In the world of nerdism, you’d be hard pushed to place anything above Lord of the Rings as ‘the nerdiest thing ever’ – a rich, detailed world that essentially defined fantasy genre, that has entertained generations of readers. It should be the perfect setting for a game, probably the best fantasy game you can imagine, but designers have stumbled while bringing Middle-earth to life. Lord of the Rings Online was, thankfully, the last time I had a go at becoming a Hobbit and going on an adventure.
In September 2014, Monolith Productions took a shot at the Middle-earth mythos with Shadow of Mordor. The first that a lot of people saw was a gameplay video that was very reminiscent of Assassin’s Creed, with a focus on stealth, sneaky kills and free-running; there were some other controversies there as well, through some shady actions on Warner Brothers’ part, but we’ll leave that to Google to remember.
Despite a shaky start, Shadow of Mordor did well. One selling point was that the story behind it was an original piece written by a dedicated team, who reached out to different sources to ensure that their story fit within the universe. Set between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Shadow of Mordor follows Talion, a soldier who falls to an Orc attack and is infused with the wraith of an Elf Lord, on his quest to uncover said wraith’s identity and avenge the death of his family.
It sounds very cliché, but when you’re inserting into the fantasy epic that defined so many of these tropes, you can get away with it.
There were gameplay mechanics that really stood out and made it a game to remember – namely, the Nemesis system. As you progress, you’ll fight alot of Orcs (obviously) throughout Mordor – the combat system behind Shadow of Mordor is quite good and makes it easy to unleash deadly force on a camp of Orcs, with light and heavy attacks strung together with strong combo attacks – it’s a lot like the Arkham series combat system, chaining attacks in a pseudo-freeflow system that isn’t quite as smooth.
As you murderise your way through Sauron’s armies, they will also be developing on their own; there are a number of Orc leaders and commanders and such, who will be fighting for new power or keeping theirs in line. Each have their own Strengths and Weaknesses, that can easily turn a fight to either side’s favour – taking time to interrogate weaker Orcs for information can make or break an assassination attempt before it even begins. ‘Interrogation’ is a codeword for blasting them in the retinas with your undead Elf face and screeching like a banshee until they die, somehow transferring information about Dagruul fearing bees without either party actually talking.
Every so often, you will fall to an enemy who will be recognised for their success and progress through the Orc ranks. The cool thing behind this system is that it learns from you to build up a personality for these Orcs – if you previously threw one into a fire during a fight, they might want revenge for their disfigurement when they come across you again or they may even be fearful of fire, which you can use against them in a fight.
The more times you happen to fall against enemies, the more powerful they will become and the more upsets there will be to the armies of Mordor – leaders and commanders will shift around, making it more difficult for you to reach them and exact your revenge.
The world does suffer a little from Ubiworld Syndrome, where you’ll be running across a huge map to pick up fast travel points and quests. Mordor, as a whole, is large and barren – there are collectibles hidden throughout the map for you to hunt down, offering upgrades to your dagger, sword and bow. This is set before Mordor became lava, so there are some cool setpieces you can come across along the way, but once you’ve unlocked the fast travel pillars, you won’t see much more.
If I’m completely honest, I don’t remember much of the story behind the game – this is equal parts because I haven’t played it in a while, and because it’s mostly all about killing bigger and madder Orcs (well, obviously). You’ll be treated to a little history of the main characters, but to progress you’ll need to figure out new ways to sneak into camps and take out the new Orc leaders. Oh also, there’s Gollum, so take that as you will…
The sneaking part was quite fun and open to the player, allowing you to carefully skim through a camp and watch a leader’s moves to plan your attack. It can easily, and quickly, turn on you though; one rogue archer with the eyes of a wraith (probably) will throw your plan into disarray and you have to choose between standing and delivering or, my personal favourite, leg it and hide in a berry bush until they get bored. Rinse and repeat until Marful the Merciless is Murdered.
Overall, Shadow of Mordor is pretty decent – it certainly looks the part, with different areas of the map giving a new feel as you snuck through them, and threw in a lot of good mechanics that help it along. It suffers a little in adopting good parts of larger and more popular franchises and trying to use all of them in one game – it’s enjoyable, but a bit janky. It would do well with some more focus on core aspects of the experience and keeping everything along the way on the same path.
It’s probably still the best Lord of the Rings game yet though, so there’s that.