In the Early Years Of The Second Age...
I'll go out on a limb here and say that Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is probably the most fun I've had with a game for a very long time, there's not much I can find to say in the negative about it and I feel that Monolith have done for Middle Earth what Rocksteady did for the Batman IP. There are certain similarities between SoM and Batman, with a bit of Tenchu-style stealth thrown in. Notice that I said Tenchu and not Assassin's Creed, since for a very long time AC has been about combat action rather than sneaking around and stabbing things to death (or later on in the game - stealth branding them so they fight for you). In short - it's the best Tolkien game yet!
Shadow of Mordor on its own is an action-adventure inspired by the world of Tolkien and whilst it contains lots of Middle Earth lore, cameos from the likes of Gollum and a few other notable personalities it does play a little with Tolkien's Middle Earth canon to provide a solid, cracking game of orc chess and revenge. There are tales of revenge and redemption scattered about the Middle Earth appendixes and so on through the books, so it's no long stretch to turn off that section of the Tolkien-lorebrain that says: wait a second, what?
Simply put: don't worry about the small details, just embrace the game for what it does rather than what you think it should do.
What it does is provide hours of endless fun and adventure in Mordor, I can't say fairer than that - you'll also notice that there's no save anywhere... the game saves in the background as you do everything and hasn't crashed out on me once either.
The genetics of Batman are spliced into the combat system of Shadow of Mordor and it works pretty flawlessly, looks spectacular in action, with tons of context sensitive combat moves that improve over time as Talion (the game's hero) learns new powers and even progresses in the story. You build up combos with perfect timed blows, stuns and flurries, until you can perform a combat finisher - these range from wide area effect stuns, draining moves, combat branding (amazingly useful) and my favourite - the finisher. The combat finishers are some of the most impressive orc-murdering animations ever put in a game and are truly brutal at times.
It conveys Talion's anger at his predicament and his prowess as a swordsman perfectly.
SoM is also not shy at overwhelming you with hordes of enemies, and on the Xbox One/PS4 I really mean 'hordes' - there have been battles where I've chosen retreat over the odds and come back when I have adjusted my strategy. There's no 'difficulty' setting in Mordor, it's set at: as hard as you want it to be... some fights are painfully easy and they'll have you feeling like a ranger-badass in no time at all, then there'll be times where you think the odds are in your favour and you find you're facing down 5 captains, their followers, their follower's friends and any orc who heard the battle going on who wants to make a name for himself by slaying the Gravewalker.
Death isn't a bad thing in Shadow of Mordor though, because when you die, the wraith that's bound to you brings you back a few days later. Any orc that slays you is promoted in orc society and given his own captaincy (you also get him marked as a revenge target) - if it's a captain that kills you, they'll gain in power and possibly move up as high as a bodyguard (or even a warchief if there's a position free) for their deeds and valour in battle.
Orc hierarchy will move on too and the other orcs will engage in various duels, power struggles, feasts and so on - some will increase in power, some will die and new orcs will rise to take their place. It's beautifully dynamic and evolving and it's called the Nemesis System.
Thief Baggins, We Hates It, We Hates It Forever!
Nemesis is the glue that holds Shadow of Mordor together and the gem that sits in its polished crown, it's what transforms the game from a tale of revenge into a cunning game of orc politics where you can eventually face down foes that you've crafted yourself based on how you've encountered them, fought them and what you've done across them.
Slice up an orc captain and allow him to escape, he'll remember what you did and possibly return bearing those battle scars, a grudge, or both. Burn him, chances are he'll get disfigured and become afraid of fire/or angered by it. Since the orcs are all procedurally generated, visually, traits and all - you never see the same orc twice and whilst you might see grunts that look the same, any grunt can rise into your own personal Nemesis that you build a history with. In short, it's amazing and it works just as promised in the many videos released on the subject and the gameplay videos I saw from E3/Gamescom and so on.
The Nemesis System also informs the orcs of Talion's actions in Mordor, so expect to hear comments, snide remarks, targeted dialogue and more as you face down these foes. Even the rank and file orcs in the field will talk about your exploits. Play more stealthily and you'll get lines like:
"I heard the Gravewalker likes to come up behind you, quiet as the wind... then slit your throat."
I've heard lots of dialogue and only a few repeats of the very basic lines from the rank and file, it's been unique dialogue from the many captains I've faced down in the 50 hours spent with the game so far and I've not been bored once.
There's a lot going on under the hood regarding the AI/Nemesis System and it's this level of interactivity between player/open world/roaming enemies and their allies that truly makes the game something special. Then there's Sauron's Army and the impact you can make on it.
One Ring To Rule Them All
Later on in the game (20 hours or so for me) there's a story element (and a new area) that introduces the concept of 'branding' orcs to make them fight for you. Tying into the power of the One Ring and the Ring Maker (wraith) Celebrimbor this little change transforms the epic Nemesis System into a mission editor tool that lets you mess with the orc hierarchy and play orc commander/chaperon with numerous options once you've branded a captain or warchief.
You can carefully guide your chosen captains into positions of power, slowly amassing an army worthy to overthrow Mordor. Branding orcs puts them on your side and they'll fight for you, betray their allies, their master and even rise to the rank of warchief where they can be of even more use to Talion's scheme. There are numerous options, riots, murders, betrayals and it's all very Shakespeare in a good way. In fact I've spent the last 30 or so hours back in Udun (the first area) just causing havoc amongst orc society and picking apart their army with my chosen captains.
It's surprisingly easy to orchestrate things too, especially if you unlock the various forge towers that allow fast travel around the huge maps and also let you fast-forward/advance time to watch the orc army change and evolve.
There's a chance of course that unless you engage in the specific missions involving your captains, they might die. But as long as it's not a beheading - you might even see them return. Orcs are very hard to kill for good in this game unless you take off their heads.
When they come back, they'll remember too. One unbranded captain was killed by a caragor (Mordor Motorcycle) and he came back all scarred, with a serious hate of the beasts an hour or so later, new name and all. Glug Caragor-Hunter will be remembered fondly, as the orc who died, returned, chose to duel a nameless orc and died again.
That's Nemesis for you.
Mordor lives and breathes based on this, which also ties into the wildlife, ghuls come out at night and caragor roam wild and free. Graugs (troll killers) stomp about being awesome and scary and you can gain the power to dominate and ride both caragor and graug. What's not to love about riding into an orc stronghold on the back of something massive and deadly, slamming its fists down, eating orcs and scaring them half to death?
This Path Was Made By The Dead, And The Dead Keep It!
Talion, once a mortal Ranger of Gondor guarding the Black Gate loses everything the night that Sauron and his Black Captains return. He quickly finds that his life has taken a turn for the strange, bound to the wraith he gains powers that he never imagined were possible. There's a lot to upgrade in Shadow of Mordor, with each new power offering something new rather than just a tagged-on bonus. There's a slew of abilities to gain too, such as boosted health, elf-shot for the bow and more. This is all accomplished by growing Talion's legend in Mordor. Shadow-strike for example, it's an awesome power that lets you charge in from far away, decapitate an orc and look badass whilst creating terror (another tool in your arsenal) at the same time. Gain the ability to chain it and you can decimate whole squads of orcs before they know what's hit them.
There are three things to keep track of, experience, power and mirian. XP allows Talion to level up and buy abilities from an unlocked tier. Power is gained by defeating captains and story/side missions, this allows you to unlock the next tier of progression and finally mirian is an upgrade currency that's gained from missions, collectibles and the like.
There's a lot of side content too, including missions that grow the legend of your weapons. Talion's sword: Urfael, his bow: Acharn and his dagger: Azkar. Do 10 missions each and you'll unlock the ability that goes with the sword/bow/dagger. Or you can earn the currency to unlock them if the missions are proving a bit too hard.
It's worth doing the missions because they also unlock a unique visual/model upgrade to the weapon in question too.
These Legendary Powers are pretty awesome, providing a 20 second burst of unlimited combat finishers for the sword. A stream of focus/elf-shot/fire arrows for 15 seconds allowing you to rain death from afar and 15 seconds or so of stealth kills, allowing you to move like a shadow and rend your enemies before they know what's hit them. Each power is charged by the relevant action in combat too, so you won't take long to get them back either.
Tying the collectibles and side missions into the upgrade system means that the side content never feels like it's just there to pad out the game too. I've found it all pretty engaging and awesome so far.
Don't worry too, if you're not so much an action fan, you can still gain a lot of power/xp/currency by sneaking around using the game's excellent stealth system that reminds me so much of Tenchu and less of Assassin's Creed. Also, hell, it's FUN because Talion climbs well, hides well, sneaks well and makes Sam Fisher look like a rank amateur.
Of course, if you can kill orc captains you're going to get a rune, runes are the way you enhance your 3 weapons in Shadow of Mordor and provide some pretty great bonuses like adding 10 seconds to the Storm of Urfael power (epic rune) or giving you health back on critical strikes.
If you're lucky you can get epic runes from warchiefs and captains (great chances of both if you send a death threat first)
The Look And Feel
Shadow of Mordor is not only a fantastic game mechanically with all the systems working beautifully together. It's also a damn fine looking game providing highly atmospheric visuals, some superbly done animations and character models. The lip synch on the characters, and the orcs is some of the best I've seen for a while and I can't love it enough. It lends a personality to these creatures, along with their unique visual look that elevates the game above the rest.
The level of visual polish extends to the weather system and the day/night cycle (which changes based on missions, fast forwarding time and of course, when Talion dies. It's just truly an atmospheric game that oozes quality. Talion's context-sensitive animations when he's crouched near a wall are a good example of animation tying into character, he puts his hand up to steady himself and provide balance as he moves smoothly around.
A massive amount of time has gone into this side of the game and it's constantly surprising me even now when I see an animation an orc does I've not seen before.
It's also rock-solid on the Xbox One and the PS4 frame-rate wise, and that's a great thing to see.
The Sound Of Mordor
Unlike the Sound of Silence, Mordor is alive with audio that brims from every possible interaction. You can stop and listen to the ambient sounds and pick up subtle audio clues from the environment, especially at night where the sound of a ghul pack arriving is something that you learn to use to your advantage.
It Is the Music of The Elves...
Garry Schyman & Nathan Grigg provide a suitably dark and compelling musical score to the game, packed with lots of its own atmosphere, key-notes to the action on screen and scenes in the story. Props also go to them for including the Mordor Black-Speech in the soundtrack that is both epic and creepy at the same time, awesome music.
Only You Could Create Such Art
Dan Abnett is a veteran writer from the UK. He knows orcs really well, so he wrote thousands of lines of unique orc dialogue for the game and created some dark humour to offset the bleak and revenge-fuelled story penned by Red Dead Redemption's writer: Christian Cantamessa. Perhaps there are elements of familiarity in the game's story (spanning around 20 missions) but it's delivered in a solid and engaging way. My only concern is that I'd have liked to see more engaging female characters in better roles, and not so much in victim roles (once again) which is a bit of a tired trope and why I didn't score the game higher (9.5) for example.
I Speak With The Voice Of Sauron
Dialogue is only as good as the actors who deliver it and well, Shadow of Mordor has an all-star cast to deliver Cantamessa's story lines - the likes of Nolan North (the Black Hand), Alistair Duncan (Celebrimbor), Claudia Black (Queen Mawen), Jennifer Hale (Galadriel) and Troy Baker as Talion along with many more elevate the dialogue into solid performances that are both engaging and emotional.
The orcs are also worthy of mention, they have given me a good chuckle in the open world as well as the many face-offs I've had with the warchiefs and captains.
Finally, Shadow of Mordor is an excellent game that is elevated by the Nemesis System and its many other features working together. It's a great tale in Middle Earth that is faithful to the concepts of Tolkien's world and echoes the tragedy of the likes of Hamlet and Macbeth. I highly recommend this game on new-gen platforms and PC where you can truly appreciate the Nemesis System and open world in all its hi-def epic nature.
The PS4 has a few things I wanted to mention, load times are longer between areas/starting the game and it does some fantastic things with the microphone that are pretty neat. Playing the wraith's memories through it, rustling leaves as Talion enters tall bushes and the sound of the Forge Towers as you stand in them. Apart from that you're going to get an identical experience between both new-gen platforms. You also get some missions that no one else does.
That's it folks, that's all I can say about Shadow of Mordor apart from this: Go buy it!
DLC: There's support for skins, runes, new story content and challenge modes (via pre-order) that give you ample opportunity to collect new runes, fight for leaderboard status and challenge various orc armies that are a cut above the rest.
Disclaimer: If you're from the other side of the #Black-Gamergate of Mordor and like things like full disclosure: I bought the game, the season pass and only after a full days play on the Xbox One did a review copy turn up for both platforms. By then I'd already decided what I was going to score it and roughly what I was going to say.
The following videos are here because, well, orc slaying!