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Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

8:1623/10/2014Posted by Dave Stuart2 Comments

There was a time when the announcement of a licensed game was a cause for concern, rather than excitement. The history of gaming is littered with rushed, shoddy cash-ins for movies and high profile franchises, with only a few games truly making good on their promise. Recently this trend has been improving, and with Shadow of Mordor Monolith has crafted a real surprise, and a contender for one of the most interesting, if not best, ‘next-gen’ experiences yet released on the new consoles.

Licensed from the books, as opposed to the films, Shadow of Mordor carefully avoids all reference to The Lord of the Rings, instead it focuses on the period between the Hobbit and the later books. You play Talion, a ranger from Gondor who, along with his family, is murdered at the start of the game, but somehow saved from death by a mysterious wraith figure. He binds himself to you, and restores you to life so that you may infiltrate Mordor and take on the Black Hand of Sauron himself for revenge. The game establishes its setup cleanly and effectively, and doesn’t get too bogged down in expository story or tutorials. Right from the start it becomes clear that Monolith are working in a very different tonal place to Tolkien when it comes to their depiction of this world, theirs is much darker, and more violent, and that’s before you start lopping the heads off of hundreds of Orcs.

The story from the opening on is largely perfunctory, which actually suits the gameplay fairly well. A more linear, or detailed narrative may have taken away from the real joy of the game, which comes from the emergent narrative the player weaves throughout the open world. Initially the games seems like a solid, if not remarkable re-imagining of various AAA games from recent years, mixing the combat and detective-vision from the Arkham games, with the free-running and traversal that Ubisoft have pioneered through Assassins Creed. And so you find yourself dropped into the relatively large initial map and left to your own devices. It’s refreshing, but also potentially problematic as the real meat of the game takes a while to be established. It’s easy at this stage to wander into hoards of enemies and be fairly easily killed. It’s also possible to be rather confused as to what you are expected to do.

Soon though you learn that dying in Shadow of Mordor is no bad thing, in fact it’s pretty much an in-built mechanic. Because your character can’t die you are known as the Grave-walker and resurrected each time you fall, actually gaining you XP and Power. But the real innovation to this system is what happens to the world around you. Using what has been coined as the ‘Nemesis System’ Shadow of Mordor sets the world in front of you to be populated by a randomly generated and ever-shifting hierarchy of Orcs. These sit in ranks from Captains, to bodyguards and Warchiefs. The board (as it is laid out for you) initially sits in shadow until you uncover the identities of the various figures within the Mordor army. You do this by either randomly encountering enemies in the world, or by interrogating certain Orcs for information using your new found wraith powers. As you kill figures they get replaced, or fall down the ranks, but often they also return for revenge. When someone kills you, they get promoted and grow in power. This leads to lowly Orcs making their way up the food chain if they happen to be the one who strikes the killing blow on you.

To cap this off the game does a great job of imbuing each of the Ocs and Uruks with real personality, along with their own strengths and weaknesses. They will call you out before each encounter, either taunting you or vowing revenge. It’s a simple system at heart, but one with a great deal of depth and complexity that helps the game world feel alive, and changeable in a way that many open world games fail to achieve. Each death starts to matter because you are making your enemies tougher, and in doing so you build up your own grudges against certain figures, which makes eventually taking them down all the more satisfying.

Outside of the main missions, which are decent if somewhat based around tutorialising new abilities, there are a handful of side missions and collectibles to keep you busy in the open world. These largely revolve around weapon specific missions to gain abilities linked to your Sword, Bow and Knife. These help you experiment with the various combat options, the stealth was a particular favourite of mine as it was implemented well, and with enough leniency that sneaking around compounds taking out guards with distractions, or stealth attacks was always rewarding. The Bow also comes into its own later in the game as you unlock extra Focus, an ability that lets you slow time to pick off multiple enemies before they even see you. Again the work Monolith have put into the various systems in the game all come together even in the side missions to make them unpredictable and interesting. Each encounter has multiple options; you can blow out walls to crush guards, explode barrels and fires and even set wild Caragors (wild beasts that roam the landscapes) on your enemies by luring them with hanging meat. All this allows you to often orchestrate chaos below whilst you perch atop a lookout and watch the systems interact. Many a Captain or Warchief was killed not by my own hand, but by a chain reaction that the game let me setup in advance.

Later in the game you get the chance to brand Orcs and turn them to your cause, another fascinating mechanic that again changes the game and allows you to slowly turn the enemy against itself from the shadows. The change perhaps helps cover for the fact that the game is fairly inelegantly split into two sections, where you have largely similar objectives, only in the latter the board resets to reveal another half of the Orc army. The change in location though is a welcome change, it’s rather prettier and lusher than the original, somewhat muddy and brown world you find yourself in, but neither quite achieves a level of visual interest or art design that you would associate with the franchise. It’s a tough balance, as Mordor is hardly a lush fantasy land, but the rather dull exteriors and similar looking outposts make many areas of the map indistinguishable from each other. Thankfully there is a fast travel system that avoids any log slogs between missions, and enough happenings in the world itself to distract from its lack of variety.

All of which is not to say the game doesn’t look good, it does, and the Orcs themselves are brilliantly captured and realised, and the gameplay is smooth throughout with some impressive draw distances, and brutally executed combat moves. It’s somewhat incongruous that some elements of the LoTR films make their way into the game, some missions featuring Gollum feel rather shoehorned in, but it’s a minor quibble.

Ultimately it’s the gameplay, and the Nemesis System that sits at the heart of the game, that make Shadow of Mordor so impressive, and so much fun to play and experiment with. It feels rare for a big release game such as this to give the player such freedom to complete their objectives. It’s refreshing and allows you to feel smart, and use the fully spectrum of abilities at your disposal to figure out the best way of accomplishing your goal. ‘Kill the Warchiefs’ the game tells you, but never focuses in too much on the specifics. Want to lure them out and set wild animals on them? Go ahead. Want to kill his bodyguards so that when he shows he will be vulnerable? Why not. Later on it gets even more interesting as you can turn an entire stronghold against the unsuspecting Warchief as walks unknowingly into your trap.

It’s encouraging to see developers see this generation of consoles as being about more than just a leap in graphical fidelity, but as an opportunity to explore new gameplay mechanics and AI behaviours. These emergent systems will not be included on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions of the game (which are not out yet) and so those SKUs should be approached with caution.

On paper then parts of Shadow of Mordor are impressive, if somewhat derivative and familiar, but placed together, and underpinned by the dynamic enemy systems it becomes so much more. Shadow of Mordor is a focused, confident game that issues a challenge to other developers, and personally I can’t wait to see how they respond.

Game reviewed on PS4; game was provided by the publisher.

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