I figure I should take a break from saying how good Nintendo’s games are and focus on something that’s on another console. I am, after all, nothing if not fair to mostly everything except the Xbox One because I just don’t want one of those things within ten metres of my home. But hey, let’s take a look at Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor.
This is a very interesting game for me because I’ve never read the novels or seen the movies that take place in the Middle-Earth universe. They just never intrigued me. What drew me into this game was chatting with a friend about it and hearing about the Nemesis System where you pretty much create your own bad-guys. “Well,” said I, “that sounds pretty nifty, maybe I will give it a try if I have some spare cash.” Really, though, when push came to shove, I think I was just looking for something to play on my PS4 that wasn’t Ground Zeroes or inFamous: Second Son for the umpteenth time.
Mordor puts you in the shoes of a ranger named Talion, whose family was just murdered before his eyes by a charming fellow going by the Black Hand. Talion was supposed to die with them, but for some reason, he lives on, with an amnesiac Wraith bound to him. Thus, it’s up to Talion to avenge his family and find out who this Wraith used to be, while killing loads and loads of orcs and uruk or are they the same I don’t know but he kills lots of things.
I’m not really too up on the story in this game, honestly. It’s nothing to do with it being hard to follow – the game has loads of lore and such to read which is nice, and it’s even discoverable a-la Metroid Prime – but it’s not the best thing I’ve ever witnessed. The way it’s told is nice, but the story itself is kinda meh. I really do like a number of character details though, such as Talion’s stealth knife being his son’s broken sword. Little bits like that add to the feel of a game, and I appreciate that.
So how about that gameplay then? Shadow of Mordor is, essentially, Batman: Arkham Middle-Earth. You run around an open-world, do short missions, fight baddies with a combo-rhythm-based combat system with attacks, counters, and stuns, there’s stealth and exploration, and you even have a kind of Detective Mode, though lots of games have that. It’s actually more comparable to a combination of Batman: Arkham and Assassin’s Creed, with a bit more of an RPG element in equipable Runes that provide boons like regenerating health on kills. It’s actually kind of shameless – the instant kill move is performed with the same command and everything. Talion is a bit more aware of his surroundings than Batman, though – he can cancel most moves into a counter, meaning it’s more difficult to get punished for a wrong move.
Much like the Arkham games, Talion levels up upon defeating several of his foes, which gives you points you can trade in for additional abilities. Here the game changes it up a little bit; while you do have the standard Arkham upgrades like a dagger that’s essentially a Batarang, or “critical hits” by timing your sword swings properly, there’s also other abilities like being able to dominate carigors, large beasts that you can mount and use to attack enemies, or even use them as fuel for the Wraith’s abilities.
Also different is that Talion, or rather, the Wraith bound to him, has a long-distance attack option in his bow. You can use Focus while aiming to slow down time, and there’s some bizarre upgrades for this weapon, such as exploding campfires by shooting them or pinning enemies to the ground. The bow proves to be an extremely useful stealth weapon, but of course, it runs off of ammo, and Focus runs out pretty quickly, so you can’t overuse it.
Fuelling these abilities requires you to “drain” your enemies. By holding the stun button instead of just tapping it, you grab your foe in a quasi-Force-chokehold and drain their life to recharge your Focus and bow shots. You can even do it several times in a row if they have enough health. Doing so leaves you wide open to enemy attack, though, and it takes a while for a drain to complete, and if it doesn’t complete, you don’t get anything out of it.
Stealth itself is pretty rudimentary, but unlike the Arkham games, you don’t have a hookshot or gliding cape to get around with, so the games take a bit more from Assassin’s Creed here. Climbing up structures and movement in general feels more like those games, for all the faults and successes they had. Even the awareness indicators are a direct lift from the Creed series. Also unlike the Arkham games, failing at stealth usually just means that you have to fight lots of orcs at once while occasionally dodging potshots from elevated archers – it’s not nearly as dangerous. You also can’t really set up many traps aside from contextual ones the game hands to you, whereas Arkham encouraged a bit of lateral thinking.
There’s also a number of missions you can do, from killing certain enemies, to using a particular weapon to kill a certain amount of enemies, to killing a certain amount of enemies within a certain amount of time. They can drag a bit and wind up feeling a little repetitive, but thankfully you can always jump over to the story missions and do those. Some of the side missions are also locked off until you activate the area’s tower (akin to Assassin’s Creed’s vantage points), or get a particular weapon upgrade.
Where Shadow of Mordor truly excels, however, is with its Nemesis System.
90% of the enemies in the game are just nameless nobodies, existing only to have their blood spilled upon the battlefield by your righteousness and righteous fighting skills. Every once in a while, though, you’ll get into a fight with an orc that has somethin’ to say to you, and wants to make it clear they are heard. It is here that you learn their name, their title, and their place in the orc hierarchy.
Every named orc in the game has a position of power, and the totem pole is constantly being shifted, either through your actions by killing its many many members, or simply through the passage of time, as orcs kill one another to advance, some failing and some succeeding. The balance of power is always changing, keeping the game dynamic.
The captains you run into may not necessarily be the same captains your friend runs into while they’re playing, and even if they are, your interactions with them could be completely different. These guys remember you, and if you humiliate them and let them run, you can bet they’ll be back later, stronger, and more pissed off, than ever. It can get to the point where you have a recurring arch-nemesis, a foe who is defined by their eternal struggle with you, the player, and their inability to destroy you. Sometimes, they’ll even come back from death (being explained as you didn’t actually finish them off) to get their revenge, often boasting a fresh scar from your last encounter, be it physical or mental.
And the complete opposite can happen as well. Sometimes, you’ll die while playing the game. This is actually completely okay and it adds to the experience – because the orc that killed you gains respect and power from doing it, and they’ll remember how much you suck when you come back to collect. This can happen to any of them – if some nameless moron is responsible for your death, well, now they have a name and a position of power so that you can eventually track them down and destroy them.
Everything is kept track of through a list of the captains, detailing their place in the totem pole, and even their relation to their peers. Some of them get along… some of them fear each other… some of them hate each other… and some of them are gunning for one another. You can use the towers in the game to advance time, and in doing so, make the little war games of the captains play out, and witness their rise and fall.
What makes the war games even more engaging is your many interactions with them. Every captain has strengths and weaknesses, and there’s a number of orcs who have the down-low on all of them – finding and interrogating these guys to get this information is critical to cleanly killing your target, and often the difference between success and brutal failure.
Weaknesses are exploitable – if a captain is terrified of caragors, then running into his camp riding atop one is enough to send him screaming for the hills, ruining his influence with the other captains. But they also have strengths. If they hate caragors, they actually become stronger just by seeing them, easily killing the beasts and becoming much more difficult to defeat. Strengths and weaknesses range from either being instantly killed by certain moves to being completely immune to them, to regenerating health, to being easier to grab, or having an entourage at all times.
This isn’t even getting into the various weapons that enemies – and therefore captains – can have, or the unlikely but possible situation where you’re fighting two captains at once. This is where battles can actually get a little overwhelming at times, and of course, if you die, your opponent only gets stronger… but the reward for killing them gets that much sweeter. Defeated captains drop runes, and the stronger the captain, the better the rune, usually.
There then comes a point where you can dominate the captain you have defeated, and preen them to become your mole in the enemy organization. You can rig fights in their favour, and even if they lose, you can sweep in and finish the job. Other, natural fights between captains happen on a regular basis, as well, and appear as missions on the world map – you can either ignore them and let them play out through the advancement of time, or you can invade them and take advantage of both weakened opponents.
The Nemesis System is so ridiculously good than any other flaws in the game are worth sitting through just to experience it. Some of the side missions feel kinda grindy (find X amount of herbs, kill X amount of random wildlife), and it can actually take a while to fully deck out Talion, and runes are completely random (you can affect which type of rune you get though). The game’s visuals are excellent, if a little bland throughout the first half of the game, and the soundtrack’s a little underwhelming, even if it does occasionally take advantage of timing itself to your sword strikes.
But in the end, Shadow of Mordor is an excellently-crafted, surprisingly robust game that, while it takes its cues from several other games, actually puts them to good use and has a completely unique system that will have everyone playing the same game in completely different ways. It’s a licensed game that shouldn’t be seen as “just another licensed game.” I’m not even a fan of the series it’s based on, and yet I was able to jump into this game and have a grand old time with ease.
Good games are good. No matter what they’re based on.