This article contains spoilers for Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor.
Licenses have a tumultuous history in the video gaming industry. For every excellent licensed title like South Park: The Stick of Truth or Batman: Arkham City, there are approximately thirty-seven atrocious games based on a popular license, like Superman 64 or Star Wars: Masters of Teras Kasi. Upon playing Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, I was not only pleasantly surprised by how good the game is, but I found myself completing it to 100%.
When the Monolith Productions-developed Lord of the Rings title was released in 2014, I did not yet own a next gen console. By the time I finally acquired my Xbox One, the game had been out for a bit, and it flew under my radar as there were many more titles interesting to me that I felt were more deserving of my immediate attention. Eventually, I got it from GameStop for twenty bucks and played it for a few hours. After that, it sat on my shelf for a bit while other games came along, then I eventually traded it in. This past summer, I finally got back to Shadow of Mordor after the news of a sequel, Shadow of War, was on its way. Plus, the Game of the Year Edition was on sale for $4 on Xbox Live, so I couldn’t pass that up. I wish I had played this game much sooner.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is an open world third-person action/adventure game with an original story taking place between The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Players control Talion, a Ranger who has been binded with the wraith of Celebrimbor, the Elf lord who was commissioned to craft the Rings of Power by the dark lord Sauron. Our story is based around Talion avenging the deaths of his wife and son. No task for vengeance comes easy, as Talion gets roped into helping old friends turned deserters, chasing Gollum for information on Celebrimbor’s past, as he can’t remember anything, and fighting in a guerilla uprising against the orcs and their overlords.
While there are only a few familiar characters from the films and books, Shadow of Mordor developers spent plenty of time consulting with Warner Bros, Peter Jackson, and Weta Workshop, so the game feels very familiar and right at home in the LotR universe. Orcs and Uruks look just like their film counterparts, Gollum makes a few appearances, and Mordor itself looks exactly as we see it in the movies. While progressing through the story, players become attached to Talion and other supporting characters in the engaging narrative. While the story is pretty straight forward and a lot less narratively focused during the first half of the game, it’s in the second half that the story really starts getting much more personal and worthy of praise. There are plenty of characters to sympathize with aside from Talion or Celebrimbor themselves, and ultimately, this makes Shadow of Mordor’s conclusion that much more meaningful.
Aside from the story, there are a plethora of side missions to enjoy. These range from assassination missions and liberation of human slaves, to building the legend of Talion’s dagger, sword, and bow in specialized missions that rely on a specific weapon at a time. I found just a few of these weapon missions to be infuriatingly difficult at times, but once I completed them, I felt a real sense of accomplishment. None of these side missions of any type felt simply tacked on, as I was rewarded with build points and new weapon runes to continually power Talion and Celebrimbor up. Aside from that, they also made the open world feel more vastly populated.
On the gameplay side, I’d be remiss to not mention that Shadow of Mordor borrows a hell of a lot from other titles. Players climb towers to show collectible’s locations and to remove fog of war from the map, which is straight out of Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed titles. Combat is the fantasy world equivalent of Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham games to a T. I can’t count this against Shadow of Mordor, as this combat system works exceptionally well for it, and I can be a bit forgiving seeing how Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment served as publisher for both Shadow of Mordor and the Arkham series. There are a few other instances of gameplay mechanics being borrowed, and sometimes it is a bit jarring to think “Hey, this mechanic plays out exactly like Assassin’s Creed” while inside of the most iconic fantasy world of all time, but none of these borrowed ideas are detrimental to the experience players are given in Mordor.
While Shadow of Mordor borrows a lot, its production team developed one truly inspirational and unique experience with the Nemesis system. As one might expect, the world of Mordor is inhabited by countless orcs and Uruk, and at any given time, players will literally encounter a horde of them. Shadow of Mordor has an internal hierarchy for Sauron’s army, where enemies can rise the ranks from random nameless grunt all the way to a specialized warlord with unique buffs, strengths, weaknesses, and a fitting title. In my playthrough, I encountered many specific orcs or Uruk that killed me, rose the ranks, and became powerful lieutenants and warlords. Once I finally enacted my revenge and killed them, a sense of closure and finality overcame me as I wiped their snarling faces from the game completely once and for all. During the battles with these enemies, they would call out that they had already defeated me or escaped our previous encounters alive, and used this to taunt me. This feature felt highly immersive and I hope it finds its way into other titles one day.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is a very strong title worthy of using of the iconic Lord of the Rings license. With borrowed, yet fitting gameplay mechanics, an innovative enemy system, tons of side quests, and collectibles galore, fans of the title will find themselves playing long after the credits have rolled in order to reach that 100% completion as I have. I have yet to play the two massive expansions that were included in the Game of the Year Edition, but I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt that I am looking forward to stepping back into this world and completing this DLC before Shadow of War releases in October.
Stay tuned to Geeks + Gamers for coverage on the upcoming sequel, as well as everything else video gaming!