The more I heard about Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, the more conflicted I was about it. On the one hand, the game mechanics looked utterly brilliant. They showcased some incredibly creative ideas in preview footage, really unique concepts, and some exciting and varied combat. On the other hand… we have the story, which has just left me more and more worried with every word I read… but you can never be sure until you actually experience a game how it’s going to be. Were my predictions correct? Was I way off the mark?
The gameplay mostly surpassed my expectations. It takes the best parts of a lot of other popular action games and combines them together beautifully. You get a smooth freeform combat system, fairly accurate and enjoyable archery, one of the better stealth and assassination systems I’ve seen… all in one attractive little package. There are really only two flaws that I can think of… one of the big ones is that you literally wait over halfway through the game before getting access to some critical game features that really enhance the game overall. The most notable of these is the ability to actually build your own army.
The other flaw is that the combat isn’t terribly predictable as far as targeting in melee combat goes. Now, when you’re just fighting a bunch of grunts, this doesn’t really matter much. It only becomes an issue when you start dealing with the stronger captains and who you target can be the difference between life and death. It becomes even worse when you start to build your own army. Once you start having your own troops, the game seems incapable of recognizing friend from foe… so you’ll frequently go to unleash a big combo and find yourself inexplicably targeting one of your recruits instead of the enemy beside him.
Backstabbing and Butchery
Probably my favourite aspect of this game are the dynamics of the Orc army. In each of the game’s two regions, you’ll encounter a different army. Each army has its own Captains and Warchiefs with their own distinct strengths, vulnerabilities, and personalities. And it is by exploiting their various weaknesses that you will come out on top. You might find one that seems unstoppable… except for one glaring flaw in its defenses. Finding out how to exploit that flaw is the key to success in this game. One example… I found one enemy who had no real vulnerabilities except that he was terrified of betrayal. Once I converted one of his soldiers to my cause, he screamed and ran and I was able to take him down easily.
This dynamic makes the combat so varied and so engaging. You have to plan your strategy based off of your knowledge of the various Captains and figure out how best to fight them. And in order to get knowledge of them? Well, you have to find ways to get intel. This can come from other Captains – although that’s usually a waste – from freeing slaves, and most notably from ‘worms’. Worms are Orcs who have information on the various Captains that they’ll share with you… if you let your wraith half interrogate them.
They also let you meddle in the affairs of Orcs, unlike Wizards. You’ll stumble upon sidequests that have you effectively deciding which Orcs you want to get stronger and which you want dead. You can interrupt an Orc holding a victory feast, or assist an Orc in his attempt to recruit followers. Based off of who you choose to support and where, you can manipulate the Orc army into a place that is better for you – or just better for killing to get the loot you want.
My Sword, and My Bow, and My Dagger, and My… Magic Wraith Powers??
And no, I’m not trying to imply you have a party. But you do get three weapons and a variety of very un-Tolkien special abilities. Each of the three weapons is associated with a different style of play… the sword is your melee option, your dagger for stealth attacks, and the bow obviously is your ranged weapon. The weapons interweave seamlessly allowing you to chain attacks as you get better at the game. You can also customize your weapons with runes found by killing Captains.
Over the course of the game you’ll unlock a variety of different runes and up to 5 rune slots on each weapon. These runes allow you to get special effects, with different types of runes being available for each weapon – for example, one of my favourites was a dagger rune that made more enemies run in terror when I used a stealth technique called Brutalize. The runes allow for a great deal of customization. And since it would take an eternity to find them all, they provide a constant reward for playing.
Additionally, you’ll unlock – as you progress through the game’s missions – a variety of different special abilities. Things like a blink-strike style attack, the ability to control large monsters, a wraith-powered shockwave thing that kills incapacitated enemies, or to fire a burning arrow that instantly kills enemies. They’re cool, and they definitely increase the variety of the combat… but a lot of them just kind of feel out-of-place in Middle Earth.
You can upgrade these abilities through two different systems: one talent tree and one purchasable attribute system. You earn experience from everything you do, and gradually level up unlocking more talents to upgrade your abilities. While completing side and core missions, you’ll earn Mirian that you can spend on attributes, like new rune slots, max health, etc. The systems work well, and they provide very meaningful and noticeable impact. The only real flaw to the progression systems – aside from the rune system – is that it is simply far too easy to max out. I’d run out of stuff to upgrade and maxed out my level before I’d finished half the game.
Not Your Father’s Arda…
I’m just going to be blunt here. This game’s biggest flaw is the fact that it is set in Middle Earth. I’m a huge Tolkien fan, and I love his works… so I hate to see them mistreated like this. From inaccurate historical references and timelines to a complete lack of understanding for the core of Tolkien’s works, Shadow of Mordor does nothing to make me feel like I’m in Middle Earth and everything to make me feel like the setting was a last-minute inclusion.
A lot of the lore references feel like someone did a Google search and trusted the first result they came upon, whether it was accurate or not. It’s really unfortunate, and it takes a lot of the joy out of this game. The game exposes the backstory and history to you primarily through artifacts and memories. I found all of them… and I’d say a majority of them feature some form of rewriting of existing Tolkien history. The story here feels like really badly written fanfiction as opposed to a professionally written alternate take on Tolkien.
A Southern Ranger and an Elven Wraith
Our main characters – or character, depending on how you choose to look at it – are Talion, a ‘Ranger of the Black Gate’ (whatever that is) and Celebrimbor, the Elf lord who originally created the Rings of Power, except Sauron’s ‘One Ring’ to rule them all. In Shadow of Mordor, Talion and his family were brutally killed by someone known as the ‘Black Hand of Sauron’ in a ritual contrived to drag the spirit of Celebrimbor out of the Halls of Mandos(as if anyone short of Eru himself had that kind of power) for some undisclosed reason. Celebrimbor then, somehow (despite having amnesia and being just an Elf) denies Talion Iluvatar’s gift, keeping him alive and using him as a vessel. I don’t know what to say to this, really.
You then go around Mordor, trying to reclaim these Elven towers(why are there Elven towers in Mordor?) scattered around and trying to discover a way to lure out the people behind Talion’s family’s murder so that he can get revenge. While you’re doing this, you find a variety of animals and plants(really? Medicinal and edible herbs scattered throughout Mordor?) and kill a ton of Uruks – no regular Orcs, just Uruks. As this goes on, new storylines – mostly revolving around uncovering Celebrimbor’s past – unfold in front of you and they just don’t feel that important. The game does nothing to make the stories feel like they matter. It’s not that the story is bad… it’s just, since the stories are about characters and events I have contradictory information on, it’s hard to find the motivation to care.
This game had one of the most absurdly poor endings I’ve ever seen. You can clearly tell that they didn’t want to close anything off so they could release upcoming DLC to expand it. But essentially the final boss is a 4-stage quicktime event. And once it’s over, you get some very bland story scenes and then get given the opportunity to complete more side events. That’s it. Altogether unsatisfying and unfortunate.
I think that the developers of this game passed up a golden opportunity. Had they developed their own fantasy world with its own rules and civilizations and set this game within it… they could’ve created the foundation for an amazing new series. The gameplay really is that good. But in stead, they set it in a world that wasn’t really fit for it and didn’t respect that world’s lore or history… and the level to which this toys with the well established lore of Arda is a huge con for me as a Tolkien fan. It’s such a pity because I want to like this game more than I do – the gameplay warrants it. But I just couldn’t care about the story, the world, or the lore…