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Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor Review | The Board is Set

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor Game of the Year Edition Review

I love the Lord of the Rings trilogy. In my opinion, they are near-perfect movies and their ability to transport the viewer to the far fantasy world of Middle-Earth is second to none. That being said, I haven't gotten around to reading the books yet, despite owning the complete series box set, and for some people that will recontextualize where I stand in the fandom ranking. My knowledge of the series lore doesn't run deep. It's a good thing then that Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor isn't canon. From my understanding, the events of the game are plausible within the historical context of the fictional world, but they are not set in stone. So, putting aside my feelings towards the adapted works of JRR Tolkein's epics, this review will focus exclusively on what I played during my eighteen hours with Shadow of Mordor.

The game starts with a well-crafted opening that effectively blends the story and tutorial together. You play as Talion, a ranger of Gondor who witnesses the death of his wife and son before being killed himself. However, before he can pass to the world of the dead, his body becomes a vessel for a wraith who shall go unnamed to avoid spoilers. This entanglement means that Talion cannot stay dead, and it is up to him, and the powers granted to him thanks to the wraith, to exact revenge. I found the Shadow of Mordor campaign to be very engaging and several key points of the game genuinely came as a surprise to me. In an odd way, I was invested in the narrative without being wholly interested in all the characters. Though, when notable names and moments came up within the context of the specific story at hand, I couldn't help but feel like Leanardo DiCaprio in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood pointing at the TV.

Shadow of Mordor has a big voice cast featuring names like Troy Baker, Laura Bailey, Steve Blum, Claudia Black, Nolan North, and more. They are all great in the game and feel natural in their characters, at least once you're able to accept the fact that Troy Baker is Talion and you can disassociate his voice from all the other notable characters he's played. Despite this, I do have a problem with the game here. Not necessarily with the performances, but with the use of them. Firstly, with an average 15-hour run time, I don't think the game flushes out some of the side characters enough. Most of the development goes to Talion and the wraith in his body and that stuff does work, but it would have been great to see some of the others shine beyond "oh that's a typical dwarf" basics. Then there's the screaming. At several points in the game, Talion will interact with a plot device and just scream at the top of his lungs. Sometimes your cover gets blown and it makes you wonder why you even bothered with the stealth up to that point. Other times, even more oddly, your cover doesn't get blown and you can't help but feel that the orcs are big dumdums. What I'm trying to say is that the screaming just feels out of place and it happened often enough that I had to mention it here.

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor Gameplay

When it comes to gameplay, Shadow of Mordor borrows a lot from its WB Games sibling, Batman: Arkham Asylum, for both combat and traversal. Luckily, it does this well in both cases, though not perfect when it comes to the latter. The fighting is fast and as you get to upgrade Talion's abilities, taking on groups of orcs becomes a welcome challenge. If you've read my previous reviews, you'll know how much I love the combat in Sleeping Dogs, and while I don't think Shadow of Mordor reaches that level of environmental immersion, I also didn't find myself shying away from a good battle. Plus I have plenty of clips on my hard drive that gives more credit to the developers for making me look good for button spamming than me being a Shinobi-level player.

As you roam around the open world and climb on its buildings, the game can feel very similar. This isn't a bad thing because I enjoy this sort of third-person open-world parkour genre in games. However, the game can still have the frustrating mechanics of some of the early Assassin's Creed games, leading you to accidentally steer Talion off the wrong edge or perform the wrong action. And that frustration does carry over into the fighting as well and has led me to use a combat finisher on the wrong enemy on multiple occasions.

Looking past the movement, the game also features two upgrade trees, allowing you to boost your health as well as unlock new abilities for combat. Your three weapons, sword, bow, and dagger, all have individual rune-based upgrades that let you equip buffs. Depending on how deep you want to go down that rabbit hole, there are plenty of options to make Talion fight just the way you want him to. Be it a stealthy ranger or a close-quarter swordsman. I went for something in between and I have to say that sitting atop an overhanging, raining down strategically aimed arrows on a group of orcs only to then shadow strike with the last arrow and open a can of whoop-orc with the sword is badass. (Note: whoop-orc is like whoop-ass but for orcs.)

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor Next-Gen Review

Graphically, the game looks like it's a few years old which is fair because it is. No scenes were particularly stunning and, at the same time, none of it really takes you out of the experience either. The landscape of Mordor is a mixed bag, with half-destroyed buildings in one area looking a lot like the half-destroyed buildings in another. At the same time, the orc strongholds add a nice variety to that sameness, and skulking around their complex and layered bases is fun. I did come across two problems I want to mention. The first was a camera bug that made the screen vibrate uncontrollably after a combat finisher. The second was a crash, which came out of nowhere. One second I was exploring Mordor, the next I was looking at my Xbox home screen. Happened once and I didn't lose too much progress, but worth noting for those who might have worse luck than me.

If you've heard of Shadow of Mordor before, odds are, you probably heard about the Nemesis System and I can't end this review without talking about it. This in-game enemy leaderboard, which is rumored to be implemented into the upcoming Hogwarts Legacy, adds a surprising amount of depth to the game. For those who aren't familiar, Sauron's Army in the game is like the stock market: extremely volatile. Orcs are constantly going to battle against each other and trying to prove their worth to their underlings. The game lets you manipulate that hierarchy, in simple ways at first but to rather significant degrees in the late game. Truth be told, I could have finished the twenty main missions of the game at least two hours before I actually did, but I was so hooked on the Nemesis System that I found myself spending extended periods of time just playing around with it, getting power-hungry, and messing with the orc system without them knowing. Not to mention the fact that this creates a natural rivalry between the player and specific orcs that the game capitalizes on during its ending.

In the end, Shadow of Mordor is a trip through Middle-Earth that's fun, engaging, and, sadly, not canon. That may stop series die-hards from being too invested, but for a fake fan like myself, I went in without many expectations and ended up very much so enjoying the ride, hence why I wrote this review despite having no plans to do it initially. The Arkham Asylum-inspired gameplay and a large amount of mechanical customization invite experimentation, but the highlight of the game is the brilliant Nemesis System that lets you play around with the orc hierarchy like you never thought you wanted. Whether you are a fan of Lord of the Rings or not, I recommend playing Shadow of Mordor, and considering that it's often on sale, it's an easy game to pick up without breaking the bank. Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is available now on PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, and PC.

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor | 8 | Great

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