One of the reassuring things about Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is the amount of power the game provides to you. With power, of course, comes great responsibility. Shadow of Mordor provides you with one responsibility:
Your own life.
You have all the power available to you, but you should always fear defeat in the free flowing combat mechanism combined with a very impressive looking open world, full of lore to find, and danger around every corner. However, the most impressive item within Shadow of Mordor is the enemy hierarchy system, which highlights the importance of victory and defeat, making players ever so cautious to avoid death.
The game opens with a shocking and confronting cutscene. Talion, a former Ranger of Gondor, is captured and brutally murdered in a ritualistic execution alongside his family. Unlike his family, Talion is returned to Middle Earth, as opposed to dying as he is bound by an elf ghost. The game makes good use of Gollum, who is not a personal favorite character. Gollum had helped to provide key insights into the elf ghost’s past through key lore items that provide a deep historical background into your ghostly companion. Aside from Gollum, the game creates other memorable characters such as Ratbag, an uruk that specialized in comic relief assists you in infiltrating the enemy army.
The combat system is similar to that of the Batman: Arkham game series. You may either attempt to stealthily pick off your enemies from the shadows, one by one, or dive (literally) head first into a brawl with one opponent, or ten opponents. The attacks are animated very smoothly, making the combat seem free flowing, and with the ability to use the bow, the dagger and the sword, there lies a variety of combat methods alongside the free flowing nature of it. The only difference from the Batman games is that Talion decapitates and stabs his enemies in the most malicious ways imaginable.
There is no better feeling in this game than diving from a tall piece of ruined architecture and brutally assassinating one of Sauron’s minions, and destroying a face a mother probably couldn’t love. The combat is surprisingly responsive. If you hit a counter button, Talion will immediately drop whatever he’s doing and counter. The bow has a “Focus” gauge, which slows time and allows you to rack up a few easy headshots in stealth, or in the middle of a bloodbath. The powerful nature of the bow is kept in check by limited, but upgradable ammunition and the gauge of focus that drains relatively quickly. The stealth gameplay is relatively basic, however often enough basic is beautiful. Plus, it’s always nice to be able to thin the enemy lines before they know you’re there.
One of the key differentiations from the Batman style of combat, is that it is very easy to get into big trouble early on in the game. If the uruks raise the alarm, or if you just so happen to cross a patrolling party, you may be quickly overwhelmed by uruks. Health does not recharge on it’s own, you are required to find herbs to heal. Furthermore, with the rather low health pool that certainly needs upgrading, you may find yourself in one too many deadly situations and one too many deaths.
Things do get easier as gameplay progresses, as you are able to unlock more of Talion’s skill tree and build up combos, which raises the efficiency levels of uruk killing. As the skill tree evolves, so does your power, as you are able to aim down from your bow, and instead of shooting, deliver a quick and deadly blow to your enemy, or mount the deadly graug, who eats uruks like a child eats candy.
The more powerful you get, the easier it is to take down enemies, however the feeling of invincibility never settles in and danger grows parallel to your power. Despite it being easier to take down enemies, there may be more enemies to handle, or the odd captain or two thrown into the mix. The possibilities are endless, and the danger grows.
Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor places great emphasis on winning or losing any encounter. For example, if a regular uruk manages to kill you, they will get promoted to a captain’s rank, and if a captain kills you, they will rise amongst the captains until a warchief spot opens up. However, if you manage to slay an uruk captain or warchief, they drop runes which can be added to your weapon and provide significant boosts in combat. Each time you die, the uruks will change their taunts, and something in the leadership hierarchy changes accordingly, making each death almost as meaningful as each victory.
The death of uruk captains in the game is interesting to say the least. Some captains may appear to die, but do not. They instead reappear with a scarred face that clearly shows different emotions, whether anger or disbelief, they’re shown. If you don’t want to see the same captain haunting you a dozen times, executions are the best way to deal with a captain once and for all.
The hierarchy system is fairly simple to understand, however there are a few important aspects to note. Firstly, the uruk captains do not roam the map all the time. Some are involved in internal power struggles for rank. You are able to interrupt the power struggle, riot, feasts, duel, hunt or execution to pick fights with uruk captains and eventually warchiefs. Each captain and warchief have randomized strengths and weaknesses, so it is important to gain intel beforehand so you know what you’re heading into when you confront the superior uruks.
If you’re concerned about looking at the grey, dark and destruction plagued Black Gate area, don’t fret too much. In the second act of the game you are transitioned to a greener, more pleasant looking side of Mordor. The change in view also provides Talion and his elf ghost friend the opportunity to access a variety of abilities, in particular the “brand” ability. This ability is basically mind control, and you can bend basic uruk warriors, uruk captains and even uruk warchiefs to your will. Taking the uruk alive, however, is far more difficult that slicing it’s head off, so the task of branding five warchiefs is initially much tougher. You are able to mind control all uruk, increasing your numbers advantage in the quest for revenge in Mordor.
It took me about 15 hours to complete the game, disregarding a large proportion of the side quests and challenges left to do. I haven’t even branded the majority of captains in the greener part of Mordor, let alone the Black Gate. The game provides a variety of activities to do that should leave you hooked on the game for more than 15 hours.
The ending of the game did not sit particularly well for me, largely because I did not understand it. Your knowledge level of lore and so forth will affect your understanding of the ending, but by no means should it take away from the overall plot, which was superbly constructed. The ending of the game may leave us on a permanent cliffhanger, or could easily be a bridge to a sequel.
The only downside I can see is the last two major boss battles, in terms of combat as opposed to storytelling. Without spoiling too much, I will say that I want to be thrown into a battle that makes me feel like the world is in the balance, my future at stake. The lives of man, elf and dwarf should feel like a burden on my shoulder in a battle of epic proportion. Once again, without spoiling too much, I felt like I was let down in that aspect. However, it does not remove anything from the game’s rather impressive storytelling capabilities.
That was my subjective experience.
Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is a superbly constructed game that may make you feel like it is incomplete, or due for a sequel, however the feeling will likely be minor. The game builds a story in the most professional manner and delivers it on a superb level as it guides you through Talion’s quest and his elf mate’s past, and why he’s really with Talion.
Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor rates…
**** – 4/5 stars
Amazing, the game is a must have experience, however it could have been developed further in order to make the ending not seem as rushed.