Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor
Developer: Monolith Productions
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Platform: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Windows (Reviewed)
Release Date: 30 September 2014
Price: $49.99 USD – Available Here / $79.95-99.95 AUD Available Here
Using existing licenses is risky business. Most gamers can count on one hand how many successful video games are made using an existing IP. Almost all of those games probably include either children’s brick toys or a dark-caped super hero. So understandably, creating yet another game based on the venerable Lord of the Rings franchise is a risky proposition that has a high chance of disappointment. Enter Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, a game rightfully looking to fight for a place in that small club.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor takes the series in a new direction by spinning a new story. The game stars Talion, a ranger of Gondor who is posted at the Black Gate of Mordor. After the Black Gate is attacked, Talion, his wife, and son become the unwilling participants of a blood sacrifice. Unfortunately for Talion, death brings him no rest. Instead of joining his wife and son in death, Talion becomes banished from eternal rest and is bound to a wraith who is unaware of his own identity. Now Talion is blazing a path of vengeance in an attempt to free himself from the curse and discover the true identity of his ghostly companion.
Before I go any further, I must make a confession. I am not a huge fan of the Lord of the Rings series. I could not get through the books and never bothered to watch the films, so I approach Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor with just some vague knowledge of the series. Even as unfamiliar to the overall lore as I am, I enjoyed the plot. It is well fleshed out, with tons of information in the appendices to fill in gaps of knowledge. It will probably serve as a excellent introduction to the rest of the franchise for many people.
The writing is spectacular. The pacing is spot on and strikes the right balance of tense dialogue and comedic relief. It seems the writers have taken great care with the entire game, as even the idle conversations the Uruk have with each other are done well, which contribute to the feeling that the world is alive.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is an open world third person action game with some stealth elements. It should not surprise you that the gameplay is strikingly similar to the Arkham series of Batman games, another one of Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment’ successful uses of an existing license. Talion’s combat abilities break down to melee, ranged, and stealth attacks, augmented by his wraith abilities. Players will have access two separate trees. The first is a skill tree that is further split between Talion’s combat skills and wraith abilities. As players progress through story missions and defeat officers of Sauron’s army, new tiers of abilities will be unlocked for purchase. The second tree is dedicated to Talion’s health, focus, and weapons. These are purchased with currency earned from side missions, bonus objectives, and collectibles littered across Mordor. The extensive set up gives players a good bit of control to build Talion to best suit they play style rather early on.
Combat is extremely smooth and responsive. The melee skill bar is pretty low, with buttons for attack, stun, dodge, and counters. However, the game rewards skilled players who can maintain long hit combos with special abilities. Furthermore, those who take the critical strike ability are able to dish extra damage by correctly damaging their strikes. The stealth gameplay is similar to the modern stealth genre, where the player is the demonic killer that strikes fear from the shadows versus the fragile assassin in the darkness. Mixed with the excellent freerunning mechanics, it is completely viable to play the game almost exclusively as a stealth title.
The real gem of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor’s open world is the Nemesis System. Sauron’s Uruk army is filled with powerful officers that Talion will target. As he knocks down officers, new ones will rise to fill their ranks over time. If Talion is killed by a regular Uruk, that Uruk will rise to join the officers, if the Uruk is already an officer, he will become more powerful from the encounter and possibly rise in rank if there is an open slot. These Uruk will become Talion’s nemesis, remembering their previous encounters and reacting accordingly. Some will go as far as hunting down Talion in search for revenge. Intelligence can be gathered on these officers that will reveal their name, location, strengths, and weaknesses. The Nemesis System makes dying fun, or at least it takes the sting out of it. Along with helping build a vibrant and living world that responds to player’s behaviour, the hunt to take down a nemesis that previously made you eat dirt is is possibly one of the most satisfying moments in the game.
The main missions are fun, with a good variety of goals and activities. The side missions however tend to be a little more repetitive. They boil down into skill based pursuits, rescuing slaves, and hunting down officers. The most repetitive tends to be the skill based and slave rescuing missions. It would have been nice to see another mission type or two to break things up.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor’s controls are nearly impeccable. They are responsive and simple to grasp. It struggles ever so slightly with freerunning at times, with Talion getting stuck on a corner or having trouble jumping to ledges behind him.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is an excellent looking game. The animations and textures are top notch. There is a great deal of variety in the environments of Mordor and enough variation between the officers to make them stand out from each other and their peers. The UI is simple and elegant, which lets players enjoy more of Mordor.
The PC performance scales well to a variety of computers. Monolith has provided a downloadable texture pack containing the uncompressed textures for those with cutting edge graphic cards with extensive memory. However, the general consensus seems to be the difference between the Ultra textures and uncompressed textures is minimal. Whether you want to chalk it up to poor optimization or simply taxing visual requirements, running the game on highest settings will require an extremely beefy computer. However, using the automatically selected recommended settings, I was able to get a solid 60 FPS, with quieter sections shooting up to 80-90 FPS.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor features a solid audio experience. The voice acting is brilliant, with Troy Baker and Alastair Duncan providing a fantastic performance as Talion and Celebrimbor respectively. The sound effects are excellent, but the real gem is the music. Garry Schyman and Nathan Grigg have composed an epic soundtrack that hits all the right notes at all the right times. I really appreciated how they used such simple techniques like a plucked string instrument to build tension at the right time. The soundtrack is definitely worth a purchase for video game music fans.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is easily in the running for 2014’s game of the year. Although it is up against stiff competition, it’s living world, excellent combat, varied gameplay strategies, strong plot, and fantastic audio makes it worth having in every gamer’s library. This is a step in the right direction for the Lord of the Rings video game franchise.
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