The world of Middle Earth is a place in which I have spent many years, and one of my only qualms with life is that I can’t spend more time immersed within Tolkien’s rich creation. Considering this, it isn’t hard to imagine why I jumped at the chance to get a copy of Shadow of Mordor.
Before the game was released, I went through stages of excitement and grief, apprehensive that it might not live up to my expectations. I ended up waiting a few days after release to hear some positive reviews before I grabbed my own copy. After the first minutes playing as Talion – a former Ranger of Gondor possessed by the wraith of Celebrimbor (an Elven smith) — I realised that as a long time Tolkien fan, I would have to suspend my disbelief if I really wanted to enjoy every narrative element, creature, and corner of Mordor as Shadow of Mordor presented them. This proved to be a great decision, as it allowed me to enjoy the very solid gameplay and polished mechanics first and foremost – all quality elements that I had expected coming in to a game made by Monolith, who previously developed such quality titles as Fear and Condemned.
The combat was near perfect, with the system resting somewhere between an ideal take on the Assassin’s Creed combat system and that of Batman: Arkham Asylum. Each blow felt deliberate on my part, and I never felt overwhelmed by enemies in an unfair way. Whenever I died, it was because I was overwhelmed by sheer numbers, or due to the situation I had gotten myself into, or a mistake made during combat.
The stealth and exploration was again very good from a mechanical standpoint – it could be likened to a simplified version of environment traversal in Assassin’s Creed, but with finer execution. It felt as if it required less of the player to make the climbing and jumping happen as compared to what one would expect it to.
I felt as if the world was a little barren (and not just in the way that Mordor should be). It seemed that a great deal of time and effort had been put into the wonderfully polished mechanics, but perhaps the environment wasn’t paid as much attention as I would have hoped. The landscape didn’t feel very reflective of the Jackson-esque environment that most would be familiar with visually, nor did it live up to the mental imagery conjured by Tolkien’s original writing. Something just felt a little off. The same can be said for the oddly Eastern feel surrounding the characters in the game, especially the more staged bosses that appear towards the end of the narrative. I am not able to put my finger on whether it was the styling of the art, or the NPC manner, but it almost felt as if I was inside Dark Souls at times. Call me a spoiled Tolkien fanboy, but when I am in Middle Earth, I have a very specific idea of what I expect to see and feel in my mind. The world has been fed the most brilliant visual representations of Middle Earth for approximately 15 years now (in film and games), that I feel deviating from what the majority of the fan base would identify as obviously Tolkien in nature is a risky move, whether intentional or not. Games that got Middle Earth right, such as the licensed PS2 releases that come out alongside the films, or the Battle for Middle Earth games, never felt like I was experiencing a lesser representation of Middle Earth; however, on a few occasions, this is where Shadow of Mordor sat. Lore wise, I felt slightly alienated from the world I love, with the convenient creation of not-so-canon creatures and events to suit narrative ends often eyesores; however, most of the time the writers had done an okay job of filling out the world with events and dialogue at least mostly representative of Tolkien’s original works.
The much touted nemesis system was incredibly well executed and by far stands out to me as the most innovative AAA mechanic to come out in the last year. To briefly cover how it works for those who aren’t familiar: Shadow of Mordor has many colourful enemies to fight. If you don’t successfully kill an Uruk, no matter how lowly it is in the ranks of Sauron’s army, it will likely raise in ranking and power after having survived an encounter with you. This means that the next time you face it, it will be more formidable and will, depending on its rank, have a few attributes that you should watch out for and often a weakness for two for you to exploit – which may swing the fight in your favour. Towards the middle of the campaign, I began to become tired of the constant hunt and kill quests as there was little other content to break up this cycle. However, just as my interest was waning, the flow of the game changed again, and I began to make real progress towards the more staged encounters with story-driving Uruk chieftains and even greater foe, such as the Hand of Sauron and his minions. It felt as if Monolith was a little too aware of how well received the nemesis system would be and had built the game nearly solely around the experience. I am of the opinion that such a deep AI system should serve as an element of a video game, but it should certainly not make up the bulk of the time spent within its world. Had there been a greater variety of quests earlier on that didn’t involve purely hunting and killing Uruk, Shadow of Mordor could have been even better received than it already was.
With all said and done, Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is an exceedingly well-polished game experience. The mechanics are brilliantly well rounded and the controls are logical and natural, while the lore leaves a little to be desired; however, the environment of Mordor itself sets a fitting tone for the greater narrative. I wish more games can be made with a focus on polish of mechanics while doing their best to breathe life in to an intellectual property that hasn’t received as many quality game titles as fans would necessarily like. In such cases, developers can expect a very well received title with high sales to match. Shadow of Mordor is a show of the quality experiences Monolith can produce with the power next-gen consoles, and a testament to the ever rich and diverse world that Tolkien created almost 100 years ago.