Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor Review (PC)
"Ranger! Remember me?"
How could Tallion forget Ukbuk the Rugged? Through a combination of force of will, natural toughness, and sheer stupidity, this orc had become something of a nemesis to the deathless ranger. Over and over they met, blades clashing, blood spilling, and every time it seemed Ukbuk was gone for good, he'd return braver and uglier than ever. At first, Tallion hoped each encounter with Ukbuk would be his last; now he found himself looking forward to them.
Set in the Middle-earth of Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor has you playing as the fearsome ranger, Tallion. Thanks to a fusion dance with a wraith-like elf, Tallion returns from the dead armed with supernatural powers with which to avenge the wrongful deaths of his wife and son at the black hands of the Black Hand. Tallion's adventures take place in the surprisingly gorgeous region of Mordor, an open-world playground filled with bloodthirsty orcs eager to be slain in spectacularly showy ways. While you'll spend plenty of time running around exploring, most of your time will either be spent slinking around, stealthily dispatching your foes, or going toe-to-toe with them and killing them in the most over-the-top methods you can muster.
Shadow of Mordor draws deep inspiration from numerous other titles such as Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, and the Batman: Arkham series of games, the latter of which is most appropriate, given that this, too, is a Warner Bros. Interactive game. Whether you're taking the assassin’s stealthy approach, Far Cry’s more tactical approach, or the unstoppable Batman brawling approach, there's no question about how good it all feels. Tallion moves quickly and wields a hefty arsenal, allowing you to take on each situation in the way you think is best rather than forcing you to use the same tricks over and over. Killing from the shadows feels immensely rewarding; few things feel as great as taking out a group of orcs one at a time by beckoning them away from their allies and slaughtering them like the evil little piggies they are. Combat is a rhythmic dance of death, with Tallion countering, stunning, and decapitating orcs left and right. The more skillfully you play, the more devastating your attacks become, rewarding players who focus and play well rather than simply button-mashing their way to victory. Like the Arkham games, battles flow magnificently, only here they're far more violent. Tallion's not above snapping necks, slitting throats, or cutting off heads if he needs to, bringing extra satisfaction to the deaths of what will no doubt be your most hated foes: the orc nemesis.
Shadow of Mordor has what its developers refer to as a Nemesis System. Most of the game is oriented around hunting down and killing orc leaders for information about the Black Hand. Every time you die in battle, the orc who killed you gets promoted, gaining new skills, weaknesses, and territory to his name. In the example in the first paragraph, Ukbuk the Rugged got a lucky hit on us during a huge battle and got promoted. We killed Ukbuk with a knife through the head... or so we thought, but he kept returning to hunt us again, bearing new scars based on his last "death" and new skills and dispositional traits based on the way we fought him. If you defeat a nemesis with a stealth kill, he may return with a stealth immunity and a metal plate in his skull where you previously plunged your blade. If you burn him to death, he might come back with a scorched face and a secret case of pyrophobia. These orcs are all randomly generated, from name to background, giving each player a truly unique world to play in and an equally unique gaming experience. When you die it not only powers up the orc who killed you, it causes a rippling chain reaction amongst the orc hierarchy. One orc might kill another and take his position, gaining power in the process, or a no-name jerk might replace an orc captain you’ve put down for good, and so on. This web of interactions gives a real impact to your deaths, so that even though your lives are infinite, there’s still weight to each time you fall in battle. Plus, the siren’s call of hunting down that ass of an orc who killed you is an alluring one; prepare to be distracted from your other missions repeatedly as your own Ukbuk makes repeat guest appearances.
As you progress through the game's numerous story missions, side quests, and orc battles, you'll grow more powerful in a variety of ways. High-level orc officers drop loot in the form of randomly-generated runes which confer different combat advantages like additional chances to terrify your foes with brutal stealth kills or health drain on headshots. You'll also upgrade your stats, slots for runes, and, most importantly, your abilities. While many games give you dull abilities like +10 percent damage, Shadow of Mordor's power progression changes the way you play entirely. Dodge rolls gain the power to stun your foes, your power-draining wraith abilities become head-exploding instant kills, and well-timed leaps can grant you the running speed of a gazelle. Shadow of Mordor isn't built around handing you power quickly, but once you've earned these abilities they are supremely fulfilling.
Shadow of Mordor's aesthetics are phenomenal, with great vocal performances from Troy Baker as Tallion, Nolan North as the Black Hand, and a host of other voice acting greats filling out the rest of the roles. The music fits within the established tone of the Lord of the Rings movies without directly ripping tunes from them, and the visuals are breath-taking, rendering a potentially ugly place like Mordor into something much more alluring. On the slight down side, like many open-world games Shadow of Mordor does suffer from the occasional glitch. We've phased through a floor or two, seen orcs suddenly gain the ability to fly, and seen textures disappear and reappear in the blink of the eye.
It's no secret that Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor borrows heavily from the work of its forefathers, but it does so in a way that takes the quality framework of the past and adapts it into something new and fun. With its top-notch aesthetics, richly flowing action, and uniquely personal ecosystem of foes, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is one game you’ll be happy to go there and back again with.
This review was based on a purchased digital copy of Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordo for PC.