The closest we’ve come to a proper crack at the Middle-earth license in recent years was 2011’s War In The North. Though serviceable enough and chock full of content, Snowblind’s action RPG fell short in too many areas despite its apparent ambition. With Monolith’s Guardians of Middle-earth also failing to impress, for the past few years Tolkien fans have had to gorge themselves on two LEGO tie-ins. Though in no way a bad thing – both games were actually pretty solid – those of us who grew reading the novels and watching Jackson’s original trilogy have been pining for something a little more grounded and visceral.
For this sizeable chunk of the Middle-earth fandom, Shadow of Mordor is a near-perfect slice of gaming goodness. Many of its elements are lifted directly from other popular series yet, when combined with Monolith’s own bag of tricks, they’re not only refined but refreshing too. It’s an impressive feat considering the density of open-world game releasess there have been in the recent past.
As Talion, you are effectively the titular Shadow of Mordor, a ranger of the Black Gate brought back to life by an ancient power and bound to the Wraith Celebrimbor. With his family slain and Sauron’s imminent return, Talion ventures into Mordor as a man with literally nothing to lose. It’s an interesting set-up and one that shouldn’t have too many Tolkien fans reaching for their copy of The Silmarillion to fact check, despite Monolith’s creative approach to the Middle-earth canon. With that said, as original as the story is, it won’t leave as much of a lasting impression as either the books or films.
That much was always inevitable, however, and doesn’t have any serious impact on the game itself. If anything, Shadow of Mordor’s lack of narrative focus works in its favour. You see, although there are plenty of story beats to encounter, throughout the game players will be writing their very own story in the dark hue of Uruk blood.
What we’re referring to, of course, is the game’s Nemesis system. Through adaptive AI, this adds a whole new layer to the way in which players interact with enemy NPCs thanks to a persistent Uruk hierarchy. As in Peter Jackson’s original trilogy, these superior orc specimens are hard-skinned and always up for a good scrap, even if that means the occasional bit of infighting.
During your travels through Mordor, you will encounter a number of scenarios allowing you to intimidate, kill, and even manipulate the numerous captains and warchiefs beyond the Black Gate. Think of them as mini bosses who can remember your actions as well as your combat tactics, steeling them for subsequent confrontations. As touched on before, Talion will eventually tap into Celebrimbor’s ability to dominate Uruk captains. This basically turns them into allies who can be used to cause even more havoc among the ranks. Although side missions are still present (in quite an abundance) it’s ultimately the Nemesis system that will keep players coming back for more, long after the ten-hour campaign.
To seasoned gamers, the best way to describe Shadow of Mordor’s core gameplay is a cocktail of one part Assassin’s Creed, one part Batman, and a sprinkling of other familiar gubbins. Focus will always shift between stealth and melee encounters with navigation and ranged combat filling the gaps in between. Combined, these elements provide players with the tools to approach any encounter as they wish. From scare tactics, subterfuge and manipulation to bow sniping and straight up sword-fighting; all are viable methods that can be used in-game.
If you’ve played any of the Batman Arkham games then melee combat will feel instantly familiar. Using a combination of attacks, counters, and dodges, you’ll weave your way through crowds of enemies while building a combo meter. Shadow of Mordor’s fighting isn’t completely identical, however, and feels much more fast-paced and forgiving compared to Batman’s rhythmic waltzes. The game’s stealth mechanics also feel like a refinement of what’s come before and by simply holding the stealth button players reduce their profile, allowing them to bypass Uruk patrols quickly and efficiently. As with combat, things are made a little easier: enemies will only be able to spot Talion when fairly close and, even then, their alert gage won’t trigger until after a few seconds of exposure. Stealth gameplay may be a little on the easy side but at the same time it feels empowering; even more so thanks to Talion’s suite of Wraith abilities that come to the fore in a number of situations.
On new consoles Shadow of Mordor looks a real treat. This is both thanks to the improved power of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One as well as the amount of variety Monolith has tried to cram in. Uruks come in all shapes and sizes with a slew of accessories, armour, and weapons, meaning you’ll rarely ever encounter two of the same during a skirmish. Monolith has even tried to spice up the sludgy depths of Mordor, introducing a second coastal area which boasts a fair amount of greenery. Carrying the cinematic experience one step further is the game’s soundtrack and voicework, with Troy Baker and Alastair Duncan do a grand job of bringing the two main protagonists to life with plenty of supporting actors lending their voices to the horde of Uruk captains.
Shadow of Mordor is without doubt the best Middle-earth game available on consoles. Though not entirely original (then again, what is nowadays?) all of the elements which it borrows flow in sync with Monolith’s intuitive Nemesis system, creating something both immensely fun and replayable. That’s not to say the game doesn’t start to lose steam, especially once you’ve hit the thirty-hour mark, long after you’ve finished the story and explored the world. Still, when you eventually come to that milestone you will undoubtedly have had your fill.
Version tested: PS4