SHADOW OF DEATH
Note: The following review is SPOILER FREE!
It was around five hours into my time with Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor that I had an interesting realization: I had only completed a couple of the main missions. Normally I like to engross myself in a games’ narrative, but Shadow of Mordor proved to be different. The 10 hour campaign acts as a serviceable side-show to the real star: an orc army just waiting to be conquered and corrupted. There’s a sizeable campaign to complete in Shadow of Mordor, but there’s a good chance you won’t even begin it in earnest for many, many hours.
“Not all those who wander are lost.”
The story in Shadow of Mordor is one of straight up vengeance. You play as Talion, a ranger stationed at The Black Gate who suffers an unspeakable tragedy. After seemingly dying in the opening minutes of the game, Talion returns to life with a mysterious spirit in tow. This wraith provides Talion with a whole host of supernatural abilities to use on his quest for vengeance, while also harboring plenty of secrets of his own. The set-up is quite simple, and the main storyline follows a slightly predictable line throughout the 10 or so hours it’ll take to complete. I felt that there was nothing really special about the plot, and even the appearance of a very famous Lord of the Rings character wasn’t enough to elevate it to the next level.
Outside of Talion, his wraith companion, and the aforementioned Lord of the Rings character, only a few characters really stood out to me. A dwarf hunter named Torvin provides some much needed comic relief upon meeting him, but your time spent with him is all too fleeting. Several other characters drift in and out of the storyline as you complete missions, but I found myself struggling to remember some of their names after parting ways with them for the final time. The main boss enemies you fight throughout the campaign are well designed but are severely lacking the charisma to be memorable villains. The culmination of the storyline is also a little weak, and I don’t foresee myself playing through it again anytime soon.
“Looks like meat’s back on the menu boys!”
The campaign isn’t where Shadow of Mordor’s strength lies, however. Time and again you will find yourself sucked into the ongoing power struggle playing out between Sauron’s army of Orcs. The much touted “Nemesis system” delivers a wonderful, dynamic experience that changes the standing of the battlefield after nearly every battle. You will come across many orcs while exploring Mordor, and if one of these lowly creatures should kill you, he may find his standing within Sauron’s army increased. Orc’s can get promoted up the ranks to become a captain, and from there they compete with all of the other captains to gain the favor of a Warchief, or even become one themselves. I found that a lot of the captains actually had a lot more charisma than the enemies you fight during the campaign. You can almost create your own story with the game as you get killed by new captains, and promptly go seeking vengeance on them afterwards.
A new ability that you gain midway through the story allows you to “brand” captains, effectively making them your pawns. This adds a huge new layer of depth to the “Nemesis system,” as you can now shape the army as you see fit. Whether it’s branding a captain to help you fight against a particularly strong one, or inciting a riot by having your branded Warchief attack one of his cohorts, branding orcs provides hours of entertainment on its own. Branding a Warchief’s bodyguards and turning them on him in battle is massively satisfactory, and will lead to many smug moments for gamers around the world.
None of this would be near as good, though, if the combat system didn’t match-up, but thankfully it delivers in spades. You may have heard comparisons made between Shadow of Mordor and the Arkham series, and the comparisons are absolutely spot-on. Talion has all of Batman’s signature moves, albeit with a wraith-powered twist and plenty of decapitations. Building up your combo meter is quick and easy, leading to some very brutal executions. It’s not all hack-and-slash, however, with there being plenty of stealthy options on display. Talion’s arsenal of three weapons is a little on the low side, but his sword, bow, and dagger are all fully upgradeable via stat-boosting runes and devastating, unlockable abilities. The bow and the dagger provide plenty of stealth kill opportunities, although I found that the battles inevitably get loud and crowded after a little while.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor isn’t quite the best looking game I’ve played on PS4, but it manages to hold its own with impressive character models and draw distances. The two areas in the game have very little in common, with the first half of the game depressingly dark before leading into a bright, grass-covered second half. Each captain and Warchief has unique distinguishing features, with many orcs bearing scars after previous battles against you. The creature design left a little to be desired, however, with some of Mordor’s native wildlife looking rather bland next to their orc counterparts.
In the sound department, a well-composed score perfectly complements the action. Somber tones accompany Talion’s darkest moments with the tempo rising as you take on dozens of orcs. The voice acting ranges from phoned in to extremely good. Troy Baker brings a subtle nobility to Talion, while the returning character from Lord of the Rings is incredibly voiced by a sound-alike. I honestly would not have realized it wasn’t the original actor if I hadn’t found out beforehand, such was the quality of the work on show here.
If you’re looking for an intense Lord of the Rings story that builds on the lore of Tolkien’s masterfully crafted world, then Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor isn’t the game for you. If instead you want a cracking good action-adventure game, with sharp combat and a deep enemy system, then Shadow of Mordor will provide all of that and more. I spent over 35 hours mastering its combat and finding all of its secrets, yet I still have the urge to return to Mordor and slay some captains. A disappointing story would normally be a huge mark against a game for me, but Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor’s strengths far outweighed the weaknesses to ensure it is the most fun I’ve had playing a game this year.
Do you want more of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ lore in ‘Shadow of Mordor,’ or were you satisfied with the gameplay alone? Leave your precious comments below.
*This review of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is based on playing a digital copy of the game on the PlayStation 4 console.
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