If you put a copy of Max Payne and a volume of Tolkien’s epic Lord of the Rings into a microwave, and set it on high, I imagine the result would be something like Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor. This dark, tragic stealth/action take on Middle Earth puts players behind the controls of Talion, a ranger who has lost everything (including his life) to the Dark Lord. Thankfully, with the help of a mysterious Elven ghost, he manages to get a second chance and boy…does he want revenge.
The game is set in a modestly sized open world of Mordor where players can go around and activate different quests and events around the map, not unlike the Assassins Creed or Batman Arkham series’. But what the open world lacks in size, it makes up for in graphical onslaught. Even without the optional 6 GB bonus download for maximum settings (PC), the visuals are almost unbelievable. Rain falls, wind blows through your tattered cloak, and enemies are rendered so well that its almost hard to look at for any serious amount of time.
But impressive visuals aside, the game truly shines is in its unique “Nemesis” system. Various Orc Captains and War Chiefs want to play brutal politics ala Game of Thrones, and its up to you to be J.R.R. Martin. As the game progresses Orcs will fight, kill and betray each other in their attempts to climb the shadowy corporate ladder. The choices you make and enemies you kill determine who rises and falls. This system isn’t truly fleshed out however until part way through the adventure when you gain the ability to “Brand” or convert enemies into your loyal zombie-like followers. Brand an enemy captain of your choosing and assassinate his rivals to get your man into a seat of power. The Nemesis system also allows enemy captains to gain experience and level up from killing you, making each death heavy with consequences. Overall the Nemesis system works extremely well and is a delightfully fresh addition to the genre.
Combat is also a highlight of the game. Veterans of the Assassins Creed or Arkham games will quickly recognize the “ballet of death” style mechanics, allowing players to glide elegantly from kill to kill in jaw dropping fashion. The fighting is beautifully animated with acrobatic leaps over enemies and bone crunching executions. The brutal fighting feels generally responsive, fluid and satisfying as you dispatch enemies in one gruesome spectacle after another.
While the game has style in spades, it does suffer from some time tested woes. The revenge-fantasy premise of the story starts off like a shotgun blast to the heart. Within seconds I found myself immersed and sharing Talions sorrow and desire for revenge. This connection however loses steam as the story progresses to the point that you start wondering why we are killing our two-thousandth Orc again? The loss, and plot behind the game just wasn’t referenced enough throughout the story, and many of the main story quests had little or nothing to do with the task at hand.
Without delving too explicitly into spoilers, the game’s finale also failed to do justice to the wonderful fighting and stealth mechanics the game is built on. The final quests of the game required nothing of me, and consisted entirely of watching my minions vanquish my enemies and one quick time event. For a game that so excellently employed brutally kinetic combat and sometimes punishing difficulty, it includes none of that during the final act.
Overall, Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is a bit like a Michael Bay movie. The dazzling visuals and ruthless action make this a solid worthwhile play-through, despite the feeling that it could have been much more. While you eventually feel like you left the story somewhere along the way, you’ll be having too much fun too care.