Review: Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is an action-adventure game set in Middle Earth, which is most famous from the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Hobbit. As far as game inspirations go, it is most clearly inspired by Assassin’s Creed and the Batman: Arkham series of games, which it manages to blend together with a mix of the former’s intriguing stealth and the latter’s brawling fisticuffs, and add some of its own twists to the mix.

Unfortunately, these twists are far and few between, and much of what it does simply comes from including additional elements that are far from unique to Shadow of Mordor. For instance, the addition of supernatural powers is nice, but really only serves as a minor addition to the game, and the Captain/Warchief system, while interesting and somewhat novel, fails to really add much to the fight that the ability to use Talion’s brand power (unlocked frustratingly late into the game with, in my opinion, too little justification from the story for why Talion suddenly gains the power) doesn’t add in itself.

On one hand, though, at least the unique uruks that Talion encounters serve as minibosses, and I found them to be meaningfully different, though there were difficulty spikes with certain foes, some of whom proved to be very nasty and others of whom were barely stronger than the grunts they commanded. Unfolding the puzzles of each of the powerful foes you encounter is a fun experience, though, and I found it to be a refreshing addition to a game that was worked into the story relatively well.

Speaking of the story, Shadow of Mordor is somewhat interesting. It’s not the most high-brow (or high-quality) literature, but it fits well into Tolkein’s mythos and overall style and conventions. I won’t spoil anything here, but the storyline takes a turn for the epic, and despite this it manages to be relatively faithful to Tolkein’s universe, which was actually a refreshing surprise. Most of the story is told through cutscenes or exposition during missions, however, with Talion serving more as a passive watcher and occasional agent of one force or another in some missions or a massive powerhouse forging his own way; the dichotomy seems a little striking, but it worked okay in the game.

Graphically, Shadow of Mordor is pretty; being built from ground up for the latest consoles is shown in the general high quality of the assets, and of course that translated into the PC version that I reviewed; there were really only a couple things, like a somewhat inconsistent UI design, and a couple places where I felt that there were inappropriate uses of flat texture objects, that stood out to me as grating, and those were either somewhat hard to find (I went for 100% completion), or nitpicky.

Gameplay wise, the main problem that Shadow of Mordor has is pacing. Fights remain interesting, but unlocking powers through the main campaign (most of the XP-purchased powers are basically insignificant compared to the big powers [like mounting beasts] that you can get from the story missions) was really the main way to advance; doing side-missions makes Talion linearly more powerful, but does not open up new opportunities in the way that, say, the ability to brand one’s foes and convert them into fighters for Talion does.

That leads me into the second problem that Shadow of Mordor encounters, which is the fact that combat options are essentially obsoleted by the next best move fairly quickly; the throwing daggers I unlocked with XP saw maybe twenty uses through my playthrough, even though I spent two advancement points on them. Why? Because Talion’s bow is terrifyingly awesome, and by that point I was turning most of my close-quarters enemies into my allies by using stealth brands or combat brands. Likewise, the execution finisher is basically only used in missions that require it past a certain point, because combat brand is far superior in all but a few contrived situations.

Fortunately, Shadow of Mordor kept a fairly strong open world element; both world areas have a meaningful differentiation, and even smaller sub-areas have their own feel; navigating was easy, even without the map or Wraith Vision. Combine this with a large number of collectable items and side missions, and the game world really came to life, though I was a little disappointed by the hunting and gathering missions, which didn’t really feel as immersive as even the Tomb Raider-esque artifact gathering quests.

There were a couple annoying things throughout the gameplay; for the most part these came down to control issues. I was playing using a mouse and keyboard, and movement was sometimes sketchy, especially when it came to stealth drain/brand from above (which uses the “E” key, the same as used to drop from a ledge). Coupled with missions where detection is instant failure, this can be more than a mite irritating. Other than that, there were a couple times where Talion pranced about when trying to leap diagonally between two perpendicular platforms, or jumped to the wrong thing, that could have been improved on, but these never really caused me to have any mission failures or significant issues. Other than that, the stealth elements really bothered me; Talion can run up to an enemy without the slightest attempt at stealth and still get in a stealth takedown, and foes have odd line-of-sight cones (which may or may not be synced with their head-turn animations; I couldn’t reliably test that), which mean that sometimes Talion can walk right past a guard without being detected or poke his head over an edge and be almost instantly spotted.

To sum up everything, Shadow of Mordor is a good, or even a great game. Had it come out in a year where great games weren’t popping up all over the place, it’d be a certain recommendation. It’s fun, but that’s all it really has going for it—it’s not particularly profound or innovative, despite its high quality and the craftsmanship that obviously went into its creation. It is, frankly, another solid game among many solid games, and while I’d feel comfortable recommending it to a fairly wide audience of gamers, it’s not going to be one of those games that is genre-definitional or historic despite its enjoyability.

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