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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.
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.
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.
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.