I doubt anyone, even Tolkien himself, could have expected Lord of the Rings to get the “Dark and Gritty” treatment. We have Peter Jackson to thank for that as his film adaptation became synonymous with high action and epic battles. Pronounced battle scenes easily lend themselves to video games and Lord of the Rings has seen its fair share. Notable titles, like Return of the King and The Third Age, do a good job translating the spectacle of Jackson’s films to home consoles. Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor benefits from not being based on a film or Tolkien book as it gives Monolith a generous amount of creative freedom to design a game unlike any Lord of the Rings adventure before it.
Squeezed between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Mordor begins to stir as Sauron slowly returns from his defeat by Isildur to consolidate his power and influence. Talion is one of many Rangers stationed near the Black Gate to monitor the blighted land for any unusual Orc activity. It is implied through voice clips during load screens that Talion’s service is one of penance. Unless you’re really paying attention, it’s easy to miss why he and his wife and son are there because it doesn’t get much explanation during the main game. None of that really matters, because it doesn’t take long before Talion is murdered with his family during a daring Orc raid lead by the Tower of Sauron, one of three terrible captains of the infernal army. Ritualistic in fashion, the death was supposed to grant the Tower a unique partnership with Celebrimbor, the Elf Lord from the Second Age who forged the Rings of Power. In a twist, Celebrimbor allies himself with the Ranger instead, granting him immortality and superhuman abilities. The pair work together to take revenge against Sauron and recapture the Elf Lord’s lost memories.
Let’s not beat around the bush. The story in Shadow of Mordor is ugly. Those with a passing knowledge of Tolkien’s trilogy won’t get much here. Purists, on the other hand, will appreciate the dramatization of seeing Celebrimbor, a character from The Silmarillion, approached by a disguised Sauron to create the Rings of Power and the One Ring. There are bits of lore found through collectibles that provide some insight to the unseen world of Middle Earth but most people probably won’t care. Gollum features heavily in the adventure, filling a role that easily could have been performed by some other unknown person or creature. Gollum offers brand recognition, though, and serves as a ham-fisted way to bridge the game to the films. Damning the narrative further is an ending that is so completely anti-climatic, cheap, and out of character. Of story, it is glaringly obvious that Monolith painted themselves in a corner and didn’t know where to go.
Thankfully, because Shadow of Mordor is such a thrill to play, its story problems are inconsequential. The love child of Batman and Assassin’s Creed, the game uses elements from each in a smart way. There’s no mistaking that Arkham Asylum‘s combat system was a revelation and to see it here grants the empowering thrill of taking on an entire Orc garrison single-handedly. Monolith does very little to differentiate its combat with Batman, and those who have played Rocksteady’s games will instantly recognize enemy types and the tactics required to defeat them. Combat yields experience points and power levels that opens a skill tree that will make Talion a more effective fighter. The skill tree offers a nice sense of progression, as you’ll start the game weak but by the end, you’ll be taking on groups of twenty Orcs with ease. Combat is a thoroughly violent affair and is the game’s major departure from Tolkien’s work. Violence is always glorified through stealth kill animations, like shanking and the “brutalize” kill maneuver, and executions favor enemies getting their heads lopped off at the neck. Players are encouraged to celebrate their kills via a Photo Mode that has series of light photo manipulation tools to set the proper visual tone. It’s all rather garish and ghoulish and can be quite a turn off, especially by those who prefer Tolkien’s lyrical and romantic representation of Middle Earth.
When not in combat, Mordor and its neighboring province of Nurn are wide open for exploration. Exploration in this case means collectibles. Herbs, relics, and runes are all on hand to please completion and also give players the extra points and currency needed to upgrade combat abilities spread across Talion’s three weapons. Monolith took a soft approach to collectible hunting. Rather than cram the side content down the player’s throat, they simply leave the player to do what they want. If something they need is nearby, like an herb or a creature kill for hunting challenges, a message pops up to alert of their proximity. A Wraith View mode (think Batman‘s Detective Mode) highlights their locations nearby which is useful, considering that herbs have a bad habit of blending into the environment. Scaling cliffs, ruined castles and Orc strongholds is accomplished with a simplified version of Assassin’s Creed-style free running. It isn’t a perfect duplication, Talion has a habit of getting stuck on environments and I felt it takes to long to drop from ledges, but it gets the job done. And yet, it still manages to eat Assassin’s Creed‘s lunch.
If one were to judge Shadow of Mordor on its gameplay alone, the remarks would be quite positive. The experience is fondly familiar and free form combat works surprisingly well outside of Rocksteady’s game series. However, the inclusion of Monolith’s new Nemesis system propels the game into the stratosphere. Monolith has created a dynamic world that adjusts constantly shuffles itself as a response to your in-game activities. Nemesis gives Saruon’s army of Orcs structure and their effectiveness as a fighting force can be directly manipulated by the player. Among the hundreds of Orcs that populate Mordor and Nurn, a handful of them are ranked Captains. Stronger than the average Uruk, these Captains have special traits, strengths, and weaknesses that make them standout from the pack. Captains are defined by their knack to completely circumvent the player’s moveset which makes fighting major enemies an exercise in tactical, out of the box thinking. Most Captains tend to work alone while others serve as bodyguards to a War Chief, the highest rank an Orc can earn. Dealing with Captains and War Chiefs requires planning and intel. When you first start the game, the Captains in Sauron’s Army are blacked out. Collecting Intel reveals the Captain’s location, traits, and relationship to any War Chief. The game constantly reminds you to take out a War Chief’s bodyguards before confronting them and for good reason. There’s nothing worse than challenging one of these bosses only to see them backed up by one or more surprise Captains.
During the first half of the game, you are required to kill the five War Chiefs before advancing the story. In Nurn, the ability to take control of Captains and War Chiefs really gives the Nemesis system its legs. Branding allows you to guide a Captain through the process of rising up the ranks through a serious of side missions that help them to consolidate power. By murdering other captains, collecting followers, and staving off trouble from their fellow troops, they can be positioned to serve as a War Chief’s bodyguard which opens up the option for betrayals and assassinations.
Another angle of Nemesis is affected by the player’s death. Being killed in combat doesn’t mean it is game over as Celebrimbor’s connection with Talion grants the Ranger a modicum of immortality. The real death penalty is the reshuffling of Sauron’s Army. If there are dead Captains on the board, their positions are immediately filled by new named Orcs. If a Captain killed you in combat, their power level increases. If you’re done in by a lowly, no-name Orc, they are promoted to Captain and fill in any available slots. This grand reshuffling of the deck is bolstered by the personalities of the individual Orcs themselves. Captains enjoy trash talk and deliver a stock taunt before the start of the battle. If you’ve fought them previously, they will reference the previous encounter in their introductory boasts. When encountering Captains you beat to a pulp but managed to get away will reappear with a new gnarly set of battle wounds (and they’ll even reference them at the start of the fight!). The personalities awarded to the Orcs through Nemesis goes a long way to simulate a living, breathing military force. I’ve never seen anything like it before. Monolith has created something really special and I can’t wait to see how they implement it in other games.
Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor may not be the best use of the Lord of the Rings license, but the game Monolith built around it is amazing. Don’t pay too much attention to the story or you’ll be more disappointed than Pippin missing Second Breakfast.