Review: Shadow of Mordor makes hunting orcs fun again
Platforms: PC (Reviewed), PS4, Xbox One (PS3 and Xbox 360 on November 18)
At E3 2014 I had my first real look at Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. In an extended hands-off demo for a crowded theater, the developers took us through the game's Nemesis System, and how it would lead to memorable enemies and naturally dramatic narratives. They also showed off the living open world and the fluid, combo-based melee combat which seemed to take a lot of the best elements of the Assassin's Creed and Arkham games.
I came away from E3 impressed with Shadow of Mordor. I called it the best thing I saw at the show, in fact. I expected it to be one of the best games of the year.
As it turns out, I was right.
Orcs must die
After a brief and rather awkward tutorial/story flashback segment, Shadow of Mordor sets you down in an expansive open area and gives you some vague guidance, and then you're free to go. This immediate freedom demonstrates the really rather remarkable level of confidence the developers at Monolith have in both their game and in the players themselves, and from what I've heard talking to others that have played the game, this might actually be one of the game's biggest mistakes. If you progress in the wrong order early on, trying to tackle too many side missions before doing the story missions that unlock certain powers and explain how to perform some essential feats, you can encounter a great deal of frustration.
But as long as you're fairly consistent about keeping up with the story missions, you'll be just fine. And you'll have an incredible time, too.
The basics of combat in Shadow of Mordor are right out of the Arkham titles, complete with attacks, timed counters, dodges, stuns, and throwing daggers that function an awful lot like Batarangs. We've seen the 3rd-person combo combat genre come a long way over the past decade with the Arkham and Assassin's titles, and Shadow of Mordor is an example of how those same genre techniques can be used to great effect in different settings. Whether you're stealth killing, headshotting enemies from far away, or performing slow-motion decapitation finishers, combat is a blast and a real challenge in Shadow of Mordor.
A whole world of ways to make orcs miserable
Shadow of Mordor is more than just an Arkham game with a coat of orcs on top though, and it's the things it does differently than those titles which are the most interesting. The pure variety of ways you are able to attack your foes is a joy, and as you earn upgrades you're free to develop your own favorite techniques and combat style. The game could have benefited from a bit more guidance in this regard early on, as some upgrades seemed to be nearly essential to prevent the game from becoming frustratingly difficult, but if you're willing to put up with some trial and error and experimentation it shouldn't take too long for you to find techniques that work for you.
I was personally a huge fan of the ability to shoot at barrels and campfires, causing large explosions. This was a lifesaver in some tense combat situations, as well as being a fantastic way to begin a fight against a group of orcs, damaging and even killing several of them at once. I also really enjoyed riding the large predatory cats known as caragors, which can be found either roaming free or in cages throughout the world, and which are great for mowing down large crowds of orcs in a short time.
The stealth options the game provides are also robust and satisfying, and doing as much of your killing from the shadows as possible is often the wisest way to go (at least until the later stages of the game unlock the mind-controlling Brand ability, at which point dominating orcs is often better than outright killing them). Of course, as in many stealth games, the orcs of Mordor demonstrate a laughable lack of awareness of their surroundings, regularly failing to notice violent stabbings going on just slightly to their left. I found myself rolling my eyes at this occasionally and wishing that the orcs were just a bit smarter, but at other points of the game I found myself in trouble when I tried to start a small fight and too many orcs overheard and came running to join in, so I guess I shouldn't complain about dumb, deaf, nearly-blind orcs.
Shadow of Mordor's Nemesis System, which randomly designs key orc foes with their own distinct names and traits, is incredible, and it's likely that we're just scratching the surface of its possibilities in the first week of the game's release. As you tear your way through Sauron's armies, you'll constantly be targeting orc captains and warchiefs, interrogating orcs to learn about strengths and weaknesses of your foes, and interfering in orcish political squabbles to advance your own ends. It's great fun, and though it doesn't always work flawlessly it is a huge part of what makes the game work so well.
The Nemesis System has turned orcs from nameless, faceless enemies into distinct personalities. You'll learn names and faces and fighting styles, and you'll cheer when you finally put an end to an orc that has bested you before -- especially because that orc will make sure to taunt you if you've run away from combat with him in a previous encounter. The strengths and weaknesses of your orc foes are excellent natural ways to encourage diverse approaches to combat, and I know I personally started dreading orcs who were invulnerable to both range AND stealth, my two preferred methods of execution.
You'll likely see the rough edges of the Nemesis System if you play the game for any length of time, as you'll encounter captains you're pretty positive you killed back from the dead for revenge (the only way to be sure they are dead for good is with a dramatic decapitation finisher, but the game doesn't really tell you that). You might also get a bit frustrated when you're trying to get a combat rhythm going and you keep getting interrupted by multiple dramatic captain intros, in which they threaten you and tell you how they are going to kill you and curse you for giving them a scar even though you aren't certain you've ever met them before. It can be comical and awkward at times, but it never stops being fun.
The Nemesis System is really the heart of Shadow of Mordor, more than the story missions or the tale of Talion the ranger and Celebrimbor the wraith and a bunch of other people with even more syllables in their names. The Nemesis System creates a rich and textured world that feels alive, and which players will likely spend many hours exploring even after the core story is done. There are wrinkles and charms to the Nemesis System in place that many players won't notice at first, and ways to toy around with it on a deeper level that could make for fantastic Let's Play videos. Who will be the first to ride a caragor in to attack a warchief with his three bodyguards, all of whom have been given a fear of caragors through judicious use of caragor maulings?
The clunky bits
Though undeniably fun, Shadow of Mordor has some problems too. As hinted at before, the game suffers from a lack of guidance and clarity throughout, which can lead to confusion. This lack of clarity extends beyond the gameplay elements into the story as well, and what we're left with is a narrative that feels rich and complex in lore but decidedly lacking in personal struggle or pain. We're supposed to understand that Talion wishes that he had died with his family in the game's opening, but not much is done in the story to actually make us feel that in any substantive way. As a collection of Middle-earth history facts the story of Shadow of Mordor succeeds, but as a personal tale of struggle and pain it falls short of even something like God of War.
I also had the feeling that Shadow of Mordor might have come very close to being a disaster, as the controls for climbing, jumping, and dropping down from ledges are inexplicably awkward and bad. I've watched dozens of people playing online struggle with the same issues, and it can be intensely frustrating for all your plans to fall apart because you dove down to the ground in the middle of a group of orcs instead of jumping onto an overhead rope as you intended. If the combat controls were anywhere near as bad as the climbing and jumping controls Shadow of Mordor would have been a mess -- but fortunately the developers managed to get that part of the game just right, and killing orcs is a blast.
Here are the criteria I consider most important for evaluating Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor:
You're going to be killing a lot of orcs in this game in a wide variety of ways, and it's always a ton of fun. Aside from the clunky climbing mechanics, everything works smoothly and seems to nail the level of challenge exactly right. You won't go charging in without a plan, and you'll have to learn to run away and find some herbs (the only reliable way to heal for most of the game) if you want to avoid costly deaths.
Replay Value: 10/10
The open world and Nemesis System make Shadow of Mordor an incredibly deep and rich title that provides an intricate playground for hours and hours of fun outside of the main story.
On a PC with the free HD texture DLC downloaded, the graphics were decent but unremarkable. The loving attention to detail on orc faces is a standout, as is the quality voice work by the entire cast (including the orcs). The environments are a bit hit-and-miss, and the human models aren't anything special.
Full of treats for Tolkien fans but with an underwhelming emotional arc, the real story of Shadow of Mordor is that which emerges naturally from the Nemesis System. When you talk to your friends about this game, you won't be discussing Sauron -- you'll be talking about Felgrat Rock Crusher, and how he surprised you when you were hunting another Captain, and how that turned a simple ambush into the fight of your life.
Shadow of Mordor is an automatic recommendation for anyone who enjoys 3rd-person melee combat action games. Whether you're a Tolkien fan or not, you'll find a lot to love in the game's satisfying combat and innovative mechanics.
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