Written by: Corey Bonanno, Special to CC2K
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Murder
I didn’t have high expectations for Shadow of Mordor. The Lord of the Rings games haven’t really been more than mediocre hack and slash titles to cash in on the movie zeitgeist. They had their moments, but overall left no impression on me or the games industry. However, I can no longer say Middle Earth games are all just Warner Bros. paydays. Shadow of Mordor is a masterpiece of gameplay, open world mechanics, and a fresh, violent take on the world J.R.R. Tolkien created.
Shadow of Mordor is your basic revenge tale, opening with the ritualistic murder of Talion, the lead character, alongside his wife and family. They do a decent and quick setup for the emotional connection you have towards Talion’s wife and son only to have them killed off immediately. In death, Talion meets the ghost of Celebrimbor, the elf lord and smith who created the rings of power including Sauron’s One Ring. Talion discover’s he has been banished from death and bound to the spirit of Celebrimbor. Together they set out to avenge the slaying of his family and to discover the past Celebrimbor has forgotten in his lengthy stay between life and death. This allows for Talion to gain supernatural abilities control the beasts and baddies of Mordor.
Combat is very reminiscent of the Batman: Arkham games: a slick, fast and intuitive combat system that blended brutal crowd control and shadow stealth into a tight and rewarding gameplay experience. Shadow of Mordor takes what Batman set out to do and has perfected and iterated on it in every way. Every animation and counter is so fluid it creates a visceral impact that gives a real stopping power to each sword strike and combat finisher. Lopping the heads off rival captains and eviscerating the innards of a champion war chief never grows old. There is a very sick satisfaction in driving your dagger over and over into an unsuspecting Uruk and sending his comrades fleeing in fear. With the death of each captain Talion gains both experience points a tier of new abilities and traits as well as runes that adds combat traits and advantages to his weapons.
Slaying your foes and leaving their corpses disgraced on the battlefield isn’t the only way to take on the captains of Mordor. Later you must make them work for you. Do you claim the head of Ronk the Cook, or do you brand him and bring him under your power to play a key part in the hierarchal takeover in Shadow of Mordor’s Nemesis system?
Brogg the Blade Master, once a lowly Uruk, was now a war chief of immeasurable strength. Twice I fought him in battle and twice he killed me, either by luck, or a well timed spear to my chest. Either way, Brogg is now a level 20 legendary war chief with three body guards and strengths that make my play style irrelevant. I can’t drop from a tower and stab him; he is immune. I can’t use a combat finisher, which are extremely crucial in combat. No, I have to somehow get him to stand next a campfire and set him aflame, and it will take some planning. This is the key of the Nemesis system, a board placing Uruks in multiple positions of power where they level and earn new strengths and weaknesses through how you interact with them. If Begabug the Cruel is mauled by the wild beasts of Mordor, the next time I come across him, he may have a terrible fear and take flight in the presence of those beasts. It adds a whole new way to experience the game every time you play. You create the stories just by playing the game and having scenarios play out differently.
If you win or lose in combat, the world changes accordingly, and believe me, you will lose. Enemies will remember you the last time you from each past encounter, and call you out for lighting him on fire or question how you are still alive after the beating he put on you. If you kill an Uruk, he may not die, he could show up again maimed and holding a grudge. If you want to make sure, you have to take their heads, and that creates a power vacuum. Promotions are handed out, alliances are made between different Uruk’s and their war parties. Sometimes, there are power struggles outside of you, where two warring chiefs will enter combat and kill the other to then promote the victors bodyguard to the newly opened position. You have to learn to manipulate and plan how you wish to infiltrate the system and bring all the war chiefs under your powers to fight the dark forces of Sauron.
Mordor is beautiful and grim. The visuals keep in line with the films art style and direction, and that works. There are two separate maps in Mordor, the dark and dreary starting area encompasses what fans expect of Mordor, but later you find yourself in a lush green seas side region. Each feels unique and provides there own challenges in both the strength of enemies and the traversal around the map. Overtime, Talion gains abilities to speed his mobility and tame beasts for mounted combat and cover ground faster. There is a fast travel system, provided by ancient towers, now ruins, but visible as white beacons in the distance when in Talion’s shadow vision.
Each Uruk is unique in the way it looks and evolves over time. Promotions bring about drastic armor upgrades and new abilities that shape their personalities. The most thrilling and impressive visual, to me, was the detail in the Uruk’s faces. The emotion on their faces as they grow enraged, are struck with fear, and most importantly, the way their mouths drop slack and eyes roll back as their freshly severed heads eject from their now lifeless bodies is so satisfying.
You don’t have to be a fan of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien to see that what Shadow of Mordor has to offer is a grand and well executed open world game that should be on everyone’s list. I haven’t had this much fun in a very long time. It isn’t perfect, but there is something in the way Shadow of Mordor comes together to bring new life to both the Tolkien universe and to the open world genre. With such gripping combat mechanics, the ever addictive Nemesis system, and a realized world, I hope to see more in the future. Shadow of Mordor has eviscerated the competition. It is a must play for fans and gamers alike.
9 out of 10