With the more recent iterations of the Batman and Assassins Creed games growing stale, Shadow of Mordor acts as a beacon of inspiration for what the genre may offer. Shadow of Mordor presents a basic story to frame the real pull – creative combat tactics backed up with solid combat mechanics. Layered on top is the innovate Nemesis System, which allows each player to build unique rivals, and make each playthrough fresh.
Shadow of Mordor revolves around a resurrected Ranger of Gondor named Talion, who’s family has been killed by the Black Hand of Sauron. After his apparent demise, Talion’s body fuses with the wraith of the Elven Smith Celebrimbor to become a super-Ranger of sorts, hence the moniker “Shadow” of Mordor. Both Talion and Celebrimbor (who is shown in cut scenes as a ghastly apparition guiding Talion on his quest) have their unique revenge stories unfolding side-by-side: Talion seeks to avenge his family’s murder and Celebrimbor is propelled by his own family’s demise, along with a certain forging of a certain ring that caused a tad of upheaval.
Other characters are introduced throughout the story, including known characters like Gollum alongside new faces like the dwarf hunter Torvin and the Gondor turncoat Hirdor. These characters are normally the hubs for quests, and do not factor deeply into the narrative. For instance, Torvin has three quests that involve assisting in the hunt of large beast, but does not appear past his quest set in the story. In another instance a Queen uses your services to “help her people” which happens to align with your goal of getting close to the Black Hand, but ends after a few quests. Without more continuity of these minor characters, its hard to care (and sometimes remember) about their role.
In general, the story of Shadow of Mordor is one of its weaker areas. Personally, I did not feel particularly attached to any of the characters (especially the minor ones), and was confused at times during the cut scene presentation of Celebrimbor’s backstory (he suffers the ubiquitous “amnesia” that is recovered slowly over the course of the main quest line). While the story was not detrimental to the overall experience, it failed to enhance it.
However, the story did help contextualize the gameplay. It gave Talion a purpose, and I can say I was partially invested in extracting a little revenge on the Hand. The opening cut scene with the murder of Talion’s family was quite intense, but as the game wore on, I had forgotten Talion even had a family. The highlight of the “story” in the game comes from the bit of personal narrative that is woven via the Nemesis system (detailed below).
The crux of appeal for Shadow of Mordor is the combat. It felt like a mash-up of Assassin’s Creed and Batman: Arkham Asylum. Talion can sneak around and climb stone structures quite deftly, in addition to his fighting prowess. The main weapon of choice is the tried-and-true sword in melee, but is complimented with a ghostly bow and arrow (known as Elf shot), along with other “wraith powers” that stun enemies, control them, and generally help turn the tide in crowded combat.
Talion’s stats can be upgraded as the game progresses, while also upgrading an ability tree split between wraith powers and ranger skills. I focused mainly on the Ranger skills, as I fancied the sword combat, but added a couple crowd control powers on the wraith side to make the hordes of Uruk orcs easier to deal with. The last element of customization is the rune system, which allows a player to attach different runes to their weapons with a litany of effects (ie. increase sword damage, % chance to regain health on combo etc).
Combat feels satisfying, fair, and generally intuitive. Combos are the name of the game, and timing sword attacks results in further bonuses. The parry and vault are included, along with some grappling and execution of downed enemies. While the controls are fluid, I did occasionally have issues with button responses on some actions for example X+Square combos and dodging Caragors (rhinolike beasts). This was inconvenient when it occurred, but was not a persistent issue, and never resulted in a death.
While the game is not exceptionally difficult, it is easy enough (particularly in the early game) to get swarmed by waves of orcs and be forced to simply run away. There is no stack of “lives” for Talion, given that he is technically already dead, but instead growing consequences for each death via the Nemesis system.
The best aspect of Shadow of Mordor is the Nemesis system. Basically, the game presents you with a board that shows silhouettes of orcs representing Captains and War Chiefs. Each of the orcs identities is revealed throughout the game either through chance random encounter on the open world map, or through extracted intel of lower ranking orcs. Each Orc officer has a completely unique profile to your playthrough – the strengths and weaknesses, name, and style are all generated as you uncover them, making each playthrough unique.
Further, as you defeat each Captain, you gain “power” – a resource used to unlock abilities. However, often the Captain is able to defeat the player, and they subsequently rise in power gaining followers, skills, and new taunts to throw at you should you challenge them again. Captains rove freely in the world, and you have to track them down in order to force a confrontation.
There was one Captain that got the better of me often in the early game – Karthak the Ruinous. As I fell to his horde multiple times he grew in power and became a bodyguard to one of the more powerful War Chiefs. I developed a real rivalry with Karthak – me as the player outside the predetermined story. On the flipside, you eventually gain the ability to “brand” orcs and build your own personal army which furthers the personalized story the Nemesis system promotes. Further, you can kill the Captains but if you do not execute them properly (with their head flying off their shoulders) they have a chance to respawn back into the hierarchy and work their way up the ranks.
SPOILER WARNING (skip to next paragraph to avoid end game discussion): My favorite part of the game by far was the lead up to the final fight against the Hand. The combat pits your strongest rival (as determined via the Nemesis system) and the five “Talons of the Hand” against your Orc army composed of the War Chiefs and Captains you have branded. Therefore, the battle is a unique experience for each player, and branding the strongest Captains goes a long way to making the fight easier. This is followed by the biggest letdown of the game against the Hand, which is a straight forward Quick Time Event series of button mashes that is incredibly unsatisfying.
In sum, the basic combat is full and satisfying, accompanied by a stealth element to set up tactical ambushes to avoid getting overwhelmed. On the strategic level, the Nemesis system promotes a personalized narrative, while also setting up what skills, abilities, and tricks you will need to employ. The game manages to balance the super-Ranger abilities with the fear of death, made worse by the increasing power of rival Captains. This line is always a hard one to walk, but Shadow manages to strike the right balance of difficulty and badass empowerment.
Graphically, the game was solid. I played the game on PS4, and never had any issues with video display. The art fits the Lord of the Rings aesthetic, although the landscape, while done well, was also bland and colorless. Granted, the game takes place in Mordor (although before it becomes all fire and brimstone), with the second half opening up the foliage a bit more. It was never boring, but it did not compel me to stand in awe and take a screenshot like the Witcher.
In terms of replayability, the main story is fairly straightforward and does not have branching endings. However, the game prompts you, before the final fight, that you will respawn back into world after the fight. This is useful to then finish off the litany of collectibles and weapon sidequests you may have missed. Further, you can continue to alter the Nemesis board to recruit Captains to assist in the final fight.
On the whole, Shadow of Mordor is an improvement on the increasingly dull Assassins Creed-style of game. The game is fun to play, allowing players to kill the various Captains in creative ways, incentivized by the innovative Nemesis system. While the game did not break any barriers with its landscapes or story telling, Shadow warrants a playthrough for its gameplay.
+Innovative Nemesis System
+Customization of Experience
-Moments of Control Issues
Total Score: 7.2/10