The Lord of the Rings has shared a strange relationship with videogames, one built entirely on trust from fans of the legendary franchise. At times however, this trust has been broken, and for every quality game based on Tolkien’s works there seems to be a shoddy one. For the most part, I feel like The Lord of the Rings has been handed too many mediocre games, but there is definitely a lot of potential for quality – as Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor proves.
Set in the 60 year gap between The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring, Shadow of Mordor has you play as Talion, a ranger of Gondor whose job is to guard the Black Gate of Mordor. In the opening of the game you watch as Talion and his family get brutally sacrificed by the Hammer of Sauron, the Tower of Sauron and the Black Hand of Sauron so that they can revive the dead Celebrimbor (a great Elven smith master of the Second Age). Celebrimbor’s soul becomes intwined with Talion, and the two set off on a mission of self-discovery and revenge against Sauron.
Along the way you’ll meet some new and old faces, such as Gollum, but for something that tells a unique story within The Lord of the Rings all the characters involved are very true to the dark setting of the game. As you’d imagine from a game set in Mordor, Shadow of Mordor is a dark game that isn’t afraid of graphic violence. Indeed, this is a very violent game, and you will see many, many, Orc heads roll. The trouble is, killing Orcs is very fun with combat lifted straight out of the Arkham series of Batman games.
Close-quarters combat is quick, slick and free-flowing, but the amount of enemies can become overwhelming at times – that and boss enemies are really the only times you’ll die however. There are a lot of varieties of enemies to slaughter in this game, from your standard weak Orcs, archers, spear-wielding Orcs and big brutes with big shields right through to Orc captains and even big troll-like things that take a whole lot of killing. Each enemy requires quick thinking and a unique strategy to take them down, but luckily, Talion is a bit of a bad-ass.
Talion uses the world around him as well as his array of weaponry to dish out the pain. Much like the Assassin’s Creed games and the Arkham games, stealth is largely advised, although largely not required. You can sneak up on enemies and kill them from behind, below, above and from the side if you really want. You can wait, hidden in bushes for enemies to walk by, or you can call them over, either killing or grabbing them. It’s great fun, and the stealth really does work well.
You can even go into ‘detective mode’, allowing you to see enemies behind walls, and from a long distance. You can also shoot enemies, parts of walls and other objects down with your bow and arrow, it’s great shooting down a nest full Morgul Flies, scaring all the Orcs beneath it. Shadow of Mordor lets you interact with Orcs in various ways, such as poisoning their grog and later on into the game you can grab Orcs and make them join your ranks. Creating armies of Orcs is great fun, but unfortunately this feature comes as you’re almost finished with the game’s 15-20 hour long campaign.
A lot of abilities can be unlocked via levelling up Talion, such as being able to explode campfires with an arrow and being able to ride beasts such as the incredibly evil Caragor. The levelling up system is neat, but not as neat as how you slice your way through the Orc heirarchy. On the pause screen you are shown an array of Orcs, in various ranks. These are shadowed out unless you find them or successfully interogate an Orc. Each high-ranking Orc has their own fighting style, personality, strengths and weaknesses. But what you do is interesting – invade their fights, go to their stronghold or build up a following against them. It’s great fun seeing Orcs pitted against each other, shouting with their cockney accents lines like “ooh, I’m going to enjoy killing you, ranger!”
Character and personality are a strong part of what’s so impressive about Shadow of Mordor. As said above, the Orcs are spot-on, but Talion is perfect: he’s serious when he needs to be, but has a bit of a sense of humour and swagger to him – he could have been taken straight out of any of the movies. There was just the one character that didn’t sit amazingly well with me, playing like a poor-man’s King Théoden. But for the most part, the characters are very well crafted.
As is the game’s design, Shadow of Mordor sounds and looks outstanding. I played the game on medium/high settings, and it looked stunning, so if you’re able to play it on ultra settings in 1080p you are in for a treat. The world has plenty of life, but there are a few more empty spots in the map, along with areas that look very similar to each other – there’s only so much you can do with mud, wood, metal and broken stone structures I suppose. I’m unsure about how the menus look also, as despite working fine, their slick look is a tad too clean for my liking – I would’ve liked it if the menu screens were a little dirtier, to go along with the vast amounts of debris and mud found in the game.
My biggest complaint though has to be the game’s underwhelming big boss fights and ending. All of the big bosses in the game are far too easy to beat, easier than the average Orc captains. Talion does feel too powerful at times, and for the most part, there isn’t much challenge in the game. You will die a few times, but there is no downside to dieing – no progress or anything gets lost beyond having to start missions again, and that’s only certain missions as well. Once the fear is taken out of dieing in a game, so too is the difficulty.
Overall though, I’d argue that Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is well worth your hard-earned cash, whether you like The Lord of the Rings or not. It’s great fun, it looks and sounds outstanding and there is more than enough to get on with. Despite the odd presentation and underwhelming moments, Shadow of Mordor is one of the best Lord of the Rings games ever made.
Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is dark, gruesome and a lot of fun. Its clean menus, empty areas, easy difficulty and underwhelming moments do slightly tarnish what is otherwise a very, very good game.