Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor review: all those who wander

Game Info
Platform 360, PS3, Win, PS4, Xbox One
Publisher Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Developer Monolith Productions
Release Date Sep 30, 2014

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor provides a clearer road map for the next generation of AAA games than anything that has come previously.

That statement comes as a surprise given that Shadow of Mordor's structure isn't exactly earth-shakingly unique. It borrows liberally from the established action-adventure hits of the last gen — the stealth and platforming of Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed, the combo-heavy combat of Warner Bros.' own recent Batman games and so on.

But what's offered beneath those familiar bits pushes the modern narrative action game into fascinating new territory. Developer Monolith Productions has built an open world that actually feels like it lives, breathes, morphs and moves with or without your own actions. It's a surprising effort that successfully blends a strong plot and clear goals with the delightfully unpredictable elements of dynamically generated content.

even as someone lukewarm on Tolkien's books, I found the plot engaging

Set roughly between the events of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Shadow of Mordor opens dramatically. Main character Talion is a Ranger who guards the Black Gate, the main entrance blocking the land of Mordor from the rest of Middle-earth. In the opening cutscene, his outpost is overrun by Orcs and his family slaughtered along with everyone under his command. Talion, too, is killed but finds himself returned to life and mysteriously tied to a powerful and ancient wraith.

Some of that setup may sound like fantasy nonsense if you're not already a huge Lord of the Rings fan, but even as someone lukewarm on Tolkien's books, I found the plot engaging. Talion begins the game as a generic, revenge-driven video game protagonist, but he exhibits a more nuanced and interesting personality as it progresses. Likewise, the ghostly companion and the handful of other characters Talion meets along the way are well-written and fun to see in action.

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Most surprising of all, Shadow of Mordor spends a lot of time and resources fleshing out the Orcs (or Uruks, if you prefer). In most fantasy games, these foes would be nameless enemies cut down by the dozens. Don't get me wrong, I killed hundreds by the end of the game. But rather than being unorganized beasts, the Orcs here are smart and have their own personalities.

This sense of more well-developed enemies is aided by Shadow of Mordor's "nemesis system," a pre-release talking point that sounds like a gimmick but ends up essential in shaping the game's world. Rather than setting you up with specific, predetermined bosses to take down, the game emulates the Uruk chain of command, placing Orcs with randomly generated names, strengths, weaknesses and personality traits into various positions of power.

As you encounter these enemies and defeat them or die to them, a relationship is formed. I began to recognize certain foes and was amazed at how well they remembered our previous encounters. At one point, I defeated a smaller Orc captain named Norsko of the Welts with a single arrow shot through his eye. The next time Norsko showed up, he had a metal plate over that same eye and promised revenge for the injury.

In another instance, I became overwhelmed and ran away from a berserker named Ratanak the Thunderer. Every time Ratanak and I crossed paths afterward, he was certain to remind me of my cowardice. He even developed a trait that made him more likely to hunt me down of his own volition, which led him to popping up at the worst times, trying to impede my progress mid-mission. It would have been frustrating if it wasn't so damn cool.

It may seem like the nemesis system only applies to a small fraction of the enemies you're fighting, but it's actually silently working in the background for everyone. In one losing battle, a previously unnamed archer picked me off from afar. The honor of such a great kill propelled him from his soldier's position into a new rank as captain, where he continued taunting me for hours to come.

balance of power

After spending its first half slowly revealing how Orc society works, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor allows players to jump in and affect matters more directly in its second half. You unlock the ability to "brand" Orcs, forcing them to fight on your side. This allows you to turn various captains against each other or even set up a power structure where you control the local warchiefs.

It's a fascinating system that adds a welcome element of strategy to Mordor's action, though I also found myself conflicted. After spending so long humanizing the Orcs — compared to most fantasy standards, at least — and focusing on the horrors of the humans who are enslaved by them, the game forces you to turn around and enslave Orcs yourself. There's a difficult moral question here — is it okay to enslave them because they enslave others? — that Shadow of Mordor hints at but never really tackles in a satisfying manner.

To its credit, the game moves away from the language of enslavement and refers to your power as "ruling over the Orcs with fear." The end result is the same, though, and it left me feeling a little uncomfortable.

Orc society will shift with or without your input

On top of their memory, every enemy has special quirks. Some are terrified at the sight of you and will run immediately. Some will summon reinforcements constantly. Others are weak to certain attack types, such as fire or stealth. Essentially, Shadow of Mordor does everything in its power to make facing each of these enemies a memorable event, something I wanted to plan for and go into prepared. But I also had to adjust my strategies when targets unexpectedly demonstrated new traits.

What's most impressive about the nemesis system is how self-sufficient it is. This is a game about you coming into the picture and messing up the natural structure of Orc society, but with or without your input, that society will shift. An Orc veteran on the rise will make a power play to move up in the ranks, or a weaker captain will get himself eaten by a Warg, leaving an empty leadership position for some previously unknown soldier to fill.

In one of my most memorable moments from the game, I was tracking down Maku the Gluttonous, bodyguard to one of the local warchiefs. I found him near a bridge, already fighting. It turns out Maku fancied himself as something of a hunter and decided to track down a Graug, a massive troll-like creature. Sadly for him, he took on this task solo. While I watched from the bushes, this Graug crushed my target, taking Maku out of the picture so that I could focus my attention on the warchief he protected. This kind of randomly generated story is not something I expect from narrative-driven games, and it makes Shadow of Mordor a special experience.

It also helps, of course, that the core, moment-to-moment gameplay is extremely satisfying. Talion begins the game with three primary weapons — a bow for long-range attacks, a dagger for stealth and a sword for hand-to-hand combat — and he's still using the same three at the end. But Shadow of Mordor offers enough growth within its various upgrade systems to constantly provide a sense of new tools to play with.

Leveling up allows you to unlock skills along a talent tree, which turns Talion into ever more of a badass. Just shooting enemies with a bow not enough? You can give yourself the ability to teleport to them with an arrow shot, allowing you to close gaps and finish off injured or retreating enemies. Or maybe you need more options to stun enemies; I fell in love with one move that leaves an enemy incapacitated after you dodge over them. The game has a huge list of these helpful skills, and they're easy enough to use that I always felt powerful, even when greatly outnumbered.

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the core, moment-to-moment gameplay is extremely satisfying
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Since Talion doesn't actually get new weapons or armor, Monolith has implemented a smart system to replace the loot I'd normally expect from an RPG. Every time you take out an Orc of a certain rank, you receive a rune. Runes can be attached to each of your weapons independently, and provide stat boosts that don't sound terribly breathtaking but proved vital to my success.

For example, I loaded down my sword with various runes that refilled my health when I played skillfully, ensuring that Talion could survive long-term encounters that would be nigh-impossible otherwise. I found myself replacing and experimenting with new runes often, and the game even allows you to break down runes you don't want into points that can then be spent on other upgrades.

Shadow of Mordor also has all the requisite, expected attractions of a modern open-world game. Its two massive maps are beautiful, full of interesting landmarks and fun to navigate. There are collectibles that provide Lord of the Rings backstory to hunt down, as well as plenty of sidequests and weapon challenges that test your skills. In 20 hours, I cleared just over 60 percent of everything in the game; I'll definitely be back to clean up the rest.

Wrap Up:

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor tells a good story but provides the tools to discover even better tales

The gameplay foundation of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is very strong, which makes it all the more incredible that it's also the least exciting thing about the game. Most video games choose to either tell you a story or give you a world in which you can create your own stories; very rarely are these two paths mixed, and even more rarely with any success.

Shadow of Mordor is that ultimate rarity. It tells a fun little story that would be enough to hold up most games on its own. But it also provides all of the tools to ensure that the most interesting tales to come out of the game will be the ones that were not scripted.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor was reviewed using a final retail PlayStation 4 copy of the game provided by Warner Bros. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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