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Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor Review – Bright masterpiece is blinding

Shadow of mordor.jpg

Forget The Lord of the Rings. Forget Peter Jackson’s films. Forget the books. This game is deserving of its own scrutiny, unchained to the giant franchise’s ankle that shadows over it. Shadow of Mordor is an open-world game, but not; a third-person, action fantasy RPG, but not.

As soon as you step into the gorgeous landscape of Mordor, you’ll feel overwhelmed by what’s to come, by your powers, and by the scale on which you have to work. You are both the weakest and the strongest entity in Mordor. And that dichotomy, of utter weakness and strength, is elegantly managed throughout.

You use swords, magic arrows, Dominated Orcs (explained later), leaps, dodges, ducks and blocks (like the Batman Arkham series or Assassin’s Creed) to deliver death across Mordor. You’ll sneak and leap from stupidly high structures; you’ll climb supernaturally fast; you’ll ride two kinds of mounts that are both terrifying and kind of scarce as to make them pointless.

Yet even all this barely touches the surface.

The rugged ranger and the elf lord

You play two characters, embodied in one. Talion, a human ranger performed by the stupidly talented Troy Baker; and Celebrimbor, the legendary Ring Forger who created the three most powerful Rings of Power for the elves. This character is performed brilliantly by Alastair Duncan.

The harsh, tragic introduction to Talion sets the stage for this grim story – as Talion finds himself prevented from dying due to magical hoo-ha, tied to the ancient Elf king’s spirit. Part of the story is to find out why. Though not officially Tolkien cannon – and who cares? – the story is set in-between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Celebrimbor has a strong relationship to the Dark Lord Sauron himself. This is explained in the story, and the reflection in Talion is a fascinating one I won’t spoil here.

To be precise, this is what the Lord of the Rings Wiki says:

“In SA 1500 Sauron, calling himself Annatar ("lord of gifts"), befriended the Ñoldor of Eregion. He claimed to be an emissary of the Valar, especially Aule, and instructed them in the art of ring-making. Celebrimbor distrusted him, but the smiths of Eregion were deceived.”

Did you get that? It’s fine if you didn’t – somehow the story is so well-written, so careful in its execution, that I never once felt confused. This is due to the talents of Christian Cantamessa and his crew, who did a game called Red Dead Redemption (i.e. basically my favourite game ever). It certainly isn’t the best told story, but it’s good for providing reasons to invest in the world and the various objectives. Your actions make sense (pay attention, Destiny).

I certainly had the sense of larger backstory, of complex relationships and acts, that made me get a copy of The Silmarillion. Yet I never felt punished through scarcity: The game continually existed as its own, powerful entity, disconnected from the threads that breathed life into it. Indeed, the focus on Talion’s past comes through echoes in the loading screen, brief flashbacks; the entire world is uncovered through artefacts and explained briefly by Celebrimbor.

But, to be fair, all this is not the focus of the game.

Say hello to your nemesis

The main focus for Shadow has always been its Nemesis System. (I’ll be using Orcs instead of Uruks but yes, they’re Uruks.)

The System works according to a random generation of enemies (or rather their properties): names, quirks, weaknesses and strengths. Think Watch Dogs’ profiler, except not pathetic and fake.

You find these properties out by capturing grunt Orcs and obtaining Intel on higher ranked Orcs. The higher the ranked an Orc, the harder he is – but the greater your reward and also sometimes the number of followers he controls (and which you therefore control). You have the choice to kill or dominate: dominated Orcs are under your control and can help you weaken other Orcs for easier dominating/assassinating; but killed Orcs with ranks give you runes that provide weapon bonuses. It’s a nice bit of thought in terms of resource management. That resource being “Orc life”.

Later, using Celebrimbor’s powers, you can Dominate Orcs and force them on to missions or quests, to help leverage your control over Mordor. Here’s an example.

Down with the system

The highest ranked Orcs are warchiefs. They’re tough, surrounded by a gang and usually reside in a Stronghold (a fortress filled with Orcs). I happened across a Captain and Dominated him. It turned out this Captain was a Warchief’s bodyguard and this Warchief was in the middle of a Stronghold. There was no way I was getting to the Warchief while he was surrounded by hundreds of Orcs.

Using Celebrimbor’s powers, I commanded this Captain to betray his Warchief. Later I found the same Warchief’s other bodyguard and dominated him. Thus the Warchief’s two closest soldiers were working for me.

A new objective appeared in the game after my commands and the Warchief was drawn out. A short cutscene showed that one of my little assassin’s had convinced his master to “meet” them. Thus, it was the Warchief alone with his two bodyguards – both of whom were mine. All three of us made short work of him and one of the Captains took his old Master’s place.

I had a Warchief under my command.

How would it have played out if I had only one bodyguard? Would that other bodyguard have brought his own men? Would the Warchief have come alone as he did? I don’t know. But I can guarantee no one has had the same experience taking over the landscape of Mordor.

This is a small slice of what the system does and does so well. Even dying plays into the system: If you’re killed by, say, a nameless grunt, his deed will level him up. He’ll take a position probably on the Orc hierarchy and can ascend through the ranks. He becomes named, with properties.

The first Orc to kill me – a grunt – levelled up so far be gained his own battalion and met me on an open battlefield right at the end of the game. It was fascinating.

When you meet Orcs who’ve killed or had fights with you, they remember you – detailing their past experience in a theatrical opening (these openings get tedious because they happen with anyone on the Sauron’s Army hierarchy).

The system is incredible and I’m glad to see how well it works. I found it hard to believe that it could be executed at all, let alone this well. Monolith must be commended even if you hate everything else about the game.

Kill things in elegant ways

You kill things in elegant ways: whether through strategic use of your powers or through Talion’s actual fighting. The animations are fluid and beautiful; once you learn how to initiate executions, once you level up to have instant domination on the battlefield (beat an Orc up then instantly make him or someone close into a follower), your battles become enjoyable and unpredictable.

You can’t leap into a frenzy and expect to come out unscathed: the Orcs attack in numbers, some with ranged attacks, with shields. Random encounters with beasts also change the battle. You’ll use swords, bows and an assassin dagger to dispatch enemies – but primarily, you’ll probably use Orcs themselves against each other. I had more fun with this fighting system than the Arkham games, due probably to the gore-infested animations (heads fly off, there is blood.), but even the fluidity is gorgeous.

I particularly loved that the game manages your dual-personality by having Talion’s skin burn out to reveal Celebrimbor. This happens when you use the latter’s power or build up a kind of “rage metre”.

To be clear: you’ll do nothing else, really, except fight Orcs and collect things. But the various ways you do so is somehow constantly fun and engaging.

The only issue is the build-up to the final bosses left me feeling empty. Though powerfully built-up – particularly the Tower of Sauron and his Silent Hill-esque garrison – glorified cutscenes are really all there is. The final boss isn’t even a fight, which greatly disappointed me. I would’ve hoped the game would force a test of all your powers; perhaps force me to take on Celebrimbor’s powers as a human. Alas! Regardless, despite the huge built up and disappointing conclusion, it only highlighted how good the rest of the game is.

Final thoughts

Unlike everyone else in the world, I played mine on the Xbox One. It was one of the most beautiful games I’ve experienced: the landscape, the animations, the fluidity. It only slowed down occasionally when there were large numbers on screen – but I only noticed because I was looking out for it.

Yes, I know I’ve railed against mid-thirties white dude power revenge fantasy stories – but this one is fantastic. The plot is fun, but not particularly eye-popping. Voice-work is amazing, however limited. The character animations are gorgeous, if the faces leave something to be desired (particularly Talion’s who looks like his skin is stretched too wide on his face).

This is, in conclusion, not only one of the best games I’ve played this year, but one of the best I’ve played in my life. I love seeing a new idea take root and bloom so beautifully. I can’t wait to return to Mordor. 

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