Reload: Shadow of Mordor

Reload: Shadow of Mordor – Into The Frying Pan

Reload is a new series of articles in which I look back at recent games typically from the current or last generation and reappraise them after the dust has settled. Next up is Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor.

Games based in the Lord of the Rings universe have been on a somewhat downward trend in recent years. In 2011 came Snowblind Studios’ Lord of the Rings: War in the North, a hack-and-slash action game that failed to impress critically and sold pretty poorly too. Next came Guardians of Middle-earth, a MOBA from Monolith Productions which also failed to set the land of Mordor on fire. Thankfully Monolith’s next attempt came off much more favourably in the form of 2014’s Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor. With a sequel on its way later this year I thought I’d pick up the first game and play it for myself with the title having been on my radar for quite a while.

First of all, as with any Lord of the Rings based property there is the question of setting. Shadow of Mordor takes place between The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy and follows a ranger of Gondor named Talion. After his family is murdered at the Black Gate by the Black Hand (one of Sauron’s lieutenants) Talion is revived with some new wraith-like powers that allow him to seek his revenge along with a mysterious elf who is also trapped between life and death. You don’t need to know too much about what’s come before but needless to say Mordor isn’t the complete wasteland that it becomes in the books or films as Sauron is only just beginning to re-build his forces.

Shadow of Mordor

Sauron may not be at full strength but there’s plenty of Orcs to kill.

The clear highlight of Shadow of Mordor is the Nemesis system which allows players to craft their own mini-narrative amidst the hierarchy of Uruks (strong Orcs) and manipulate the outcomes of various power struggles, feasts, executions and duels that determine which Uruks grow stronger and are promoted and which are killed. Talion’s goal is to basically defeat the Warchiefs who are top of the hierarchy and install his own supporters there. Each Uruk in the Nemesis system is randomly generated in various ways from its name, armour, appearance, abilities, strengths and weaknesses. This provides a limitless number of enemies to hunt down and means you can play around in the Nemesis system as long as you want. There are really cool touches that make each battle feel personal. If an Uruk captain is injured and escapes he’ll remember you next time you encounter him and might be wearing a few scars or be afraid of fire after you exploded a barrel near his ugly face. When Talion is killed he comes back to life some time later but death comes at a cost – the enemy who defeated you will have grown in power and becomes a revenge target. Later on in the game comes the ability to brand Uruks and have them work for you which makes the system even more fun to mess around in. It’s a deep and fairly comprehensive system but how deeply players want to delve into it is up to them. I can honestly say it’s one of the most refreshing new ideas I’ve seen implemented in the action-RPG genre.

Shadow of Mordor

Each captain or warchief has their own strengths, weaknesses and abilities.

All the gameplay feeds into the Nemesis system in an parctical way. Gaining XP or Power will allow Talion to purchase new abilities that allows him to mess with the Uruks even more while collecting the currency Mirian will allow you to buy stat boosts and rune slots to upgrade your weapons. Beside the missions that utilise the Nemesis system there are weapon challenges scattered across the map and collectibles that add more context to the world plus herb gathering and hunting challenges. There’s certainly plenty to do in the game and a nice change of pace is available should you tire of hunting Uruks. When it comes to movement and combat, Shadow of Mordor is less original than it is in its excellent Nemesis system. The climbing and running controls very much like Assassin’s Creed but more like Assassin’s Creed II than the later games in that series and it can feel a bit sluggish and hard to control at times. When it comes to combat Shadow of Mordor takes more than a pinch of inspiration from the Batman Arkham games featuring counters, stuns, special combo takedowns and more. There are some differences though, Talion’s bow and ability to teleport to a faraway enemy keeps you moving fluidly yet the timing isn’t as responsive or fluid as the Arkham games since Talion is fighting with a sword and, well, isn’t Batman. One area where the Arkham series can’t compete though is the sheer brutality of the kill animations used by Talion.

Shadow of Mordor

Ouch.

I believe I’m about half way through the main story missions and so far it seems fairly good to average in my opinion. Talion isn’t the most charismatic and the grim revenge story is one we’ve all heard before. His dynamic with his elf companion is an interesting one and revelations later on about the elf tie into the larger Lord of the Rings universe in a major way. Although Shadow of Mordor does a decent job of explaining various aspects of the world in an appendices that unlocks things to read as you discover them, it has been quite a while since I read Lord of the Rings or watched the films so I found myself scratching my head once or twice as the game features plenty of name dropping and references to what’s come before it and what’s to come after it. Nevertheless, some of this may become clearer as I complete more of the story.

Without the terrific Nemesis system, Shadow of Mordor becomes a much more average game but the agency it gives you as a player could keep me entertained for many hours to come. Thoughtfully designed RPG elements such as upgrading Talion, his weapons and stats plus taking inspiration from a combat system that is proven to work also makes Mordor a fun place to spend time in even if it is a little lacking in terms of variety. I’m interested to see how the story wraps up but it’s the gameplay loop that really has me hooked and I can’t wait to see how that evolves in Shadow of War later on this year.

What did you think of Shadow of Mordor? What changes would you like to see in the sequel?

Let me know by commenting below.

Feel free to check out the first article in my Reload series on Watch Dogs.

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