The Lord Of The Rings series has had it better than most when it comes to videogame adaptations. J.R.R. Tolkein’s beloved fantasy epic is not only a great story, and a stalwart of the genre, but it’s also perfect material for gaming. A large fantasy world, rich lore, great characters, and a classic villain make the ultimate ingredients for just about any gaming genre. And, we’ve had plenty of examples thus far, including fighting games, RPGs and, the MMO, and now the series is moving into open-world, third-person territory with Middle-earth: Shadow Of Mordor.
Set between the events of The Hobbit and Lord Of The Rings, Shadow Of Mordor tells the tale of Talion, a Ranger of Gondor, who is killed, along with his wife and son, during Sauron’s return to Middle-earth, as the army of Sauron assaults the Black Gate. Instead of dying, however, he’s pulled from the abyss by a mysterious and powerful Elven wraith, and is bound to him, making him an immortal, of sorts. He also gains wraith-like abilities. The two set out on a quest to find and kill The Black Hand of Sauron, the person who killed Talion and his family. There’s also the matter of finding out about the wraith’s past, which is root in the series’ lore.
Arkham Assassin’s Cry
Shadow Of Mordor is an open-world game that fuses elements of Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, and the Arkham series. There’s the open world and mission structure of Far Cry, complete with fast travel towers and strongholds. The stealth, executions, and style of Assassin’s Creed, and the combat from Arkham. This is melded together to create what is undoubtedly one of the best games of this year.
Yes, although it’s come out of nowhere, relatively speaking compared to the likes of Destiny, Thief and Watch Dogs, Mordor is better than all of them, at least in my opinion, and it’s a great example of using subject matter in the correct way. That is, not sticking rigidly to existing material, but creating your own take on the license, whilst keeping true to the original source. It’s a totally new story, with all-new characters, but it still feels familiar, as it fits in so well with the famous tales.
As Talion, you’re free to roam around the world, and you can take on missions and side quests as you see fit. There’s are no restrictions in place, and although the world is smaller than many other open world titles, it’s still an expansive playground for you to adventure in, and one that’s chock full of foes to fight and things to do.
In fact, there’s a surprising amount of content here, even early on into your quest the map soon grows replete with missions, side quests, challenges and more, and at all times there’s the ever-present Nemesis system.
I ain’t no warlock
Surely the stand out feature of the game, the Nemesis system is a work of genius, and a feature that’s sure to be stolen and cloned by many more games to come. The army of Sauron is made up of Uruks, powerful orcs that function in a combative hierarchy. Along with the endless stream of minor warriors that make up the army, there are higher-ranking officers that serve as mini-bosses. These captains are stronger and more powerful than their normal counterparts, and they have their own strength’s and weaknesses, such as being immune to stealth attacks or using ranged tactics, or being afraid of Caragor’s (a large, dog-like beast) or generally avoiding combat in a cowardly way. By finding information, or interrogating others to get it, you can reveal the identities of these officers, and discover their abilities, strengths and weaknesses.
When you come up against them, which can be any time, including missions or whilst wandering around the world, you’ll have a chance to kill them off to earn runes for your weapons. Dead officers will upset the strength Sauron’s army, but will be replaced by others soon enough.
This is great, but the best part comes from losing. If you’re killed by an officer, that officer will gain power, including more strengths and less weaknesses, and could be promoted in the army. They’ll also remember the encounter, and when you next meet, will taunt you. This works brilliantly, and is not only impressive, but it makes for enemies that are much more than simple foes to be killed. You actually build rivalries with these orcs, and eventually killing that elusive coward who you let slip away, or the powerful foe who kept killing you, make combat feel so unique.
What’s more, even orcs who are killed sometimes return, disfigured and adorned with metal plates covering their injuries, and the rivalries work both ways. It’s really refreshing, and a great way to make Mordor‘s enemies and combat stand apart from the rest.
I was also surprised when a lowly, rank-and-file orc killed me with a backstab whilst I was busy fighting another group of foes, only to then see him promoted to a captain. Even the endless masses of blade-fodder here can become powerful foes.
A foe that kills you numerous times becomes your current Nemesis, shown on the Sauron’s army screen, keeping you focused on getting revenge. The orcs also don’t exactly get along with each other either, and are constantly fighting amongst themselves, vying for power and promotion. So, you’ll often see updates of captains attacking each other in an effort to get promoted, and some side missions task you with interfering with these struggles in order to upset the balance of power.
It’s a brilliant system, and one that’s a real core element, a not a simple gimmick. It”s absence wouldn’t make the game bad, but it would be a big loss, as it permeates so much of the gameplay. I loved being ambushed by a group of captains whilst on another missions. It feels very organic, and shows that these orcs really do remember you, and are out for your blood. This was further demonstrated to me with a captain who was a coward, and would only attack me when I was in danger. Several times I was in the midst of battle, and almost defeated, and all of a sudden he’d appear and try to kill me. I managed to fend him off, and he ran away, only to return again later, with a taunt that referenced our past clashes. Excellent.
You have my sword…
Combat is very similar to the Arkham series, and relies on chain attacks, dodges and parries, but it’s also very well implemented. It’s fast, fluid and easy to pick up, and at all times, even when you’re on the losing side, it’s fun. The brutality here is both gruesome and rewarding, as Talion clearly allows no quarter when dealing with his foes. His skilful use of sword, dagger, and bow make both close-up combat, stealth kills, and ranged take downs satisfying, and building up a big-enough hit streak to execute a foe with a single hit always gives you a kick.
Even when fighting large numbers of foes at once, you always feel like you’re in full control, and over time, the button mashing soon becomes well-timed strikes and parries, and you become a true sword master, able to run into a group of orcs and take them down with ultimate skill.
Better yet, in tandem with the stealth system, you can take out a whole garrison of orcs without them even knowing it, using sneaky kills, the environment, and accurate ranged hits. Talion really is a force to be reckoned with, but he’s also not overpowered, and you don’t feel unbeatable, which is important, and a big part of the Nemesis system.
Silent but deadly
The elements of Assassin’s Creed, and Arkham take the best from both games and meld them into a new fusion that’s great. Talion is equally adept at both face-to-face combat, even against a large group of foes, as he is with staying in the shadows and picking foes off one-by-one with silent executions.
The two styles are fused together here well, and you can seamlessly switch from one to the other at will. Stuck in a fight that’s too much for you to handle? Then run away, hide and then stealth kill some foes to even it out. Likewise, if a stealthy approach goes wrong, you can always rely on your fighting skills to remedy the situation.
The game doesn’t punish you for doing either, and although some missions call for stealth, much of the time it’s up to you. When it is required, the stealth system works well, more so than many other stealth titles.
It doesn’t have the in-you-face system of some games, and is far more organic, using Assassin’s Creed‘s awareness meters instead of cone-like vision and off and on alerts. Talion can hide in bushes, behind cover, perch on top of tall structures, and more, in order to remain concealed and get the drop on his foes. You can also use the environment, shooting down hornet’s nests to frighten orcs into a panic, or freeing Caragors to not only scare your foes, but also attack them, thinning out the horde.
Talion also has a raft of abilities that can be unlocked as you earn experience. These run the range of skills, including throwing daggers, brutal executions that scare off nearby foes, the ability to drain enemies of spirit energy from the shadows, and the skill of dominating and riding Cargors to name but a few. He can also dominate orcs too, eventually, and you’ll constantly be grabbing them, in order to read their minds and find out information.
Runes can be applied to weapons to add buffs and benefits to various kills. Core attributes, such as Talion’s health, number of spirit arrows and so on, can also be bolstered, making for an in-depth and interesting character advancement tree.
Of course, Talion has his wraith abilities too, and can at any point view his surroundings via the wraith world. This is just the same as the effect we see in the films when Frodo puts on the One Ring, and here it helps you find items, identify enemies, and reveal the fast travel forge towers. It’s basically a cooler version of Assassin’s Creed‘s Eagle Vision. His bow and arrow skills are also wraith-powered, and he can slow down time for easier aiming, and even pin foes to the ground with well placed shots, useful for cowards who try to escape.
In almost all ways, Shadow Of Mordor‘s action and combat is brilliant, but it does have it’s flaws. Talion’s predilection to automatically stick to walls can be a pain navigating some areas, and the auto targeting in combat can sometimes make it hard to deliver the killing blow to the orc you want to take down. The camera can also become obscured behind walls and foliage quite often, which makes combat a little more awkward that it should be.
I have to say, though, that the freerunning and climbing system is far better than Assassin’s Creed‘s. It’s easier, more responsive, and much more accurate when you’re running along the tops of buildings or walls. Ubisoft, take note.
I mentioned the amount of content featured within the game, and this is another of Mordor‘s strengths. The amount of missions, side quests, challenges, collectibles, and orc-specific events provide tons of things to do, and with the ever-changing nature of Sauron’s army, and the threat of attack by high ranking orcs at any time, it’s always interesting. There’s even a special mode of the game where you can simply hunt down captains, and this is just as enjoyable as the main game, making for almost limitless replayability. And yes, that’s even without a multiplayer, which the game doesn’t include. Shock, horror! It just goes to prove that a game doesn’t need shoehorned-in multiplayer to be good.
The story missions, and some of the side missions may well reuse gameplay mechanics, such as going from point A to B to kill something, but the story is great, rooted well into the series’ lore, and the core gameplay and combat stop it from becoming boring. It’s also fun to interfere with orc promotion rituals, upsetting the flow of the enemy.
One game to rule them all
I can confidently say that this is probably the best game based on the Lord Of The Rings, for both ingenuity, and loyalty to the source material, as it tells an authentic story and depicts a world that fits perfectly, and is a great extension of the core tales. Tolkien fans should have no issues with the direction taken here, and it serves as a worthy bridge between The Hobbit and Lord Of The Rings.
What’s more important is the game itself is great, and even without the Middle-earth license it would stand perfectly well on its own merits. The license just helps enhance the story and the characters within.
Monolith has managed to make the most of the Tolkien setting, and has cherry picked the best mechanics from some of the most poplar games around, and injected its own creative elements, including the brilliant Nemesis system. This produces the best open world game I’ve played all year, and one of the only truly impressive titles in 2014 that doesn’t disappoint.
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