Since Shadow of Mordor first caught my eye during E3, I’ve been watching with a slightly reserved optimism – I can name far more games that have looked interesting and fun to play but ultimately have failed to deliver on the early promises made than those that have succeeded in achieving them. I am pleased to say Shadow of Mordor delivers. In spades.
You play as Talion, a ranger of Gondor, who, alongside his wife and son, is brutally slain during the first few minutes of the game in what serves as an interesting take on a tutorial mission. Combat is quickly explained as you set out teaching your teenage son the basics of swordplay, before quickly switching to the battle that is serves as their demise via cinematic. Rather than die outright (and make a fairly short game), Talion is resurrected anew, now bound to a Wraith that grants him new abilities on his quest for revenge. This Wraith unlocks new abilities, such as identifying enemy Worms, Uruks that have knowledge of locations and weaknesses of more powerful Captains.
Shadow of Mordor is set in the universe of Lord of the Rings and the full encyclopaedic history that comes along with it (hence “Ranger of Gondor” and “Wraith”). The story plods on at a good pace, extending on Talion’s story quite early on, but during the second half it is the Wraith who takes centre stage. The Wraith does have a name, but for fear of spoilers, I will refrain from naming him here, but his story mirrors that of Talion, tying in to the wider mythos of Lord of the Rings in the process.
If, like me, you’ve only ever had a dabbled with Lord of the Rings, don’t let this put you off. The game does a great job of explaining terms and creatures and places to diehard Tolkien fans and newcomers alike, storing them all in a handy appendix that you can dip in or dip out of as you wish. The story fits in nicely with the wealth of information J. R. R. Toklien created, but it is not critical to its success – what makes Shadow of Mordor special is that it stands up well as a game all on its own – a game that just so happens to exist in the world of Lord of the Rings. I have a very basic understanding of Lord of the Rings, mostly through the trilogy of films and a (failed) attempt to read the books in my teens. The terms and references put me off then, but the way they are served up here works to make me want to know more – usually I generally ignore heaps of terms and definitions when I play a game, but I found myself reading snippets here and there to fully make sense of the world I was inhabiting for a few hours at a time.
Shadow of Mordor includes the usual open world tropes, such as collectibles and weapon challenges that serve to upgrade Talion even further, and the story almost becomes secondary to all the extra activities that you can fill your time with in the quest to make Talion all powerful, all based around the sturdy combat and exploration mechanics. The game plays like a cross between Assassin’s Creed and Batman Arkham, with Talion able to run and climb at will, using height as well as speed to your advantage.
Combat is fun and intuitive, and you quickly feel extremely powerful in charge of Talion’s three base weapons – sword for melee attacks, dagger for stealth and bow for ranged. Each weapon is mapped to a button, including the usual dodge and counter, and combat feels fluid and extremely effective – combos and brutal executions all included. Each kill gains experience, that can then be used to upgrade Talion or the Wraith’s abilities, or unlock new ones, and comparisons to the excellent Batman Arkham series are justified in that both games contain an incredibly complex and deep combat system that is brilliantly executed (no pun intended).
Weapons can be upgraded to be more powerful or to grant Talion new abilities and this is all done via Runes. Runes are dropped when you defeat enemy Captains and Warchiefs – powerful versions of Uruks (Lord of the Rings version of man-like-goblin) that often command others, or that depend on specific missions in order to be defeated. Each Uruk has a Power level associated with them, the more powerful they are the more powerful the Rune they drop. This system starts off quite simply – I defeat this powerful Uruk, I get a Rune, I upgrade my weapon.
It quickly develops as the game progresses and you unlock the ability to send Death Threats to other Captains or Warchiefs, which instantly increases the Power level of the Uruk you have threatened. This takes what is a simple system and upgrades it to something on a par with chess – I could go on and on at the depth of this system. Uruks that you kill are quickly replaced by others, instantly getting an upgrade in their Power – I found myself threatening Uruks to uplevel their Power, then killing those above them in the hope they would get promoted up the ranks, raising their Power level even more in the hopes of harvesting an Epic Rune when I finally decided to kill them. This is a risky strategy, as even though I felt like a a powerhouse with sword, dagger and bow I found it was still easy to suddenly get overwhelmed should one manage to sound the horn for reinforcements, especially if a few of those reinforcements were high powered Captains or even Warchiefs – sometimes the better strategy was to run for the hills with my tail between my legs.
This would be a fine time as any to mention the brilliant Nemesis system – a system that governs the behaviour of your enemies during battle. Enemies have strengths and weaknesses that can be exploited against them – by grabbing a “Worm” (an Uruk that glows green when you become the Wraith, think of Batman’s detective mode) you can gain information on the Uruks higher up the food chain that you can then use in battle to make the most of their weaknesses. When going into battle against the more powerful Captains, they start their battle with some snappy threat or comment. This dialogue changes depending on the outcome of the battle – should they retreat, they will remember this the next time you encounter them and often mention how they will not do so again.
Often the Uruks will bear scars from their previous encounter with you. Should they defeat you, and they will refer to it, mocking you for running away or falling by their blade. Little touches like this draw you further into the game, and I found myself hunting a particular Uruk that had defeated me earlier, annoyed and beefed up in preparation that it would not happen again. These unscripted moments took me well off the track of the main story, and I would spend hours doing these missions, levelling up Talion and the Wraith alongside acquiring Runes for my weapons.
Shadow of Mordor is an incredible game that quickly drags you in and refuses to let go, taking the best parts of a number of amazing games and mixing them all together into one neat package, tied with a Lord of the Rings bow. Lord of the Rings fans and newcomers alike will find something here, in what is ultimately a fun and exciting game to play – if you’re looking for a new time sink in the run up to Christmas, you could do far worse than this one.
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