I return to you all hours later having 100%’d Monolith Production’s latest title, Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor. Indeed I’ve maxed out quite a few games that I haven’t really enjoyed. But this time, I did everything in Shadow of Mordor because I love the game so much. And that’s coming from someone who has an active and vocal disdain for the Lord of the Rings entertainment franchise.
At first blush, Shadow of Mordor may appear to many from a distance as a Batman: Arkham Asylum rip-off. And while it certainly does lift a lot of ingredients from Rocksteady’s well-trodden recipe, Monolith isn’t afraid to add a little of their own special sauce into the mix. Shadow of Mordor accomplishes what Batman never could: create an open-world that feels alive, from the wild creatures to the lowest grunts to the highest decorated bosses. Its Nemesis System pushes everything the game industry knows of AI design to the next level, making Shadow of Mordor feel like in a lot of ways the first truly Next Generation Video Game.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor has you controlling two characters fused together by a dark ritual. Tailon was a ranger protecting the world of Middle-Earth from the Orc menace until an army of Uruk orcs captured him and his family and sacrificed them in the name of their departed Dark Lord, Sauron. Tailon wakes up as an undead, bound to a mysterious, nameless elven wraith who grants him supernatural powers. Together these characters embark on a rather rote and muddled revenge tale that we’ve all seen before. It’s confusingly pieced together in story missions, and while it’s well performed by Troy Baker and Alastair Duncan as Tailon and the wraith respectively, it’s an unsurprising revenge narrative that most will be quite exhausted of by now.
But Shadow of Mordor’s Nemesis System gives you the ability to create your own personal, gameplay-driven narratives which are created through your own interactive successes and failures in the world. Sauron’s Army of Uruks is a hierarchy of named captains, elite captains and warchiefs of various powers and defining personality traits. These unique characters occupy the world, protecting strongholds and hunting you down. The mysterious wraith gives you the ability to learn the individual strengths and weaknesses of these Uruk leaders to help you track them down and dispatch them -- leaving a power vacuum in Sauron’s Army. Or more interestingly, dominate them psychically to align them and their forces with you to manipulate against other Uruk orcs.
It’s a brilliant system that brings each NPC to life in ways that no other video game has accomplished to date. Each of these unique Uruks are really well-written and taunt and humiliate you in entertaining ways, which I never saw repeat. What's even more interesting is that even a grunt Uruk who happens to kill you in the world will taunt you as it deals the final blow, and then you see him get promoted to a captain and watch him progress through the ranks. The surprisingly ways that these Uruk captains encounter you in the world, whether it be in the open world or in side missions, and crafting these rather engaging revenge narratives easily blows away the weaker story missions.
The gameplay tools that you have to interact with these systems are rather well-established, yet masterfully well-done. Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham Asylum rhythmic brawler combat has been copied endlessly, but Shadow of Mordor is the only one to date that has replicated perfectly, and it some ways improving it. Tailon is willing to kill people, and the death animations feel fantastic like chopping heads off and shoving swords in eyeballs, which feels like a breath of fresh air from Batman’s more “measured” knock-outs.
In addition, the Arkham games can be rather easy, but because of the Nemesis System, death is rather real threat in Shadow of Mordor as any random Uruk will be looking for an opportunity to gain power, including killing you. Tailon is a squishy hero who can’t take a lot of damage, and the game is more then willing to throws tons of Uruk grunts and captains at you until you break, all in the name of furthering some random Uruk’s agenda to command his brethren. I’ve died more in this game then I have in all 3 of the Batman games to date, and it was refreshing to play a game that isn’t afraid to kick me around a bit to force me to master its systems.
Shadow of Mordor also has a very similar stealth system from the Arkham games, and a traversal system that’s reminiscent of Assassin’s Creed. These are again familiar mechanics that most players will be well-accustomed to. Though both are improved in interesting ways, like the Shadow Strike skill which lets you silently teleport to and murder someone in your view who is about to spot you or to far away otherwise to deal with, or improving the generally playability of the traversal to make it feel way less buggy that every Assassin’s Creed game feels like. Between the melee, ranged, stealth, and traversal systems, there’s a lot going on in Shadow of Mordor, but they are expertly implemented and flow between each other effortlessly and satisfyingly.
What is also expertly accomplished is Shadow of Mordor’s open world and its progression systems. The environment is filled with patrolling Uruks, captains, hostile wildlife, and friendly NPCs which constantly clash against each other, creating an engaging world to engage with. It’s also filled with a ton of collectibles, hunting missions, weapon-specific challenges, disruption missions to reduce the power of Uruk captains, and a bunch of other open-world goodies. Normally I never bother with all of this nonsense and just mainline the story, even in games like Grand Theft Auto V or Assassin’s Creed IV, but as previously stated I accomplished everything that Shadow of Mordor had for me.
Everything that you do in the world, from engaging in the Nemesis System to gathering collectibles, rewards you with XP to level-up and dump skill points into its rather deep skill tree. There’s a large amount of skills to unlock and each one adds important and powerful abilities to let you use two execute moves at the appropriate combo or randomly sets your sword on fire to deal double damage to the next enemy struck. But the end of the skill tree, I felt like the ultimate badass and empowered in a way that I haven’t felt in a game in a long, long time. Because of how weak you are early on in the game and how challenging it can be, investing in this skill tree is fundamental to your greater overall success.
But most importantly as to why I invested so heavily in Shadow of Mordor's open-world is that most of its open-world side stuff is actually really fun to play. The specific weapon challenges evoke the combat and stealth challenges from the Batman games and are incredibly well-designed and entertaining. But Monolith also accomplishes what Rocksteady never could which is to tie the challenges directly with the single-player progression system and make the challenges feel meaningful. Batman's challenges were merely distractions, but in Shadow of Mordor they are important to your progression.
What's also great is that Shadow of Mordor can actually be quite a good looking game, which is pretty important for an open-world game. It all looks rather fluid with some good environmental details and character animations to bring it to live, and the game looks especially good during instances of inclement weather. Character models also look pretty good, specifically the Uruk captains which helps sell the personality of each individual Uruk leader. The game is fairly unremarkable from an audio stance, but it’s serviceable with some good voice acting from the main characters and the Uruks and nice sound effect for the wraith powers. Otherwise the score is unremarkable and most combat sound being rather bland. But overall Shadow of Mordor has solid production to support its brilliant design.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is the first AAA new franchise to feel full formed and well-rounded in every meaningful aspect. It is by far the best designed game of this new generation, not only because of masterful execution of established gameplay formulas from Assassin’s Creed to Batman: Arkham Asylum, but also for its awesome systems-driven open-word and rewarding character progression. Its most important contribution however is its unique Nemesis system, a revolutionary AI model which lets you craft your own personal enemy narratives entirely constructed by your direct gameplay interactions, and it should shake-up the industry for years to come.
Not too bad coming from a licensed game from a bloated and tired fantasy franchise developed by an irrelevant game studio. Not too bad at all.
FIVE OUT OF FIVE
(An exceptional game whose flaws are barely noticeable.)