Version tested: PS4
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is the best Lord of the Rings spin-off game since EA’s movie tie-ins in ’02 and ’03. I’ll start with that statement because I don’t want you to believe this is a bad game despite how it may read.
It has flaws which keep it from greatness, chief of which is the over abundance of on-screen messages and icons. Upon starting a new game, I was overwhelmed with how many pop-up messages I received telling me a target was nearby, or a new survival challenge was unlocked, or a new mission was available etc etc. It really becomes tedious very quickly and pretty distracting. Apart from that, there is plenty of fun to be had if you can get over the repetitiveness of the mission structure and the slightly bland environments.
…there is plenty of fun to be had if you can get over the repetitiveness of the mission structure and the slightly bland environments.
I’ve written a fairly detailed hands-on preview which you can read here, so I won’t go into too much detail, but essentially, this game is Batman: Arkham Asylum and Assassin’s Creed rolled into a Lord of the Rings package. The whole game is very unoriginal to be honest but don’t let this put you off; for the most part, the various borrowed elements work well. Combat is solid and meaty, with the control scheme seemingly taken from the Batman games, including counters, ground attacks, throwing knives, evades and strikes, all mapped the exact same way. Stealth mechanics work similarly too, with a hold of a shoulder button placing your man Talion into a crouch, allowing him to sneak up on unsuspecting enemies and either stealth kill them or brutalize them, which can often scare nearby foes.
This is the only original point of the game; the nemesis system. It works pretty well most of the time but is not executed as well as early reports might have suggested. Getting killed by a lowly Orc doesn’t really penalise you: instead, your killer is promoted to Captain if he isn’t already one and gains power and influence, making him harder to kill in your next encounter. You can affect the disposition of Sauron’s Orc army by branding an enemy and sending him to assassinate or otherwise ruin another Captain’s day. You can even send death threats to Captains and the tougher Warchiefs, which will bolster their defences, making them harder to kill, but also generating a greater chance of dropping rarer and more powerful runes, which can be assigned to your three main weapons. This balance of risk and reward is a satisfying addition to what would otherwise be a bland game.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it, but it took a good while to get into the swing of things, especially with the aforementioned clutter of icons and messages. About 10 hours into the game’s story, you start to feel more at ease and by 20 hours, you’ll be comfortably hacking and slashing your way through goblins and polishing off the various side quests on offer. In regards to the story, I personally feel that the narrative and attention to Tolkienian lore are the greatest assets and selling points of the game. I would say that the story is very much geared towards fans of the Rings franchise, as every so often, you’ll come across a reference that will be lost on newbies. This not only expressed in dialogue between primary characters Talion and the Wraith (the identity of which is one of the earlier plot twists), but also extends to the many collectables that can be found dotted throughout Mordor. Inspecting these can yield interesting memory fragments *cough*assassinscreed*cough* which give insights into obscure characters that only hardcore fans will recognise. Did you know, for example, that Gandalf, Saruman and Radagast aren’t the only wizards in existence? There were two “blue wizards” who went missing in the East and were never heard from again. Their names were Alatar and Pallando. I knew that. And you probably didn’t. I’m smarter than you. How does that make you feel?
I would say that the story is very much geared towards fans of the Rings franchise.
The actual plot is pretty good and I like the voice acting and characters though some of the secondary ones are underused. The Wraith in particular is an interesting character, and the cutscenes explaining his past and connection to Talion are intriguing. Talion himself is a Gondorian Ranger assigned to the Black Gate in Mordor, who is slain after witnessing the murder of his wife and son. His motivations are strong, but his actor doesn’t instil any real heartbreak or anger in his voice. It’s worth noting at this point that the game is set in two regions of Mordor only, Udun and Nurn and nothing contradicts or gets in the way of the books or movies, seeing as it’s set after The Hobbit but before The Lord of the Rings. The game map is not big in comparison to other open-world games but it works within the confines of the story. It’s a real shame that the ending is abrupt and lacklustre, barely explaining the motivations of the chief villains, who only crop up in poorly conceived boss battles and have no real presence throughout the game. Your main adversary will most likely be one of the randomly generated Warchiefs who have more personality than the masters they follow. Cutscenes are infrequent but generally quite good and the real meat of the story is towards the beginning, which unfortunately is where the more mundane gameplay is. Things improve as you upgrade Talion and I really enjoyed taming and riding caragors and graugs (essentially wargs and trolls respectively).
Monolith has done a good job in creating a solid and largely enjoyable LOTR game. With access to such a large universe, the potential is almost limitless but opting for a carbon copy of two major game franchises was a lazy yet convenient idea, one that somehow works despite the overwhelming icons and buried menus that may put some off. A very unoriginal game, it’s still fun and combat is as addictive as the story is intriguing though both gameplay as plot are not executed as cleanly as they could be. Still, this is the closest you’ll ever get to the cancelled White Council game that EA teased many moons ago and if you have nothing else to play on your PS4 for the time being, this will be a nice addition to your next-gen collection.
A very unoriginal game, it’s still fun and combat is as addictive as the story is intriguing