The Lord of the Rings IP has had an interesting and surprisingly balanced history when it comes to video games. For every dud (2009’s Lord of the Rings Conquest), there’s been a solid and genuinely fun experience (2002’s Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers) to balance it out. Given this history (and the somewhat overprotective nature of both the Tolkien estate and die-hard Tolkien fans), developing a Lord of the Rings-themed game naturally comes with no small amount of risk. Developer Monolith has faced that risk, taking on the added challenge of developing an original game set between the events of The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring. But how well does Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor fare when stacked up against other entries in the Lord of the Rings video game legacy?
If you’re not a fan of overly complicated or drawn out beginner tutorials, Shadow of Mordor is the game for you since it isn’t long before the game throws you into the thick of the action. After a very brief opening sequence that teaches the player the basics of combat and stealth while introducing them to the tragic plight of protagonist Talion, the player is plopped into the middle of the large open region of Mordor, free to do what they please. While this straight-to-the-action approach is a refreshing change of pace, the caveat is the lack of substantial story context and the fact that the player has to suddenly process a lot of new information very quickly.
The basic gist is as follows: Talion, a ranger from Gondor, is murdered along with his wife and son by orcs invading from Mordor but, for some reason, Talion won’t stay dead. A curse enacted by the Black Hand captains of Sauron has bound Talion’s spirit with that of a wraith who is later revealed to be Celebrimbor, the famous Elven smith from the Second Age who was tricked by Sauron into forging the rings of power. Using both Talion’s combat skills and Celebrimbor’s wraith abilities, players can venture through Mordor and exact revenge on the orcs and Uruks that roam its landscape using brutal melee, ranged, and stealth attacks.
The basic combat, stealth, and navigation systems should feel very familiar to anyone who’s played the Assassin’s Creed series or Batman: Arkham games. Talion can skulk around and execute enemies with vicious stealth attacks, climb up to vantage points and snipe enemies with a spectral bow, or face his foes head on in visceral melee combat. Much like Rocksteady’s rendition of the Dark Knight, Talion can perform various strikes, counters, evasive moves, and special attacks to take down foes and the number of options players have only grows as they acquire experience points and unlock new attacks and skills.
In addition to earning experience and skill points, players can also customize their preferred orc-killing methods via runes which are dropped from certain powerful adversaries. These runes come in different forms of rarity and can be equipped to Talion’s weaponry to grant special effects such as health gain on kills or added damage dealt from certain attacks. When combined with the different skills players can unlock, runes do an excellent job of turning Talion into the exact kind of killing machine you want him to be.
Shadow of Mordor‘s other major unique feature is its Nemesis system. As the player ventures through Mordor, they must deal with both standard orcs and Uruks as well as named captains and generals who all serve powerful war chiefs. These captains, generals, and war chiefs react dynamically based on their encounters with Talion. If a named foe manages to escape after suffering a fire-based or wraith-based attack from the player, they’ll remember it the next time they cross paths with Talion and might now become enraged or terrified should the player try such a tactic again.
Interrogating captains and their subordinates allows Talion to gain valuable intel on other captains or their superiors such as their unique strengths and weaknesses and where in Mordor they can be found. If the player is defeated by or forced to flee from a named enemy, that enemy’s strength will grow, making them more difficult to defeat but also increasing the potential rewards for doing so. This give-and-take system of hunting down named enemies serves as a fun distraction from the main storyline and is even the central pillar of Shadow of Mordor’s optional challenge modes.
However, while the Nemesis system is undoubtedly Shadow of Mordor‘s most compelling feature, it is also its most frustrating. Since there is no set pattern to where and when named enemies are encountered, frequently the player will be trying to take down one named captain only to have another (or sometimes more than one) show up, turning a tense but manageable battle into certain defeat in a matter of seconds. That being said, finally taking down a hated foe after having been defeated by them multiple times certainly feels like an epic feat of triumph, I just wish Monolith had taken a little more care in regards to the proximity of one named foe to another.
Fortunately, such frustrations diminish greatly once you’ve leveled Talion up a bit and accrued some new skills and runes. It also helps to remember that there’s very rarely only one option available to you. I struggled a lot with battles that pitted me against large crowds of foes until I realized that breaking away, stealthing, running over to a life-replenishing herb, and then getting the drop on my foes as they searched for me using a stealth attack or flurry of arrows was a totally viable strategy. Paying attention to the environment and your enemy’s weaknesses can turn a normally tough encounter into a cakewalk if approached correctly.
While its story elements mostly take a backseat to the exploration and combat, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is still a game I’d recommend to Tolkien fans if only because of the fact that it explores lesser-known parts of the series’ lore such as the creation of the rings of power and what characters like Gollum and Saruman were up to in between the events of The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring. Some fans may take umbrage with the creative liberties Monolith has taken with all the stuff regarding Celebrimbor’s wraith and the abilities he grants Talion (including the ability to mentally dominate foes or shadow-strike distant enemies from several yards away), but I’d say you’re better off appreciating them for what they are (fun gameplay mechanics) rather than trying to figure out how they fit into the pre-established lore of Tolkien’s Middle-earth.
Despite its somewhat thin story and less-than-perfectly-executed Nemesis system, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is still a compelling and fun hack & slash adventure title that stacks up rather nicely with the pantheon of other solid Lord of the Rings games that came before it. The game manages to pull the double duty of filling in narrative gaps in the Lord of the Rings timeline while also offering an interactive experience that rarely feels slow and never feels boring. If the recent Hobbit movies from Peter Jackson have reinvigorated your interest in all things Middle-earth, then Shadows of Mordor is one experience you’re definitely not going to want to miss.