A fantastic game bogged down by forgettable characters and plot.
It’s incredibly difficult to make a good game off a licensed product. Especially one that is as universally loved as The Lord of the Rings. Yet, like in the Arkham games, Shadow of Mordor walks the fine line of successfully inhabiting a new universe and carving out its own identity. It’s combat, like Arkham, is incredibly fluid and fun. Your enemies are distinct and develop their own personalities through the Nemesis system (more on that later). But the plot never exceeds your standard revenge story, and the protagonist is just a stereotypical grim hero.
The game takes place in Mordor between the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. You play as Talion, a ranger at the Black Gate. You have a wife and young son and they both adore you. They might as well have flashing lights above their heads reading, “We’re going to die to motivate the protagonist and gain sympathy from the audience.” On cue, orcs attack and murder both Talion and his family. But all is not lost. Talion is rescued by a elf wraith/ghost spirit of some sort (it’s not very clear) and he resurrects you. You two are now connected; he’s the spirit, you’re the body, and he grants you extra powers and immortality. Talion then embarks on a quest to avenge your family and kill the captains of Sauron.
To be frank, Talion is a cardboard cut out. He shows no emotion and grunts all his answers. Next to the dictionary definition of the grim hero is a picture of Talion’s frowning face. The other characters don’t fare much better. The wraith is either reminding you that Sauron is bad (like we didn’t know) or yelling at you for not being focused enough on killing orcs. Some of the side characters, like the garrulous dwarf, are enjoyable, but barely in the story.
Fortunately, the game is an absolute blast to play. The combat is varied and easy to learn. You can charge into a stronghold swinging your sword or you can pick off orcs one by one with your ranged attacks. Most places have environmental dangers you can use against your foes, such as buzzing hornets nests or animals in cages. You mix heavy and quick attacks against multiple foes, countering them as they swing at you. You shouldn’t be too overconfident though, one alarm bell summons at least twenty orcs to your location.
The orcs themselves are interesting. In fact they are far more interesting then the important characters. The orcs in Mordor have a hierarchical society. The warlords are on top, below them are bodyguards, and so on, all the way down to captains, who are the lowest. Each of the orcs in this hierarchy have a distinct personality. When you encounter them, the game zooms in to reveal their often hilarious name, and you watch them jeer or boast at you. My favorite was Oglug the Drunk who mumbled slurred insults at me. Each orc have their own strengths and weaknesses. For example, one may be immune to fire, but is weak to stealth attacks. You discover these weaknesses by interrogating certain orcs called worms. It’s vital you discover these weaknesses in order to defeat the powerful warlords.
The interaction with orcs also leads to organic storytelling. When Talion dies, power shifts occur within the hierarchy. Whichever orc killed you is instantly promoted, and you’re able to witness power shifts within Sauron’s army. Orcs are constantly challenging each other to duels or having feasts to gain strength. You can infiltrate these power struggles and affect the outcome. This enables you to choose who is promoted or who dies. For example, I manipulated Oglug the Drunk all the way from lowly captain to a powerful warlord.
Also, having a captain kill you is extremely personal. Next time you run into him, he will most certainly bring it up and jeer at you. This makes your vengeance against him that much more satisfying. It doesn’t end there. Randomly in the game, that orc will reappear, sometimes with massive bandages, missing limbs, or burn marks–depending on how you killed them. He becomes your nemesis and hounds you most of the game. The game dubs this the Nemesis System, and I hope future games build off of this idea.
Halfway through, you gain the ability to control orcs. This adds a whole new dimension to the game. Now, you can scheme to promote orcs that are under your control. Or you can mind control a warlord’s bodyguards so they’ll switch sides when you attack. It adds a nice element to gameplay. Instead of simply killing orcs, now they can work for you. That annoying crossbow in the orc who’s been shooting at you all day? Now, he’ll rain arrows down on his fellow orcs, while I strike from the ground.
The game has beautiful graphics. All the characters are rendered well and the environments, especially in the second half, are beautiful and lush. There’s hardly any loading screens. I ran into very few bugs and none that forced me to restart the game or shut off my consule. My only complaint (besides the plot) is the length of the game. I was able to achieve one hundred percent completion in a little over thirty hours. For most sandbox games, thirty hours barely scratches the surface of the game. I don’t even want to know the amount of hours I have invested in Witcher 3 or Skyrim and there’s plenty more for me to do in those games.
To summarize, Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is fun to play, but ultimately forgettable. It’s a lot of fun to walk into an stronghold full of orcs and be the only one to walk out alive. But there is a limit to how long that remains enjoyable. Without a solid plot or compelling characters, the game is entertaining, but without substance.