There was a movie called Clerks 2 that summed up exactly how I felt about The Lord of the Ring movies. “Movie about walking” is what they said…and that is so very true. While I have finished the trilogy, I do not nor will I ever own any of them. The only parts I thoroughly enjoyed was the epic battles scenes as I am a sucker for some sword and shield action. It is for this reason that when I heard about Middle Earth: Shadows of Mordor that my interest was piqued. Not only does the story not take place during the 3-part epic book/movie trilogy but it also featured a brand new character and all the orc slaying one could handle. One not does not simply walk into Mordor…but they can sneak in and kill every last Orc they come across.
With a very dark and sad opening you are introduced to Talion, a former ranger of Gondor is executed after having to watch is son and wife murdered right before his eyes. It is not explained why his family was killed and for that matter why Talion himself has been murdered but it is within this horrible act that his spirit is bond to an elven wraith. He is returned to Middle Earth to exact his vengeance against the “Black Hand of Sauron” and all those responsible for the death of his family. I can honestly say that is pretty much all I know about the story. This is a game that isn’t played for its story, I think if you are a purest of Tolkien’s work then you are probably upset about the liberties that have been taken with the source material. But again, this is not about story…this is about killing orcs and taking names. Literally.
The first thing that bears discussing about Shadow of Mordor is the combat system, and since you will spend the majority of your time brutally executing orcs it is the most important part of the game that needed to be done correctly. I can assure you that the combat in this game is buttery smooth, if you have played the Batman: Arkham series then you will already know how to slay your enemies. From the timing based attacks, to the flashing yellow sign over an enemy’s head signifying that you need to counter the combat system has moved seamlessly from Gotham City to the bleak land of Mordor.
Talion is just as swift and acrobatic as our pointed ear friend as well and if you tire of stylishly ending the orcs lives by blades you can employ Talion’s use of a bow and arrow. When using the bow you have a time slowing effect thanks to your wraith pal, this cannot be used all the time and will need to recharge but it makes lining up head shots a breeze. The bow can be used from a distance in stealth or you can pull it out to blow up an explosive barrel in the heat of combat. The game expertly balances this by making ammo scarce. That’s not to say it’s impossible to get your hands on arrows, you will just need to drain your enemies in order to restock your ghostly ammunition.
The biggest thing that sets this games combat apart from hat of Batman’s is it is VERY easy for you to get overwhelmed. Orcs will run and alert other orcs that you are near and before you know it, a fight that was you vs 3 of them now has you up against 25 foes or more. Not all of them will be your standard grunt carrying a sword, but you will have shield bearing orcs, and orcs that will employ a counter attack much like yours, and even creatures who roam the lands will be alerted and join into a fight. When this happens escape is usually the best option, while the game offers a “final stand” of sorts when you reach “0” health, which will have you quickly line up your left stick and hit the correct face button on a controller even that brief respite doesn’t mean you will survive.
Death is only the beginning in this game, for even though you are bound to this wraith and cannot truly die when you fall by the sword time moves forward and the Orcs infighting amongst themselves for dominance continues. Sauron’s Army or “The Nemesis System” as it’s been called is always in play in Mordor. Every Orc you face is just waiting to get promoted to Captain and eventually to War Chief and killing a human is their ticket to the big league. If (and win) you die, the orc who bested you is shown taunting you and you are greeted with his name and a scene that shows his promotion within Saurons Army. He will level up, and gain a cool nickname, and a new set of armor. He may even have scars from your fight, he may have a metal eye piece, or a burned face it just depends on what happened during your fight with him. Upon meeting him again on the battlefield you will be greeted with an intro, he will remember your last fight and comment about it, perhaps what you did to him or the fact that he killed you once already. It’s these things that make every action or inaction feel meaningful.
As you work your way through the orc army you will get a feel for the system that is in place. You can interrupt the captains’ activities which range from feasting, to hunting the sabertooth like Craegers. Normally you can take out more than one captain at a time when you crash these parties. Each captain has a randomized list of strengths and weaknesses, these can vary from fear of being burned, to being pissed off about defeat. Playing off these is one more layer of tactical depth when going up against each opponent.
While I loved almost everything about Shadow of Mordor, the one glaring negative that I have found is the game doesn’t always explain very clearly about what different systems are, or what your next moves should be. On more than one occasion I found myself with an icon on my mini map that I had no clue what it was or what to do with it once I got to its location. Even though this happens from time to time it does not in any way take away from the overall fun of this game. Even with a slightly lackluster story to tell Shadow of Mordor is a rare game that allows you to tell your own story through its “Nemesis System” Just like Batman created Joker, you can create your ultimate foe within in this game and have epic battles with them time and time again until one of you falls. Just be careful, that is always an orc waiting in the wings to take their fallen comrades place…and with that the cycle begins anew.
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