Live out your fantasies of becoming an Orc/Uruk killing machine within Monolith’s Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor; a live-action RPG that takes up the Tolkien mythology and delivers just the right sort of evolved game experience, drawn from a number of similar titles. With an engaging script and some interesting open-world action, the title delivers just enough of everything to remain a satisfying experience.
Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Developer: Monolith Productions, Behaviour Interactive.
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.
Platform: PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One.
Released: 30 September, 2014.
Trailer: "I buried them along with everyone I ever knew." Expect Liam Neeson in the film adaptation.
Plot: Talion is a ranger stationed at the Black Gate, the entrance to Mordor, after an undisclosed misdemeanour in his past. Overrun by Uruks, the Orc-like army of the Dark Lord Sauron, he is bound to the place and to never die through a cruel blood sacrifice. Only a lost wraith will help him, a being whose past is not fully understood. With nothing but a sword, dagger, and bow Talion takes on the whole horde of darkness in an attempt to stop Sauron and somehow free himself from his accursed half-life.
Review: Join the rangers! See the Black Gate! Kill a metric shit-ton of Orcs! Fuck yes, I replied to the chubby recruiter outside the village tavern. Show me the way. ‘Sure!’ he said, clubbing me over the head, stuffing me into a sack, and loading me onto a cart. Now, here I am – and, to quote Bernard Black, 'this is fantastic.'
Sorry, Uruks, I meant Uruks, I keep forgetting; as this is not any old generic fantasy game, but one set in J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy world of Middle-earth between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, making free and full use of the Tolkien mythology. It’s a smart choice by the developers, as the time period is just right to offer up some interesting conflicts and expand the lore a little, while still hitting the signposts of the franchise that everyone knows and loves. I was invested in Talion’s story right from the start, as the script walks a nice line between standard high-drama fantasy fare and enough uniqueness for me to suspect that something strange is going on here. And his mission is clear from the start: kill Uruks, and get revenge on the Black Hand bastard who put him there in the first place, as Talion is separated from his dead family and forced to live an unending life of un-death as he tries to figure out how to free himself from the powers of Mordor. If he happens to right royally fuck over the Dark Lord Sauron, who is preparing for his final onslaught in The Lord of the Rings, then so much the better. Because the historical record will reflect that Sauron is a well-established dick.
He’s assisted in this task by a wraith who, at least at the beginning, remains unknown and unnamed – somehow bound to Talion, who is able to make use of his powers to navigate the cruel surrounds of Mordor. That wraith looks like he’s seen better days; either withered by the dark currents of Mordor, or vainly ordering one chemical peel too many. But more than this, as Talion gains experience he can unlock more of his ranger potential or the wraith’s powers, making the Uruks easier to kill and eventually control for his own dark ends. The plot has colourful characters and twists a plenty, leading up to a few satisfying if easy boss fights, and a nice balance of open world gameplay with obvious goals to advance the plot. The game is pretty, but not overwhelmingly so as it is still set in the gold standard of fantasy shitholes that is Mordor. If I had one complaint on the script and design side, it would be that while the game lovingly borrows from the associated films and established, iconic imagery of the franchise it also not too thinly plagiarises from some other less legitimate sources too – indeed, the surly and serious John Snow on the Wall, from Game of Thrones, springs to mind as the easiest shorthand for Talion’s character; and an intermediate boss called “The Tower” looked so much like Darth Malak from Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic that I expected him to call upon the might of the star forge to defeat me (he doesn’t, he crumples like the giant tin baby he is – you’ll excuse the taunting, it got personal; mothers were invoked). But these are small complaints, and partially due to the incestuous nature of high-fantasy world building, which borrows and reappropriates established tropes both from the master himself, Tolkien, and newer apprentices like Martin, Feist, et al. all the time.
And who cares; because this is a game about killing Uruks. In every possible way you can imagine. Indeed, Talion’s struggle to survive soon turns into a simple struggle to express himself through the exploding punches and decapitations of his enemies. He is the Jackson Pollack of Uruk death; leading the avant garde of, well, himself and some creepy wraith. In any case; simple, efficient execution through a sword in the gut? You bet. Sneaky shadow takedown from the top of some conveniently located ruins? Sure. Long-distance sniper with a bow-style? Need you even ask. Once Talion is sufficiently advanced, he can even make their heads explode like overripe melons in a microwave. The only thing missing is the classic “got-your-nose” manoeuvre, where the combatant slices off said nose, taunts, and takes a blade to any extruding body part flung about in the ensuing confusion.
The flow of combat is fluid and highly enjoyable too, building up counter-style with various combos like in the Arkham Asylum series. I played the PC version of the game (heresy, I know), and it was honestly the first time that I truly connected with the controls, and the different keys for various finishing moves – it felt intuitive and fun, where previous iterations of this style of gameplay felt periodically janky and broken in parts for no reason. As the counter builds up – from chained attacks, parries, and counter attacks – Talion correspondingly builds up power to execute some of his fancier moves (execute pretty much being the mot juste in most cases). Soon it stops being that utilitarian question of how am I going to survive this fight, and becomes the more poetic question of how I want to dish out the cold embrace of the grave these abominations deserve (he truly is the John Barrymore of just beating the shit out of these guys!). Truly, genuinely fun.
Of course, I’m an old hand at killing Orcs – enjoying the very different, but amusing Orcs Must Die series before. But this game has more of the Assassin’s Creed franchise in its veins, moving around in an open world environment to either build up and deliver on some side ambitions; or get in place for the next step in the quest. Unlike that series, though, Shadow of Mordor sticks in a pretty focused manner to a main quest and some clearly articulated side goals. On the side one can earn Mithril (the ability currency of the game) looking for artefacts and memories left behind, or completing legends of the various weapons – which serves as a great, ongoing tutorial for all of the elaborate tricks you can perform once you’ve unlocked a new ability. You’ll quickly find your favourites and go-tos in a variety of tough spots, but these side missions actually encouraged me to experiment and develop my play style, indicating a well put together system. It avoids the ‘second fridge’ problem of the Assassin’s Creed series which causes so much fatigue, as cannily identified by John Teti’s guest Stephen Totilo on Gameological’s The Digest way back when. Shadow of Mordor gets the balance of freedom and engaging busy work just right.
Finally, there’s the much vaunted nemesis system, and the hierarchy of Uruk captains and warlords within Sauron’s army. And Gorm the fucking Meat Hoarder. How I loathe that taunting, jumped up, overly lucky piece of shit with every fibre of my being. Your job quickly becomes sowing discontent and chaos within the upper echelons of the Uruk command; taking on bosses littered around the terrain in an attempt to create holes in Sauron’s army, and eventually advance your own candidates in an effort to turn that tool against him. It is tremendous fun. At the start, you’ll have the shit kicked out of you – particularly when you’re kicking seven colours of shit out of one boss, only to have another and his entire entourage turn up and change the tide of battle. You’ll die, and it’ll have consequences – anyone who takes you down, or even survives your supernatural onslaught gets promoted within Sauron’s army and starts throwing their weight around, becoming more powerful and even hard to beat (and insufferably smug to boot). It’s a nice system, although as soon as you figure out how it works you’ll realise how to turn it to your advantage. Sure, you can run away from fights (and those bosses will remember and taunt you for it), but about a quarter of the way through the game you’ll get the feel of these engagements and generally come up with a strategy to overcome the targeted boss (although even towards the end, I still loathed bosses who could block my favourite move of leaping up and over them). More than this, you can gate-crash special events where a captain is attempting to gain power or advantage, and ensure that things turn out the way you want them. It’s a great system.
And Gorm the fucking Meat Hoarder. You see, as an inexperienced Talion still unschooled in the ways of Mordor, the Uruks got the better of me now and then – with Gorm beating me several times in the game. He became my nemesis; managing to crop up when it was least convenient, and generally rub my face in the fact that I could decapitate so many of his colleagues but was still defeated by him. At some point, I made it my life’s work to dispatch that fucker from the face of Middle-earth; and after much planning, gaining insight into his weaknesses, turning a few key followers – finally, that fucker was mine. And down he did go, in an epic battle where all of the traps I had set worked against him to finally dish out his comeuppance. It was a sweet, sweet moment. And I lorded it over his corpse, finally feeling like a badass shadow of Mordor – that is, until I ran into him again. Back. Because I forgot; these Uruks are dredged up from the earth, and when they are made dust-to-dust, with a patented sprinkle of unholy water they can turn to mud and dredge themselves up from the ground again. And here was Gorm the Meat Hoarder; looking like fossilised shit, sure, but back and ready to get his revenge on me. Every time I finished him off, he dragged himself up again to come back and haunt me – ‘damn Obamacare’ I cried as I skewered him for the seventh time. It was an epic struggle, played out over the course of the game – and the design is clever enough to give this system some weight, even after you think you’ve disposed of your nemesis for good. Beware of encores.
Yes, it’s a veritable Hobbes’ Leviathan within Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor; and when the aforementioned Leviathan is Sauron, you’ve got problems. The game itself is not revolutionary; rather it’s a refinement on many other systems from many other games, that are now coalescing into the standard for live-action RPG games. The game itself feels a little short, despite being overstuffed with things to do, as if it was designed to have more than the two giant levels it currently has. No doubt there’ll be DLC, and after many hours of happy slaughtering and concluding the main missions, that extra plot is probably the only reason you’ll return. That said, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor remains a thrilling and enjoyable game.
Rating: Four stars.