You know how I said in my Arkham City review that I never really liked Batman but the game changed my mind? Well, I never liked Lord of the Rings, based on exposure as limited as my exposure to Batman. I find the movies soul-crushingly boring and actually very confusing and the world they seem to build feels equally dry and boring. Well, I'm happy to say that Shadow of Mordor changed my mind. Not only is it a good game, but it's actually gotten me interested in Lord of the Rings lore all over again. It makes the movies truly un-epic by comparison with both the amount of amazingly imaginative ancient lore and still very human character writing that the game has. I like it! But let me explain why:
Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is a third person semi-open-world action game in the vein of Batman: Arkham City, made by Monolith - the people behind Aliens vs. Predator 2, the better of the FEAR series and I forget what else. It tells the story of Sauron's return to Mordor, seen through the eyes of the Ranger Talion, killed by the Black Hand of Sauron, along with his entire family. Now known as the "Grave Walker," Talion has returned to life thanks to an old Elven wraith, himself having lost his family at the hands of Sauron. Together, they go on a quest of revenge, or maybe something even more. And though the game CAN come down to third-person combat, stealth and terrain exploration, it also has a very cool "Urug'hai hierarchy dynamic" where you use either subtlety or strength to infiltrate the chain of command of the Orcs in Mordor, so as to expose their leaders and gain valuable allies.
Graphics and Design:
I don't know what engine this game uses, but it looks pretty good. There's talk of some kind of super-high-resolution textures which require 6GB of video RAM that you basically don't have unless you're using an nVidia Titan, but on the notch below that, I can honestly say that texture quality is decent, but well not worth the 3GB of video RAM it's supposed to take. That aside, the game's graphics are very competent - textures look good enough, character models are nicely detailed, animations are sometimes clumsy on the enemies but slick and beautiful on the protagonist and beheading Orcs has never looked this good. Your enemies even suffer conditional injuries based on where the 3D model of your sword intersects their ugly face.
Design-wise, the game's a bit of a mixed bag. The environments are mostly dull, but this is Mordor - what do you expect? Dead, defiled land. A second zone opens later in the game which is mostly lush vegetation so there is ample variety to be had, and the terrains are nicely varied, though largely unremarkable. Put it this way - if you dropped me anywhere in Mordor, I wouldn't know where I am without a map. It's very samey, but competent in this regard. The few (like, four total) Orc strongholds, though, have some charm and personality to them. Those I can tell out of a line-up, and I've even sort of learned my way around them. I'd give environment design an easy passing grade.
Where design really shines, though, is in the Orcs themselves. They're all ugly to the last, but there's an amazing amount of variety in exactly HOW they're ugly. Some have big ape-like mouths, some have huge scarred guts, some have giant cancerous masses on their faces, some have what appears to be moulding hair, all of this backed up by a staggering variety of body shapes from fat bastards to musclebound bricks to scrawny weasels to stocky tough guys to everything in-between. All of this is capped with a huge variety of "gear" that the Orcs can wear, such as hoods, helmets, horns, chest plates... One guy had a chef's apron. And outside of the VERY few campaign NPCs, most of the Orcs are randomly generated. I went through dozens of 'em, and I can't remember ever seeing the same Orc twice. No game that I can remember has given veritable monsters this much variety and personality. I dare say the Orcs are as varied as real people. And that's amazing!
Gameplay and Systems:
I'll save one for later, but that aside, Shadow of Mordor's gameplay breaks down into combat, stealth and "exploration."
Combat works almost exactly like it does in Arkham City - left click attacks, right click counters when a prompt shows up over an enemy. You have a lot of the same stuff, like the Wraith (Cape) Stun followed by a Wraith Flurry (Beatdown), you build up combos as you fight and can activate a variety of Execution (Takedown) moves when you get the combo high enough, etc. A new Grab move adds some spice, as it's part of the game's central mechanic, but for the purposes of combat it allows you to toss enemies or shank them. Or use them as a shield. What the Arkham games never had, however, is Elven Archery. Holding down right click puts you in third-person shooter mode, slows time down and allows you to draw back bow shots. Do a full draw, land a headshot and you can kill just about anything in one hit. However, the time-slowing mechanic (it's a Monolith thing) consumes "elfshot" and you need spirit arrows to shoot. The former self-replenishes or can be drained from enemies, the latter is scatter literally everywhere in the world. So basically it's the free-flow combo from Batman, but you can also occasionally pause time and shoot a bunch of Orcs in the head. It's a lot of fun, actually.
Stealth is A LOT better than it was in Arkham City, but let me explain the general gameplay of it first. If Orcs don't know you're around, they'll mill about doing their own thing. If they spot you, they'll start filling a yellow "bar." Once that fills, they'll start looking for you and fill a red bar. If that fills, it's combat. If you break line of sight, they will investigate your "last known position," marked by a ghostly silhouette of you. Here's the clever bit - EVERYTHING is stealth-capable. Orcs NEVER know you're there until they spot you, and even then they won't raise an alarm outside of Orc citadels. "Crouching" makes you much harder to spot at a distance, you can sprint while crouching and even climb walls, if you get seen you can either murder the Orcs who saw you directly (slow-mo arrows to the face tend to do that) or run and they'll search for a bit before giving up. You have a distraction mechanic to get them to come to you, your bow shots can draw them to an area, all of your stealth kills actually ARE stealth and if all else fails you can just run away completely and come back again. I find this far better than Arkham because it allows me to move through stealth encounters much faster and - crucially - with A LOT more confidence that I can recover. Aces!
"Exploration" is sort of a catch-all term for all the stuff you do in the overworld of the game. Literal exploration is required to activate Elven Towers which serve as your respawn points and fast-travel locations. Once activated, an elven tower will uncover all the herbs (used to regain health and for "survival" challenges) in the area, all the animals (used for "hunting" challenges) as well as any side missions or collectables nearby. Rather than bore you with all the usual stuff, though, let me explain the other thing that "exploration" covers - the RPG elements. Talion has two separate kinds of experience - XP and Mirin. XP you get from kills and other gameplay achievements. However, skills are tiered into four "levels." To unlock the next level, you need a third resource - "Power." Power is gained by engaging with the Orc hierarchy, which I'll explain later. Finally, Mirin works a bit like money, in that it primarily drops off of missions and side activities. XP buys skills, Mirin buys mostly stats. Beyond this, you have three weapons - a sword, a bow and a dagger. These can be upgraded with "runes" which you pick up from slain Orc chiefs (and there are always more of those). Beyond this, doing weapon challenges - crafting the legend of the weapons - can "reforge" them, though that seems mostly cosmetic.
Overall, gameplay carries Shadow of Mordor just fine on its own.
Story and Characters:
I wasn't expecting much, both out of the Lord of the Rings universe and out of an open-world game, but I got plenty. Though many story threads are brought up without amounting to much, they ironically end up doing a much better job of world-building than the movies did. For the first god damn time, I actually felt like Middle Earth's history is epic and fantastical. I read about Sauron, "the second Dark Lord" of Middle Earth. I read about how the Rings of Power were created. I learned that Sauron had been defeated 2000 years ago, drifting into myth as the Gondorian Rangers guarding the walls surrounding Mordor had dwindled until they were easily overtaken. But the Dark Lord was never defeated, merely pushed back to his own impregnable citadel, planning his return. What I'm saying here is Shadow of Mordor gave me an unparalleled sense of the scale of Middle Earth that Lord of the Rings, despite its astronomical budget, simply never could. Shadow of Mordor unironically inspired me to write, and I NEVER expect that out of games any more.
But as pertains to the plot: The Ranger Talion starts the game dead already, reliving flashbacks leading to his death in the first few minutes of the game. He has become bound to a wraith of some description, one able to look into the Shadow Realm, move unseen and even dominate the minds of the Orcs. He has become the Grave Walker - an powerful creature of vengeance who cannot be killed, for he rises from death and returns to take revenge on his murderers. Though Talion starts out as your typical angsty hero only wanting to kill the bad guy as though that'll make everything OK again, there's a lot more depth to him than that. I'd explain, but I feel the wraith says it best himself: "Revenge doesn't make pain go away. It sustains it." It's true that the story is told sort of scattershot and characters swing wildly from one temperament into another, telegraphic where things are going to go, I can safely say that I rather enjoyed all of them, as well as their character arc. And yeah - everyone has an arc. Even Ratbag the Coward, an Orc runt you help make Warchief.
There are quite a few cameos from Lord of the Rings characters. Gollum shows up over a forced but logical connection. Saruman makes his presence known. Sauron is a constant shadow in the distance. And there's even one other major character I'm very disappointed was never mentioned in the movies. The game's story seems to have been set shortly after Sauron's return, but well before Bilbo Bagins passed the One Ring over to Frodo. There is still the very real danger that Sauron may manifest in his own body and lead his armies once more into a battle that Middle Earth cannot hope to win. Weirdly enough, that's a time I'm much more interested in, personally, because it's a time when things are actually happening, or at least things we're actively participating in, rather than being dragged around on a journey while they happen around us.
All in all... I'm happy with the story.
If there was a single selling point to Shadow of Mordor, this would be it. While Talion's storyline goal is to kill the Hand of Sauron (this annoying black elf guy), how that works is he's supposed to kill or corrupt the Orc Warchiefs who prevent him from doing so. However, you can't just show up at an Orc Chief's doorstep and take a swing at him. For one, he's too powerful. For another, he has bodyguards. For another still, he's in an Orc Stronghold where literally hundreds of Orcs can attack you at a time. Plus, you don't even know who he is or how to draw him out. No, you have to work your way in from the bottom of Sauron's Army. Said army takes the form of three "tiers" of sliders arranged along a board, with the fourth tier comprised of five warchiefs. Each "row" contains something like six or seven Orc captains of varying power levels and special strengths and weaknesses. When I say "strengths," I mean stuff like "Invulnerable to ranged attacs," "Invulnerable to stealth attacks," "Poisoned blade."
Starting the game, you don't know who any of these people are, so they're represented by black shadowy figures. You can learn their identities by reading the minds of basic Orc grunts but all that tells you is who the Captain is and where you can find him. If you want to know his strengths and weaknesses, you have to either read the mind of another captain or else find "intelligence." Sometimes that can be from slaves or lost letters, but for the most part that comes from Orc grunts who have special knowledge. You have to grapple them and read their minds, not getting hit with an axe while you're doing it. Kill a war chief's bodyguards and he's much easier to kill. Or - through an ability later in the game - mind-control his bodyguards and have them betray him. I'll tell you a few stories in another post about that
The Orc captains do not idle while you mill about collecting herbs and shooting bats, though. They are locked in their own power struggle. Each Orc captain has a "power level" - anything from 2 to 20. They gain power by successfully holding events like feasts, tests of strength, recruitment and so on. They can't lose power, but they can actually die in these events if they fail to defeat a beast, for instance. They will also duel with each other, which can potentially kill one and have him be replaced by another. "You keep what you kill." Orcs you kill leave empty spots, but there will always be more. After a time, Sauron will fill his army with new recruits you don't know, whom you then have to research. The whole point to this, though, is that YOU need to involve yourself in this. For instance, wait until that warchief's bodyguard is on a Caragor hunt, let him get hurt then jump him and kill him. Oh, but be careful. If any regular ratty old Orc grunt kills you, he is IMMEDIATELY promoted to Captain and joins the power struggle along with all the others.
All of this - ALL OF IT - is procedurally generated. Orc captains show up with random stats and a random appearance, or else with the appearance of the one who killed you, just with a bit more armour. Every time you die, time advances, the Orc hierarchy shifts and if you killed too many... Well, that one runt who got that lucky spear hit on you now ends up as the bodyguard of the Warchief. The nerve... Unless that's what you wanted - a low-power bodyguard rising through the power vacuum you created for him, so he'd be easier to kill to rob the warchief of a bodyguard. You are the Grave Walker, the scourge of the Urug'hai and the unseen shadowy hand which influences the leaders ever so slightly. And I love every minute of it!
Buy this game. Seriously. About the worst I can say about it is it's kind of short (well, for a game I put 24 hours into...) and that it can get a bit repetitive if you play it in long stretches like I did. But I played it as long as I did because I was enthralled with the Orc power struggle. I played it like a Football Manager game, babying my own Warchiefs and showing up in the shadows to lend them a hand if they really needed it, slowly populating Sauron's Army with pawns of my own. The rest of the game - the combat, the stealth, the exploration, even the story - they're all just pieces which come together to form Sauron's Army. Just for THAT, I'd say buy it. No other game I've ever played has let me do that.
Of course, if you just don't like third-person action games, then I can't really recommend it because it kind of is what a Batman game would look like in Middle Earth. I'd also avoid playing Middle Earth if you're easily put off by gore. I rolled so many Orc heads I could pave a road all the way to Mt. Doom. There's a lot of blood and a lot of violence in there, plus some very cheap and nasty tones. When I say Talion's family was killed, I mean their throats were slit on-screen in a cutscene. Not pretty, and frankly something I'm getting tired of seeing done in games. It's a nasty, violent place.
Then again, that's Sauron for you. But the game's story is mostly solid, its gameplay is tight and pleasing and it does something so novel I can't even describe it fully. Plus, the game exudes production values. Strong voice actors reading off a script that's both very good and done in a "speech" which seems very fitting of Middle Earth. Graphics are slick, combat is fun and fast-paced and very little seems forced. Yeah, the game demands "full price," but this is one title I feel fully deserves that. I paid 45 Euro for it, and I'm very happy for it.