Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor ReviewJoe Shaffer
I was a bit of a prick when I played Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. You see, I loved trolling uruks and orcs more than anything. Now and then I'd sneak into their strongholds to shoot the doors off of their cages and let loose imprisoned caragors, cat-like beasts that were not previously part of the 'Lord of the Rings' mythos. From there I'd locate a lofty place to laze and watch as the guards in the vicinity screamed and scramblede in horror. Other times I'd sprint across the plains, charging full speed into any brutes I happened upon and stealth killing them as I approached. My favorite activity, though, was spying on small encampments of Sauron's goons and plucking off a single arrow, nailing a headshot and running away whilst the others wondered who the hell killed their buddy.
Of course, I also enjoyed drawing my sword and chopping up scores of evil soldiers as well...
Shadow of Mordor is not just a very well done Assassin's Creed clone, but it's also the only video game bearing the "Lord of the Rings" brand that I've come to enjoy. As in the aforementioned Ubisoft hit, there are plenty of stealth scenes supplemented by generous helpings of smooth melee combat, actually useful long ranged capabilities, very light RPG elements, and loads of side quests for variety.
Personally, I seldom found myself nodding off or succumbing to boredom. There was always a task to accomplish, be it as simple as gathering artifacts or herbs, bumping off fauna as per "Hunting Challenges," or perhaps rescuing fellow human beings in Outcast missions. There were even events that put the three main forms of offense to the test, tossing me into thrilling scenarios that sometimes seemed hopeless. Although landing headshots on ten archers wasn't much of a challenge, taking out fifty uruks in hand-to-hand battle or silently bumping off guards without setting off a nearby alarm were wicked little trials.
I imagine some readers are skittish about the use of stealth in some modern video games, outside of the aforementioned assassin series, and I don't blame them. Titles like Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 and 007 Legends have managed to biff it hard in regards to sneaking elements, either because the inclusion of such concepts felt tacked on (Castlevania) or because the developers utilized dated mechanics and standards in that regard (007). Thankfully, Shadow of Mordor doesn't commit either of these missteps, possibly because stealth plays an integral role in the campaign. Now and then you'll have to tiptoe into a fortress or cave system, each one decked out with multiple tiers, tons of nooks to hide in, and grand vistas to which you can ascend in order to either slink away or obtain magnificent views of your surroundings. Were the stealth elements not up to scratch, exploring these locales would be a humongous pain in the rump, and that alone could have destroyed the experience.
Shadow of Mordor is forgiving where covert gameplay is concerned. For instance, if you're spotted, you can easily give your pursuers the slip and lay low for a few seconds while the general mood of your opponents simmers down. What's even better is that the game provides you with a pretty wide window for executing stealth kills. You can mosey right in front of a uruk, look him right in the eyes, elicit a panicked reaction from him, and then proceed to knife him in the gut. If you want, you can even "brutalize" him, which is an extremely violent stealth kill that scares the ever-loving crap out of nearby foes.
Sometimes furtiveness backfires and that's when the troops arrive en masse. Still, dealing with them isn't a terrible issue, mostly thanks to Shadow of Mordor's effective combat. Sure, the game is kind of a button masher, but mindlessly pressing the attack button is only going to get you killed, especially when you consider the vast number of humanoids that crowd you. Thankfully, there are several skills available that allow you to parry oncoming attacks, instantly eliminate the opposition with decapitations or impalement, or land strikes that stun your adversaries, allowing you to cut loose a supernatural series of slices that concludes with your target's head erupting into a mess of meaty chunks and petrol-like blood. Suffice it to say that crowd control is not really a problem here once you become familiar with the game's control scheme.
Honestly, I enjoyed straightforward scuffles more than surprise knifings. With as smooth as the game's battle mechanics are, cutting up droves of rivals is not only satisfying, but addictive. There's nothing quite like jumping into a tidal wave of anthropomorphs and hacking away until your combo meter lets you know that you're able to pull of an "execution," a maneuver that immediately and violently eliminates an enemy. Given the right perks, you can even fly into a furious state that allows you to execute as many soldiers as you can within a time limit.
Completing quests and offing orcs nets you experience and money, both of which allow you to purchase new skills and passive bonuses (e.g. increased maximum health, extra arrows in your quiver, etc.). Eventually, though, you won't be able to unlock any more techniques because you won't possess enough "power," which is basically like another type of experience. The only way to increase your power is to fell high ranking warriors, including captains and warchiefs. Brawling with these baddies can prove to be a hell of a task, but doing so leaves you tantalizing spoils in the form of runes, which beef up certain aspects of your weaponry (example: 70% chance to restore X HP on a stealth kill, etc.). Although captains and warchiefs usually have weaknesses you can discover by interrogating certain grunts or acquiring intel from freed slaves, some of them have nasty immunities that can render them difficult to deal with. I had trouble with one captain, for instance, because he was invulnerable to standard sword blows. After dying and respawning, my only means of dealing with this tough customer was by pulling off a stealth kill and hoping it was his Achilles heal. Thankfully it was.
There really isn't much to complain about in Shadow of Mordor, although my one and only issue has to do with the game's conclusion. Mainly, I was disheartened to see how much of an anticlimax it turned out to be, which is not something I associate with "Lord of the Rings." Yeah, there are a few war sequences near the end, but they lack the epic feel that conflicts in the films and novels exude. Granted, the developers sought to fit Shadow of Mordor into the timeline while declaring it non-canon, so it wouldn't make sense for there to be tremendous clashes in Mordor that are somehow ignored by the likes of Gandalf or Elrond. Still, some of the closing events that don't involve military action, which would leave the last couple of boss encounters and missions, are similarly in need of energy. One of the above turns out to be a very simple stealth sequence, and another is your standard QTE that leaves you wishing you were in control of the protagonist rather than merely watching him react.
Despite the tiny hiccup in the closing phases, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is a wonderful action title that reminds us that not all licensed products are shovelware. This is mostly thanks to the game's variety and solid, easygoing stealth and combat. If there are any further adventures to be had in Middle-earth, let's hope they turn out as exhilarating as this one.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.