When your assignment is to make an open-world action game, something the rest of the class has been polishing and refining for years, it’s hard to imagine a team cobbling together a game that manages to pull off all the nuance of its peers, while simultaneously offering something unique enough to stand out. Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is that. It’s a game that has done its homework and understood it well enough to add to the discussion.
The foundation of Shadow of Mordor is the Arkham Batman games — specifically Arkham City (2011). That being said, it’s a game that has looked closely at almost every modern open-world game: It’s traversal and nearly endless collectibles are textbook Assassin’s Creed, its Nemesis system is a fleshed out version of Skyrim’s (2011) persistent dragons , and it takes smart cues from Far Cry 3 (2013) — notably how predatory creatures can be baited to attack enemies, but also in its world design, which allows players to approach combat from any direction they want. It’s a strange game to discuss, because it’s full of ideas you’ve definitely seen before —and might have even claimed to be tired of— but here they are, again, working harmoniously.
Where Shadow of Mordor aims to differentiate itself is in its hierarchy of Orcs and Uruks. Like Rocksteady before them, Monolith leverages the quality of its licensed villains to set up its world inside of an already established universe. In Mordor there is a pecking order. There are Warchiefs, Captains, and Grunts, and all of them want to either rise in power or hold onto their title. Basically, there are named Orcs scouring all of Mordor trying to hunt you down, and as you kill them, they kill you, or they kill each other they will rise and fall in ranks. The amount of fanfare that goes into every exchange is really exciting: the camera will pan dynamically between you and your nemesis, giving you both a chance exchange a few one-liners before clobbering each other, and if the Orc lives to tell the tale —or if they kill you first— that fact will work its way into the banter the next time you two bump into each other. It’s all really well handled.
What’s less interesting is the game’s traditional plot. There are ostensibly three short character arcs, and one major one that spans from beginning to end. None of the eccentric character stories are bad, but they don’t bleed into each other in particularly interesting ways. This is especially clear at the end of the game when its final mission feels almost entirely unrelated to the quest you just finished wrapping up. I would also criticize the game’s protagonist, Talion, for being largely uninteresting — it doesn’t help that he looks like Viggo Mortensen’s less attractive cousin. In the grand scheme of things, however, none of this really matters because the emergent Orc and Uruk stories are compelling enough on their own, but also because of how wonderfully gamey the whole thing is.
There is some debate around the game’s tutorial —which lasts all of 10 minutes and covers most of the character development Talion has over the course of the adventure— which teaches the player how to use stealth by having Talion sneak behind his wife and give her a kiss. For my money, the scene is a cute way to quickly marry plot and gameplay without missing a beat; for others its problematic because kissing and killing are such fundamentally opposed ideas that they probably shouldn’t be tied to the same gameplay actions. Either way, that this is the most notable narrative moment in the game is telling. Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor doesn’t waste any time trying to create a sophisticated narrative experience; it’s a game about systems and the ways they interact with each other. In one of the game’s side activities you’re asked to kill and Orc quickly, before he executes his disloyal peers and becomes stronger. Yes, seriously, the premise here is that one Orc will level up if he kills several other Orc — even if they’re shackled and being beheaded. That’s crazy RPG nonsense and it’s awesome.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is an easy recommendation because it’s fun. It’s the kind of game that takes advantage of its AAA development by being feature and content rich. On the flip side, it’s a brand new IP that comes hurdled with the feeling that it’s a refining an idea; a really ambitious sequel to something that’s already been made. That sounds dour —and in a way it is— but that doesn’t change the fact that Shadow of Mordor easily stands out as an impressive entry in a crowded genre.
- This is this year’s Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (2013), which is really high praise. It’s something I’ll probably come back to as a comfort food, but isn’t something I’ll spend lots of time thinking about.
- Talion is straight-up as boring a protagonist as they come.
- The pacing of abilities and difficulty feels good (although I wish you got the ability to ensnare orc way earlier), but then the story makes the whole thing feel miserably disjointed.
- It doesn’t have locomotion quite right. You can get around quickly enough, but it doesn’t feel mechanically fun the way Saints Row IV (2013) or Batman: Arkham City (2011) do.
- ARROWS SHOULDN’T BE CONSUMABLE IN THIS POWER FANTASY VIDEOGAME.
- I really do love how quickly you’re thrown into an open world. 8 minutes in Mordor versus 8 hours in Assassin’s Creed.
- Some of the criticism of that tutorial really surprised me. It’s a completely valid perspective I never considered on my own.
- I adore the fact you still have camera control during executions.