It’s funny how there haven’t been consistently brilliant games based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic Middle-earth universe beyond LEGO form. Here is a fantasy setting, ripe for the taking, but the potential is always squandered. Since WB Games obtained the rights to produce games based on the franchise, we’ve seen efforts range from MMORPGs to MOBAs, but the best and most authentic have merged the franchise with a global toy brand.
Perhaps the problem is that we see little expansion on the universe, instead being confined to the events from the books. In an effort to reinvigorate the franchise, Monolith Productions have set Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor in between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, a time when Sauron is amassing his armies in Mordor. It’s certainly a risky strategy, but this freedom has certainly worked well!
We start to find that our hero Talion – a ranger of Gondor who was tasked with guarding the Black Gate, is revived by the wraith Celebrimbor after Talion witnesses the slaughter of his family before being killed by The Black Hand of Sauron as a sacrifice to bring back Celebrimbor. However Celebrimbor has no memory of his prior life, so uses Talion to recover relics of his past life.
It should be said that while the narrative is fitting, it is a highly generic telling of a story set in Middle-earth. The early quest arc with Gollum feels forced, while a later story arc borrows directly from Lord of the Rings. In fact the only drastically different quest arcs were helping an Orc raise his profile within the hierarchy of Sauron’s army and accompanying a dwarf on a hunting expedition, which of course are the highlights in the plot. Even the ending is somewhat underwhelming.
Just much like The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the appeal in Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is the journey. In this open world, you have the freedom one would normally associate with Assassin’s Creed. Each area contains Forge Towers which act just like the Eagle points and act as fast travel beacons for convenience. Mobility is always a factor in open world games and thankfully the mobility of Shadow of Mordor is involved and intuitive.
“Something’s lurking around!”
The desolate landscape we’ve come to expect out of Tolkien’s Mordor soon gives way to far more appealing, sweeping views of a coastal region just off the Sea of Númen. Ruined fortresses are still present wherever you are, but the world is nicely designed with plenty of nooks and crannies to delve into. It helps that Shadow of Mordor is quite the looker for an open world game and the presentation strongly resembles the atmosphere from the Peter Jackson films.
Even without the main storyline missions that expand on the lore of Middle-earth before the events of Lord of the Rings, there is plenty for you to explore. You can undertake quests to uncover treasure, hunt the local fauna, gather the local flora; and be that pesky thorn in Sauron’s army’s side by interrupting hunts, executions or recruitment drives.
Comparisons will be made not only to Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed franchise thanks to the stealth gameplay, but also Rocksteady’s Batman games thanks to a similar combat style. There are however subtle differences, mostly to do with how the game handles the more supernatural elements to the movement and combat.
As a Ranger, Talion’s stealth and combat skills are nicely supplemented by the ability to stun foes, fire arrows from afar, and even use mind tricks to gain intelligence on leaders. Combat can certainly be challenging at first, but dying as it turns out is a crucially important and compelling part of the game. While the QTE segments are used sparingly, it does slightly disrupt the combat flow. Once you get the hang of it though, the game becomes a breeze for normal foes, only really challenging when you face one of the leaders in Sauron’s army.
This brings us to perhaps the most revolutionary thing about Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor – the Nemesis system. Sauron’s army is constantly evolving and feuding, with Uruk leaders turning against each other more times than contestants in your average episode of The Apprentice! Each leader has their strengths and weaknesses that shift as they gain power levels from killing Talion, completing quests, or surpassing superiors.
Talion can of course use this to his advantage by dominating foes to take on rivals, betray their superiors, or indeed infiltrate a Warchief’s armed guard. By purposefully increasing their rank, you can obtain better relics to boost your attack. Later in the game you are granted the ability to brand enemies, with all conscripts being able to trigger at a whim. There’s nothing quite like cackling as that pesky Warchief who has been a thorn in your side for a good while is suddenly betrayed by those sworn to protect him. You can even choose to help your branded foes in their endeavours, quests that your usual goal is to interrupt.
Enemies remember who you are, and what you’ve done to them in the past. If a particular enemy was thrown into a fire for example, he may develop a fear of fire which will affect how you fight him. Other conditions will make them angry, making them more difficult to beat. As cool as that is, what makes the Nemesis system so compelling is a small, but vital touch: they taunt you as they see you, referencing prior battles. This will be different for everyone, but each player will have that “Ah ha!” moment at some point.
Mine came from one of the leaders who I had killed by the name of Orthog the Taskmaster. Somehow Orthog came back from the grave, commenting on how Talion had cursed him and how he needed to kill Talion to break the curse. Killing him again altered his appearance drastically, with his opening gambit to sneak up on Talion mid-battle and with the words “Remember me?” plunging his dagger into Talion’s stomach. Dispatching him several more times heralded his final appearance, now with a heavily bandaged face and a snide comment about how he just keeps coming back.
Aside from the Nemesis system however, which is essentially the meat of the game, the rest on offer is nothing you haven’t seen before. Sure there is plenty of lore to uncover, as well as various other collectables if you’re into that sort of thing and WB Games have been adding stuff into the game since launch such as a robust Photo Mode, new character skins and new relics to equip. Even the Nemesis system suffers slightly from repeated character traits. I already have a new rival called Orthog, only this one isn’t an undead Taskmaster!
While it lasts though, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is competent and compelling. It doesn’t break the mould drastically beyond its Nemesis system, relying on what has worked for other key franchises to flesh out the experience; but it is a fantastic romp where the side quests are more engaging than the main plot! This Tolkien inspired work captures the essence of Middle-earth, about the journey and the quest, rather than the goal. Monolith Productions have done the franchise justice.