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Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor – Video Game Review

Author’s Note: This review is spoiler free!

Shadow of Mordor (cover)Licensed video games do not have the best of reputations. E.T., for the Atari 2600, is considered one of the worst games ever made. The recent Legend of Korra game has been widely panned. Star Wars: Masters of Teras Kasi? Well, the less said about that train wreck, the better. Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, out now for current and last-gen systems and PC, bucks the trend. Like (most) of the LEGO games and the Arkham series, Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor (Shadow) is a licensed video game that offers a level of quality on par with or exceeding most non-licensed AAA releases.

Fans of both Tolkien’s novels and the big-screen adaptations of his work will find much to love about the story Shadow tells. The player controls Talion, a Ranger of Gondor charged with guarding the Black Gate during the period between the end of The Hobbit and the start of The Fellowship of the Ring. Murder, deception, revenge and the specter of redemption are all touched upon as Talion embarks on a one-man-war against the army of Orcs forming behind the Black Gate. By no means a one-trick pony, the magic of the elves, strength of the dwarves, and evil of the Shadow also loom large in the story.

The game takes place, in its entirety, in Mordor proper and is deeply tied to the lore of the One Ring. And while some Tolkien purists may take issue with the liberties developers have taken with the Tolkien canon, as a massive fan of both the books and movies I found Shadow’s story to be fascinating. Traversing the terrain of Mordor was a revelation, and the history of that broken land—and its people—adds an entirely new dimension to Tolkien’s masterwork. When one thinks of Mordor, a barren land of fire and ash springs to mind. And certainly the wasteland is well represented. But so, too, are verdant pastures, forests, and inland seas. The visual juxtapositions are stunning.

Shadow of Mordor (screenshot 1)

Shadow’s story weaves in and out of canon without disturbing it. It doesn’t seek to rewrite history—merely to coexist, almost like a new entry in the Book of Lost Tales. So when the player meets a certain character from the novels, it doesn’t seem implausible. And when a certain member of the White Council is found to have taken a hand in Mordor’s internal struggle, it doesn’t come as a surprise but as a logical extension of what the player knows about the War of the Ring.

Playing in Tolkien’s sandbox is double-edged sword. On the one hand, developers are building a game in a world as rich with characters, history and geography as our own. On the other, they run the risk of tarnishing a legacy that is dear to not just fans of fantasy, but millions of moviegoers across the globe. If the game is a stinker, it won’t disappear quietly. It has to be a daunting task, but the developers at Monolith Productions and Behaviour Interactive have risen to the challenge and crafted a game that gives equal weight to story, gameplay and graphical oomph.

Built on the assets created for Assassin’s Creed II, Shadow offers a combination of stealth, action and exploration similar to its sire. But there the similarities end. The gameplay in Shadow is head-and-shoulders above any Assassin’s Creed game I’ve ever played. Combat is fluid and progressive. The early stages of the game offer a limited move set and limited difficulty, but as the game progresses and your skill tree expands, combat changes from a simple hack-and-slash mash-fest to something more akin to a rhythm game. It is as beautiful to watch as it is fun to play, and publisher Warner Brothers Interactive clearly brought some of the lessons learned in creating the Arkham series to the development table.

Shadow of Mordor (screenshot 2)

Stealth, too, plays a major role and the stealth system is nearly flawless. I despise games that demand stealth over action, but Shadow’s stealth system was designed to reward flair and ingenuity as well as patience and planning. The stealth component of Shadow is both methodical and thrilling.

It all comes down to one thing: the Nemesis System. The living, beating heart of Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, the Nemesis System is a revelation and provides a gaming experience that is, in my opinion, completely unmatched. Instead of waging war against faceless minions of Sauron, the Nemesis System provides pseudo-procedurally generated names and personalities for the Orc Captains and War Chiefs that are the main targets in Talion’s quest for revenge. Not only are the characters individualized (captains have individual strengths and weaknesses that differ from Uruk to Uruk) they remember, and act accordingly. Engulf a Captain in flame but fail to kill him and that Orc will return stronger—but covered in burns. And that is just one example.

As time passes in the game, internecine struggles amongst the Orc legions will play out in grand scale. Fortunes will rise and fall; captains will duel and attempt to curry favor with higher ranked Orcs. An entire Orc society will develop that is completely unique to both your game and your play style. The replay value of such a system is unquantifiable. No two runs through the game will be the same. And while there is a certain degree of satisfaction found in completing the games main story missions, the true sense of accomplishment comes when you are able—once and for all—to eliminate a Captain or War Chief that has killed you countless times, taunted you at every turn and risen through the ranks on the notoriety earned at your expense. It is a thrilling and wholly unique gameplay experience.

Shadow of Mordor (screenshot 3)

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is that rarest of birds—a video game based on a licensed property that is polished, engaging and flat-out fun. In fact, I can say with confidence that Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is the best game I’ve played for the PlayStation 4.

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5 Comments

  1. Avatar Vicky Hooper says:

    Agreed! I’m halfway through playing this at the moment and loving it. The nemesis system is brilliant and has led to some fantastic game experiences so far, especially if one of the orcs who’s killed you a few times has that tracking ability and follows you all around the map. And the game in general is just a lot of fun. 🙂 Great review!

    • Avatar Zack Matzo (@perch15) says:

      I’m not a trophy whore or a guy that tries to 100% most games–usually when I finish a story, I’m done. But with this one, it kind of feels like the story isn’t finished until I’ve exacted my revenge on each and every Captain that has wronged me! The fact that I “beat” the game but am only at 53% complete is a testament to the sheer amount of content in the game.

  2. Avatar Banjaxed says:

    Great review. If I wasn’t so addicted to Destiny I would be playing this. At least it should be half price by the time I’m ready to play!!

  3. Avatar JSH says:

    Man I need a PS3 stat

    • Avatar Zack Matzo (@perch15) says:

      Just a heads-up: The last-gen versions of the game do NOT have the fully developed Nemesis System. Only PS4 and XBOX1

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