much-touted Nemesis System comes into play, a gameplay mechanic that goes a long way to make the virtually endless combat feel potent. Uruks that kill Talion are promoted to captains, and captains can advance through a roster of captains to become warchiefs by toppling other captains while infighting, gaining power by being left unchecked for too long, or by killing Talion again. This means that every uruk in the game has the opportunity to become a named character with an emergent narrative – a true nemesis who grows as you progress through the game. Every captain has his own set of strengths and weaknesses, which can be revealed by hunting and interrogating “worms” who spill the beans on these randomly-generated characters. Strengths and weaknesses range from the mundane (“immune to stealth,” “weak to ranged attacks”) to the truly strange (some captains become engraged by other captains if they happen to be in the area, or have dangerous hobbies like troll hunting).
“In Shadow of Mordor, everyone has the potential to be your next rival”It’s actually pretty simple on paper, but it adds a lot to the game, both in terms of gameplay and in giving combat a sense of importance. So many games have players cutting down wave after wave of nameless goons; in Shadow of Mordor, everyone has the potential to be your next rival. The names and traits rarely repeat, and the generated uruks all look wonderfully evil. The voice acting, as well, provides a huge amount of character: the slobbering, hissing, cockney accents are all great, and their lines can get oddly specific. If you defeated a captain riding a caragor in the past, or snuck up on him from behind, he will likely call out these moments to you through dialogue. The sheer volume of content that went into making the Nemesis System work is staggering.
This system actually carries a good portion of the game. Without it, Shadow of Mordor would be a fairly decent open-world Assassin’s Creed knock-off. It’s one of those rare features that enhances both gameplay mechanics and the more nebulous “feel” of a game. The Nemesis System adds character and depth and significance to its gory proceedings. The world itself is relatively small and barren; essentially a playground full of opportunities to sneak up on foes or stage huge sword fights. Having a hand in shaping the enemy forces by assassinating captains – and later on, branding and helping your own captains advance through the ranks – is hugely satisfying. The emergent experiences available in Shadow of Mordor far outstrip the actual story missions, which are relatively few, and merely decent. They essentially serve as quick introductions to the next cool mechanic that will make the open world experience even more fun.
Shadow of Mordor looks and sounds great during all of this, as well. Mordor is an ugly place, but the detailed landscape is full of great touches like puddles, sunbeams, and rain. Talion’s cloak is a visual highlight, looking and moving just like a heavy piece of cloth should. The animations during combat are also fantastic, with seemingly endless variety. Transitions between moves are nearly always smooth, and the game features plenty of “oh my god, did you see that?” over-the-top sword brutality. That’s actually something worth mentioning – Shadow of Mordor is far more violent than anything in the Lord of the Rings films. While it fits with the overall theme of the game, diehard Tolkien fans who prefer his lengthy descriptions of flowers and songs might object to the reliance on bloody action throughout the game.
In that sense, Shadow of Mordor might not be the great Lord of the Rings game we deserve. While it does reference many story elements not found in the films, these moments are relatively superficial. The game is relentlessly dark and violent, really only diving into the universe’s famous battle sequences and eschewing anything more heady. It also takes liberties with nearly every aspect of the canon, and while only a relative handful of people will truly care about that, it bears mentioning. Still, that doesn’t detract from the game’s success as an action game. For people who are alright with playing fifteen hours or so of Helm’s Deep-style carnage, Shadow of Mordor is a delight – and even for people who couldn’t care less about Lord of the Rings, the exciting combat and unique Nemesis System are more than enough to make the experience worthwhile.