The World Has Changed…
…for the better! We finally have a LOTR game that surpasses all that came before it. Shadow of Mordor (SOM) is easily the best entry in the LOTR franchise and is a great action game in its own right. Not since The Two Towers and Return of the King on the PS2 have I enjoyed a LOTR game this much. Much of my enjoyment stemmed from the introduction of the Nemesis system which is at the very heart of this game. It’s been a long time since I thought to myself ‘this is a genuinely new feature I haven’t seen before’. The Nemesis system ensures that everyone’s experience of SOM is subtly unique to each player, creating new and interesting relationships between the player and their enemies.
Players control a ranger named Talion who is stationed on the Black Gate and his whole world goes to s*** within the first five minutes. Right off the bat SOM establishes that this is a very violent and dark depiction of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Whilst set in Peter Jackson’s film universe, SOM is a violent 18+ experience throughout. The three main villains of the game invade Talion’s home and promptly execute both Talion and his family in full throat slitting fashion. Talion then awakes to find himself bound to the spirit of the elf-wraith, Celebrimbor, who promptly informs Talion that he is henceforth ‘banished from death’ until they defeat the Black Hand of Sauron to break the curse that binds them together. The intro to the game is very cinematic and introduces the basic player control well, and quickly drops players into the first open world section of Mordor. Mordor consists of two large maps filled with uruks and wild beasts, and has yet to become the blackened scorched environment of the LOTR trilogy. Set between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Mordor is for the most part still green, with large stretches of grass and fields, the environments are beautifully rendered and encouraged me to spend as much time as I could exploring all that Mordor had to offer.
Each map has a hierarchy of uruks and their war-chiefs, all controlled by the Nemesis system which forms the crux of the SOM experience. Uruks will compete with each other in order to ascend to higher levels in the hierarchy, players can directly influence how this plays out deliberately targeting particular uruks to weaken Sauron’s army. Each uruk has randomly generated strengths and weaknesses that players will have to discover by interrogating other uruks. Gaining this intel allows players to plan the most effective way to eliminate their targets. Due to the random nature of the strengths and weaknesses it helps to make each target feel unique and more alive. Each uruk in the hierarchy has a character specific title and the character models are so varied I never came across a duplicate, likewise with the dialogue, I encountered no repetition from the captains when I confronted them. This is where the Nemesis system really shines, if your target escapes or should kill you they will then advance in power and remember their encounter with you when next you meet. I cannot overstate how awesome it was to re-encounter an uruk who had previously handed my ass to me, to have him reference it when next we met. The game world advances upon player death making each death feel relevant and meaningful. There was one uruk who had killed me so many times his motive description changed to ‘weary at the thought of another battle with Talion’, I then made it a point to turn up and annoy him just by my being alive.
The uruks too can return that favour however, many a time I thought I had eliminated an uruk just for him to turn up, having sought me out, and promptly attempt to ruin my day. Whilst it did become slightly annoying that one or two uruks would just not die and insisted on coming back even though I thought I had killed them, the fact that each time they came back with new scars, burns and lines of dialogue made it difficult for me to stay mad at them because it was just too damn cool that you can have such a relationship with individual enemies. I really liked the fact that any uruk can become a captain if he’s lucky enough to off you in a fight, say for example you’re in over your head and the battle isn’t going your way, if a plucky little uruk, whom you would have no trouble defeating usually, gets lucky and manages to finish you off he will then gain power and a title and become a character with strengths/weaknesses and a personal history with Talion. Later on in the game you can control uruks to build your own army and have them attack and betray each other, playing the uruks off against each other and raising your own chosen uruk to become a war-chief brings a sense of pride and satisfaction. The Nemesis system excels at making the game world feel alive and that every action has a consequence.
Gameplay-wise Warner Brothers has clearly learned from its success with the Batman Arkham series. The combat and upgrade system is pretty much ripped straight from the Batman games, which is not necessarily a bad thing as it handles damn well and provides good progression of abilities. It doesn’t give you all the toys at once and each upgrade felt like something new to play with. SOM manages to strike a good balance between feeling like a God damn badass and getting in over your head, sometimes the only option I had was to flee when I realised I’d gotten a little too cocky. Your main weapons are a sword, bow and dagger, used for melee, ranged and stealth combat respectively. Each weapon can be enhanced with runes with alter the weapon stats slightly, it’s a simple system that adds depth to the combat. Runes are obtained by defeating captains and war-chiefs, the higher level the uruk the better the rune they will drop which encourages players to assist uruks in gaining power and then offing them when they reach higher levels, frequently SOM will make you decide if an enemy is worth more alive or dead which is a consideration not many games allow you.
Talion fights like Batman and moves like an assassin, there was much outcry when the first footage of SOM appeared because of how Talion hides in bushes, climbs walls and runs along ropes with aerial assassinations aplenty, distinctive gameplay most associated with Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed series. On the surface SOM appears to have little innovation, but the whole experience is so unique that I find it hard to begrudge them borrowing such fantastic control schemes as it only adds to the great gameplay. The wraith abilities are great and genuinely made me chuckle at how God-like they can make you feel when fully upgraded. Riding around on Caragors (large dog like beasts found in the wild) and Graugs (much like trolls) is fantastic fun and the game is all the better for the ridiculous power the wraith abilities afford you.
Unfortunately, for a game set in the rich lore of Tolkien the story leaves rather a lot to be desired, it begins promisingly enough and the cut scenes are very pretty to watch, but tails off toward the end. I had an absolute blast playing SOM but for a game that packs so much into the middle of the game the ending left me more than a little unsatisfied. This is mostly due to a rather pathetic final confrontation that screams SEQUEL, but none of the boss battles are very interesting so I wasn’t expecting too much from the final mission. SOM redeems itself in the core experience and personal conflicts with the uruk inhabitants. There are plenty of collectibles and challenges to occupy your time in Mordor with side missions to rescue human slaves providing in game currency to purchase weapon upgrades. I’m at about 86% completion and played around 23 hours and have loved almost every minute of it.
SOM has provided the most fun I’ve had in a game for a long time, it looks great, plays well and the Nemesis system provides a huge amount of depth and gameplay. It’s surely something that will be picked up by other developers in future games (ironic given the criticism SOM has faced for borrowing from other games), and I look forward to future encounters with enemies who will hold a personal grudge against me. Had it not been for the disappointing boss fights and poorly handled story SOM would have been perfect, but I enjoyed it greatly and will be returning to Mordor many, many times.