Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor was a game that I had all but written off as the Fall onslaught of games began approaching. In the gaming industry, Fall is a chaotic time where many companies bank the success of their title on the increased holiday shopping at the end of the year. With so many titles releasing, it quickly becomes difficult for gamers to decide what they should buy or play. Because of this mentality that has been fostered for so many years, I just sort of assumed that Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor would have been another title strictly for fans of The Lord of the Rings series. While discussing some games with a friend, I ended up sliding Shadow of Mordor onto my PS4 list without having any real knowledge on the title.

All things considered with how licensed titles are generally handled, Shadow of Mordor was destined to be forgotten. But then something really interesting happened. Instead of succumbing to the cycle of most licensed content in the gaming industry, Shadow of Mordor is actually a pretty good game, regardless of your interest in The Lord of the Rings. Shadow of Mordor is fun to play, offers multiple ways to approach combat, and features the Nemesis system which entirely steals the show. However, outside of a few really good ideas, Shadow of Mordor seemed like a confused title that looked to other games for structure and gameplay elements. There is no denying how similar Shadow of Mordor is to Rocksteady's Batman and Ubisoft's Assassin’s Creed. The combat system is identical to the free flow system in Batman, and the game’s structure, gameplay style, and maps are all very similar to Assassin’s Creed. Shadow of Mordor offers some unique elements into these larger ideas particularly how the AI responds to the player and game world, but it felt like these familiar portions were just copied rather than being designed to fit the new world. Shadow of Mordor is still a game worth playing even in a crowded Fall lineup, and is one of the biggest surprises of 2014.

Shadow of Mordor places gamers in the blood-soaked boots of Talion, a ranger captain looking for revenge. Revenge storylines are very common in terms of video game storytelling, and most times they’re not interesting enough to really stand out. I was surprised with Shadow of Mordor’s ability to draw me in right from the beginning. I’m not normally interested in the fantasy genre, but The Lord of the Rings has some incredibly compelling lore and backstory. While Talion’s story is interesting enough to stand on its own, it’s almost impossible to ignore the actual canon storyline. Everyone knows what happens in The Lord of the Rings. People have either read the books or watched the very popular films. Placing Shadow of Mordor before that eventual storyline is a clear tactic to gain some creative liberties with the source material. But in the end, regardless of how immersive Talion’s personal story is, Shadow of Mordor is telling a story we already know the end to. It reminds me of the Star Wars novels. Between the two Star Wars trilogies is a span of twenty years, and so far about one hundred years of content has been shoved into that tiny gap. The problem is everyone knows how the story ends already, so while you can technically tell a story during that time and make your audience care about the characters, ultimately it’ll still end up feeling like fan fiction. It’s hard to knock the story in Shadow of Mordor, but the game attempts to make it a big part of the experience for players. Even though it ends up being a little lackluster, it doesn’t really take away from what Shadow of Mordor does really, really well.

The single most impressive part about Shadow of Mordor is the Nemesis system. The Nemesis system is comprised of AI enemies in the form of Uruks. These enemies have strengths, weaknesses, power levels, and hordes of followers. The warchiefs, elite and powerful Uruks that command larger forces, remain at the top of the food chain and normally pose the greatest challenge. Underneath them is a plethora of captains looking to violently kill their way to the top. The interesting thing here though is that these enemies react to the player and the world around them. The Uruks will often get in power struggles with one another leading to the ranks constantly shifting and changing. Killing one of these captains will lead to his spot being vacated, so rather than that captain being permanently defeated he’ll either return to fight another day or have his spot taken. Talion can also be defeated in battle, but it’s something that was carefully considered by the developer. Dying at the hands of a captain allows for many of the Uruks to level up and increase their power. They also don’t forget the player. Captains I had thought were already defeated would return, scare the crap out of me, and express both psychically and verbally their thoughts on our previous engagement. Enemies will reappear with scars, burns, or taunts about their defeat, but this time they come back more powerful. The Nemesis system also allows for unlimited playtime and exploration in Shadow of Mordor.

Death isn’t something to be ashamed of in Shadow of Mordor, but it’s something that is going to happen often early on. During the earlier portions of the game I would continuously die at the hands of the captains, but this was mainly due to the fact that once the game began I was ready to go explore and do what I wanted. In hindsight, the game does very little to guide players along in the early game. Generally speaking, I’m not one for overbearing tutorials and I would rather just play the game, but as a developer if you’re going to allow for players to explore and experience your title on their own terms, you have to properly unlock the game at the right time. Shadow of Mordor has important abilities and gameplay mechanics locked behind story missions, but the title willingly takes the training wheels off before the player has learned to ride. Shadow of Mordor needed a little bit more structure in the early game because the Nemesis system is something pretty new to gaming. The ideas of living worlds and enemy AI have been present for almost as long as gaming has existed, but very few games have successfully implemented these ideas. Shadow of Mordor is setting the tone for the 8th generation of consoles. I’m hoping the ideas behind the Nemesis system are used in future titles rather than the entire thing being copied due to its success.

When a large combat engagement breaks out, players will swear they are playing Batman: Arkham. There is no denying that the combat system is just about identical to the Batman: Arkham series. The combat centers on building up combos through hitting various enemies that require different tactics to defeat. Hitting and countering are the simpler elements to the system, then on top of that everything from using the bow to massive combo abilities keep things interesting. Once you learn the rhythm of combat, and learn to blend stealth and ranged attacks into the mix, the game becomes substantially easier as time goes on. While I suffered several defeats early on in Shadow of Mordor I quickly turned things around and became overpowered by the end of the title. Difficulty in a title isn’t normally something I focus on because as I’ve gotten older I began playing games strictly for the fun factor rather than a challenge.

But Shadow of Mordor is incredibly easy as players unlock abilities and become more powerful. Jumping into a group of four captains and a ton of lesser enemies is no longer as intense as it once was earlier on. If players can’t kill their way out of the situation they can simply run or lock-on to an enemy that is further away and teleport a distance from the engagement. Shadow of Mordor struggles to balance the difficulty throughout the experience. The earlier portions are a little too vague and tough, and the later portions are a breeze.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is one of the big surprises of 2014. During a crowded release time in gaming, Shadow of Mordor is able to offer an interesting experience due to its Nemesis system, combat, and stealth mechanics. Some very powerful source material also enables Monolith Productions to craft an engaging story, but one that ultimately spoils itself due to its popularity and impact. Still, Shadow of Mordor is a really fun game that being some innovation to an already strong start with the 8th generation.