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Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor review

AT A GLANCE
  • Nemesis system creates memorable, personal villains
  • The fast-paced combat is gloriously violent, while stealth is cleverly strategic
  • Mordor is a gorgeous open-world that's true to LOTR lore
  • Some repetitive sidequests

His name was Noruk the Assassin. When we first met, he lodged an arrow in my chest and left me for dead. This was the start of many more of my own deaths--me typically getting an explosive arrow to the neck, him getting one promotion after another for repeatedly slaying the deathless Gravewalker (that's me). But when I finally killed him and his lackeys after more than a dozen failed attempts, it felt like a part of me had died. Just as Batman and the Joker give each other purpose, Noruk's presence in Mordor was a constant reminder of my struggle to get revenge on the Uruk. Without my diametric opposite, I felt weaker.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is an outstanding action game, offering a satisfying mix of stealth and melee combat that series like Assassin's Creed or Batman: Arkham have perfected. But the Nemesis system, which cleverly makes enemies grow and evolve along with the player, is what elevates Shadow of Mordor into the upper echelons of open-world excellence. Every time you die, it's personal.

I'll get back to the antagonists, but let’s talk good guys for a second. You play as Talion, a Ranger (think Aragorn) who's dead before the game even starts, forced to watch his wife and son get their throats slit before getting the same treatment. But fate gives Talion a chance for revenge when an ancient Wraith binds himself to the Ranger's corpse, giving him the gift of immortality and super awesome ghost-powers (complete with glowing blue eyes).

Talion and his live-in phantasm start out as fairly one-dimensional characters. But over the course of the 20-to-30-hour game, you'll grow to enjoy their banter, which is equal parts cynicism and good humor on both sides. And they're not the only denizens of Mordor on a mission: the supporting cast, while small, is made up of some memorable personalities, like Ratbag the turncoat Uruk; Torvin, a self-aggrandizing dwarven hunter; or that scheming imp Gollum himself.

Whether or not you're a diehard Lord of the Rings fan, the sheer amount of lore--woven into the world via collectible artifacts and weapon-centric missions--is staggering. As with most open-world games, these bits of backstory and extra challenge are totally optional, strewn throughout Mordor for those times when you want a quick, enjoyable diversion from your vendetta. Pretty much right from the start, you've got the gratifying freedom to explore the picturesque hillsides, desolate quarries, ominous strongholds, and lush forests of Mordor's two sizeable regions, thinning out Sauron's army however you see fit.

By "thinning out," I mostly mean "brutally killing every Uruk in a 50-mile radius." When it comes to combat, Talion and the Wraith make quite the pair--the former being an expert swordsman and adept throat-slitting assassin, the latter with his ability to slow time and line up precision arrows direct to Uruk skulls and flammable grog caskets. The swordplay is like a much sharper, pointier version of Batman: Arkham's fistfights: free-flowing combat interspersed with counterattack button prompts. The key difference is that instead of simply knocking your opponents out, you are utterly desecrating their leathery bodies like a butcher carving up meat.

By Grabthar's hammer, I will avenge you

Shadow of Mordor is strictly a single-player affair, but there's a cool benefit to playing with an online connection. Whenever the folks on your friends list (or, barring that, random strangers) get killed, you'll receive a Vendetta mission to avenge their death in that same area. Besides giving you a chance at extra rewards, this can offer an intriguing glimpse into the Uruks that are taking your buddies to task.

Now, as far as modern video game excesses go, Shadow of Mordor isn't gratuitously gory. But it's got all the devastating violence that swords, bows, and the giant-dog-like Caragor mounts will allow. Every instance of over-the-top carnage--beheadings, chest-slicing combos, being eaten alive, or taking a blade directly through the forehead--is sold by incredibly convincing animations that feel weighty and impactful. Even the stealth kills are vicious, with the option to brutalize an enemy with multiple stabs to the head, neck, and stomach in order to scare off all his comrades (a ruthless-but-effective tactic for isolating your target). While the savagery of the combat is sure to get your blood pumping, it can be somewhat upsetting to notice the sheer terror in an Uruk's eyes right before you invade his mind and end his life. But then you remember that Uruks are merciless slave-owners bred only for war, and you start to feel a bit better about your countless killing sprees and oil-black bloodshed.

The intricacies of combat could've simply consisted of fights against plain grunts using your supernatural abilities, and Mordor would still be a ton of aggressive fun. But the Nemesis system turns every duel to the death into so much more, giving the villains just as much personality as your hero. Warchiefs and Captains lead the forces of Sauron's army, each one randomly generated from a set of pug-ugly faces, delightfully snide voiceovers, and odd character quirks. Maybe they'll become enraged at the sight of their master's suffering, or run for their lives if you ride into battle atop a Caragor.

More Info

Release date: Nov 18 2014 - Xbox 360, PS3
Sep 30 2014 - PS4, Xbox One, PC (US)
Nov 21 2014 - Xbox 360, PS3 (UK)
Available Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PS4, Xbox One, PC
Genre: Role Playing
ESRB Rating:
Mature: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence

You can exploit these strengths and weaknesses by learning them ahead of time, interrogating some hapless minions or rescuing some eavesdropping slaves. This turns even the most incidental encounter into an exciting, significant event, through the necessary build-up and preparation. Though if your plan goes awry and one of your targets gets the jump on you, the surprise duel will trigger the fight-or-flight cortex of your brain. Whether you opt for a grueling battle or a panicked getaway, it's sure to be intense. And each time you die by a soldier's hands, he'll level up and learn some new abilities that make him that much more resilient.

What's incredibly impressive is just how distinct these randomly generated nemeses feel, thanks largely to dialogue that seems to predict your every possible action. When you encounter your rival, they'll remind you how they killed you the first time around, or mock you for chickening out during your previous encounter. Some belittle you while speaking in rhyme; others don't talk at all, choosing to snarl and scream like animals instead. All these possibilities create the kind of personal experiences that you want to share with your buddies, regaling them with stories of how your Uruk rival humiliated you during your last fight, or finally met his end after a hard-fought battle. Even the lowliest troop can rise up through the ranks if he lands the killing blow on you, which is oddly satisfying despite the fact that he, y'know, executed you.

The only drawback to the Nemesis system is that the random traits can lose their appeal if you start noticing repeats, an unfortunate side-effect of the fact that you can slaughter the higher-ups of the Uruk army indefinitely. Shadow of Mordor's story structure gives you the freedom to kill Uruks to your heart's content, but doesn't make it entirely obvious that this will only further the Wraith-centric plot at very specific points. But just when you think you've seen it all, Talion gains the ability to brainwash the enemy forces to his side, letting you amass an army all your own. This wrinkle adds even more depth to the quest for revenge, since you can try to murder a Warchief using his own underlings, or have the last laugh over your nemesis by breaking his mind and forcing him to fight for your cause.

Another aspect of Mordor where repetition can get tiresome is the template for the slave sidequests, which always task you with liberating a group of indistinguishable captives. To help prevent these rescues from being completely monotonous, bonus objectives (like time limits or a quota for a certain execution type) help break up the pace. Still, given how much polish Shadow of Mordor affords to its other systems, it's strange to see such formulaic missions take up a third of the side-content.

But that hardly matters the overall package is this phenomenal. Shadow of Mordor isn't just the greatest Lord of the Rings game to date--it's also one of the most entertaining open-world adventures around. By the time you've concluded Talion's journey, you'll feel like you've experienced your own personal odyssey through Middle-earth, locked in a struggle against adversaries that only you truly know. The thrill of undermining the Uruks' hierarchy doesn't last forever, but the memories of the villains it generates will stay with you for a long time.

By turning your every death into the start of a personal vendetta, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor makes you that much more invested in its open-world. The savage combat and satisfying stealth are just the means to exacting your ultimate revenge.

This game was reviewed on PlayStation 4.

67 comments

  • Bizzaviet - December 24, 2014 6:05 p.m.

    Amazing!!!!
  • Sponge - November 23, 2014 4:01 a.m.

    Calling this thing a Lord of the Rings game is a stretch. Even more lore-breaking than EA's "The Third Age".
  • Mr.FiveOneFiveOhh - October 18, 2014 4:36 p.m.

    So I jus wanna give my two cents on the game after I got 100% of everything complete as well as got the platinum trophy.... The game is a littl dificult in the beginning but as u gain experience (which isnt hard because u gain experience even when u die), and start upgrading ur weapons and gaining new skills, its becomes increasingly easier at an constantly increasing pace. Once uve unloved everything ull have no problem taking down even the toughest enemies as well as all their follower first attempt( assuming u take the time to learn ur enemy's strengths and weakness's beforehand). While I still had main missions and side challenge to do, the game was extreamly entertaining, but its to short in my opinion, I beat the entire game 100% in around 80 hours of game time and achieved the platinum trophy in just over 100 hours. At this point the game became very boring and ungratifying, due to the fact that no matter what, all the experience and currency I gain means nothing because there's nothing left to buy or unlock. I jus feel like it was way too short and need more missions, more maps, and some way to personalize ur character(u have one choice for the character and one set list of unlockable skills) they need a choice of character or class or ability and skill type or something, everyone's character will have the exact same weapons and skills( with the exception on the 5 weapon rune upgrades for eaxh of the 3 weapons, that u can earn and decide which work best for u, most of the "epic" runes, which are the best, are good for some type of playstyle). I really hope the add a lot more game content soon, cuz for now I'm going back to playing Destiny. Also There a few online leaderboard challenges which are fun for a lil while, but they're all basically the same thing besides the amount of time, enemies killed and point score required to achieve a gold ranking and which puts u on a separate leaderboard of other places that achieved gold. That pretty much sums it up, I'm sad that its over, but I had a lot of fun while it lasted. Overall I'd give it a 4 out of 5 stars for now and still definitely would recommend that u pick it up for urself. Hope all this, typing helpes someone understand the game better. Later
  • Luciano915 - October 1, 2014 8:32 a.m.

    how long does this take to download to my laptop...ugh...I just wanna play
  • seth-huval - October 1, 2014 5:58 a.m.

    I'm 2 hours into the game and it is absolutely amazing. Story pulls you in the minute you start the story mode, and the combat is excellent
  • Shigeruken - October 1, 2014 1:26 a.m.

    I'm about an hour into the game and I've come across an instant-fail stealth story mission. Spoiler: It's a fucking awful mission. I'm enjoying the rest of the game so far though.
  • BEYR - September 30, 2014 3:39 a.m.

    With this, Witcher 3 and Dragon Age coming out there will finally be games worthy of the new generation. AC 4 and Watch Dogs were too short and not much else has sucked me in. Destiny as it stands now doesn't really hold my attention but I can see it becoming much more interesting with a few tweaks. I was expecting more fast-paced MMO and less low-reward shooter.
  • Cruddi - September 28, 2014 7:05 a.m.

    My only questiobn.... Should i watch the hobit films (so far) before playing this game? Is there any lore/references that will be important?
  • GR_LucasSullivan - September 29, 2014 9:43 a.m.

    No need--the main story is self-contained, with the only extra lore bits woven into the collectibles.
  • Cruddi - October 8, 2014 2:48 p.m.

    Ah that's good, i can wait for all 3 hobbit films then have a good ol binge on them then lol
  • larkan - September 27, 2014 4:59 p.m.

    Was able to pre order and get season pass for under $60....thank you greenmangaming!
  • Cruddi - September 27, 2014 7:39 a.m.

    I honestly thought this game was going to flop, but I am surprised truly, as other people have pointed out it is a licenced game i wasn't expecting anything over of 3 stars, but I still pre-ordered it and a possibility that I will get the season pass but I don't know I have bought 4 of them and each time I feel disappointed, maybe if they were quicker at releasing the packs and were of better quality.
  • normanpleasant - September 27, 2014 2:58 a.m.

    Marvellous - finally, a decent LotR game since Third Age Total War. Even if it does star an 'original' bearded, broody ranger man.
  • chriszewski - September 26, 2014 6:25 p.m.

    Git yer Galaxy Quest outta my LotR!
  • pl4y4h - September 26, 2014 3:02 p.m.

    Only just watched some gameplay of this (since i know nothing about lotr) and i absolutely want thi....no i NEED this game
  • Rhymenocerous - September 26, 2014 11:16 a.m.

    Whoa... Did not expect this. I'm not a LotR fan, but this sounds a truly great game, and a complete surprise. I LOVE it when this happens! My plan this gen is to once again choose my games carefully, picking up only the genuinely interesting games & shining little gems. I've successfully ignored Destiny, every CoD after MW2, every Battlefield after Bad Company, and a lot of other over-hyped nonsense. True quality beats hype and marketing in the end, but only (sadly) in the eyes of the connoisseur.
  • ryan-grunsten - September 28, 2014 7:21 a.m.

    #Pretentious
  • homestar99 - September 26, 2014 9:49 a.m.

    To be honest, I don't give two shits about The Lord Of The Rings. Just isn't really my thing. But I'll applaud this game for two reasons. One, if Destiny is saying anything than Triple-A is going in the shitter and this game looks to change that. Two, it's a licensed tie in game and it's not the only good tie in from this year. It seems like tie ins are trying to amend themselves. At least this game will most likely have more replay value than South Park: The Stick of Truth.

Showing 1-20 of 67 comments

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