If you enjoyed any of the Assassin’s Creed series or Batman Arkham franchise then Shadow of Mordor will be right up your street. The game manages to blend that fast-paced, counter-stun-flurry combat style with stealth and exploration sections that keep the game varied.
You play as Talion, a ranger of Gondor whom along with his family is brutally murdered by the main antagonist, the Black Hand of Sauron. Talion discovers he has been ‘banished from death’ and his fate has been bonded to that of a wraith, via the ritualistic murder at the behest of Sauron. Tolkein fans will be astonished by how the story of Shadow of Mordor follows the Middle Earth continuity almost to the letter, introducing appendices throughout the game on every aspect of Mordor and all its inhabitants that the player can browse at their leisure. The story itself however, is not particularly inspiring; progression is much as expected on a linear path to revenge and freedom from the curse laid on Talion.
Luckily, the gameplay is exemplary, with a large number of ways of approaching any encounter, from just wading in sword swinging to quietly removing all opposition from a distant position with ranged attacks. Truth be told, the stealth elements of the game take a lot from Assassin’s Creed, in that you can traverse buildings in much the same way and perform ledge or aerial kills in a very similar manner. Unlike Ubisoft’s triple A franchise, combat situations are very easy to become overwhelmed in, as a vast number of orcs start pouring in from all directions and it becomes difficult to get stay in control of the situation whilst dodging archers and close quarters attacks. This difficulty ramp is never too steep though, and it feeds well into the showpiece of the game; the nemesis system.
Watching an Uruk rise through his society through various power accruing events is not only interesting to watch, it also makes each encounter with said Uruk memorable and keeps encounters from becoming bland and repetitive. Each captain has his own respective strengths and weaknesses that can be found through interrogation of certain orcs and then exploited at will. One of the ways for an orc to rise through the ranks is to kill you, the player; death is followed by a cinematic showing how the orc society shuffles around as a direct result of your demise before you respawn vowing revenge and recompense with gritted teeth and a grim smile on your face. Power struggles and other facets of the AI’s military order are only improved when Talion gains the ability to control orcs through domination by wraith powers. Watching an Uruk you have ‘branded’ progress from captain to bodyguard to warchief, whilst commanding him to incite discord among the others and gather more followers is in many ways more involving than Talion’s story (especially the latter parts which left me sighing at the screen). The sheer amount of actions available to your very own private orc army can keep any player amused for hours.
Another problem however, is that as any LOTR fans know, Mordor isn’t the most interesting of locales, described in the books as the ‘land of ash and shadow’. Predictably, that is most of what the game’s version is made up of, with the odd friendly orc BBQ party or ruined buildings interspersed between sweeping expanses of……ash, mud, and not a lot else. It’s a shame because the nemesis system interplays well with the combat, with even late game missions not simply becoming a choice between brand or kill but more working out which mind-numbingly brutal moveset to select and flow through from your ever expanding arsenal, a particular favourite of mine being pointing your bow at an enemy, teleporting over and liberating his ugly head from his misshapen shoulders. It’s touches like these that kept me striving to progress to the next grey horizon between the grey sky and grey landscape. The rewards system manages to tread the difficulty ramp perfectly, and the side missions lend themselves well to this, providing varied quests to progress to the next ability or upgrade, aiding Talion in his vengeful rampage/recruitment programme.
Shadow of Mordor is essentially a game with a big heart of gold composed of awesome gameplay, jaw-dropping executions, diverse side missions and a complex, well rounded set-piece provided by the nemesis system. Then Warner Brothers and Monolith have taken it and covered it in a dirty (though in fairness, thin) layer of uninspiring story and depressing scenery.
Intuitive, varied gameplay
Excellent AI system
Who doesn’t want a private army of orcs?
Story falls somewhat short of epic