Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is at its absolute best when you’re slicing and dicing your way through a seemingly endless stream of dynamic enemies. Taking obvious inspiration from the combat of the Arkham series, the platforming of Assassin’s Creed, and the open-world exploration of The Elder Scrolls, Shadow of Mordor is a league above this generation thanks to an engaging, accessible and satisfying array of gameplay mechanics. When you then throw in one of the most innovative game features in many years in the Nemesis system, you have one of if not the best game to hit the new consoles.
Of all the major entertainment licenses that have made the transition to games, the Tolkien universe is certainly one of the better ones. It’s not spectacular by any means, and few games under the Lord of the Rings or Middle-Earthbanner have made much noise. With Shadow of Mordor, though, this could be the universe’s “Arkham” moment.
Shadow of Mordor is certainly going to benefit from the hype surrounding the Hobbit films, just as Arkham did from Nolan’s Batman films. But Warner Bros’ approach is smart: service the broader audience, and respect the source material, rather than appease the lowest common denominator attending the theatres to watch the films. Rarely do direct film-to-game adaptations work, and in the case of Shadow of Mordor, there’s a game brimming in the DNA of the films, the literature, and the passion of the fanbase.
That’s not to say that Shadow of Mordor tells a very good story: it’s just pedestrian enough to feel like part of the universe, but it’s mostly background noise. It’s the gameplay aesthetic that does the job here. While some of the story’s plot points feel forced to appease the film audience, other parts may go unappreciated by those not familiar with the literature. Talion is satisfactory enough as our hero, but I feel a stronger connection with him via the Nemesis system and just general interaction in the game world than I do as being part of the arching narrative.
The combat here is just satisfying as it was in Arkham but far more refined. The enemies are tougher, but thankfully, Shadow of Mordor’s combat is smoother and deeper than what we’ve come to expect from the Arkham series. Countering moves are very responsive, making for satisfying combos and sleek hack-and-slash attacks. I was rarely caught off guard in my time playing the game, but it certainly feels like the action is heavier, faster and more brutal. Of course, being Middle-Earth, there’s a distinctive lack of morality if you’re doing a back-to-back comparison with Batman’s approach to law and justice, so expect a lot of gore: Shadow of Mordor can be a very confronting game.
That certainly ties into how the combat is so darn satisfying: it just blends together into a symphony of violence that feels very much in line with what one might expect in that world. I definitely haven’t played a game with combat as smooth, responsive and enjoyable since Arkham City. Many games since have tried to replicate that successful formula — Deadpool, Amazing Spider-man 2 — but only Shadow of Mordor has been able to refine it.
Where Shadow of Mordor really stands out, however, is with the Nemesis system. Things get really interesting when you first dive into this dynamic hierarchy of evil Orcs. It’s a fascinating RPG mini-game that has powerful consequences on the game’s progressive nature. Having an Orc kill the main character, Talion, for example, will lead to that Orc being promoted in the ranks to captain. Each Captain has a range of strengths and weaknesses. Warlords are constantly vying for power, and so they will have the drive to slaughter Talion at every opportunity. Intimidatingly, if a lower-ranked Orc kills Talion, that can snowball into something far more powerful. This adds incredible value to life and death in the game: while Talion is immortal, the world is changing with every death at the hands of the Orc, and a far more powerful, aggressive Orc is born.
How Talion interacts and battles these Orcs and captains actually shapes future interactions. Run, for example, and the captain might taunt you the next time you meet. It truly is a fascinating and deeply enjoyable RPG aspect that does away with the notion that grunts are nothing more than cannon fodder: each Orc has the potential to evolve into something quite scary. Few games are as conceptually challenging and deep on the enemy front, particularly in how Shadow of Mordor is directly influenced by your own approaches.
The Nemesis system is that rare example where what a developer promised would be in the game actually works as was promoted. Enemy Orcs seem like legitimate characters in the game world, and this makes engaging with the entire system particularly rewarding. Seeing an Orc with a beat up face after your last encounter with him demonstrates just how deep Monolith went to create such a dynamic system. I really love the interactions based on previous encounters, as it makes the open-world environment feel more alive than what other games are able to portray: here’s a world that actually responds to how you engage with it.
To top it all off, Shadow of Mordor looks great on both PC and consoles. The PS4 and Xbox One versions both look superb, and there’s really nothing that stands out to justify recommending one version over the other. Looting, exploring and engaging within this game world is a real treat, and I’m confident that the 15-20 hours (at least) that this game can offer will go by very quickly.
The Final Verdict
Setting a new standard for the open-world action game, Shadow of Mordor provides gamers with a thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding experience. The Nemesis system is a satisfying innovation that essentially allows players to create their own boss battles, and player choice has rarely been as consequential as it is here. This is an open-world game that not only honours the deep lore of the Tolkien universe rather superbly, but also adds legitimate value to the life and death of our character in unprecedented ways.