Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor
Review in Brief
Game: A third-person open-world beat-’em-up set in Mordor from Lord of the Rings.
Good: Arguably the best gameplay of any game I’ve ever played; brilliant gameplay-plot symbiosis; three excellent new systems; faithful to the source material; excellent audio.
Bad: Incredibly derivative; weak story, plot, and ending; a few frustrating gameplay moments; lazy upgrade system.
Verdict: Excellent gameplay. No plot. Derivative, but incredibly fun.
Rating: 8/10 – “Great – fun to play, some minor but no major flaws”
Recommendation: A must-play.
“Standing on the shoulders of giants. And Batman.”
Let’s tackle the elephant in the room. Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor is unbelievably derivative. The battle system is blatantly copied from the more recent Batman: Arkham games, right down to having the exact same finishing moves unlocked after the exact same combinations and activated by the exact same button presses. Given that WB Games developed both Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor and the most recent Batman: Arkham game, and given that Batman: Arkham Origins was little more than a content pack for the Batman: Arkham City engine, I would predict that Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor actually shares a lot of code with the Arkham series. Others have pointed to the similarity to Assassin’s Creed, but to me, most of the shared features with Assassin’s Creed were also present in the Arkham series, so in my eyes it’s fair to point to Batman: Arkham as the source for most of the mechanics in Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor.
However, that’s not automatically a bad thing. It’s good to be revolutionary, but it’s not bad to not be revolutionary. Accusations of mimicry and impersonation are not criticisms. No game exists in a vacuum. All games borrow features, ideas, and mechanics from other success games. Most don’t do so as liberally and directly as Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor, but they all do it. If you’re going to do mimic (or rip-off), though, we have to ask: is the game good in other ways? Did the game mimic a good franchise? Did the game improve on the franchise it mimicked? Did the game add new features beyond simply the elements it borrowed from an existing franchise?
Fortunately, Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor does all three of these things. It borrows liberally from the Batman: Arkham and Assassin’s Creed, but those are two of the best video game franchises of the seventh console generation. If you’re going to rip someone off, at least rip off the best. Second, Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor executes the features that it borrows much better than even the games from which it borrows them. It doesn’t merely rip-off the features, but rather it improves them in subtle but significant ways. Third, it adds significant new content of its own. A collection of three new mechanics supplies enough new content to differentiate Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor from the games from which it is derived.
It is difficult to talk about Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor without acknowledging how much of its design it derives (or steals) from other franchises. However, despite the liberties it takes, it’s still an incredibly fun game with enough new content on its own to separate itself from the series that came before it. With a better plot and ending, I would have even put it into me top echelon of recent games.
In Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor, you take the role of Talion. A former ranger, Talion was killed during an invasion, but a wraith prevented him from entering death. The wraith needs Talion to help him on a quest within Mordor, so you take the role of Talion and his wraith buddy to avenge Talion’s family’s death and discover the secrets of the wraith’s history. This takes you through two large areas of Mordor, both controlled by Sauron’s orcs who are constantly on the lookout for the “Gravewalker”, their name for the undead ranger.
In terms of gameplay, Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor is a third-person open-world (TPOW) game with heavy overtones of the Batman: Arkham franchise backed with undertones of Assassin’s Creed. You’ll wander around Mordor, fighting off orcs and taking on missions like with any other TPOW. The combat is lifted essentially straight from Batman: Arkham: square to attack, triangle to counter, circle to stun, X to dodge. Build up combos to release powerful finishing attacks, allowing you to fight off several enemies at once. That combines with some stealth elements from Assassin’s Creed and a simplistic first-person ranged mode to form the brunt of the gameplay.
The game differentiates itself with three major new systems. The first is the Sauron’s Army system, where certain orcs will get named and promoted, receiving their own sets of strengths and weaknesses and become much more difficult to fight when you encounter them in the world. The second is the Nemesis system, which takes one of these orcs and knits a little emergent narrative around your battles with them specifically. The third is the Branding mechanic, which allows you to brainwash enemies to your side and turn them to fight for you in battle. These three mechanics, along with some significant environmental interactions and emergent behaviors, add some variety to the elements of the game that are more directly derived from earlier franchises.
Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor has three types of good qualities. First, it blatantly rips off some very good features from other games. Second, it improves them, to the point where even in the features it rips off, it surpasses the games from which it stole those features. Third, it adds three excellent new mechanics that are sufficient to set it apart altogether.
Natural, Organic Gameplay
As referenced above, Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor almost completely rips off the gameplay from the Batman: Arkham series. There are three gameplay “modes”: melee, stealth, and ranged. Melee and stealth are exact recreations of the analogous modes in Batman: Arkham, and ranged is a pretty straightforward implementation of a standard bullet-time first-person shooter. But I’m getting ahead of myself; I’ll spend plenty of time later describing how derivative the gameplay is.
The more important thing is that the gameplay is fun. Sure, it’s borderline copied from Batman: Arkham City. Arkham City had one of the best combat systems of any game released in the past ten years. It took years’ worth of progress toward the one-vs.-many counter-heavy combat of Assassin’s Creed and other games and added an incentive to initiate combat rather than mashing the counter-attack button. It created a rhythmic, flow-inducing, fun system that simultaneously rewarded risk-taking and facilitated novice gameplay. Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor may have copied its battle system, but at least it copied the best, and the combat in Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor is almost every bit as engaging as in the Batman: Arkham series.
But to its credit, Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor didn’t just copy the system; it made it better. I’ll take at length later about the specific improvements to those elements of the game borrowed from Batman: Arkham and Assassin’s Creed, but what is important first and foremost is that the result is fantastic. Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor has one of, if not the, best combat gameplay of any game I’ve ever played.
The first strength of this system is that the multiple gameplay approaches are integrated beautifully. As mentioned, there are three gameplay modes: melee, stealth, and ranged. One of my criticisms of the original Batman: Arkham Asylum was that it, too, had multiple gameplay modes, but they were never mingled. There were situations where you were required to use each. In Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor, the different systems are beautifully, naturally integrated. In one instance, I snuck into a little gathering with around 20 enemies, stealth-killing three orcs before they even noticed. After the third one, the other enemies noticed me, so I started fighting them head-to-head. After taking down a couple, I became aware there were two archers up high shooting me, so I quickly entered ranged mode (which comes with limited bullet-time) and picked them off, then seamlessly went back to fighting head-to-head. As the orcs fell, three started to run aware in fear; I re-entered ranged mode and picked each off with a headshot from behind. Switching between the different modes was simple and natural, making it seem like all three elements were extensions of one underlying gameplay style.
What makes this possible is the game’s controls. Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor has among the most natural controls I think I’ve ever encountered. In melee combat, the controls are straightforward: square to attack, triangle to counter, circle to stun, X to dodge (sound familiar, Arkham fans?). In stealth combat, the controls are straightforward and analogous: square to stealth kill, triangle to stealth annihilate, circle to stealth stun (kind of, more on that later). In ranged combat, the controls are straightforward: one control stick to move, one to aim, R2 to fire. So, internally, each mode is simple. Switching might have been tricky, but the game accomplishes it with a beautiful parallelism: hold down L1 to enter ranged mode, R1 to enter stealth mode, or neither to stay in melee mode. The symmetry of using L1 and R1 to switch modes helped keep the transitions smooth. Requiring them to be held down to remain in that mode cleared up any question as to what mode you were in and how quickly the game switched you between them. Keeping the controls consistent across modes allowed switching without a cognitive leap to remember the new controls. Overall, the controls for Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor were fantastic, and played a major role in facilitating the natural, organic gameplay.
If that was all there was to the gameplay, Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor would be a great game. The game would have three modes that are each internally entertaining, externally consistent, and easily switched. That would be great. However, Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor doesn’t stop there. The gameplay in the game gets an entirely new depth through the addition of an enormous number of available environment interactions. There are bees nests you can attack to cause a distraction to the other orcs. You can lure or release caragors, giant wolf-like reptiles that attack friend and foe alike (that can be tamed as well). You can use ranged mode to create distractions and lure enemies to particular places, sneaking past them or killing them from behind. You can use attract in stealth mode to lure enemies to your current location for a sneak attack. You can detonate campfires, vats of alcohol, or explosives to take out numerous enemies at once. All of these features lead to some incredibly natural, improvisational gameplay.
The only real way I can think to describe how fun these environmental effects are is to describe some of the scenes from my game. In one place, I inadvertently got myself into a fight with way too many enemies at once. I entered Wraith mode, noticed a big pile of explosives nearby, and defended myself while working my way over to it. As soon as I got near it, I built up a combo, then entered ranged mode and used the ranged mode finishing move to detonate the explosives (which don’t hurt you), killing over 20 orcs all at once. In another situation, I was hunting a particular captain deep within an orc stronghold. Going in head-to-head would involve fighting off over 50 orcs, and this enemy was immune to either stealth or ranged attacks. So, I stood far outside the stronghold, shot down three pieces of caragor bait to lure some caragors to the stronghold, and waited while they took care of the enemy for me. In another, I was surprised by a captain invulnerable to ranged attacks and much stronger than my melee attacks during a regular battle. I was easily overpowered by him and near-death, until I entered ranged mode and shot the beehive above my head. That caused a distraction, during which I leapt to the top of a nearby building. When the bees subsided, the orcs had lost track of me, and I was able to sneak around on the rooftops until the captain came close enough to launch a stealth attack that killed him in one hit. In every situation, I had to look at the current state of the battle and the setting around me and devise a plan of attack based on those unique circumstances. More importantly, in every situation, I was able to quickly and naturally.
The potential to play the game in such flexible and natural ways is awesome, but making the game even better is that there are missions that actually specific demand and encourage it. There’s one mission, for example, that requires you to kill ~20 orcs in multiple locations without raising an alarm. You can approach that mission head-on, making sure to kill any orcs (designated by an icon) before they can raise an alarm while killing the targeted enemies. You can approach it using stealth, sneaking around and using the distract mechanic to ensure no enemies detect you while taking out the marked targets. You can take a ranged approach, finding angles on the rooftops to allow for shots from your bow and arrow and using the distract mechanic to lure enemies into the open. You can free some trapped caragors and let them do the work for you. Or, you can do a combination of all four approaches, as I did. The missions are specifically constructed to allow the flexibility of the gameplay to shine, rather than to force the player to play a certain way (like Assassin’s Creed is often guilty of doing).
That’s the real beauty of the gameplay in Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor: it is entirely natural, organic, and improvisational. At no time do you feel like there’s one particular narrow way to play that you just haven’t mastered. Throughout the gameplay, you’re constantly looking around for different ways to approach your current battle and improvising based on the circumstances of the particular fight. It’s an incredible amount of fun just to run around and start battles to see where they end up.
Brilliant Gameplay-Plot Symbiosis
I often talk about gameplay-plot symbiosis as one of those things that great games manage to accomplish. In great games, the plot explains the gameplay, and the gameplay in turn justifies the plot. Lesser games often essentially use plot developments are rewards for progressing in the gameplay, but the gameplay mechanics themselves don’t connect to the plot, nor does the plot actually explain those gameplay elements.
Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor manages to pull off this criteria incredibly well. As I’ll discuss at length in a bit, the game has three main new mechanics that aren’t borrowed from the Batman: Arkham or Assassin’s Creed franchises: the Nemesis mechanic (featured most prominently in pre-release hype), the Sauron’s Army mechanic (which others lump in with the Nemesis mechanic, but which I consider separately), and the Branding mechanic. Each of these are gameplay mechanics that impact the way you play the game: the Nemesis mechanic and Sauron’s Army mechanic give you powerful and dynamically-created boss battles, while the Branding mechanic lets you turn enemies to your side.
What’s crucial about these is that they all play central roles in the game’s actual plot. Sauron’s Army is effectively the driver behind the plot of the entire game; one early mission requires you to essentially kill all the leaders of his army to progress. This isn’t just a sequence of boss battles like in many games, however. These enemies, called war chiefs, are dynamically managed by the game. If you kill one, another might take his place. The names, classes, combat styles, strengths, and weaknesses of all these war chiefs are randomly generated. The system is dynamic throughout the game, which I’ll talk about in a bit, but more importantly the system is deeply integrated into the plot of the game.
Branding allows you to convert enemies to your side. As a gameplay mechanic, it’s fantastic, and is one of the main things that actually sets Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor apart from the games it mimics. It comes up significantly in the plot as well, though. Just like a portion of the plot requires you to decimate Sauron’s Army through the system in the game, so also a portion requires you to raise an army of your own through branding. This army that you raise becomes a significant (although not central) development in the plot as well, but again, it is driven by the systems and mechanics present in the gameplay.
The Nemesis system isn’t quite as central to the game’s prewritten plot; it has a small influence at the end, but nothing notable. The significance of the Nemesis system to the plot, rather, is that it actually writes emergent plots of its own. I’m not sure whether the rest of this paragraph qualifies as a spoiler because it doesn’t spoil what will happen, but rather just what can happen; however, if you’re ultra-sensitive about spoilers, you might not want to read the rest of this paragraph. Simply put, the anonymous orcs you run into in the game world can kill you, and if they do, they become captains in Sauron’s Army. When you encounter them again, they’ll reference your past battles; in fact, that applies to any captain you encounter a second or third or fourth time, as they’ll all reference what happened in your previous battles. In this way, a neat little plotline writes itself based on your interactions with the orcs.
Of course, embedded in that was this idea that orcs can kill you, and it actually becomes a part of the game. That’s potentially one of the most interesting elements of gameplay-plot symbiosis in the game. In almost every other game, when you die, it’s game over: your death didn’t happen, but rather you’re returned to the last save point before your death and forced to try again as if the portion of the game in which you died hadn’t happened. In Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor, however, your death is actually explained within the plot. There is no ‘game over’, there is no reloading the last save, there is absolutely nothing that happens within the game that isn’t part of the narrative. Even your deaths are explained in the plot, and that’s the ultimate example of gameplay-plot symbiosis.
Sauron’s Army Mechanics
In the above section, I explained how the Sauron’s Army gameplay mechanic is weaved very nicely into the plot of the game. Aside from that, however, Sauron’s Army is a nice gameplay mechanic on its own. Sauron’s Army is a collection of around 20 “captains” and “warchiefs” in the enemy army that, for all intents and purposes, are like bosses. They have their own strengths and weaknesses and demand specific strategies to defeat them. The only thing that differentiates them from bosses is that while bosses usually play a specific function in the plot, these enemies can come up at any time and in any place.
First and foremost, that leads to several interesting developments over the course of a single game. Several times throughout the game, while fighting a seemingly routine battle, the stakes suddenly jumped as one of the boss captains appeared. Sometimes it happened during plot missions, sometimes it happened in the middle of nowhere, and sometimes it happened with multiple captains at once. Their presence can completely change the stakes of a battle at will, and the threat of such a captain appearing prevents the gameplay from ever feeling too routine like it does in Batman: Arkham or Assassin’s Creed. In those games, you can always see the significant battles coming in advance, but in Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor, they can come up out of nowhere.
What also makes the Sauron’s Army mechanic, however, is that each captain has its own list of strengths, weaknesses, immunities, and vulnerabilities. This means that not only are these bosses very strong, but they’re also all unique. More importantly, entering a battle with a captain without knowing his weaknesses can make the battle very tough. Some are essentially immune to melee attacks, others to ranged attacks, and others to stealth attacks. Others are particularly vulnerable to one of the above; for a certain captain, for example, you may be able to take him out in one hint if you ambush him with a stealth attack, but if you fight him head-on, he’s much more formidable. Knowing information about the captains is crucial to success.
The strengths and weaknesses aren’t limited just to ranged, melee, and stealth attacks either. Some enemies become terrified in the presence of Caragors, for example, while others actually become stronger. Some enemies are particularly vulnerable to their allies turning against them. Some enemies are actually resistant to all of your types of attacks, and essentially the only way to defeat them easily is to find a clever alternate method, like bringing a beast to the battle or poisoning their grog. The incredible number of approaches to the combat and gameplay meshes perfectly with the strengths and weaknesses of the enemies, ensuring that at some point you’ll have to use nearly every single kind of attack and approach in the game.
So how do you find out their strengths and weaknesses? Like everything else in the game, there are a number of different ways. You can interrogate certain flagged orcs, you can find intelligence lying around the game world, you can ask freed slaves for what they know, or you can interrogate any high-ranking captain (the warchiefs) for information about any of the others. If you don’t have the information about a certain captain, you can still fight him, but you’re left guessing as to what the best approach might be. In one instance, I came up against a captain that was strong against seemingly every one of my attacks; it was only after getting defeated twice and gathering intel on him that I discovered he was easily beatable by bringing a Caragor to the battle.
Another interesting consequence of the captains simply being enemies around in the game world is that they can die as a product of seemingly unrelated actions as well. For example, I once approached an enemy stronghold for the first time (an area where enemies can sound alarms and summon more enemies). Rather than trying to go in and face the dozens and dozens of enemies head-on, I instead entered ranged mode and found that several pieces of Caragor bait were lying around, and several Caragors were locked in cages. So, without entering the area, I summoned a bunch of Caragors and watched as they wreaked havoc. That on its own was pretty cool, but making it even cooler was that twice during that melee I received the alert that one of the captains had died; although they were powerful “boss” characters, they also could die as a result of a normal battle.
All of that covers the Sauron’s Army mechanic as it manifests in the actual game world, but the mechanic goes beyond that. Of course, the Nemesis system is a part of it as well, but I’ll talk about that a bit more later. What’s also very cool about the Sauron’s Army mechanic is that it’s entirely dynamic. As you defeat captains, new captains will get promoted to take their place, with their own strengths and weaknesses. As you play the game, captains will fight amongst themselves, level up, earn extra promotions, and gather more influence among other orcs. If you ignore an orc’s ascent too long, it will become more and more powerful, ultimately becoming more difficult to defeat. Special missions allow you to derail their ascent even if you don’t successfully kill them. This type of system would risk putting the player on a treadmill where success is never possible (as all bosses are eventually replaced), but it is paced well enough that the player isn’t constantly fighting off new orc captains rather than pursuing the main plot.
The only weakness in the Sauron’s Army system is that while it’s used quite well in the gameplay in a couple instances, it’s pretty underused overall. Two missions leverage the mechanic heavily, but outside that there’s not much incentive to pay it much attention beyond defeating the captains when you run into them. It would have been interesting if the game had arranged special rewards or missions for certain levels of domination over Sauron’s Army, but with a couple exceptions, the only reason to actually pay attention is if you’re bored.
The Nemesis mechanic is a part of the Sauron’s Army system, but it goes far enough beyond it that it deserves special attention. The Army mechanic could have easily been implemented without the Nemesis system, and the Nemesis system similarly could conceivably exist without the Army behind it.
One major role of the Nemesis system is in writing its own dynamic plots around your character and your enemies; that strength of the system is documented under the gameplay-plot symbiosis section above. The strength of the system goes beyond just the plot that it provides, however. On the gameplay level, it brings something nice and extra to the gameplay, and from a strictly technical point of view, it’s very impressively executed.
At the gameplay level, the Nemesis system does a good job of creating increasingly difficult battles against a common adversary. That’s one of the interesting dynamics that many games try to create but fail to accomplish. Familiarity is a powerful mechanic in gameplay design as the player feels a certain sense of accomplishment and comfort with facing the same enemy over and over again; this can then lead to interesting added challenges on top of the familiarity the player has already developed. Encountering your rival over and over again in the game provides an immediate heightening of the gameplay experience.
Other games do accomplish this, however, simply by scripting who the recurrent enemies will be in advance. What makes Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor interesting is that it manages to generate this dynamically. In many cases, your Nemesis starts with an unnamed orc that manages to kill you (usually just the orc that was lucky enough to strike the finishing blow during a big group battle). That orc is immediately promoted to captain, giving him a name, new armor, new strengths, and new weaknesses. Thus, your Nemesis is tied to your character from the very beginning. Then, over time, your Nemesis can grow and improve in the Army, and eventually taking him down grants you a better reward.
At a technical level, this is a very interesting process. There are several “templates” for orc appearances, and then several customizations to those templates. When an orc kills you, the game retains its face and body and adds in new armor. As the orc is promoted, new armor and customizations are added. During the process, the orc is also given a randomly-generated name and multiple catch phrases or lines of dialog to speak to you. The character ends up coming across as fleshed-out and detailed as any other character in the game, yet your Nemesis is nonetheless dynamically generated based on the results of your particular game.
The third mechanic that actually differentiates Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor from the similar games in the industry is the branding mechanic. Branding allows you to convert an enemy to your side, having them fight alongside you instead of against you. It can be done in two primary ways, each of which leads to interesting gameplay.
First, you can stealth brand enemies, having them pretend to be enemies until you “activate” them. This lets you set up very cool ambushes. For example, you might come across an area where there are several enemies with several archers around on the rooftops. You can stealth jump around, branding them, until you’re ready to launch your assault, and then you can activate them and have them all suddenly attack the enemies on the ground. You can also brand enemies as you’re playing normally and leave them unactivated; inevitably this will then lead to you noticing branded enemies intermingled with the other enemies around the world, allowing you to always have a secret edge in potential upcoming battles.
The second way is through branding in the middle of combat. This, too, can be done two ways. First, there is a button to simply brand an enemy at will; Talion performs a “choke hold” on the enemy, and if you can complete it (hold it for ~5 seconds without getting attacked), the enemy will be branded. Of course, in group combat that can be very difficult, so there’s a second option: one of the combos allows you to immediately brand an enemy. Using this, if you build up a good combo in battle, you can start very quickly branding enemies to your side, easily turning the tide of the battle. Even if these branded enemies don’t stand much of a chance, they at least take the attention off of you long enough for you to escape. In other cases, this mechanic allows you to defeat certain captains much more easily because few captains are immune to their own allies’ attacks.
The combat in Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor is all about depth, and the Branding system simply adds yet another level of depth to the system. Taking all of these things together – the solid foundation drawn from Batman: Arkham, the Sauron’s Army system, the Nemesis system, the Branding mechanic, and the strong plot ties among all of these – and Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor has quite possibly the best gameplay of any game I’ve ever played. It would be a 9/10 easily if it even managed to have a serviceable plot.
Improves on Source Systems
As referenced earlier, if a game is going to be derivative, it has a few obligations to meet. First, it must actually be derivative from good games, and we’ve covered that Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor meets that criteria by borrowing from two of the strongest franchises of the last generation, Assassin’s Creed and Batman: Arkham. Second, it must add its own content as well, which it did with the Sauron’s Army system, the Nemesis system, and the Branding mechanic.
The third thing it must do, however, is improve on the systems that it builds from. It isn’t sufficient for the game to simply copy and paste the old systems into itself, but rather it must actually execute them better. In this dimension, Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor succeeds again.
First, the game makes significant iterative improvements on the engine it borrows from Batman: Arkham. The combos are more forgiving in the game, letting flow emerge more naturally than the Arkham franchise’s more strict requirements. Certain unlockable upgrades can also improve this even further, allowing more time before a combo is broken or allowing you to take a hit without resetting the counter. The game introduces a “last chance” mechanic that gives you one last chance to recover if you find yourself about to fall in battle, which helps immensely when it’s difficult to tell how many more hits you can take.
There are only a couple ways in which Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor improves on Batman: Arkham‘s systems, but honestly, that’s forgivable – the system was strong to begin with and left relatively little room for improvement to its core mechanics. The inclusion of a ranged mode, the easier transitions amongst the modes, and the Branding mechanic can also be considered improvements to the systems that the game borrows from Batman: Arkham.
The more significant improvements actually come in comparison to Assassin’s Creed. I’m dubious as to just how much of Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor can truly be considered derived from Assassin’s Creed as the majority of the common elements are also shared with Batman: Arkham, but these were more apparent when comparing to Assassin’s Creed. The game plays in general like a version of Assassin’s Creed trying specifically to be less annoying. Climbing happens much faster as Talion basically leaps to the tops of buildings in a single bound. There’s no penalty for dropping from a tall height, explained as a product of the Wraith that is keeping Talion from truly dying in general. The game won’t let you jump or fall if the jump or fall would kill you, either, saving lots of aggravation especially from misinterpreted inputs. The game even does several little things to stay out of your way, like automatically refilling your arrows at the starts of missions so that you’re always facing the mission parameters at full strength.
Assassin’s Creed‘s notoriety system is one of the worst inclusions I’ve seen in a franchise in years, but Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor makes the wise decision of leaving it out entirely. Talion is essentially “notorious” throughout Mordor, attacked on sight by any orc. The game compensates for this by lowering enemies’ reaction times and making it far easier to run away; Talion can actually outrun enemies altogether, and because there is no notoriety system, simply escaping the enemies is enough to allow you to resume normal gameplay. Similarly, the game opts for a more natural approach to stealth. In Assassin’s Creed, you must maintain stealth, but as soon as it’s broken it’s difficult to get it back. In Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor, if there is no enemy staring at you, you’re already back to being able to use stealth. You can take out five enemies then immediately sneak behind a wall to ambush the ones that are coming to find you right that second.
Assassin’s Creed has also introduced optional objectives that contribute to “full synchronization”; Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor has these, too. This game, however, executes them better: the reward for these optional objectives is simply extra EXP, meaning that if you fail to complete one, you don’t need to go back and replay the mission just to truly complete the game. For that reason, they also feel more natural; it seems normal (to me) that your character would gain extra experience for doing the mission a more difficult or more natural way (although using EXP in this day and age is just laziness).
Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor allows a wide range of ways to manipulate enemies, but that’s an area that Assassin’s Creed truly pioneered. Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor perfects it, though. In Assassin’s Creed, the ways of manipulating enemies are often too complicated or require too much planning to really be practical; yes, you can plan such approaches, but why bother taking the time to do so when you can usually run in sword blazing and take them all out easily? Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor, however, moves these ways of manipulating enemies to being one touch away. For example, in ranged mode, it’s simple to quickly attract enemies to a certain location to sneak around behind them. Attracting enemies works far better than whistling in Assassin’s Creed. Actions like poisoning the enemy’s grog or knocking down a bee’s nest can be done on a moment’s impulse. There’s no planning really required; it can all be improvised as you go along.
Nice, Natural Sidequests
One of the frustrating things that often happens in open-world games like Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor, Assassin’s Creed, Batman: Arkham, and Grand Theft Auto is that the world map becomes a massive, overwhelming to-do list. Watch Dogs was particularly guilty of this; the game world was just completely overloaded with sidequests and activities. Most were just thrown in without much context or thought.
In Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor, there’s a manageable number of sidequests. There’s two groups of items to collect, around 20 in each, marked on the world map once you climb the high points. There’s a hunting quest and a gathering quest, similar to Red Dead Redemption, but both are relatively easy to take care of throughout the normal course of the game. They’re examples of light sidequests done right: you don’t need to completely diverge from the regular plot to take care of them, but they’re worth noting anyway. They’re not well-explained, which is detrimental, but they’re also so lightweight that they don’t need much description either.
There’s a sidequest that revolves around freeing slaves and then completing additional slave-freeing missions, but to be honest, I don’t know if it’s optional or not; it was presented as optional, but it unlocked some of the main missions that seemed essential to completing the game, so it’s not totally clear to me if it was mandatory or not. Either way, however, it was presented with the right level of light simplicity and accessibility (although it did get a bit repetitive over time).
My only potential criticism of the sidequests is that with the excellent mechanics outlined above, there was actually room for more sidequests. I can envision lots of interesting stories taking place within Sauron’s Army, and a sidequest more directly driven by your Nemesis would have been welcome as well. However, I must praise the sidequests that were present; they were fun without distracting from the main storyline, and they never felt like a list of items to check off a to-do list (even when the game literally gives you a to-do list).
Faithful to the Source Material (I think)
For this, I have to issue a disclaimer: I’m not a big Lord of the Rings fan. I don’t know the source material. I’m not a good person to comment on my own on the faithfulness of the game to the source material.
Instead, I prodded one of my best friends on some questions that the game brings up, and nearly everything I asked him checked out. There are new characters, sure, but the game takes place in an area of Middle-earth that is not thoroughly documented in the original lore, so there is room for an original character. The events of the game don’t strongly interfere with the events of the other media; you don’t kill any main characters or free any territories or anything. Your mission is more about personal vengeance, which leaves plenty more room for the game to be creative without stepping on the toes of the original lore.
More importantly, the game includes numerous call-outs to the original stories as well. Like BioShock and Assassin’s Creed, you find items throughout the game world that trigger memories or recordings of prior events, many of which tell stories straight from the original Lord of the Rings literature. You also encounter some characters from the original series, but not in ways that interfere with who they really are in the books. So, overall, it seems to me that the game is faithful to the source material, and perhaps even adds to it – but, I’m willing to be corrected on that if I’m off-base.
Excellent Audio, including the Controller Speaker
I think it’s good to point out when a game manages to actually use an interesting piece of hardware effectively instead of in a more gimmicky fashion. The PlayStation 4 has a speaker built into the controller, and Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor actually manages to use it effectively. The speaker is used frequently throughout the game to indicate when hidden items are nearby, to play certain voice clips, and to provide audio information when moving in stealth mode.
Because the controller speaker is actually separated from the regular speakers, and because the sound coming out of it is of a different nature, it becomes easy to discriminate audio information through the controller from the rest of the game’s music and sound effects. Because of that, it’s much easier to actually use that audio information to guide your ongoing gameplay and decision-making. That, in turn, allows the information presented through that speaker to actually be more useful. On top of that, it really adds to the atmosphere when you’re in close quarters and seemingly listening to your enemy breathe. Overall, Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor does a great job at using the new piece of technology.
The audio of the game is also more generally strong. The game has some great music, and it’s used nicely throughout the game to heighten the tension and complement the action. The best application of this is the dedicated theme songs for some of the war chiefs, which involve vocal chanting of the war chief’s name. The voice acting in the game is incredible as well. I thought some of the characters shared with the original Lord of the Rings movies were voiced by the same actors, and the dynamically-generated lines for the procedurally-generated orc enemies really add some immersion to the game.
Generally Well-Used QTEs
Quick-time events are one of the worst features of modern gaming, but like the controller speaker above, I think it’s important to point out when a game does them well. Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor does them well.
The main problem with QTEs is that they usually come up randomly in the middle of cutscenes and boil down to “Press X to not have to watch this scene again” – or, “Press X to not die” as some others say. They’re rarely worked into the actual fabric of the game, and they do little more than distract from the cinematics.
In Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor, QTEs are actually worked into the fabric of the game. Before dying, you typically have a QTE that allows you one chance to get back up and keep fighting. Taming certain wild beasts take the form of QTEs, asking you to move the control stick and press a button quickly to accomplish the goal. Other times you can defend yourself against an attack through a sudden rapid-press QTE.
This avoids the two main problems of QTEs. First of all, the stakes aren’t too high: you only experience a QTE as an opportunity to accomplish something or at the end of a long battle. Either way, it’s not a matter of playing just fine and suddenly dying because you didn’t press triangle fast enough. Either failing the QTE doesn’t kill you, or it kills you because you already lost at the main combat for a while leading up to it. Secondly, these QTEs are recurrent and predictable. You know when you’re trying to tame an animal that you’re going to see one. You know when you’re running low on health that you might see one. They don’t come out of nowhere, and so you can actually be prepared for them rather than dying because you put the controller down during what you thought was just a cutscene.
Acceptable Online-Offline Merger
One last minor note, and really, I’m only including this because the game I played before Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor was Watch Dogs. Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor actually manages to incorporate multiplayer elements into the single-player in an acceptable way. Generally, I hate any attempts to force multiplayer on the single-player experience, but in Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor, this takes the form simply of missions against captains that aren’t in your game’s army to avenge the deaths of other players online. They don’t interrupt you, they aren’t mandatory, they don’t affect your progress through the single-player game at all, and you can complete them without ever even really realizing that they came from someone else online. Of course, because of all that, they don’t add much to the game either, but hey, they’re an example of how that type of feature might be able to be incorporated acceptably.
I just said a lot of amazing things about Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor. Honestly, I keep trying to convince myself that it’s a 9/10 game because it does an amazing number of things so well. The problem, however, is that when comparing it to other truly great recent games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, The Last of Us, and Assassin’s Creed IV, there’s something just… missing. When I really sat down to think about it, I realized there’s two things missing (in addition to a handful of other issues).
I described above that the incredibly derivative nature of much of the gameplay in Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor is somewhat excusable. The game borrows from great franchises, it improves on the mechanics that it borrows, and it supplies some good new content as well. But despite these things, the depth of the derivativeness in Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor is something that is still difficult to see past. Sure, every game borrows things from earlier games, but I’ve never seen a game that borrows as much as this one.
The resemblance between the combat in Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor and Batman: Arkham Origins is so strong that I earnestly believe that the two actually share some of the same underlying code. There’s precedent for this: WB Games developed both games, and Batman: Arkham Origins was essentially new content for the same engine developed by Rocksteady for the superior Batman: Arkham City. WB Games has already, to me, demonstrated willingness to leverage old code (or at least old designs) in a new game, and it’s not a jump to think they did it with Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor as well.
The core melee combat in the game is literally identical to Batman: Arkham Origins. Well-timed attacks build up a combo meter. After a combo of length eight, you can unlock a superpowered move. Super moves are executed by pressing two adjacent buttons. An upgrade knocks the requirement down to five. Stunning an enemy allows for a series of rapid-fire attacks culminating in a finishing move. Enemies announce their attacks with an icon above their head, allowing you the chance to counter-attack. Square attacks. Circle stuns. X dodges. Triangle counters. Once an enemy is stunned on the ground, you have to do a finishing move to actually knock them out of the fight.
The variety of enemies is identical, too. There’s the shielded enemy that requires you to vault over him before landing any hits. There’s the enemies with ranged weapons that attack from afar. There’s the enemy with the super-powered attack you can’t block, only dodge. There’s the enemy that prevents you from vaulting over him. There’s the enemy that can’t be hit without being stunned. There’s the two enemies that attack at once, forcing you to press counter twice. The only thing missing is the knife-wielding enemy that must be dodged three times, and I certainly wouldn’t call removing an enemy type an improvement.
Perhaps nothing can describe the depth of the similarity between the combat in the two games better than the finishing moves. Each game has four finishing moves, executed by pressing two adjacent buttons at once. In both games, one move instantly defeats one enemy. In both games, one move immediately knocks out any currently stunned enemy. In both games, one move immediately stuns all enemies in the area. The only difference is the fourth move, which brands an enemy in Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor but disarms an enemy in Batman: Arkham Origins. I could be wrong, but I think it’s even the same combinations of buttons that execute the combos.
The similarity goes beyond just the combat as well. The stealth in Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor is actually more similar to the stealth in Batman: Arkham than Assassin’s Creed. A button keeps you in stealth mode, allowing you to sneak around unless an enemy is staring right at you. The game has a Wraith mode that allows you to see through walls, track enemies, and do everything else that Detective mode in Batman: Arkham lets you do. Like Batman: Arkham, Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor dodges the need for a notoriety system by leaving civilians out entirely (except slaves, which play little role in the gameplay).
Much of the game might just be effectively a palette-swap with Batman: Arkham, but there are elements that are definitely more reminiscent of Assassin’s Creed as well. Climbing high points to reveal the area around you is borrowed pretty directly (although several other games have done that as well). Icons indicate to what extent an enemy is aware of you, growing slowly over time until they begin an all-out pursuit. The aerial and stealth takedowns mirror Assassin’s Creed precisely. Wraith mode could just as easily be labeled a derivation of Eagle vision. Throughout the game, you find items that trigger memories or scenes from the character’s past. Running along rooftops, catching enemies running to ring alerts, free-running and climbing – it all feels strongly reminiscent of Assassin’s Creed.
As I said before, every game borrows something from the games that came before it. The problem with Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor is that it borrows a lot, and thus there is a question of how much to actually give it credit for doing. This is the same problem I encountered with my review for Batman: Arkham Origins: the game is pretty fun, but the fun of the game is entirely because of features it borrowed from the previous game. Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor isn’t nearly as egregious an offender here as it supplies a lot of good new features, but the core gameplay that takes up 70% of the game is completely derivative. This doesn’t necessarily count against the game, but it’s the absence of something that would otherwise count for the game.
What really counts against the game, though, is the nearly complete lack of a compelling plot. When I really sat down to think about how Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor compares to some of the other games I mentioned earlier, what came to mind was that while the gameplay was strong, there was a certain memorable quality to it that was lacking. It was just as fun to play, but it didn’t keep pulling me back the way the other games did, and I think the reason for that is the game’s lack of a story.
As the game’s box describes (in other words, this isn’t a spoiler), the central motivating plot behind the game is that Talion wants to avenge the death of his family. The game reveals bits and pieces of that throughout, but all it really reveals is that, yes, his family did die, and these are the enemies responsible so go kill them. You also have a wraith that cohabitates your body with you, and part of the plot is discovering who he is. But then you discover who he is, and that’s pretty much it. There’s a plot surrounding freeing slaves and a plot surrounding a conspiracy to do something with your wraith, but all of them are entirely underwhelming.
Despite this, though, the game was still a 9/10 for me until the end. I figured it would at least deliver an impactful final sequence of battles and some closure, but it did anything but. The final battles were among the easiest in the game, leaving me to expect a secret battle after the end credits. The plot fizzles rather than climaxes, finishing with all the pomp and circumstance of crossing an item off your to-do list.
Without a decent story or compelling cast of characters, Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor is Tetris. Sure, it’s a lot of fun to play, but there’s nothing deeper to it. In today’s gaming climate, to be a big-budget hit you need something on the narrative side, and Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor simply doesn’t have it.
Occasional Frustrating Moments
The game also isn’t without somewhat common frustrating moments. These aren’t enough to be a major knock against the game, but they’re worth mentioning to point out that the gameplay isn’t always perfect. First, the game uses ranged attacks more frequently than Batman: Arkham, and it compensates by lowering the damage they do. The problem is that the damage is so lowered you’re not always even aware that the damage is happening until suddenly you get the alert that your health is running low. It’s a poor feedback loop when this happens: you don’t know what you could be doing differently to avoid all this damage, but yet it’s also keeping you from succeeding. It ought to be more clear where the damage is coming from whenever you’re getting hit.
There are also a couple frustrating attacks that enemies have that are more annoying than challenging. One is poisoning, an attack that prevents you from seeing counter-attack icons as well as slowly lowers your health. Another is bleeding (I think), which instantly knocks your health down to the critical level. Neither of these can be dodged and both instantly ruin your chances at success in the battle. The game is nice enough to give you an upgrade that prevents the poisoning (or at least, I received one), but the bleeding remained an annoyance throughout the entire game.
The third annoyance I hesitate to mention because there is something that can be done about it. There are certain enemies in the game that are effectively impossible to defeat. They’re immune to any finishing moves, immune to ranged attacks, immune to stealth attacks, and take damage incredibly slowly. The problem with these enemies is that they can be easy to dominate, just difficult to defeat. Get them by themselves and you can hit them with an infinite chain of hit-hit-hit-hit-stun-repeat, but their health goes down so slow that you have to build up a 300-hit combo to even make a dent (seriously, 300 – that’s the highest I got before I accidentally attempt). As it turns out, these enemies can only really be defeated by branding their allies and turning them against them. On the one hand, this is a cool instance where knowing an enemy’s weakness plays a major role. On the other hand, I hadn’t unlocked branding yet, so at that time in the game, there was nothing I could do but avoid that enemy.
So, the battle system isn’t perfect. It’s excellent, but not perfect. I would say that perfection isn’t possible, but had Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor not included these elements, I would have called the combat system perfect.
Lazy Upgrade System
This is a minor point, and I’m not even going to bother going into detail about it. It’s 2014. There’s no reason any game besides an RPG should have a skill system that involves earning EXP points and exchanging them for skills. We’ve used that system for 25 years now, it’s time to move on. Every other element of the gameplay is explained within the plot, but there’s no way to explain EXP points. Come on, do something more interesting.
Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor stands on the shoulders of giants. It took two of the best franchises from the last generation, borrowed their best features, improved on them, and threw in some new elements of its own. When all is said and done, it has arguably the best combat system of any game I’ve ever played. But it’s hard to give the game all the credit for that because it basically ripped off the game that used to hold that title for me, Batman: Arkham City. But the game definitely adds enough to that formula that had it been perfect in every other way, it still would have done enough to be one of the greatest games I’ve ever played.
Instead, like I said previously, it’s Tetris: solid gameplay with little more. The plot is overly simplistic, the characters aren’t compelling, and the ending is anticlimactic in both the gameplay and the story. Yes, it’s fun to turn on and play, but there’s nothing more driving continued engagement with the game. Given that it’s set in one of the richest fantasy worlds ever created, that’s a massive missed opportunity, and ultimately it holds the game back enormously.
It’s a must-play, but let’s hold off on the Game of the Year awards.