Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor – Review

Shadow of Mordor - Title Screen
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(Reviewed on PS4)

Absolutely Orcsome!

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor initially feels like the fantasy-themed lovechild of the Assassin’s Creed and Batman: Arkham franchises. That’s by no means a bad thing; it’s at once pleasantly familiar territory to find yourself in as a player, but also not exactly the freshest experience upon first glance either. Activities such as exploring, scouting and clambering up buildings all operate pretty much identically to the Assassin’s Creed games gameplay-wise. Whilst in combat, it’s remarkably easy to think that you’re wearing the famous cape and cowl of the Dark Knight himself, as the combat system is so similar to the counter-based brawling combat of the Arkham series. However, these rather liberal borrowings from other series are quickly forgiven, as they function as a great foundation for something truly unique to Shadow of Mordor, the Nemesis System – essentially a living, breathing and squabbling hierarchy of orcs, which influences and enriches every aspect of the game.

Shadow of Mordor‘s Nemesis System will almost certainly provide you with some of the most memorable, bitter and personal rivalries that you’ll have experienced yet in gaming, and it’s absolutely the strongest facet of the game. Although the system can get a bit fuzzy and strangely flawed as the game progresses, the Nemesis System still manages to feel like a wholly different and excitingly fresh take on how you engage as a protagonist with your enemies. It’s absolutely worth experiencing Shadow of Mordor for this unique mechanism alone.

Story Time

Shadow of Mordor - Talion and Celebrimbdor

Monolith Production’s Shadow of Mordor is a hack ‘n’ slash 3rd person action-adventure/role playing game set in Tolkien’s well-loved fantasy world. The story is set between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings; you play the role of Talion (voiced by the ever-omniscient Troy Baker), a returned from the dead Gondor Ranger, who is out to take his revenge on the Black Hand of Sauron and the Black Captains – the group responsible for killing his family (don’t worry about spoilers, it happens right at the start of the game) and…well, yourself actually. Well, technically, you’re not really dead – you’ve been cursed, and you are now in fact banished from death. Inconvenient, then, to say the least, but hey, it makes for a good starting point for a game.

Instead, at the moment of death, you’re inhabited by and bonded with the mysterious spirit of a dead elf Lord, Celebrimbor, who shares your physical body and comes complete with his own wraith powers (not to mention a tasty longbow). Together, your goal is to break the curse and get your revenge for your family’s slaughter, whilst simultaneously recovering the memories of your newfound ghostly elf acquaintance along the way.

Oh Uruk-Hai There

Shadow of Mordor - Orc

Okay, I’ve gone for two paragraphs without mentioning the word ‘orc’, so it’s time to rectify things. If that story synopsis waffled on a bit, let me cut right to the point. Shadow of Mordor is a game about orcs. Orcs, orcs, orcs. Over the course of your adventure, you will come to hate orcs, despise orcs, curse orcs at the top of your lungs and laugh mercilessly as you chop another down in victory; you’ll be disgusted by their filthy ways or hell, you might even grow somewhat fond of the revolting creatures in the end, but whatever happens on your adventure through Sauron’s domain, you’re going to be killing an awful lot of the grubby things.

The in-game map of Mordor is essentially just a great big muddy field for you to run around in. It’s a large wide-open area, dotted with huts, crumbling ruins, towers, caves and fortresses, and packed full of missions for you to do and things to find. It certainly looks good, but it’s also not exactly the most graphically interesting backdrop to play in either. However, once you’ve started to make your acquaintance with Mordor’s delightfully foul and cranky citizens, nothing else really matters.

As I’ve mentioned at the start, the really unique element of Shadow of Mordor is without a doubt the Nemesis System, and it’s such a fundamental part of the game that it needs explaining before we go any further. It’s the strong beating heart at the core of the game, and the orcs are the lifeblood pumping through it. Yes, there are bigger threats rumbling about in the world of Shadow of Mordor (as fans of the books and films will no doubt be aware), but your attention will almost entirely be taken up by these revolting foot soldiers (and their delightfully grating mockney accents) that you’ll feel like a David Attenborough-level expert on them in no time.

The system is simple but really, really effective. As I’ve said, the game is absolutely crammed full of orcs – for the most part, you’re going to be fighting almost nothing but hordes and hordes of these grotesque thugs. Whilst you are playing, the game will randomly generate a series of orc Captains for you to go up against. These are elite ‘Uruk’ orcs that command the various orc riff-raff on the map, and as you might imagine, these Captains are more powerful than your standard orc cannon fodder. Each has their own particular strengths and weaknesses, resistances and even fears – all of which can be cleverly exploited. The identities of the orc hierarchy are all an unknown line up at the start of your game (which can be checked at any time by bringing up the pause menu), but you’ll slowly discover their identities over time. Much like a good game of Cluedo, only with clubs and swords and repeated stabbings instead of leading yes/no questions.

Shadow of Mordor - Line-up

What’s really clever is that the chain of command isn’t a static, fixed thing. Nature abhors a vacuum as they say, so over time, orcs that you’ve previously killed will be replaced in the hierarchy by fresh new recruits. Orcs will fight amongst themselves for dominance, with the victor taking the ranking title. Crucially, being killed by an orc will lead to that orc being promoted, and usually challenging other higher ups in the chain as they feel a burst of confidence after giving you the killer blow. Any lowly orc in the game has the potential to reach the top of the hierarchy, so while dying doesn’t really affect your character per se, it certainly carries a heavy price, and directly affects the balance of orc power quite dramatically.

In a nutshell, this means that any orc you encounter could ultimately become the stuff of nightmares; the nemeses you’ll build up as you slash your way through Mordor can end up being some of the most epic and personal boss fights you can imagine in gaming. It’s truly some special stuff. The Nemesis System really managed to draw me into the game and absorb my full attention whilst playing.

Careful With That Axe Eugene!

Shadow of Mordor - Combat

So, we’ve talked a bit about orcs – let’s now talk about how you’re going to go about killing all these orcs. The game openly encourages you to experiment between the three main combat approaches – offensive, ranged or stealth – as certain Captains will be resistant or even immune to certain methods, whilst vulnerable to others. Additionally, you can use the xp you earn from offing orcs to upgrade Talion’s abilities further. You can choose how and largely in what order you want to move through the upgrades and abilities, though you will need to play through story missions and take part in specific types of side missions to unlock the full skill tree. The Ranger upgrades focus on Talion’s strength and offensive options, whilst the Wraith upgrades prioritise improving your stealth and ranged attacks.

As mentioned earlier, the combat feels very Batman-esque, which is great. Clashing with the orcs in direct combat with your sword is both thrilling and cinematic, and it’s the way you’ll be conducting a significant amount of your orc encounters.

The controls are straightforward and easy to pick up, even if you’ve never battled Gotham City’s abundance of hired goons before; you’ll soon be rolling, parrying and slashing your way through Sauron’s armies with ease. Like with Batman, timing is important, as you have to block the telegraphed orc attacks, meaning that you can’t just hope to run into a mob and mindlessly mash the attack button. As you progress through the game, you’ll unlock the ability to perform other swashbuckling skills, such as mid-combat executions, and to wraith-stun an enemy in order to land a series of rapid fire strikes from your dead elf pal – just two of the techniques which are vital to surviving large packs of angry orcs.

Shadow of Mordor - Archery

Outside of full-on combat, the dagger and bow weapons are the perfect tools for more stealthy players. Stealth attacks were my personal modus operandi, and due to some well-designed stealth mechanics, using my dagger to quietly take out orcs one by one was always highly satisfying. I found the bow (cool and ghostly as it is) to be the least used tool in my arsenal, but that’s partly because I was having too much fun gallivanting about with the sword and dagger. It’s mostly useful for silently taking out enemies at range, though you can use it offensively in combat with the slow motion focus ability, providing you’ve got a bit of distance from your target.

What…Is Your Quest? What…Is Your Favourite Colour?

Shadow of Mordor - Map

Okay, so to recap; we’ve got orcs – check. Weapons – check. But how does killing all these orcs fit in with the story and mission structure? Pretty well actually. You are free to choose whether you want to work through the main missions or tackle some side quests right from the off. Shadow of Mordor functions similarly to other open world role playing games in this respect, and games like Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption and the Grand Theft Auto series were no doubt inspiration for the way the map and missions are designed. Instead of safe houses, you can unlock new forge towers (found by using Celebrimbor’s wraith vision) to use as respawn/fast travel points to make navigation around Mordor quicker, which also has the added effect of opening up new nearby missions and side quests to tackle.

Quests and side missions tend to occur dynamically in response to on-going gameplay, rather than feeling like overwhelming and pestering distractions to the main story beats. For example, after happening to come across a withered bunch of human slaves on my way to a main mission, I decided to help them out by stealthily knifing their loutish orc master. This then prompted some dialogue from one of the freed captives, who begged me to go and rescue more of their enslaved chums who were in need of help elsewhere on the map, so off I went. If the game had simply said “Go here to free slaves”, I wouldn’t have felt half as compelled to go and help the poor guys out.

In fact, the side missions and activities weave so fluidly with the main story quests and your own desire to explore, that it’s actually a delight to be given a reason to go off and see something new. There’s also smaller survival and hunting challenges (again similar to Red Dead) which are very basic and provide quick little xp boosts to keep that experience bar filling up at a regular pace, whilst never feeling like too much of a chore.

Trash Tolkien

Shadow of Mordor - Power Struggle

What’s great is that the Nemesis System means that even a simple side quest can turn into the staging ground for another epic encounter with one of your orc rivalries. The most basic of fetch quests can suddenly change into a life and death struggle with one of your many nemeses at the drop of a hat…or an crude bone headdress if you’re an orc.

Different power struggle events and missions will occur relative to the progression and movements of the orc hierarchy in your game. Orcs that manage to kill you will then usually try and challenge those higher up in the ranks for their position, and they will naturally bicker and fight amongst themselves for dominance even without your dead body as a bargaining chip. These struggles can usually be intercepted and disrupted if you choose, or ignored at the risk of letting one of the two ruffians grow more powerful.

These situations are ripe opportunities for presenting some interesting challenges to your overall game plan and strategy, in comparison to the face-to-face clashes you’ll have with the orcs yourself. Do you sit back and let the quarrelling orcs battle it out amongst themselves, or do you get involved? Do you help the underdog orc battle the bigger bully, or do you help the superior one quickly wipe out the runt? The choice is up to you.

One problem that I did personally find with these power struggles (and fighting the more difficult orcs in general) is that it’s quite hard to tell just how you’ll stack up to an orc in combat before everything kicks off. Each of the Captains has a power level, giving you some assessment of how difficult they will be to defeat in battle; the higher the number, the harder they will be to put down. However, you don’t have such a number in your stats telling you what rank you are, letting you work out just how capable you are of taking down your target. However, it’s not a massive deal. With enough careful planning, you can tackle any orc, and the uber-powerful Warchiefs at the top of the hierarchy have to be specifically drawn out by completing certain missions, or by having a dominated (mind-controlled) orc challenge them directly, so you don’t have to worry about dealing with the cream of the Uruk crop right away so to speak.

However, it’s often on these power struggle/consolidation missions that your dreaded nemesis will decide to turn up and really throw a massive spanner in the works on what would have otherwise been a rather straightforward mission. There’s nothing more (delightfully) frustrating than fighting your way through a bunch of orc thugs to close in with the killing blow on that specific orc captain you’ve come to slay, only for that pesky rival of yours to come jumping out of the sidelines at you; locking swords with you and snarling all manner of jibes and insults your way before proceeding to attack you as well, usually allowing your original target to get to his feet and flee or continue attacking. It’s dynamic moments like these, where unwelcome surprise attacks from your nemeses suddenly shift the balance of power mid-combat that will teach you to both hate and respect the orcs in equal measure.

A Dish Best Served…Bloody

Shadow of Mordor - Grûblik

To give you some idea of how all these various systems work together in gameplay, I thought I’d tell you about the numerous clashes I had with my most bitter rival on my adventure through Mordor, and how I eventually bested him. Get comfortable, as it is an epic and bloody tale of woe, misery and, ultimately, gleeful success.

Upon starting the game, I leapt out of the starting tower, and cockily strolled up to a bunch of the local warty cockney fellows, eager to remove some orc limbs from their rather portly torsos.

Things were going well; blood was shed, limbs were indeed severed, and I was having a whale of a time…only to be swiftly challenged by the dastardly devil who would be one of my longest running rivals – Grûblik the Shaman.

Despite my best efforts (frantically mashing the attack button, completely forgetting to block) I was slain by the dastardly devil, which to my annoyance, resulted in Grûblik rising up the ranks and growing more powerful – the smug git. Several more times I would try and take down this growing thorn in my side, only for him to either best me again in combat, or flee when the battles weren’t going his way.

Why is this fun I hear you ask? Well, let me tell you, there’s nothing more satisfying than finally putting the kibosh on your most bitter rival. The day when Grûblik finally bit the dust was nothing short of glorious.

Shadow of Mordor - Grûblik Promoted

As a Shaman, one of Grûblik’s traits was that he could quickly summon minions to his aid in battle using a snazzy horn, and due to whatever black magic he was no doubt dabbling in, he could also regenerate health at a fast rate as well. What made him incredibly hard to kill was that he could summon such large groups of orcs to his aid that it would quickly become impossible to focus on Grûblik in a fight. You might get a couple of swift stabs in on him, only to have to instantly parry or dodge one of his minion’s attacks; by which time Grûblik would be able to scurry out of immediate reach and by the time you caught up to him again, he would be fully healed. Annoying to say the least.

So, having found out that running in screaming with my sword drawn wasn’t the way to go, I tried another method – a stealthy surprise attack with my dagger. Tracking down further intel on Grûblik let me discover he was vulnerable to a one-hit stealth attack if performed completely undetected. Needless to say, it worked like a charm. Discovering the magic man marching around a nearby courtyard, I climbed the surrounding crumbled ruins and performed a flashy airborne stealth kill from above, finishing the rotten devil off for good. Seeing my rival crumple to the floor and his minions scatter to the wind in fear felt incredibly satisfying after he’d absolutely battered me time and time again.

The fact that all these encounters were essentially random dynamic elements that were totally unscripted is some seriously impressive stuff. Grûblik will forever be in my mind as one of the most irritating and memorable mini-boss encounters that I’ve had the pleasure of battling in a game in quite some time.

Rise From Your Grave!

Shadow of Mordor - Grûblik Win

Unfortunately, there’s a catch. The Nemesis System is far from perfect. In fact, it can be downright baffling…so much so that I’m not entirely sure how it works even now. You see, what’s really odd (not to mention startling at times) is that the orc Captains don’t seem to actually stay dead, even once you’ve apparently killed them…brutally at times.

It makes sense story-wise for your character to keep resurrecting, being possessed by a dead elf and all that, because…you know, reasons, but it can be really bizarre to keep coming up against orcs that you know you’ve already put into the ground once already. As you can imagine in my case, being attacked by none other than Grûblik the (now presumably undead) Shaman out of nowhere was frightening and confusing in equal measure, especially as I thought I’d previously slain him hours ago. Although, on the plus side, I have to say, part of me was quite pleased to see him again, only if it was just so that I could stick my knife back into his warty neck once more.

The game doesn’t really explain this anywhere from what I’ve seen, so instead I’ve had to look up what on earth was going on in my game online. Even now, it’s still hard to understand how and why this works. Apparently, if you aren’t decapitating your orc rivals using a combat execution, then they can come back again and again like common or garden zombies. They might look slightly different, but it’ll be them – they’ll usually have different characteristics and appearances, but they’ll retain their name, and despite whatever the bizarre resurrection process has entailed, they will remember you and what you’ve done to them.

This unfortunately means that unless you’re usually favouring rushing aggressively into battle with your sword aloft, then you’re going to struggle a bit if you want to use stealth or ranged weapons. I personally really enjoyed playing stealthily – being able to stealth run made sneaking up behind orcs extremely good fun, and using guerrilla tactics to whittle down the unaware enemy forces one by one felt great. Unfortunately then, as I wasn’t executing a lot of my orc rivals face-to-face with the sword, they had a nasty habit of apparently resurrecting and coming back even angrier (not to mention uglier) than before. This really detracts from the impressive things that the Nemesis System absolutely nails, and repeatedly bumping into these supposedly ‘dead’ orcs time and time again can be both frustrating and immersion breaking.

Orcs Well That Ends Well

Shadow of Mordor - Sunset

Normally, a game will make the basic foot soldiers you run across feel almost like part of the backdrop; you just blast/stab/shoot your way through them and carry on with the rest of the game. Shadow of Mordor flips all that round, and instead celebrates the writhing and vulgar underbelly of Tolkien’s world as the absolute star of the show.

By simultaneously allowing both you and your enemies the ability to level up and learn from each encounter, the game cleverly manages to make you feel ever more powerful and capable, yet still give great deal of significance and consequence to your deaths. While mysteriously resurrecting orcs will somewhat confuse and muddy your understanding of the Nemesis System when they turn up, the spontaneity and dynamic nature of the enemy orc hierarchy still makes it a ridiculously refreshing experience as a gamer. It’ll likely have you cursing the name of that one orc who constantly has it in for you, and will leave you with a big grin on your face once you finally get your own back.

The Nemesis System is a feature that I’m sure plenty of games going forward will draw inspiration from, as it managed to turn the land of Mordor from, what you’d think from reading the books, would be a dead and lifeless pit of despair, into a thriving and eclectic mix of thugs, rapscallions and scum bags; it’s a pleasure to meet them all…before stabbing them, repeatedly, of course.

Pros

Cons

+ The Nemesis System is genuinely unique, and really brings the orcs to life. – The story missions aren’t particularly captivating – it’s more fun to just go off hunting orcs.
+ Combat is satisfying, yet simple. – Mordor isn’t the most interesting location to explore as an open world.
+ Easy to get distracted from the story with plenty of enjoyable side missions to complete. – The Nemesis System is muddled, and can bring dead orcs back to life – yikes!

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