Although it might not seem like it, The Lord of the Rings has had a surprisingly good video game track record. Even excluding The Lord of the Rings Online (which is still impressively chugging along nearly a decade after release), there's been a number of striking entries in its universe. After stumbling with The Fellowship of The Rings, EA's Adaptions of The Two Towers and The Return of the King were some of the best movie tie-ins up to that point. The series continued strong with spin-offs like The Battle for Middle-earth and The Third Age, and for every War of the North there was an Aragon's Quest. Yet for a franchise that has had so many video game adaptions, it doesn't yet have a defining one. Monolith Productions - best known for their work on Condemned and F.E.A.R - are looking to change that this year with their most ambitious quest to date, Middle-earth Shadow of Mordor.
Shadow of Mordor takes place after the events of The Hobbit but before the events of The Lord of the Rings. Monolith worked with Middle-earth Enterprises (the holding company for Tolkien's work), Peter Jackson and the artists at the Weta Workshop to ensure that they were as faithful as possible in creating this original story. Although there are discrepancies that might annoy the most devoted series fans, overall it's a story faithful to the overall structure of the universe and one that most will have trouble complaining about. Players take the role of Talion in the heart of the Dark Lord's dominion of Mordor, shortly after the Battle of the Five Armies. Talion was one of the last Gondorian Rangers keeping watch at the Black Gate, the only barrier separating Mordor from Middle-earth. Talion lived a peaceful existence with his family until one day Sauron's Black Captains - three men corrupted beyond redemption into manifestations of his will - led an assault on the Black Gate with their Uruk army. Outnumbered, Talion put up a commendable resistance until the Black Captains proved too much and overtook it. Instead of simply slaying Talion and his clan, the Captains decided to instead sacrifice them in a dark ritual. Rather than dying, however, Talion is possessed by an Elvish Wraith named Celebrimbor and brought back to life. They are unaware of why they have been bonded together, but decide to set forth into Mordor and take revenge on the Black Captains.
Although thoroughly interesting, the story is the weak point of Shadow of Mordor. With incredible cutscenes and strong voice acting from the usual suspects, Troy Baker and Nolan North, it's impressively cinematic in nature, but not as deep as it could be. If there's one thing stories from Middle-earth are, it's long. After all, Peter Jackson saw enough content to split the recent Hobbit adaption into three films based on the material from one book. The set-up and endgame of the plot here is interesting, but it feels as if there wasn't enough time given to let it breath and explore the mythology. Cutscenes last no longer than two minutes and the background on locations and characters revealed in a virtual compendium don't impact the overall story. That being said, it's above average for a game of this type and interesting enough to grab most everybody's interest.
Gamplay can be described as a crossover between Batman's Arkham series and whatever modern Ubisoft open-world franchise first comes to mind. Players are presented with twenty campaign missions that unlock progressively and can choose to tackle them or do various side-missions. Side-missions include Weapon Challenges - where a special task with a certain weapon must be completed in a pre-determined amount of time - and Outcast Missions, where slaves can be freed from Uruks. Besides structured side-missions, there are also persistent Survival and Hunting Challenges where a certain amount of plant/creature must be collected/slain. Additionally, hidden Artifacts and Ithildin are hid throughout the world that can be collected. Artifacts reveal a brief piece of Mordor history while Ithildin fragments eventually form a full picture. Although none of this is necessary, doing them unlocks both XP and currency, which can be invaluable throughout the campaign. Players who want to simply stick to the main missions can get by focusing about an hour on the side-activities, although they comprise roughly 70% of the overall game, so it's worth checking out as many as possible.
The entirety of Mordor is split-up in two separate areas - Udûn and Núrnen. Udûn is the first area available while Núrnen unlocks about half-way through the campaign. Udûn is a desolate area of Mordor, populated by brown mountains and decaying buildings, while Núrnen is a lush region full of greenery and bodies of water. Visuals shine in Núrnen, where the color palate is brighter and bolder. As there's only loading times when going in between the two areas or before and after missions, Mordor truly feels like an alive and persistent world - and this is predominately thanks to The Nemesis System.
In Shadow of Mordor, Uruk enemies are separated into three basic classes: Soldier, Captain and Warchiefs. Soldiers are the typical enemy encountered in droves throughout the lands and are easy to put down. Captains, however, have risen through the ranks and will take much more effort to kill - but reward that effort with new abilities. Warchiefs are the baddest of the bunch - generally appearing with multiple Captain bodyguards - and are infrequent throughout Mordor. Defeating a Warchief will take more than just merely rushing at one. Every Warchief has distinct strengths and weaknesses. Some, for instance, might be invulnerable to ranged attacks, while others can only be attacked with them. These ever-changing characteristics makes it so strategy will have to be adjusted every time a Warchief is faced - rendering each encounter an entirely different experience. Fear not, however, as strengths and weaknesses can be figured out two ways. The first is to find an Uruk holding intel and interrogate him - this will reveal both the location and strengths/weaknesses of the Warchief target. The second is to simply scan him when you're nearby. Utilizing the first method, however, will ensure players are prepared before riding into battle. If a Warchief is afraid of Caradors, for instance, a player can mount one before taking him on and ensure a swift defeat.
Extending replay value (and also realism) is the fact that there will always be a Warchief or Captain to slay. After defeating one, various Uruks in the world will begin to rise to power in their stead. This is where the coolest part of The Nemesis System comes into play, as literally any Uruk in the world can become Captain, beginning when Talion is slain by one. The Uruk will be rewarded for doing so and promoted to Captain, continuing to grow stronger until revenge is exacted. What's incredible about this is that any Uruk has the capability of becoming a Captain, which means that any of the thousands of baddies crawling around the world could soon become your worst nightmare - each with their own unique name, appearance and personality. Something that will be replicated for years to come, The Nemesis System allows the world of Mordor to feel like an alive, ever-persistent world, even though it's a offline, single-player experience.
Intelligent (and some not so intelligent) Uruks won't be the only enemy seen in Mordor, however. Caragors and Graugs will be encountered that are as vicious as you would imagine. Instead of being a nuisance, however, they can actually become huge assets if handled correctly. Both creatures (Graugs much later on in the game) can be mounted and controlled. Riding a Caragor is like riding a vicious horse, allowing the world to be travel through faster whilst ripping apart anything that stands in the way. Riding a Graug, however, is an experience of its own. Sitting atop a 15 foot monster and laying waste to practically everything is an incredible experience and one that every LOTR fan will adore.
Of course a game world is nothing without solid combat fundamentals, and thankfully, Shadow of Mordor delivers. The combat system is again similar to the Arkham series and Assassin's Creed. Square carries out a standard sword attack that must be used in tandem with a countering/dodging system. When an enemy is about to strike, a button prompt appears above him on screen. If triangle is hit in time, it will counter the enemy and prevent damage from occurring. Larger enemies or those with shields will typically block, requiring X to be hit at the right time to hop over them and attack from behind. For the most part, this three-button system will mostly be used, but there are numerous variations and special attacks that can be unlocked throughout the adventure. This includes grabbing, dash attacks, takedowns and more. It's not all close-quarters action-packed combat, though, as stealth and ranged attacks play a crucial role. Quite a bit of the experience can be played purely with stealth, although overall a blend tends to be the most effective way to play. Enemies can be snuck up on or lured and executed. It's a basic, but smooth, system that stealth fans will thoroughly enjoy. Talion can become Celebrimdor with the touch of a button and easier locate enemies and use ranged attacks. Ranged attacks are vital to be successful as packs of enemies will oftentimes swarm. About three-thirds of the way through, a new ability called 'Brand' is unlocked that lets multiple Uruks be turned on your side and activated simultaneously. This actually makes the game (especially infiltrating bases to kill Warchiefs) significantly easier if used correctly, so players would be advised to wait hunting down baddies until this skill is unlocked.
Visually, Shadow of Mordor looks fantastic. Firmly planted in current-gen technology, framerate and fidelity are outstanding, while character models are shockingly realistic. As previously mentioned, The Nemesis System makes any random enemy a possible important antagonist and the visuals compliment this system nicely by rendering the Uruks with nuanced details that make each one seem unique. Cutscenes are especially impressive and are some of the most theatrical to grace this generation of consoles. With a seemingly-dynamically generated soundtrack that includes chants of Warchiefs, Mordor is a stunning creation from a production standpoint and one that will render Monolith a sudden and major player in the blockbuster landscape.
Closing Comments: Version Reviewed: PlayStation 4
Although it comes in the wake of dozens before it, Shadow of Mordor is the definitive Middle-earth experience. It smartly avoids trying to adapt already existing plot points, instead crafting its own unique story and overall experience. Combat is fluid, production values are sky high and the game is quite simply a blast to experience. Clocking in at around fifteen hours when focusing purely on the campaign, it's a bit too short for an open-world game, and it cribs some of its best ideas from other popular franchises (although some will likely in turn swipe its impressive Nemesis System), but that doesn't hold it back from being an enveloping adventure. More than just a great Lord of the Rings game, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor marks a new era for the franchise that can be enjoyed by fans and the uninitiated alike.