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Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor / 17th of October 2014

When gameplay footage of Shadow of Mordor was first released eight months ago, a lot of people, myself included, were decidedly unimpressed. We wrote the game off as looking like nothing more than Assassin’s Creed in Middle Earth’s clothing. And in a sense we were right, Shadow of Mordor has stolen many of its more fundamental mechanics from Ubisoft’s flagship series. But it’s also managed to do something virtually no one was expecting, to take those ideas, use them as a solid foundation and create a game which feels closer to an Assassin’s Creed game many of us first imagined.

Admittedly Shadow of Mordor doesn’t have the same aesthetic appeal as the lush Caribbean seas, or the soon to be realised streets of 18th century Paris. Instead players will, for the most part, be restricted to trapesing through the muddy, barren fields of Tolkien’s Mordor. And even should you be averse to all things Tolkien-esque, don’t let this loose correlation to the world of hobbits and elves dissuade you. Shadow of Mordor handles licenced property the way all games should aspire to, by adopting a fully realised world whilst still unafraid to tell its own story. In doing so developers, Monolith obviously aren’t constrained by a realistic setting in the same way the Assassin’s Creed series is, and they’re able to bend the rules within the bounds of Tolkien’s fantasy world.

The game’s central character Talion, the half-man, half-wraith - a consequence of being executed for the purposes of a blood sacrifice during the game’s opening scenes - is a prime example of how the Monolith have adapted the world to fit their game. The developers have taken the rangers, wraiths and fictional history familiar to fans of Middle Earth, but use it to serve the gameplay rather than being merely a gimmick, or fan-service. It’s something that’s delivered consistently throughout the game, and ensures that whether or not you like the story and the setting, you’ll always be entertained by the gameplay on offer.

As for the storyline itself, it won’t grip you as well as the game’s mechanics keep you playing, but it’s sufficient enough to keep you going in order to unlock new abilities and locations. And where other open world games often throw content at you in order to keep players occupied, Shadow of Mordor’s side quests are either brief enough to give you a breather from the main storyline, or function as a key component of the game’s greatest asset.

The excellent nemesis system, or the game’s proverbial ace in the hole. A wholly original gameplay mechanic that could fit seamlessly into almost any open world action game, the system ensures that virtually every boss character - or assassination target in this case - is unique to your individual game. Throughout Shadow of Mordor as you travel back and forth across the land you’ll be tasked with eliminating the leaders of Sauron’s ever expanding orc army, dispatching lieutenants, captains and eventually war-chiefs. These leaders are randomly generated orcs, each with their own name, appearance and personality, and as you cross each one off, others will squabble amongst themselves, displacing or even killing each other, all the while growing in strength and making them more difficult to assassinate. And as I alluded to beforehand, it’s this system that makes best use of the game’s side quests, as you’ll be free to invade a captain’s recruitment drive, or intervene in a duel in order to manipulate the outcome. Finally the addition of the a-synchronous multiplayer mechanic is a small but inspired touch, as orcs who’ve earned renown killing players in other games will, from time to time, be available for you to target in the form of a vendetta mission.  

On top of this the personality of each target can be uncovered via interrogating captured grunts or locating sensitive documents, the purpose of which is to allow players to discover the individual targets strengths and weaknesses. One orc captain may be vulnerable to ranged attacks, whilst another might become enraged and more powerful at the sight of a wild beast. All in all it’s an excellent system and one that truly makes the game.

The robust nature of the nemesis system ensures that it’s something that could very well work as a stand-alone game in itself, and so it’s disappointing that the best ability in the game - one that directly affects the dynamics of the system - is locked away until almost two thirds of the way through the campaign. The ability to brand targets, effectively indoctrinates enemy orcs, ensuring they serve as your very own puppet captain within the orc army, and manipulating your particular orcs rise to the top is one of the most enjoyable videogame experiences in recent memory. And so, as I say, the decision to restrict the player access to this ability for so long is a real misstep on the part of the developers.

Aside from the nemesis system the rest of the game’s mechanics and the speed in which the majority of the abilities unlock is fairly well paced. Notable highlights include the ability to turn a stealth kill into a exaggerated butchering capable of scaring off nearby orcs, and being able to detonate campfires with ghostly arrows incinerating nearby enemies. Abilities such as these belong to either the ranger or wraith skill trees, with a heavy emphasis on close combat and stealth for the former, and the later favouring range and speed. On top of this players can upgrade each weapon (sword, knife, and bow) using runes collected from successful assassinations.  

Shadow of Mordor is a game that nobody expected to be good, and that at best would only appeal to those who have a penchant for all things Lord of the Rings. However Monolith have proved that even the most ardent critic of Middle Earth, and all that comes with it, can have a hell of a lot of fun hunting orcs. Where Assassin’s Creed II expanded upon its predecessor’s formula into something of a land grab, Shadow of Mordor has managed to create a game all about assassinating enemies and manipulating a political hierarchy in a way that will surely have the various development teams at Ubisoft more than a little envious. It’s not perfect by any means, but for a first attempt Shadow of Mordor is a better open world assassination game than any of its nearest rivals.

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