Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor Review – Deeply Hollow

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Posted October 27, 2014 by Sean Mesler in Video Games

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor

Developer: Monolith Productions

Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

Release Date: September 30th, 2014

Available on: PS4 (version reviewed), Xbox One, PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360

Full confession: I’m a fan of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings/Hobbit films and haven’t read a single Tolkien book. Too dense and far too much history for me to really get into. With that said, I was pleased to know that Monolith’s Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is more directed tied to Jackson’s vision than the one of the books, mostly because I am far more familiar and I like things that are familiar. Which is convenient because Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is very familiar.

Playing Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor feels like a pastiche of other games, namely Assassin’s Creed and Rocksteady’s Arkham games. Only far more streamlined and far more fun to play in terms of combat than either game. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t quite amount to much and the gameplay loop proves to be equal parts satisfying and ultimately shallow at the same time. Mostly because of how meaningless it all is, in the grand scheme.

After a promising and, quite frankly, brutal opening, Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor starts as a interesting tale of revenge and threw me into a interesting/brilliant mechanic that involves Ranger Talion merging with a elven wraith Celebrimbor. While Talion’s form is physical, Celebrimbor’s isn’t and the seamless nature in which I transitioned between both during gameplay based on the situation was incredibly impressive and intuitive. Jumping from a high enough ledge will have Talian morph into Celebrimbor who will take the brunt of the landing without taking damage. Hiding in bushes makes Celebrimbor take over and become “invisible” to enemies as long as I wasn’t already spotted. Using my Wraith Bow brings Celebrimbor to the fore and uses spirit arrows which can be recharged by draining enemies of what I guess is their “essence.” It’s all pretty neat and had quite a few more uses as I leveled up Talion’s skills.

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I mention these mechanics first because the two characters are the focal point of both the gameplay and the story. Talion is seeking revenge against the three of Sauron’s Captains, the Hammer of Sauron, the Tower of Sauron and the Black Hand of Sauron that attacked and murdered most of the Rangers that watched over the Black Gate and left the Kingdom of Mordor, including Talion himself. Talion merges with elven Wraith, Celebrimbor who seeks his memories of how he’s come to his current ethereal state. As this is an open world game, the story takes Talian and Celebrimbor from plot point to plot point and a incredibly small amount of side characters who shed some more light on the story’s proceedings.

And here is where the problems begin. No character sticks around for more than a few missions and none of their stories are ever resolved in a satisfying way. As a result, the story feels disjointed and almost cursory. Worse still, the most interesting characters pretty much don’t amount to anything significant. I can’t really go further without getting into spoilers but I will say one of the most interesting characters is almost literally cast aside in the most anticlimactic way.

In fact, that same complaint can be leveled at the game overall. It has a ton of good ideas that never pay off in any truly satisfying way.

The hook of the game is the much-touted Nemesis system. Your main enemies in the game are Uruks (orcs). You have your basic, nameless grunts who answer to captains who in turn serve under a Warchief – 5 in total. An Uruk killing you in combat creates a Nemesis and as a result they’re promoted to Captain, and eventually Bodyguard with the Warchief. The earlier portion of the game involves Talion aiding a Uruk, ultimately getting him into a position of Warchief. Killing all of the Warchiefs will draw out one of Sauron’s Captains, which will bring Talion closer to exacting his revenge and Celebrimbor regaining his memories lost since becoming a wraith.

Killing Captains and Warchiefs isn’t as simple as besting them in combat. All of them have a series of strengths and weaknesses which it serves you best to find out what these are. The only way to do this is by gaining intel by either finding intel at an Uruk camp, rescuing specific, albeit nameless, NPCs, and most often, specific Uruk – all identifiable on the map as a green marker. Once you have gained this intel you can participate in side missions involving known captains and either thwarting their plans or outright killing them – kind of. I killed several Uruk that wound up coming back and challenging me again, only stronger. OK, whatever, I just killed them again.

There is some strategy involved because some Captains and Warchiefs can be killed by stealth. Others can only be killed by melee, and others by ranged attacks. The more intel you have going after these targets, the more likely you are to survive the confrontation.

Eventually – through the course of playing the story missions – you unlock the ability for Talion to dominate Uruks by “branding” them and basically making them loyal to Talion to be called into battle for him with a button press. This provides a tactical advantage in a lot of side missions because once the Uruks see you, especially in a Stronghold, they will swarm you like crazy. Activating your makeshift sleeper agents will greatly even the odds and make the nearby captains easier prey because you can deal with them one on one. Branding Captains allows you to target other Captains taking them out and allowing your branded Captain to eventually become a bodyguard for a Warchief and have your Uruk betray the Warchief, paving the way for your very own Warchief.

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On paper and in practice, it seems like a cool idea, until the idea, much like the story, doesn’t go anywhere significant. There are no truly deeper mechanics to this system and absolutely none of it pays off in any significant way in the endgame. There is a brief battle that takes place that is made slightly easier if you have 5 branded Warchiefs, but other than that, nothing.

Extending this notion further is the combat in the game. There is a surprising amount of variety in which enemies can be dealt with. Melee is probably the approach that will be most commonly used. Based on the Arkham combo/block system, fighting in Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is incredibly satisfying. And the more you level up your abilities the more badass you will feel. Once overwhelming mobs or Uruks can be dispatched or dominated within minutes. It’s simple, easy to do, and incredibly fun.

Stealth also works very well. Pressing the right trigger will cause Talion to crouch, softening his footsteps and highlighting the enemy as you get close enough to kill the enemy with your dagger without anyone noticing, provided it’s not within eyeshot of an enemy. Later you can “brutalize” an enemy, which means carving him up so badly that nearby Uruks will run away in fear. Finally, you will be able to stealth brand enemies, which comes in handy, as I detailed earlier.

Finally, there is ranged. Pressing the left trigger will allow Talion to be taken over by Celebrimbor, allowing him to slow down time for as long as his “Focus” meter will allow. This is best for taking out archers, or, my favorite, igniting campfires or explosive barrels killing most enemies within the blast radius.

Certain abilities, as the a fore mentioned branding, are unlocked through story progression while most of the others will need to be manually unlocked by either using a skill point, or Mirian. Skill points are aqcuired through experience points earned in successful combat, completing story missions, and completing challenges. Mirian is earned through collectables and side quests.

Rounding out the combat system in the game are Runes. Runes are buffs that can be slotted into each of the three weapons at your disposal, ultimately having up to 5 Runes each. Runes are only aquired through killing Captains and Warchiefs. The buffs are random for each Rune so one Rune might give you a percentage of your Focus meter back, or Health, while others offer a percentage chance to replenish arrows or cause an explosion of sorts that knocks nearby enemies to the ground. There is a lot of variety to the combinations and all of it serves to make Talion extremely lethal in any situation as he continues to level up.

All of this serves to make the moment-to-moment action of the game incredibly satisfying and a blast to play. Unfortunately, when you scale back and see what all of these systems really serve, in the larger scope, it all seems incredibly superfluous. Sure the combat is fun, but ultimately all you do is better better at fighting large groups of enemies.

It plays absolutely zero role in the final confrontation of the game. Make no mistake, and I don’t think I can ever overstate this, but the final confrontation in this game is awful. Literally every single skill you have spent hours leveling up, the combat you have mastered, the health and focus you poured points into, literally all of it is useless in the final confrontation of the game. Instead all of that is replaced with a QTE. And no, I am not talking about a good battle and a final QTE, I mean the entire confrontation is a QTE. It’s 4 button presses and 2 stick moves. That’s it.

Instead of using all of the skill sets in some cleverly designed multi-tiered boss fight, which is exactly what I thought was happening based on the way the previous boss fights transpired. But nope, not here. A friggin’ QTE. And once the game ends, you are dumped back into the world to clean up on any side missions and collectables you may have missed but beyond trophies and achievements, there’s just no point.

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I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the few other things the game gets right. The visuals and the sound design. In terms of presentation, Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is a stunner. Gorgeous to look at, and impressive to listen to, it’s clear that Monolith wanted to really bring the world of Middle Earth to life in a way I have yet to see any game based on Tolkien’s universe has done before. And on PS4, it runs at a surprisingly consistent unlocked 60fps. Not once did I experience any slowdown or screen tearing and richly detailed world is truly shows a world in ruin where life once flourished.

The sound design is also top notch. Every voice actor nails their performance, even without the script giving them much to do. Of course, one would expect nothing less from Troy Baker who voices Talion – a fact I had no idea about until I looked up the cast. There are a couple of surprise characters from the movies that make an appearance, and while their big screen actors voice neither, the sound-alikes are impressively convincing. Finally there is the score. Composed by Garry Schyman and Nathan Grigg is rousing and epic and really gives the game a scope and scale far beyond that which really exists in the game.

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is an instance where the sum of its parts should be greater than the whole, but at the end of the day, it feels like a third of a game, stretched out into two sections and is ultimately an incomplete experience. It’s the video game equivalent of all style and very little substance, which is all the more disappointing because it has an incredibly solid foundation that for whatever reason, just winds up feeling half-baked


About the Author

Sean Mesler

Sean is a semi-retired hardcore kid, semi-grown up and transplanted from his original home of New York to Los Angeles. A lover and critic of movies, music and video games, Sean is always quick with an opinion, a heaping dose of snark, and a healthy dose of pragmatism. PSN & Live Gamertag: N2NOther