Review: Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

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Open-world games got along without gimmicks for a long time. The appeal of mindlessly squashing pedestrians in Grand Theft Auto or stealing a village blind in Morrowind carried those titles for years, despite their shortcomings. But times have changed and we expect more from established genres, and Shadow of Mordor understands this. While its core is a very familiar blend of stealth, combat, and collection, its unique offering gives it an impressive new level of interactivity.

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In the much-storied land of Middle-earth you find yourself in the riding boots of Talion, a skilled ranger and family man. He’s also commander of the Black Gate of Mordor, an auspicious structure that definitely isn’t holding any sort of evil at bay. That evil that definitely does not exists murders Talion and his family, yet he finds himself returned to life by a mysterious elven phantom. With his newfound immortality, Talion and his ghost buddy embark on a fantastic journey to kill literally every orc in existence.

The pace of ShMordor will be instantly familiar to fans of the Assassin’s Creed or Arkham games. Talion is a versatile badass with blade, bow, and beast, but risks being overwhelmed if he calls too much attention to himself. This places stealth at a premium, encouraging you to mantle up walls, skulk across rooftops, and disappear orcs with a dagger to the throat. You will always have options in your approach of course, between the flowing combos of the sword, the silent takedowns of the dagger, and the unerring shot of the bow, so don’t worry about being pigeonholed into a particular style (outside of specific challenges).

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This is only scratching the surface of your considerable abilities, mind you. Talion can tap into a sort of ghost vision to spot enemies through walls or interactables like exploding barrels. He can mount and attack from beasts. He can learn to throw daggers and force choke. His weapons can be upgraded with runes that give new bonuses and abilities. There’s super speed for crossing expanses, fast travel for skipping around further, and even a literal teleport that gets unlocked late in the game. Every possible skill and gimmick for a third-person brawler is here, to the point that you’ll start forgetting them all.

All of these powers are used not to find collectibles or pass troublesome roadblocks, but to abuse the intricate power structure your foes have established. Shadow of Mordor’s big claim to fame is the Nemesis system, which models specific enemies and their relationships to you and each other. Each of these figures has attributes, like weaknesses, immunities, and special powers that make every encounter a little bit different, along with unique personalities and appearances to match. And these aren’t just procedural bosses, they’re constant figures in the world. You can track them, harass them, foil their plans, and set them against each other. There’s a key power you sadly don’t get until the back half of the game that lets you mind-control orcs, and this one ability opens up a previously unseen world of political strategizing. Really, there’s so much to appreciate in the Nemesis system, there’s really only one way to explain it fully.

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Kaka was a simple uruk, trained in the art of spear-throwing. I ran afoul of him one late night when my reflexes were dulled, and he struck the blow that killed me. This catapulted him to the rank of captain, something he was terribly unprepared for seeing as how he was weak to just about every form of combat there is. Nevertheless, he set about celebrating his promotion with a feast. I wasn’t about to let him get away with that, so I crashed the party, murdered his men one by one, and left him drinking poisoned grog all by himself in the rain. Something about this struck me as incredibly sad, so I took pity on the poor out-of-depth fellow and branded him, enslaving him to my will.

From that point on I was out to see Kaka succeed. I helped him murder a veteran captain whom he quarreled with, I opened a spot as a warchief’s bodyguard for him, and I rigged the test of endurance to get him promoted. I even branded the other bodyguards to give him a better chance on the fateful day he betrayed his new boss. My preparations had been so far-reaching that Kaka struck down the warchief himself before I could even raise my sword. He stood triumphant on that sunny plateau, bragging to his new army, as I triggered the brands on him, his bodyguards, and his followers to all explode.

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Astute readers will have picked up the fact that I died early on in that story. Unlike just about every other game out there, death is not a failure state in ShMordor, it is a necessary mechanic. There is no penalty for dying and in fact, you are awarded extra experience and influence every time you perish. Dying also advances time (something you can do manually if you are averse to death) which resolves certain events and allows movement of orcs within the army. This means that playing a perfect game and murdering every orc you see is not going to be nearly as fun as letting them grow strong off your defeats and pitting them against each other. The many quests and events and collectibles are plenty enjoyable but the real joy here has to be found, and depends on the creativity of the player.

As if all of that wasn’t enough, Middle-earth is jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Forget the ash fields and crags of the Lord of the Rings movies, you’ll get some of that but Mordor is a diverse and colorful land, with grassy plains, rolling coastlines, and eerie ruins. The characters are fantastically detailed to the point that you’ll remember your favorite orcs by their scars or headgear. And best of all, the game includes an incredible dynamic camera that can pause the game at any moment to pose screenshots, with a full suite of photographic and filtering options. I’ve gone on long enough about how great this game is, and honestly I could keep going. Shadow of Mordor does so much right that it’s sure to overlap with any gaming interest you have in open-world or action titles, and should stand near the top of any Best Of list.

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