I finished the main story of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor on Monday night even though I was purposely delaying the end because the experience was so enjoyable. Roaming lesser-known areas of Mordor while stalking, killing and dominating Orcs has been truly fun. I’m pretty sure it took me less time to get the end-state than my aborted Destiny run. If that’s not proof of engagement, I don’t know what is.
Let’s star with the basics: Shadow of Mordor combines Assassin’s Creed-style stealth and wall climbing mechanics with Arkham City-style combat in an easy-to-digest Middle-earth setting. I’m no math expert, but that is a solid equation for good times. While some may quibble with co-opting these mechanics, I’ll say they mesh together really well. And this being Middle-earth, developer Monolith added a new mechanic: Domination! Just as Sauron’s One Ring allows him to dominate the wills of those men who wore the Nine Rings, the player character can exert a special wraith power over unsuspecting Orcs. This is good across all types of Orc enemies, from spindly soldiers to impressive Warchiefs. According to the story, I have to amass an army for —
Actually, that might be kind of a spoiler. But, while I’m talking story, let’s discuss it in a broad stroke as it is Shadow of Mordor‘s weakest element. You play Talion, a Gondorian ranger assigned to the Towers of the Teeth at the Black Gate. Because it’s a long-term assignment, his wife and son live there with him when a band of Orcs and Men sworn to Sauron attack and kill the lot of them.
I suppose this would be the best place to insert that awesome “Towers of the Teeth” war song:
Nearing death, Talion is used as part of a blood sacrifice, seemingly to bond an elf-wraith to the physical plane. The ritual is successful and the wraith gives Talion new, awesome abilities. Both watched their wives and children die and while it’s definitely the generic revenge plot — featuring the cliched death of the wife — there is an interesting twist here: both seek the means to be released from their curse and die while getting their revenge.
It’s not entirely successful, but at least an attempt to blunt the obvious.
The story missions tend to be the least interesting, except for a small diversion to hunt Gollum and a later sequence in which a Dwarf teaches you to hunt Trolls. I think the biggest problem with the main sequence is the lack of urgency. So many of them exist just to teach you game mechanics that maybe a handful really progress the story in a meaningful way: including one in which you learn the elf-wraith’s identity and his importance to Sauron.
Another issue is Talion himself. Everyone around him — the wraith, a local Queen, her daughter, that dwarf hunter — is more compelling than he is. He lacks a personality and comes off as just a generic Jon Snow-eque Good Man™ with a typical revenge agenda.
The game makes up for the weak main story with fantastic side quests, collectables and the simple pleasure of putting hundreds of Orcs to the sword. Freeing enslaved Men, finding relics that reveal more about local tribes and progressing on a powerful skill tree are so worth the effort that I pretty much ignored the main sequence until the game stopped supplying me with other things to do. Even then, I was just as likely to fight Orcs for a bit and grind some XP. Combat situations make the grind a delight.
A stellar element of the great combat mechanics is the so-called Nemesis system. The enemy AI remembers if a given Orc successfully killed you. It will learn from your moves, get more powerful and straight up insult you when you encounter him again. Lose to a Warchief four or five time and you’ll have to look for another way of attacking him. You might dominate all the lesser captains around so they can weaken him, allowing you to deliver a satisfying killing blow. It’s pretty compelling and enriches the experience. Nothing is more personal than finally seeing an Orc that has bested you a handful of times finally brought low. That’s the kind of engagement these sorts of games should have.
The various skills, once mastered, make it possible to take on a seemingly unending stream of enemies. A key skill for me was in-combat branding of Orcs to bring them to my side. Once I got comfortable with this skill, it was easy to defeat 50+ Orcs in a single encounter. Though skills are acquired via a standard XP/skill tree system, they actually bring a great deal of power to the character and provide a surprising number of options in defeating the enemy.
Weapon advancement is simple, but interesting. As opposed to an unending incremental change to your gear, your long sword, de facto dagger and bow remain the same, but they grow in strength thanks to runes won in combat against Orc captains. They add a variety of bonuses and make the weapons remarkably customizable. Given options to regain health, focus or even inspire fear amongst the enemy, I actually played around with this customization system more than in most similar games with similar weapon progression mechanics.
Okay, back to the story. I will admit the ending was a bit of a let-down, both in the (lack of) strength of my foes and the resolution of the storyline — a penultimate mission even had me rescue a damsel in distress (yawn) — but the game accomplished mission one: I want to travel with Talion to other parts of Middle-earth where he might gain more strength to take on Sauron. Well, provided subsequent games continue the expert meshing of good mechanics, enjoyable side quests and Orc captains I love to hate.
Oh, and maybe a stronger storyline.