By Simon Moore on October 3, 2014 at 3:32pm
"It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to."
If you are looking to be swept off your feet by the surprise hit of the year this Autumn, then you should head to the lands of Middle Earth. The ranger Talion carves a bloody path through the assembled armies of Mordor in his quest for vengeance. This is what the game promises and what it more than delivers throughout in what will undoubtedly be an enjoyable experience for all fans of Middle Earth. This version of Middle Earth from Warner Brothers and Monolith is a dark one; however with the Batman "Arkham" games and “Guardians of Middle Earth” lending experience, it’s one which WB and Monolith are not unprepared for. One has the experience and knowledge of delivering a hero who is a tainted shade of gray, and the other has already created a world based on the source material so should not be afraid to explore its depths once more.
The world itself is a beautiful and deadly place; you are in the lands of Mordor, so ruins and destruction are present throughout. The graphics do this title justice, and on the next gen console it will also be a great visual experience. The few bright colors present in the world drastically contrast to the darkness that covers the landscape. The "shadow" has returned, and the Uruks are rebuilding their master’s land. There is richness to the detail instilled in the mismatched and brutal structures beginning to fill the land. The crispness of the characters and the gritty realism monolith have create make for a very engaging, and at times brutal, experience. The blood will flow and you can almost see every little drop.
The hero of our tale, Talion, is a flawed one. He is no righteous and valiant leader of men; he is a captain of the Rangers banished to this post for a crime. This is not Aragorn you are playing. You are not on a quest to save Middle Earth, and that will not become your goal. You are motivated by a single purpose: revenge. This is where the grim dark nature of “Shadow of Mordor” falls into place. The game takes place within the confines of Mordor. You do not travel the lands of Middle Earth gaining allies and friends. You are instead surrounded by enemies who want nothing more than to see you dead at their feet. It’s an exhilarating experience to be so outnumbered and surrounded, yet still stay focused to a singular task. Your life is all but forfeit, so it’s about taking as many of them with you.
With that in mind the clear influence on this, other than Tolkien’s literary work is the "Batman" games. Pioneered by Rocksteady, we were given a new adventure in the stealth world with seamless combat and intuitive gameplay; that inspiration is on show here and the game benefits all the more from it. This is a game of action and lore, two things which when combined can be a vast majority of gamers' dreams come true. It blends the combo-and-counter system of the "Batman" games with the stealth and assassinations of “Assassins Creed." This is in no way a bad thing, if there is a medium that works and delivers the experience you want to emulate, then it’s an honor to present it with your own spin. Both of these games have some of the most satisfying combat in video games to date, and taking on dozens of Uruks at once, chaining combos to initiate instant-kills, is incredibly fun.
To complement the combat on show is the ability to skill up Talion. Through fighting, kills and mission completion he gains experience and power which will be used to unlock new and more devastating skills. You begin with a simple stun but gain more and more supernatural powers as you progress to make Talion a feared opponent in the land of Mordor. Where does this power come from? It’s the ghost-like wraith that’s inhabiting your body; a long vanquished Elf-Lord summoned by your enemy the ‘Black Hand of Sauron’ at the moment of your death. Oh yes, you're actually a spectral ranger returned from the grave to exact revenge on said Black Hand. Both the elf lord and Talion want vengeance and it’s a symbiotic relationship that will lead them across the lands. It’s an entertaining companionship because the wraith acts as both guide and mentor, teaching Talion about his powers and skills whilst also driving him onwards in his quest. It didn’t take long in playing to overhear an Uruk talking to a companion about us, referring to Talion as a Spirit that will come to slay them all…naturally I obliged moments later.
The Nemesis System
The Nemesis System is a creation of Monolith, it’s a dynamic creation designed to create your own enemies and memorable opponents throughout each play through of the game. Uruks are mean, and Uruks are tough. They are the leaders of Sauron’s resurrected horde and they are always out to gain something for themselves. As Talion, you’ll confront and meet the captains of these Uruks, these are your targets and much like Talion, they have their own strengths and weaknesses. By confronting a Captain you will be essentially activating the Nemesis system. That Captain now knows who you are and what you look like and should you fail to slay him, he will not forget you. Should you come across him a second time and depending on your first encounter he may have more forces with him or he may scoff at you for having "run way" from him the first time. You will remember these captains. They’ll either run or they will be too tough. They may even kill you a few times, but it’s these interactions that craft a personality onto each one. It’s a fantastic feature and one which makes this game stand out; the characters in the world adapt and evolve as you play, and you are be a big influence on this process.
To build on the Nemesis System, these captains, perhaps even that one Uruk who was lucky enough to bring you down, will gain promotion within the ranks. Your goal is to cut the army, slaying its leaders, but over time they will get replaced or they will move up in ranks. Should you fall in battle, though you are a spirit and immune to any kind of perma death. Time will pass while you recover. In this time Uruks you have fought or been hunting can easily have moved in rank, and you will have to search for their trail once more by finding, interrogating, and killing the underlings who have filled their role. As your enemies rise in ranks, they gain more followers and increase in power. Your primary goal of taking out Sauron’s most important commanders becomes more and more complicated and vengeance just slightly further out of reach.
Ultimately it’s up to you with how you deal with a captain. However scattered throughout the world and in order to make the interrogation mechanic more useful, you will find characters called worms. These can be found by allowing the wraith to give you his ghost sight, and they will be lit up with a green aura. Fighting and capturing these Uruks with the intention of interrogating them will allow you to gain more information on the captains you will be hunting. They will tell you of their strengths, weakness, weapons, forces, and even their fears. All things you can use to your advantage, almost all of the named opponents, the captains, can be killed in a single hit if you find the right information.
Some Slight Shadows
With all of this in mind there are some limitations and what you may consider issues with the game, albeit minor ones. The Nemesis System, although incredibly unique, can occasional appear to be entirely random. It’s very difficult to plan who gets promoted. It’s not necessarily "might makes right." You may also find on occasion as I did during my gameplay that you’ll stumble across as captain nearly by accident because they do populate the world. As great as it is that the world is "alive," it is frustrating when you come across a group of them. When you have 2+ powerful enemies attacking you along with all of their assorted followers, you will be at a disadvantage. I’m not one to run away, but sometimes it's a necessity and you will be mocked by the captain when you meet him again. That is of course if you meet them again. There is the potential to be playing for hours and only ever meet new characters, at which point the efforts in the Nemesis System are somewhat wasted.
The movement in the game also leaves a little to be desired. The combat is fantastic, and the ability to counter at any point during the fight is a welcome change from the likes of "Batman," where you generally have to finish a move/grapple before countering the next enemy. Additionally, the free running feels cumbersome at times, and on several occasions very unreliable. A saving grace in this regard is that is very possible to "surprise" enemies. Creeping behind some boxes with several Uruks looking for the slayer of their companion lead me to accidentally step out in front of one of them. Thankfully, I was stealthing and with quick reactions was able to assassinate this startled enemy as he stared into my vengeance-filled eyes. It was a great discovery, but one that came about through a control issue. On that note, it is highly recommended that you play this title with a controller. PC gamers will likely have an issue with the keyboard layout when they first begin. Console gamers? Well, you'll all be fine.
One Ring to Rule Them All
Without a doubt, “Shadow of Mordor” will be a success and a title that many "Lord of the Rings" fans have been looking for. Though this may not appeal to the diehard book reader (Christopher Tolkien, J.R Tolkien’s son, is not a fan of the Peter Jackson films), it is a game filled with lore and one that will gives hours of enjoyment. The Nemesis system could be the revolution in game story telling that we have been waiting for, and it will be great to see it utilized in other titles. The part of the storytelling process falls directly into the hands of the gamer, and they are able to craft their own adventure and stories within this world. Think of the tale you’ll tell your friends of ‘Urhz’Brag’ the Wriathkiller, and your final confrontation above the ruins of the black gate when you finally delivered the killing blow to your long-time foe.
The world is rich, the story is detailed, and the impact you can have on events is vast. It’s very possible that WB and Monolith have delivered the best "Lord of the Rings" experience in the modern era. “Battle for Middle Earth” arrived in 2004 and gave us a tactical strategy game that saw you level heroes and build armies to fight across Middle Earth, where life and death of units was persistent. It was different and it was enjoyable, but “Shadow of Mordor” brings a new type of storytelling to the fore and a world which will actively and continuously changes around you. With the exception of the main storyline, no two play throughs will be the same and potentially no two enemies will be either. It’s a satisfying exploration into the darker side of Middle Earth beyond the Black Gate, into a world not yet fully explored in film or book and one which could easily be one of the best action games of the year.