Hype is a strange thing. For an excellent game, hype can send it rocketing off into the stratosphere of critical acclaim and public gushing. For a mediocre one, hype can dismantle the reputation of a franchise and bring about vitriolic yet undeserved hate, as was the case with Watch Dogs and Destiny this year. Lack of hype is almost stranger. It leads to us being blind-sided by incredible experiences and cry out to the heavens “Why isn’t everyone talking more about this thing?!”. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor was one such game. Except now everyone is talking about it. With good reason.
Shadow of Mordor puts you in the role of a ranger named Talion, voiced and motion captured by the phenomenally talented and increasingly visible Troy Baker. While guarding the Black Gate, he is ambushed and he and his family is killed by Sauron’s army. Except not exactly. He does not pass on and is, as he puts it, “Banished from death,” albeit with new wraith abilities that allow him to take vengeance for his slaughtered family. After a brief conversation with the elf who bestowed the wraith abilities upon him and acts as his spiritual guide, he’s set loose across the plains of Mordor. As Eddard Stark once said i “One does not simply walk into Mordor” and this ends up being quite true. You have to slice hundreds of heads off as you saunter through.
And boy, do you slice a lot of heads. The combat is akin to the Batman series where enemies will surround you and look to run you through from all directions while you swiftly counter their attacks and dish out Dark Knight justice in return. Unlike Batman, Talion has no qualms with killing. Not. In. The. Slightest. The combat is incredibly bloody and visceral and you will behead orcs and uruk by the bushel. It’s not uncommon in an engagement to sweep the leg of an orc, stab him in the face while he is on the ground, come up countering and jump over the back of another orc before stabbing him the back and slicing his head off, just before immediately stunning another one and filling him with furious slashes before blowing his head the f*** apart with your wraith powers. With your box of orc-killing tricks broadened as you progress through the game, it’s incredibly engaging and some of the best video game combat since the Batman games themselves.
As capable as you are in open combat, stealth is just as rewarding. This is where the game tends a feel very Assassin’s Creed-y. You skulk around strongholds filled with guards, hide in bushes, parkour up and over obstacles or around structures all for the end goal of leaping down and burying your dagger in the back of some poor orc’s neck before making a break for the nearest rooftop perch and scouting your next kill. The stealth feels like it’s done better here than in the Creed games though. The simple mechanic that sets the stealth of Mordor apart from Assassin’s Creed is a crouch button, and it’s a brilliant addition. The feeling that you are moving swiftly while being hard to see is paramount to stealth, but it’s something Assassin’s Creed never managed to nail, and part of it was because you were always standing straight the f*** up. It’s a mechanic I’ve always questioned the lack of in a Creed game before, even in the newest entry, Black Flag. Throughout the game one thought was always at the forefront of my mind: Shadow of Mordor had out-Assassin’s Creed-ed Assassin’s Creed.
The strongholds themselves allow Mordor to blend the best parts of Batman, Assassin’s Creed, and Far Cry 3 into one impressive package. By freeing caged monsters around the encampment or knocking down bait to invite other wildlife to come knocking, you are able to wreak extensive havoc all the while stealthing your way to your objective or fighting your way out if things go sideways. It all blends together in such a sublime way, that I’m not sure there’s a game that has ever done it this well. The stealth makes you feel like a smug-self important bastard and even when you are spotted the combat is so engaging that you never feel like you f***ed up the stealth. You’re a dark knight lurking among the shadows that will occasionally jump out and bust some heads and even if you are spotted you can act like your f*** up is what you meant to do all along. Basically what I’m getting at here is Talion is Batman. And I’m totally cool with that.
Now as good as all of those elements are, the real show-stopper here is the Nemesis System, which could very well change the way developers approach open world games from now on. Every orc and uruk you kill is not of the same skill level and rank. They have a hierarchy of power which features regular grunts, captains, and warchiefs. Throughout the game, you will encounter captains who roam around Mordor. What sets captains apart from the regular orcs and uruk is not only their appearance or the fact that they are named, but the fact that each Captain has a distinct set of strengths and weakness which can only be found out by interrogating their grunts (then promptly stabbing them in the face). Their strengths may include becoming more powerful if they see their underlings fall in battle, being immune to stealth or ranged attacks, or actually fighting better if they are actively on fire. Because of this you have to change your approach every fight and exploit their weaknesses. One captain I faced had a fear of caragors, so when I set one of those suckers loose to run ruckshot all over his camp, he turned tail and legged it. This allowed me to give chase to hunt and kill him without having to fight his cronies in the process.
Fighting a captain in open combat can lead to waves of enemies surrounding you as you attempt to single out to the captain which is no easy task. If you fall in battle, the captain you were locked in combat with actually becomes even stronger. If you are to meet that same Captain in battle again, he will even quip about how he took you down the first time and would love nothing more than to do it a second. As difficult as captains are, they are nothing compared to warchiefs.
The warchiefs are the elite of the orcs and uruk. There are only five of them at one time around the world. In order to draw them out you typically have to perform a small side quest in a stronghold which may include taking a out a certain number of enemies, or killing them in specific fashion. Once the warchief is on the scene you either have to jump them (if their weakness even allows you to) or fight the warchief and his captain bodyguards in open combat (the less desirable option.) They are incredibly difficult and some them necessitate that you use skull-duggery to overcome them. My personal favorite ruse was to systematically mind control their body guards with wraith powers before drawing him out, then activate his bodyguards and have them turn against their master. If one of your new minions happens to land the killing blow, he will become the new warchief and still be under your control. Even if you manage to kill most of the captains and a few of the warchiefs in the world, their ranks are always expanding. When some captains fall others will move to take their place. The Nemises System is incredibly dynamic; a legitimately innovative idea that pushes the open-world genre forward, and turns a game that is very good into one of the year’s very best.
There are small quibbles I have with the game however. The campaign for the most part is forgettable and I never found myself invested in the goings on of Talion’s vengence quest. ii As fun as the traversal is, it can get a bit wonky at times, occasionally choosing that some surfaces are unclimbable, and sometimes sending you in the wrong direction altogether. These are very small issues that do not take away from how fun the rest of the game is in any way.
To me, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is similar to Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag in one key way: while you can take or leave the campaign, running around doing side missions and generally f***ing about are some of the most fun things you can do in the game. The difference between those two, however, is that Mordor’s f***-abouts are Game-of-the-Year caliber. Like Wolfenstein: The New Order before it, Shadow of Mordor leaped into the fray with a distinct lack of hype and was all the better for it. But with it’s tremendous strengths now on the table, it’s underdog days are over. The hype machine is already being revved up for the sequel. No one knew what it was or what it was going to be before it came out. iii Everyone knows its name now.