As a brilliant and beautiful game of exploration and more importantly tearing apart orcs, Shadow of Mordor is basically the answer to ‘What if Assassins Creed and the Arkham games had a kid that was really into Lord of the Rings?’. As an open world Lord of the Rings game, it succeeds where many others have failed, but perhaps its most obvious triumph is how it manages to fit into the established world of Lord of the Rings, whilst still telling a fresh new story. All in all Shadow of Mordor proved a huge hit through a combination of its compelling main character(s), a great combat system, fantastic open world, and an intriguingly advanced enemy system which makes death really mean something.
A classic revenge tale, with just enough Tolkien lore to add something new, Shadow of Mordor’s plot revolves around a Ranger of Gondor named Talion, who along with his family is murdered during the prologue. Almost straight away, however, his spirit is bonded with that of Celebrimbor an ancient elf with some serious memory loss (and a particular bone to pick with Sauron and his army). After the two are bound Talion is unable to die, now driven by his revenge to take down the Tower, Hammer, and Black Hand of Sauron (the Orc captains who killed his family).
The storyline sees Talion and Celebrimbor meet Gollum numerous times, along with a range of other characters such as Ratbag – a cowardly, but ambitious Orc, Hirgon – a former Ranger who now leads a small group of people wanting to live in Mordor (for some reason), and Queen Marwen and her daughter Lithariel – who live in the sunny and green south of Mordor. Talion also allies himself with the dwarf Torvin who teaches Talion how to hunt, and tame, the various beasts of Mordor.
Although nothing ground-breaking in terms of original storytelling, the plot in general is a great addition to the Middle Earth franchise (it being more in line with the movies, rather than the books), and manages to tell a truly entertaining standalone story without needing to get too involved in the main Lord of the Rings story (a place where a number of spin-offs and prequels often fall short).
Anything that Shadows of Mordor lacks in terms of originality both in regards to the story and gameplay, it more than makes up for in its execution. Mimicking the Arkham games’ combat and stealth mode, whilst adding weapons, supernatural powers, and more gory takedowns, could have been easy to mess up, however, the system feels as good as ever, and right at home within Mordor. Slightly more forgiving than the classic Arkham model, for example, Mordor allows the player to counter at almost any point unlike Arkham which locks you into animations, and of course, the addition of various powers and weapons makes taking down endless waves of orcs extremely entertaining.
Possibly the most interesting feature of Shadows of Mordor is the ‘nemesis system’, which essentially creates an endless hierarchy of randomly generated (unique) Uruk’s for Talion to interact with. The concept of ‘Sauron’s army’ is an ever-evolving chain of command, with constant power struggles, and once Talion takes down one of the higher-ups, the lesser ranked Uruks battle in an attempt to fill the power vacuum.
What really makes this system so impressive is that each of these Uruks are unique, and randomly generated with vastly differing physical appearances, armours, strengths, weakness and names. Secondly, and perhaps most crucially, not only are each of them unique but so are their interactions with Talion himself – in essence, the Orcs remember. When you come across an Orc that has previously killed you (or one you previously battled) a small cut scene launches in which they often reference that event, going into specific details. So, for example, when you set fire to an Orc and encounter him later he will be covered in burns and may now be scared of fire (which you can use to your advantage).
The addition of unique enemies who can level up in a similar way to Talion and more interesting and specific interactions adds significant depth to an already clever system, resulting in an enemy hierarchy which is arguably more fun to explore than the main campaign.
Although not the most advanced levelling system for the playable character, the level progression is essential, often in the early stages it is easy to become overwhelmed by the many Uruks within Mordor, but soon enough, once Talion/Celebrimbor has upgraded a few of their abilities (and learned new ones), you’ll be tearing through the monsters of Middle Earth quicker than Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli put together.
Despite the game doing little in ways of originality, other than its brilliant Nemesis system, it still manages to feel fresh and complex, and what could of easily been a ‘diet Arkham meets Assassins Creed with a Lord of the Rings skin’, instead manages to be a unique game adding up to a truly memorable experience, and one of the best on current consoles years after it’s release.