Taking place between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor doesn’t aim to bridge the gap between the two series, but rather it introduces you to a brand new character within a world that doesn’t exactly follow the rules of the usual canon. For starters, mortals don’t usually come back to life in the Tolkien world, but after he and his family are ritually slain by Sauron’s Uruk forces, Talion is given a chance for vengeance after being merged with the Wraith of a mysterious Elf.
Throwing around names and terms that you’re not familiar with isn’t going to sell you on the game, but if you’re not savvy with the works of Tolkien, fear not, as the game isn’t really connected to any of the books or films. It takes place in the same world–sort of–and features a few familiar faces, like Gollum and Sauron, but I don’t feel it’s necessary to be a fan of the source material in order to enjoy the game. Anyone important is given plenty of background information that can be read at your own discretion, but story isn’t exactly the game’s strong suite to begin with.
What starts off as a tale of tragedy and revenge doesn’t really stray from the familiar during the game’s 20+ hour journey. Dialogue is well written and expertly voice acted, thanks to the likes of Troy Baker and Nolan North, but the story told isn’t much to write home about. Talion and his family are slain, he’s saved from death by merging with a Wraith, and you spend the rest of the game slaying Sauron’s minions in the name of revenge–nothing more, nothing less. Talion is also a bit drab for a leading character, but thankfully the journey is a hell of a lot more satisfying; as slaughtering orcs in the most creative ways possible never overstayed its welcome.
Early footage of the game seemed to display a bit of an identity crisis, and while the finished product certainly borrows from a few big names in the industry, Shadow of Mordor is divergent enough to stand on its own thanks to a few well executed (and fun) gameplay mechanics. First and foremost is the Nemesis System, which shapes the personalities and leadership roles of the orcs in the game based on your interactions with them, or their internal conflict with each other. For instance, injuring an Uruk captain will cause him to show up later with bandages wrapped around his face, perhaps mentioning the fire you threw him in to, or the damage you inflicted during your previous altercation. Dying at the hands of a captain will cause them to “level up”, thus increasing their overall power; and possibly their rank.
The Nemesis System is incredibly designed and made the open world feel alive. Uruks aren’t just there to slay the Ranger, but to follow their own goals and become a Warchief as well. You’ll witness power struggles across the land, where Uruks will dual, riot, and battle one another for a chance at being promoted. Even the lowly fodder enemies can begin their journey of becoming a Warchief by killing the player. From that point forward, the once forgettable Uruk will remember your face as they work their way through the ranks of competing orcs and make additional attempts at your life, should you cross paths again.
But how is one man supposed to take on an army of Uruks and the captains of Sauron himself? About halfway through the game, Talion levels the playing field as he learns how to brand orcs, bending them to his will. Rather than killing them off, you control their actions–turning every archer stationed in a stronghold against the ground troops, having a captain betray his own Warchief, or something as extreme as turning everyone against one single Uruk are just a few things you can do. You can let your imagination run wild as the game’s story takes a back seat to a world full of orcs that you can bend and control as you see fit.
Combat can best be described as the stealthy open-world approach of Assassin’s Creed, and the combo-and-counter system of the Arkham series during moments of swordplay. Since Uruks greatly outnumber the Ranger, sometimes brute force isn’t your best option. You’ll spend a lot of time sneaking around, silently dispatching Uruks with your dagger, but Talion also has access to a bow; allowing him to slow down time for well-lined headshots, explode campfires, dash through the shadows to assassinate a ranged target, or even pin enemies to the ground. Building combos also allows the use of more formidable abilities, like gruesome executions, or an area-of-effect blast to stagger larger groups.
Your preferred playstyle can also be improved by engraving runes on to your weapons, obtained by defeating Uruk captains and Warchiefs. Runes can assist Talion in many different ways, like refueling health after bow kills, dealing additional damage when attacking from behind, or causing nearby Uruks to flee in terror after brutalizing one of their friends. If you like mauling Uruks while on the back of a Caragor, there’s a rune for that! Want your focus to drain slower so you can line up more headshots? There’s a rune for that too! Rune quality is pretty random, but you can obtain better ones by killing more powerful enemies. It’s just another incentive to explore the world and pick as many fights as possible.
Shadow of Mordor features a few different RPG elements, awarding you XP through side-quests, collectibles, or burying your dagger in the backs of the unlucky passerby. Leveling up allows you to spend perk points in to two distinct talent trees–Ranger and Wraith. Ranger focuses more on the combat side of things, while Wraith improves your ability to dominate mountable creatures (like Caragors and Graugs) and bend the will of Orcs. You can also spend in-game currency to increase your health pool, hold more arrows, or unlock extremely powerful abilities that allow unlimited executions or stealth kills for a brief period of time. Certain abilities are locked until you’ve killed enough captains or Warchiefs, so there’s definitely incentive to take part in the largely entertaining open-world antics of Uruks–either by slaying them outright, or creating chaos by way of mind control.
Combat and stealth both control fairly well, but like the series it borrows from, free-run exploration can be a bit touchy. The world is more open than that of Assassin’s Creed, but I still found myself unintentionally scaling walls, or fighting the camera in tight spaces. It occurs far less often that it does in the Assassin’s Creed series, but it’s still an issue worth mentioning. Shadow of Mordor only features two different maps as well, which aren’t very large in size by open-world standards. Still, they’re as big as they need to be, which is enough to scatter a plethora of side quests; like freeing human slaves or taking part in weapon-based challenges, and made easier to explore thanks to an excellent fast travel system that’s also borrowed from Assassin’s Creed.
Shadow of Mordor‘s finely tuned combat and lighthearted story fare definitely make the game more accessible to those just looking for a solid action/adventure game, but I really wanted something I could sink my teeth in to. The game also ends rather abruptly–after a lackluster QTE-driven final boss encounter, no less–and feels unresolved, potentially leading in to the game’s future DLC. While I’d love to see a more conclusive ending for Talion and company, I sure as hell don’t want to pay for it.
But overall, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is an extremely fun romp in the land of Mordor, and I’d go as far as to say it’s the best game in the Tolkien universe. Exploring a breathing world that shaped itself through its innovative Nemesis System, branding Uruks to my will, far exceeded my expectations for what I assumed would be a dry Assassin’s Creed and Arkham clone. Combat and exploration were about what I expected, for better or sometimes worse, but the total package was mostly a pleasure to play through. It’s just a shame the Uruks had more personality than ol’ Talion.
*This review is based on the Playstation 4 version of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, but unless we find significant differences between each version, consider this our definitive review.
Bradley Keene is the Executive Editor here at What’s Your Tag?, generally handling news, reviews, public relations, and our social media communications on Facebook and Twitter. He’s an aspiring video game journalist, Baltimore native, and on again/off again WoW player that blasphemously favors consoles over PC. He’ll always have a soft spot for Nintendo, and his favorite game is the original Metroid on NES. As a Marylander he naturally puts Old Bay on everything, loves the Orioles, reads a lot of Poe, and says “son” too much. Contact him by e-mail at the address above, or follow him on Twitter.