One does not simply walk into Bore-dor
Developing a licensed game can be extremely difficult. Not only does Monolith Productions have the Lord of the Rings film series to honor with Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, but the developer also has to work in many aspects of Tolkien’s other works to weave together a story that calls from multiple sources.
In that regard Monolith has succeeded in creating something believable, but in the process, the game itself didn’t receive as much attention.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox 360, Xbox One)
Developer: Monolith Productions
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Released: September 30, 2014 (PC, PS4, Xbox One) / November 18, 2014 (PS3, Xbox 360)
Shadow of Mordor generally does a great job of respecting the source material even if it doesn’t really add much to the overall universe. Simply put, the game takes place between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, pre-supposing that Bilbo has already located the One Ring, but before it is entrusted to Frodo. Thus, Shadow is a side story of sorts, giving you minor insight into the creation of the ring while focusing on the tale of one particular human — a skilled ranger named Talion.
Talion’s entire family has been murdered by the forces of Sauron, whose evil now encroaches the land of Middle-earth once again. Through the use of some dark magic after his own death, Talion is now bound to the spirit of a mysterious wraith, who grants him the power to essentially function as a super-being, combining dark arts with his already awe-inspiring combat prowess. In short, it’s basically the setup for God of War, and the basic revenge tale theme permeates throughout in a generic fashion.
What I do like about the wraith conceit is that it creates a sense of duality, as the wraith itself is an elf with a mysterious past who can manifest himself during cutscenes, and whenever Talion triggers a wraith-centric power. The companion aspect is cool as it’s seamlessly worked into gameplay, and allows for some good banter between the two souls throughout. While I don’t want to spoil the wraith’s identity, I found his story to be vastly superior to Talion’s.
In addition to Orcs and other members of Sauron’s army, you’ll also encounter Gollum — who is tacked onto the story to add a connection to the films, predominately because his mannerisms and character are done in the style of Andy Serkis (though he is voiced by Liam O’Brien in the game, flawlessly I may add). With Talion and the wraith, there is that same Frodo and Sam love/hate relationship, and their moments are easily the highlight of the campaign.
The rest, however, is too generic. As previously mentioned it’s a basic revenge tale, with a few minor minute-long cutscenes woven in to highlight the wraith’s past and his place in the plot. The rest is basically going to be “go here, kill this, draw out this big bad, then kill him for your family” type plots. The finale has a few cool cutscenes here and there, but considering that the last boss is a quick time event, it’s ultimately unfulfilling. It takes roughly ten hours to make it through the story alone, and the rest can be completed at your leisure by way of two moderately-sized (though small by current-gen standards) sandboxes.
The actual exploration and combat mechanics are solid. Drawing from Assassin’s Creed and the Arkham series, Talion can climb structures fairly easily simply by running and pointing at them, and his climbing skills are just as sharp has his blade. Basic combos are available by mashing the attack button, though an upgrade allows critical strikes if it is pressed just as a slice is hitting.
He also has the exact same “cape-stun” as Batman in the Arkham games (though it’s wraith-flavored here), and the combo-enabled “execution” moves that can instantly take out a regular enemy after your combo meter has reached eight (later upgradable to just five). Talion can also take out enemies with a delayed contextual strike when they’re on the ground. Combat makes no attempt to hide that it’s basically ripped wholesale from Arkham, and that’s not really a bad thing — it just feels less fluid and polished. Stealth has a part to play as well, and that particular aspect is also executed flawlessly. Talion can sneak up from behind to slay his enemies in silence as well as use jumping executions from a vantage point, which are still just as fun as they are in every other stealth game.
There’s even a version of “Detective Vision” (I call it “Wraith Vision”), making it easy to identify stronger enemies through walls and structures, as well as archers and the like with different color schemes. To dig even further into Talion’s utility belt, he can summon spirit arrows at will and fire them at enemies for quick stealth headshot kills. As his powers are upgraded he’ll have even more tricks up his sleeve (including possession and beast-riding, among many others), which makes it very fun to carve up Orcs willy-nilly.
Then of course, there’s the big draw of the game, which allows players to plot revenge in a dynamic fashion. The highly hyped “Nemesis” system starts off rather promisingly. In theory, it allows Talion to interact with specified named enemies in the game, creating random creatures along the way and generating unique storylines on the fly. So if Talion did battle with a weak Orc at some point and it manages to flee, it may appear later, and not only remember him, but have a more formidable force to contend with. Defeating these enemies will grant runes, which can be used to upgrade melee, ranged, and stealth weapons. The system is endless in nature and can create a ton of unique scenarios involving inter-clan warfare and tenuous alliances.
The other big portion of the Nemesis mechanic is that it requires isolation and interrogation of Orcs to locate the whereabouts of each ranked member of Sauron’s army, starting with the captains. As Talion, you can question peons as to where a captain is stomping about, then either slay the captain where he stands after hunting him, or interrogate him in turn and learn the location of the more powerful warchiefs. Some of the weaknesses of each enemy can be learned by way of intimidation, including an enemy’s fears and ways to exploit it with certain combat mechanics. It initially gives the feeling of working a way from the bottom to the top, which is a unique way of approaching a game — a stark contrast to open world titles that make you feel like god from the get-go.
In theory, it’s a very cool idea. But like many hyped-up mechanics, the Nemesis system ultimately becomes gimmicky very quickly. Yes, the names are randomized and some of the appearances look different enough, but after an hour of seeing it in action everything blends together. Orcs don’t have unique personalities per se, just unique weaknesses (like insta-stealth kill vulnerability, or a weakness to ranged attacks) and generic parameters. Fights against 90% of the captains, warchiefs, and named enemies in the game feel exactly the same.
Basically, all of the Nemesis encounters are going to go like this: You walk up to a captain that generally can’t be killed by a stealth attack, engage in combat, and watch as a small cutscene plays where the enemy exclaims a generic phrase like “Sauron rules all!” Then 20 additional enemies appear, the player stuns the boss, combos him, and uses an execution attack while avoiding the newly spawned enemies. Repeat the process until he dies. Warchief fights are the exact same, except they also require some tedious basic quest to “lure them out” like “kill five archers.” After a few hours of doing this, I became far too bored with the system to even bother hunting down enemies for a chance at a minor upgrade.
There are also a few unintended consequences of the system that actually make the game less fun. For one, a roughly ten second long, unskippable cutscene has to play for every captain or named character in the area. For example, there could be up to four named enemies in one skirmish along with the intended target. If Talion happens to engage, strike, or otherwise damage any of them, all of them have their own ten second scene and exchange that plays out — this repeats even if you die and return to the same location.
Initially, this feels pretty cool, and it brings the player into the game even for the most minute confrontation. For instance, after dying by the hands of an enemy and meeting him in battle again, he might say something like “I already killed you once, I’ll do it again!” But after watching that scene multiple times over the course of the game and having every fight play out in the same exact manner, it feels like another gimmick. To make matters worse, every fight basically throws the aforementioned 20 enemies at you, so there’s no real room for unique one-on-one encounters. Not only that, but a few milestones in the campaign are gated off by Nemesis system progress, making the process even more tedious and forced.
Thankfully, the rest of the open world experience is worthwhile. Fast travel towers can be located rather easily, and open up quick portals to practically any area desired. The two maps are different enough (one is desolate, the other fertile), and there are a ton of extra sidequests (including some related to the Nemesis system) that are actually fun. Given all of the tools Talion has at his disposal, it is enjoyable to just roam the map and get into trouble.
Whether it’s sidequests like stealth challenges that task the player with killing a certain amount of enemies undetected, ranged exercises or combat skirmishes, the rewards are great (certainly greater than those gained through the Nemesis slog), and it’s as simple as finding the marker on the map to jump into them. There are also hunting challenges (like in Red Dead Redemption), hidden elvish artifacts to find, and a lot of other secrets to uncover wandering around, all of which are more fun than the main story.
Ultimately, like many ambitious projects, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor doesn’t deliver on everything it sets out to do. Although Monolith’s heart is in the right place and the studio honors the lore, it doesn’t really add anything that’s worth seeing outside of some solid open world gameplay. It isn’t a bad game, it just feels far too repetitive for its own good.