How to make enemies and upset Sauron.
Tie-in videogames have a bad reputation, and mostly deservedly so. The majority of videogames that link themselves to other popular media, be it movies, comic books or even fantasy novels, manage only to disappoint and serve to line the pockets of the creators/owners. However, occasionally a tie-in game comes along that lives up to the love that surrounds the original subject matter and gives the fans something to be grateful for.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is, against all odds, one of those tie-in games. Developed by Monolith Productions, Shadow of Mordor seems at first glance to steal ideas from other successful games, with very obvious inspiration taken from the likes of the Assassin’s Creed and Batman: Arkham games. That in itself is not a bad thing, these are popular game series after all. But Shadow of Mordor goes further than these example series, making the game much more than its individual parts. And then it throws something completely new into the mix, with the resulting game not only being a successful tie-in, but a brilliantly enjoyable game in its own right.
The player takes on the role of Talion, a Ranger of Gondor who happens to be stationed at the Black Gate of Mordor. Sauron’s army attacks and Talion is treated to a swift death after watching his family die. It is all very sad and grim. However, through a mysterious twist, Talion finds himself bound to a Wraith , set back into the world of the living and given some awesome Wraith powers. So begins the players’ journey across a relatively small but well filled open world, as they quest for answers, redemption and maybe a little revenge.
It is perhaps not the most inspiring of stories, no matter how well it is told. Shadow of Mordor relies a lot on the player knowing at least a little of the history of Middle-earth and the Tolkien tales, skimming briefly over history lessons. In comparison to other stories set in Middle-earth, Shadow of Mordor is not that interesting. But Monolith seemed to realize this, as the story plays the role of only moving the gameplay forward rather than engaging the player on any meaningful level, which is okay as the gameplay itself more than makes up for any shortcomings the story has.
So, the gameplay takes the stealth system from Assassin’s Creed. The objective in the game is to kill the high ranking Orcs or Uruk-hai in Mordor, and adding the option of stealth makes this process a whole lot easier. The open world of Mordor is not particularly large, but it is filled with little groups of enemies along with other threats that can be avoided for the most part with some careful sneaking and the occasional climbing and running along walls.
The system works, and works well. Hiding in bushes or on a high ledge while waiting for sentries to lose interest in what they think they saw, is both enjoyable and necessary. The free-running aspect of the game doesn’t always play out exactly as it should though, with simple mistakes like jumping backwards into the enemy that you are running from rather than climbing the wall as intended, being reminiscent of the earlier Assassin’s Creed games.
The combat system could easily cause the game to be mistaken for any of the Batman: Arkham games, were it not for all the Orcs. It is a combination of counters, combos and executions, which are all satisfyingly violent, that combines both thoughtful button presses and mashing into glorious battle with multiple assailants. The gradual introduction of special Wraith powers and runes ensures that the player will become more capable as they progress, and able to take on the more powerful foes as they fight through the ranks of Sauron’s soldiers.
This is all well and good, and adds up to what would be an interesting game. However one simple inclusion on the part of the developers makes Shadow of Mordor a much more personal and involving journey – the Nemesis System.
When the player is defeated in combat, the simply respawn. But what happens to the Orc or Uruk-hai that defeated them? When the player defeats an enemy but ultimately lets them escape, what becomes of them? Shadow of Mordor is a dynamically changing world in which the players’ actions have consequences further down the line.
Any enemy who defeats the player will become stronger, may be promoted within the hierarchy, and will not only remember the player, but actively taunt them with recounts of how they were last defeated. Allow an enemy to escape, and when they return they will be sporting the scars of your last encounter. It is all brilliantly done and, along with the level of individualization that can be found amongst the enemies, serves to create a much more individual game for the player. Seemingly insignificant enemies will rise through the ranks thanks to the players own mistakes and become more powerful. These enemies will come known to the player by name, with their strengths and weaknesses ringing in the players mind as they keep on turning up and thwarting any plans of success.
The strengths and weaknesses of the enemy play a crucial part in their defeat. Sometimes combat alone will just not be enough, and the player will have to put in the leg work to be ultimately victorious. This can involve interrogating lesser Orcs for information on their Warchief, or even forcing defeated Orcs to join your crusade, spreading dissent or even taking on assassination missions of their own. But finding out that an enemy is afraid of fire, for example, can easily turn the tide and prevent yet another nemesis from stalking the player later in the game.
After all of this, the way the game ends is, well, somewhat of a let down. Still, the journey to that ending is an incredible experience that will be remembered.
The audio and visual in Shadow of Mordor is, as you would perhaps expect, incredibly well done. The environment is bleak and somewhat lacking in variety, but it is exactly how many would envision the dread land of Mordor. The individuality of the Orcs is impressive, even though there are too many of them to really tell them apart. Even the audio track and the Orc taunts are wonderfully done, further deepening the immersion.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is something of a surprise to me. I was not expecting anything more than yet another average tie-in game. Instead, what I got was a very personal experience that I will remember for many years to come. Who would of thought that a random Orc would be able to become a leading role in my own Middle-earth story. An open world, decent stealth, engaging combat and the excellent Nemesis system all add up to make the best Middle-earth game so far. Highly recommended.