Deep in the heart of Mordor the Dark Lord sits on his thrown crafting an unimaginably large army of orks, uruks and other nasty things. The corrupted kings swoop around striking fear into the hearts of men, now masters of the void. Someone really should have made friends with Talion and done anything to keep him happy. This guy would have been so useful during the third age. But minor plot issues aside lets go visit Mordor as Talion our ranger/wraith protagonist.
This will become such a cliché it’s ridiculous and I can already hear those of you who called it. But the comparison is far too obvious to avoid. Shadow of Mordor is essentially Batman meets Assassins Creed. Suddenly that Arkham entry without Rocksteady behind the wheel makes sense. It’s fun, brutal and just like Nazi zombies you can feel at ease slaying countless orks and uruks without even the slightest sense of remorse. Even when you elaborately beat one with your bare hands before abruptly stabbing it through its open mouth. Or when your wraith takes control and you see terror in the eyes of your enemy as you shout ‘Obey Me!’ and take his mind.
Outside the ‘holy crap did you see that!’ the usual collection of enemies are present, normal, ranged, shielded and so on with each needing a different method of attack. You might have to stun one kind, others you can’t attack from the front. It’s all very familiar but Shadow of Mordor isn’t afraid to let lose swarms of simple enemies for you to satisfyingly work your way through. All too often satisfying combat is ruined by over use of difficult enemies, or more specifically more difficult enemy combinations, but rest assured there will be plenty of opportunities to slay hordes of lesser foes.
Mordor does however open itself up to tedious and frustrating deaths. After killing countless Uruks, their captains and beasts to be defeated by a couple of stray crossbow bolts you couldn’t see because the camera is far too tight is just irritating. Then to be presenting with 30 seconds of orks cheering over your death and watching them slowly move around the ranks on the nemesis system is just infuriating. I wish my losses were against bosses or worthy foes and not corners to get stuck on or the off-screen delights of a ranged attacker.
The nemesis system is were Shadow of Mordor attempts to stands apart from the crowd. The ability for captains and the more badass among the Uruk to gain and lose ranks are the main reason endlessly hunting them remains fun. Killing a captain opens up a slot for another ork to take over. Or they might just fight among themselves to gain ranks. But the reality is that despite how cool and impressive all this is early game it makes no difference what his name is really. He’s just another boss with a few attributes that you may or may not have discovered by finding Intel or interrogating particularly weak orks.
On top of that killing a captain often has little effect on the game other than sometimes altering his appearance and giving him something to reference during his next WWE intro that acts as a handy ‘previously on’ clip that we all need because we’re stupid and forgetted what is happened. For example on one occasion I fought with an enemy I had previously ‘killed’ and saw his scars. It was cool until he directly referenced them and ruined the moment.
Then you kill him again and another named ork takes his place. Sure the captains look cool, each has a definite style and there’s an impressive voice roster but it just doesn’t matter. What you really need for the nemesis system to work is to die and go back to settle the score. But this just doesn’t happen.
The stealth mechanic too is not exactly perfect. Unfortunately it’s satisfying only because the AI is so great at playing dumb. And I mean they act like senseless straw manikins laid out just for you. But given that Mordor doesn’t have any claims to hardcore stealthing it works well. Thinning out ranks before engaging and defeating a group is satisfying even though endlessly luring foes and using bushes like they’re the best cover ever devised isn’t.
As usual the free roam is held back by arbitrary requirements to complete main missions. Shadow of Mordor is almost totally free but for two or three things. Please stop telling me what to do first in an open world game. To come this far and then lock a couple of abilities just seems stupid. If it’s open world then make it so. Don’t make it 95% open; especially with such a thin plot that then starts to feel like a chore.
My main gripe is that most of what’s good about Mordor is ‘borowed’. The combat system is taken straight out of Batman, although with the addition of bladed violence and gore. It doesn’t feel as polished as Batman but it is more forgiving and doesn’t feel out of place. Even the special combat moves have the same button assignments. The stealth is straight from Assassins Creed although again is more forgiving which allows it to feel at home. But when you crouch run across a high ledge the animation is pure Assassins Creed. Even the ropes you can run across look the same. There are moments in Shadow of Mordor were I wonder how they got away with certain things. There’s inspiration and then there’s just copying.
There’s undoubted greatness in Mordor. Worse yet there is untouched greatness in Mordor. The ability to gain a nemesis should be clever and satisfying but ultimately I never got a nemesis apart from when the game assigned me one just because I didn’t have one. The bosses I killed could have been called ‘Crossbow Ork 3’, ‘Shielded Ork 2’ and so on which is a true shame. And sadly far too much of Mordor relies on the nemesis system. Almost all of it in fact. The plot is adequately dark for Tolkien’s world but isn’t all that interesting and certainly not enough to compliment the other features.
A more fleshed out narrative or a world that contains something, anything, other than enemies to fight would help. So would clever side objectives and collectables. But they’re just ‘go here and pick this up’ or ‘kill x enemies in x way’. All too soon it becomes mindless. Even something like a tavern to visit and buy weapons would help. But the first 5 hours or so all I saw was mud and dead orks. And then some grass and dead orks. Shadow of Mordor relies on the nemesis system entirely and it just isn’t enough to flesh out the game. A fully fledged open world would push Shadow of Mordor into greatness but sadly it places too much confidence in the wrong places. At times it feels like a giant combat room which is really all it is. But still it provides many hours of satisfying fighting and a chance to feel like a true legend of middle-earth for the first time in an age.