With the Hobbit movies proving to be one of the longest train wrecks in recent memory, it’s a relief to see developers looking elsewhere for inspiration of doing Tolkien’s world justice. So, to fill the gap between the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, we find ourselves deep in the heart of Mordor.
Enter Talion, a ranger working on the Black Gate who, along with his family, is killed almost immediately by invading Uruks. Luckily (sort of) for him, an Elven Wraith spirit invades his body just before death. Meaning that a short while later he is resurrected and will continue to do so each time he is killed.
Throughout the adventure we’ll learn more about life in Mordor for humans before the orcs and Uruks invaded and Sauron took over and we’ll even learn how the One Ring was forged and how Sauron betrayed the nine. The time setting and location are ripe for gaming territory and Tolkien nuts should definitely take a look.
Shadow of Mordor brandishes its base influences with little shame, but in fairness, Monolith has chose some of the best brands to initiate, namely Assassin’s Creed and Rocksteady’s Batman titles. So expect an open world where you can climb any surface and find lots of side-missions and collectibles to keep you entertained between story missions. These distractions also help to fund your numerous combat upgrades, so it rarely feels like time wasting. The climbing mechanics are solid and the animations have a pleasing weight to them too.
Climbing the various ruined building remains dotted around Mordor is an essential part of the game’s stealth leanings as a high vantage point ensures you can plot your route through busy enemy encampments and take the quietest route to your target.
Wraith vision highlights enemies through walls, allowing you to spot secret-spilling intel soldiers, armoured foes and high ranking targets. Naturally, you can attack from above with silent stealth attacks or you can shimmy along ledges and pull opponents to their death. There’s nothing original about any of this, but the implementation is almost spotless, aside from occasionally getting stuck on a ledge and having to drop off and climb again.
Stealth is also widely used on the ground as you sneak around and hide in bushes and can even use a wraith whisper to target one specific enemy in a group to come and investigate, before shiving them away from the crowd. You even have a brief window to finish an enemy that sees you, as they often fumble getting their sword out. Another option is your bow, which has a limited amount of slow-motion focus to release a pleasing insta-kill headshot.
Eventually, you’re going to have to get in a ruckus and boy do those Mordor lot like to pile in with the numbers. This is where the game brandishes its Arkham influences by relying heavily on counters and dodge rolls, both of which are worked in well. Talion himself isn’t particularly great on the offensive though. Using basic strikes it takes forever to finish an individual opponent and the finishing move on knocked down enemies is almost always interrupted (even when you pay for a faster one!), meaning you have to save up hits on a combo counter to unleash a special execution move that will definitely finish off a foe without risk of someone else skewering your neck.
It takes a while to put a few extra skills under your belt, but combat actually gets easier in the second half of the game when specials charge up sooner. It’s a shame you only have a basic slash move and a stun blast move for melee options, as even the addition of light/heavy options over two buttons would have given it some much needed depth. Anyone that played the original movie tie-in titles may remember the surprisingly deep combat system available there. Sadly, this is another example of a developer leaning on the RPG angle for a reason to have some pretty monotonous combat. The equipable runes which act like perks don’t spice things up nearly enough either.
The Ace up Shadow of Mordor’s sleeve is the much talked about Nemesis system. Essentially, when you die, that Uruk will be promoted within the ranks of Sauron’s army and will remember you when you next meet, adding a real personality to your enemies. Any ranking enemy can be scanned for weaknesses (if you’ve found some intel on them via interrogations), which will often enable you to take them on with an advantage.
For example, they might be scared of fire, so set off a few explosions and watch them flee from battle, allowing you to attack them with ease once they’re alone. Some are weak against ranged attacks, so a headshot may be enough. Or maybe they lose their shit when attacked by a Caragor beast that you can free from cages or lure in with meat. Just running in is rarely the only option and these options add a very welcome sense of openness to mission approaches.
For every weakness though, your enemies will have double the amount of strengths. Maybe they’ll become enraged at the sight of bees, or they’re immune to stealth attacks or can only be hurt by finisher moves. Again though, this forces you to come up with new strategies that make each opponent feel unique.
However, this did start to dry up a little, but just in time a new ability was introduced that allows you to brand enemies, which essentially brainwashes them to fight for you when you activate them. You can hunt down and brand all of a Warchief’s bodyguards and then when you arrive at the fight him the boss, instruct them to turn on him and hack him to kibble. Or get one of them to challenge him in order to skip the task required to draw him out. It’s a brilliant system that puts you in control of a conflict like no other title before.
It was only the second half of the game where I was able to appreciate the finer graphical detail of Monolith’s title. Why? Because the second map is where we start to see a little greenery such as trees and grass, which to be fair, Mordor isn’t exactly known for its exotic plant life. But the moss on the cliffs is incredibly detailed and the hedges have a nice 3D feel to them rather than flat pasted-in texture sheets. Complaining about the general greyness of the rest of the maps feels a little churlish though considering it’s set in Mordor.
The graphical detail on the enemy is fantastic too. Each ranking Uruk looks different, which really adds to the feeling they’re unique characters. They differ in the hugely varying armour items, body build and you’ll never see a repeated face. Frankly, this is exactly the sort of thing that we want to see and adds real credence to Monoliths ambitions with the Nemesis system.
In terms of story, it’s a little light to be honest and I never really bonded with Talion as a lead as his personality basically consists of being a bit pissed about his family being murdered before his eyes. He might sound like Sean Bean and look like a slightly beefy Anson Mount, but he lacks the personality of either. The story just sort of ends too and I’m not really sure what was achieved during the adventure. The last fight is a quick QTE non-event too, which blows all sorts of orc chunder.
There are lots of neat little touches that make the game all the more endearing though. Such as the audio from the DualShock 4’s speaker, like rustling bushes when sneaking or the clang of a perfectly timed counter. The collectibles dotted around the map are numerous enough to keep you going between missions but not to a ridiculous level like the feathers in the Assassin’s Creed II. Overall, Mordor turns out to be a great place to spend time in and you’ll be hooked throughout the game’s 25+ hours of gameplay.
- Nemesis system adds unique personality to enemies
- Can approach targets in multiple ways
- High production values
- Melee combat feels limited
- First map is a little dull
- Talion is super boring
The Short Version: A fantastic start for what we hope will become a fresh Tolkien franchise. There are some solid (if not borrowed) foundations and the Nemesis surpasses our expectations by providing a fresh experience to enemy design. Improvements next time should see a little more variety added to the combat brawls, but you’re going to love taking advantage of an enemy’s weaknesses from afar with the rich range of underhanded subterfuge tactics. Well played, Monolith.
8 – GREAT: Great games typically provide competent production values with a degree of innovation, personality and soul that's sometimes absent in titles that score lower. Or even just exceptional raw value on top of competent execution. There'll usually be a little something to stop games like these from reaching the very top - innovative but slightly flawed, fun but not groundbreaking - however you can buy games that score 8/10 with confidence.
Platforms: PC | PS4 (reviewed) | Xbox One
Developers: Monolith Productions
Publishers: Warner Bros Interactive
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