Making a new entry in a heavily established franchise is common. Making your entry good is, for reasons beyond me, is insanely difficult. When that franchise is Tolkien’s Middle Earth it’s near impossible. Going to the source novels, taking sequences and making them interactive will not help you. There is no possible way for you to approach it in a way that satisfies the fans. It is damn near impossible to forge a new sequel entry with the established characters that will not be torn apart like meat thrown to a starved zoo lion. So you’re limited to sidestories that cover things mentioned in the main narrative or ones that can not ultimately have any bearing on the source’s events. New characters, or established secondary characters from lesser known works in the world, doing things that are fairly meaningless. I don’t envy devs who take on these challenges. The results are often poor cash grabs or solid titles that have to fight a vicious uphill battle to shake off the stink of terrible cash grabs. The fan bases often loudly threaten everyone you’ve ever met because of it either way. It’s a pretty thankless position to be in if you are trying to make something good with an IP that gets reverent treatment.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is one of the good ones. Monolith, in their second Tolkien title, while holding the source in reverence they have also found an interesting tale to tell. In the 60 years between Bilbo’s adventure and the War of the Ring, Gondor’s Rangers still keep watch on the hordes of Mordor. Though their watch is lazy and unfocused after the long centuries of quiet. Talion has long been stationed in a garrison directly before the Black Gate. His wife, adult son and the troops under his command live out their days in the harsh environment of the crumbling and quickly being abandoned garrison. Until the night a horde of Sauron’s Orc, led by three Black Númenóreans, raid the garrison and offer Talion, his family and all others up as blood sacrifices to draw in the wraith of Celebrimbor, the Elven blacksmith who forged the Rings. Talion find himself denied death and connected to the wraith with only bloody revenge on both their minds.
At the start both Talion and his wraith partner are fairly generic revenge driven killing machines but as the story progress they come forward with strong individual personalities and views. They are well written and have no problem driving the plot forward without often feeling forced. Their decisions are understandable based on how they’re presented. The writing that makes them work deserves a nod and more than faint praise. It’s strong and it’s a shame that more, tie-in or not, titles don’t put in the same effort.
Head slicing… and dicing
Shadow of Mordor is an open world action game. Which is far from an uncrowded genre. Monolith manages to learn from the best of the genre, bring those elements together well and add some new tricks of their own. Being a Warner Brothers game there is a heavy influence of their currently reigning (but soon ending) Batman Arkham franchise. Combat is divided between three weapons. Talion’s sword for direct melee combat, a broken sword used as a dagger for stealth and an wraith bow for ranged and environmental destruction. Combat is incredibly satisfying with its brutal kills and rhythmic flow. Don’t think that you can just rush into a large group and start chopping off limbs. Every fight has it’s own flavor, every enemy class has a strategy of it’s own and every combination has their own approaches. While slicing and dicing is fun, if you don’t think out your next move you are going to die. Often. Frustratingly. A single slip up can be unrecoverable from and occasionally a strategic retreat is the only option you have. Being deep in Mordor, rampaging through their fully complemented strongholds, you can expect many fights to go from being a small quick skirmish to a lengthy fight against dozens.
Of course jumping in isn’t your only option. Stealth is often viable. Sneaking up on an enemy and deciding how to dispatch him. Do you kill him quietly so no one notices or do you grab him and pretend you are an escapee from a butcher’s apprenticeship in the hopes your brutality will scare off the witnesses? Do you stick just to the shadows and poison their supply of grog or blow it up and try to take out as many as possible with the blast? Maybe free a wild carnivorous animal in their ranks? Shadow of Mordor’s heavy focus on killing can drag at times, the only other thing to do is explore, there are no side quests that offer a break from killing. Side quests are just killing a new targeted group or making sure a target survives an ambush but that’s done in the same way as every other encounter. As great as the encounters are… a mission or four to break things up a little would not be amiss.
Where SoM really shines is the Nemesis system. While at first glance it looks like just a list of Orc Captains to check off, it’s much deeper than that. Each Orc is a randomly generated enemy with his own skills, weaknesses and personality. While some similarities are going to happen (you kill so many of them), there do rise some amazing enemies that leave a lasting mark on the player’s experience. Each are individually named and they level up on their own as time progresses. They have in fights and celebrations. They can take over other captain’s men in a dual or be executed by one who feels they threaten their power. You find yourself hating some of them. Find yourself meticulously planning their deaths. Kicking yourself when your scheme fails, thrilling when they fall to your blade… and there is no more deflating feeling than having your worst foe reappear because you didn’t pull a move that cut off his head the last three times you killed him. If I may… I present the Tale of Norsko the Relentless.
After a few hours of being the scourge of Mordor, slaying a legion of Sauron’s army and their captains like they were mere flies, Shaggy-Talion found his first death at the hands of a random drone. A spear that pierced his back and perforated his lung. The Orc who threw it congratulated himself on his certain promotion. Being hot for revenge anyway on my resurrection I rushed directly for him. Getting to him took some time. I slayed a few of his compatriots who found themselves in my path. Occasionally checking the war summary and seeing my hated enemy level up. Anticipating how much satisfaction placing my dagger in his eye would bring. So there I stood balanced high on a wire between rundown shacks waiting breathlessly for my target. As he turned a corner I dropped on him and fist pumped as my dagger went through his eye thinking him a memory now. Never guessing my next death would be not long after… by his hand. Accidentally running across him while playing another mission. Again dying by his spear while admiring his new spiked metal eye cover bolted to his head. He came back insanely stated. He couldn’t be stealth killed, no melee kills, he could smell me a mile away, he was harder to kill with arrows and beasts could not hurt him as he’d dispatch them quickly. Only fire or arrows. Norsko became my worst enemy. I dreamed of his death and repeatedly tried to bring it about. Failing so often, dying by his spear frequently. He never held feasts so I couldn’t poison his drink. He never went near fire so burning him was not an option. When I finally killed him with an arrow, he, having reached maximum rank of Warchief, I thought my nightmare was over. I was wrong. He returned again with a bag on his head, wrapped to keep it all together.
Even though this final encounter was the shortest as I finally had fire arrows… Norsko is what raised MoS from a solid action title to a great game. It is the only experience where I found myself driven by a character that wasn’t the hero. I eagerly anticipated each of our duels. I felt ecstatic when I won and crushed when I lost. I very literally hate Norsko the Relentless and was deeply disappointed that I never drew another opponent who was as worth. None of the others pushed me to get better at the mechanics and level up hard to open new possible strategies.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is a lot of fun. Monolith did right by Tolkien and delivered a great open world. While it stumbles in the last hour or so of gameplay and story, all that comes before is worth the trip. It looks like Warner Brothers has a great series to take up the hole they’ll be left with when Batman Arkham soon hangs up its cape.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor- 8.9/10- Even though it’s a great game and does everything very well… the clumsy wrap up, sequel baiting finally and lack of missions that don’t offer the chance to do something besides kill are marks against it. Almost great but not exactly there.