GAME REVIEW: Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, by Monolith Productions

GAME REVIEW: Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, by Monolith Productions

Hello there, I’m indie author and vlogger Garrett Robinson and this is Garrett’s Games. Welcome to my review of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, released this year by Monolith Productions.

First of all, a couple of things to know about me. I am the biggest Tolkien nerd I know. The Lord of the Rings is my favorite book. The Lord of the Rings movies are my favorite movies. I have read The Silmarillion, The Children of Hurin, The Book of Lost Tales and The Book of Unfinished Tales. If it’s Tolkien, I’ve probably read it. So I’m hardly able to be completely unbiased when it comes to Tolkien. As you will find out in this review, I enjoyed the crap out of this game. Will you enjoy it as much as I did if you don’t like Tolkien as much as I did? Perhaps not, but I do think you’ll enjoy the game regardless, and I’m going to make that case in the body of the review.

I also need to let you know that this is not a review to turn to for a breakdown of the graphics. I do not have a great gaming rig. It does its job, but I’m not able to test the limits of the game’s visuals. You want to go somewhere else for that, although I will say that from my limited perspective, the graphics are decent but not spectacular, while the motion capture, voice acting and facial animations are all very fantastically good. But again, take that with a grain of salt.

So Shadow of Mordor. What is it? It’s an action RPG, essentially. You control this main character, Talion, as he progresses through a storyline of vengeance against the minions of Sauron, trying to avenge the deaths of his wife and son.

You’ll also notice many times in the video how my body will turn to blue, and the world will get kind of dark and wispy. That’s because my body is joined to the wraith of an elf…and I can’t explain that too much further without story spoilers. Suffice it to say, in the first few minutes of the game, you witness your wife and son’s murder and then find yourself bound to an elven wraith who doesn’t know who he is. The wraith gives you various powers and abilities, like your ghostly blue bow and the ability to leap from place to place.

How’s the combat work? Well, you can see how it’s very similar to Arkham Asylum-style combat, where you’re striking, striking, striking, and then using the right mouse button to counter attacks from your enemies.There’s also a number of special attacks, like a stun punch, the ability to leap over your enemies and get behind them, and so on.

There’s also a stealth aspect to the game, and you know, often a game sticks a stealth element into the game because they feel like they have to, and you can always tell when that’s the case. Stealth doesn’t work quite like you think it should, it doesn’t feature into the game’s quests, etc. etc. That’s not the case here. Stealth is an important and viable aspect of your combat style, or at least it can be if you want.

Then of course there’s the ranged side of combat. You have a very powerful bow that starts out with four arrows, though you can increase that number through character progression. Headshots are instantly lethal on regular Orcs, and a couple of shots to the torso will bring them down as well. You also have a focus system, whereby you draw your bow and time sort of slows down to allow you to line up your shot. Focus drains while your bow remains drawn, and honestly it’s very very hard to hit anything after your focus has run out, though you can get certain runes that will increase your focus as the game progresses, which we’ll go over in a moment.

So you’ve got three distinct combat styles, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Stealth of course allows you to kill without putting yourself in danger, but it’s slower and you lose the ability to make stealth kills once the enemy detects you. Melee combat is fast and can cut down swaths of enemies at once, but if enough Orcs gang up on you it’s almost impossible not to be overwhelmed, even if your character is maxed out in terms of stats and abilities. And ranged combat lets you rain death from afar, but becomes significantly less powerful once you run out of Focus.

The way this ends up working in the game is that it almost forces you to mix up your playstyle between the three combat types, and to me this is a good thing. For example, I’ll usually stealth around an area, backstabbing as many Orcs as I can until they see me. When I’m spotted, I’ll whip out the bow and headshot as many Orcs as I can until I’m out of arrows or Focus. Then once that’s done, I’ve usually whittled down their numbers enough to whip out my sword and cut the rest of them to bits. But sometimes I’m still overwhelmed, and I have to back up and try again. It makes combat extremely dynamic and fun—in fact this game is the most fun I’ve had in a video game for years. And while you grow stronger, you never feel TOO overpowered—even near the end of the game, you will sometimes have to run for your life from an overwhelming horde of greenskins.

It also does wonders for the game’s replay value. Per Steam, I’ve clocked in 71 hours on the game so far, and I do NOT want to stop playing. I’d keep playing it now, except I’ve literally run out of objectives. I’ve gone completionist on the game and have nothing left to do, so now I’m perusing the DLC to see what else I can get out of it. 71 hours is a hell of a lot of time to spend on a game, and definitely makes it worth the 50 bucks I spent on it on opening day.

Before we move off the subject of gameplay, we’ve got to talk about the Nemesis sytem. Now, if you’ve heard ANYTHING about Shadow of Mordor, you’ve heard about the Nemesis system, if for no other reason than Monolith’s PR firm enacted a brand deal that every sponsored YouTuber had to talk about it. I find that deal repugnant, of course, and I personally did not take it, not that they offered it to me anyway, what with my 1,000 subscribers on my main channel at the time of this writing.

The Nemesis system is a part of the game whereby you keep track of Sauron’s army. Now your foes in this game are 95% Orcs, with a few other enemies thrown in. Now, 95% Orcs doesn’t sound like a lot of variety. Even though there’s different types of Orcs with missile weapons, big shields and spears, and dual-wielded axes, it seems like you could get bored pretty easily. Well, the Nemesis system is Monolith’s attempt to fix that, and I think they’ve done a great job. Because besides the normal Orc grunts you face on the ground, Sauron’s army has Captains, Chiefs and Warchiefs in ascending order of power and importance. These officers are all named, and every time you see one, they say something big and braggy about how they’re going to peel the skin from your bones, you know, standard stuff.

Now when you fight them, you will win and kill them, or they will kill you, or they will run away, or you will run away. Whatever happens, the Orc will REMEMBER it. If they survive the encounter, whether they kill you or not, they will become more powerful as more followers flock to their cause. So the next time you see them, they will be even harder to beat. Now, honestly, one on one, few Orcs in the game will ever pose a very REAL threat, but as they become more powerful, they will acquire more and more followers, who can quickly overwhelm you when you try to take down their master. This makes killing warchiefs a very risky, dicey proposition, something you have to do VERY quickly before you’re overrun.

Later in the game, you can affect the Nemesis system even more. For starters, you gain the ability to brand Orcs. This takes over their minds, making them your minions. You can then direct your minions to fight other Orcs, starting miniature civil wars you can fight in, aiding one side or the other. Whoever wins each confrontation grows in power, while the loser usually loses their head.

Because of this, there is a whole aspect of the game completely aside from the main story. You can gain a small army of followers throughout the land, following the careers of Orcs from lowly minions to mighty Level 20 Warchiefs, then killing them and taking the epic runes they’ll drop for you upon death. This, again, enhances the game’s replay value immensely.

Now, on that subject of runes, character progression is again handled fantastically well. You progress in three ways: Abilities, Character Upgrades, and Weapon Runes. Character Upgrades are usually passive, such as an increase to your maximum health or your maximum Focus. Abilities are specific, activated abilities you can use in combat, such as the stun punch, the ability to brand Orcs, and so on and so forth. The list of abilities is impressive, and there are hardly any that felt like “filler.” All of them seemed important and useful, depending on your personal playstyle.

Weapon Runes are dropped by Captains, Chiefs and Warchiefs when you kill them. There are a few different types, and a few different levels of strength. You can get runes for your sword, your dagger and your bow—they cannot be mixed between weapons. Now, Epic Runes are ostensibly the best in the game. While a normal rune might increase the damage of your weapon, or increase your Focus or produce some effect when you kill an enemy, Epic Runes produce a unique effect that triggers in certain conditions. For example, a normal sword rune might increase sword damage once you get a high hit streak, while an Epic Rune can increase the length of time enemies remain on the ground when you trip or stun them. This can be VERY handy in a tough fight, let me tell you.

Much of the endgame, then, focuses heavily on getting Epic Runes to fill your weapons, and you can increase your odds of getting them by playing the Nemesis system to fight harder Warchiefs, and then issuing death threats against those warchiefs, which further increases your chance of getting an epic rune from them.

The most important aspect of character progression, however, is of course how even it is in the game and how it affects your enjoyment. Once again, they’ve knocked it out of the park. You begin the game acquiring highly useful abilities, and you end the game still gaining highly useful abilities. It’s spread out quite well—you won’t get the brand ability, for example, until you’re about 75% through the main storyline. So you’re still experiencing major change and improvement right up until the very endgame.

Does the gameplay have any weaknesses? Yes. It has two of them, the first more major than the second. The first is a trait the game shares with games like Arkham Asylum. There are a few keys that have multiple functions bound to them, and those functions often differ very widely in what they do. Their use is contextual, and sometimes the game’s actual context is not what you THINK the game’s context is. So for example, you might be trying to drop down a single level from the top of a building to the next floor, but you didn’t realize there’s an Orc beneath you all the way on the ground. The “E” key, instead of dropping you a single floor like you wanted to, drops you all the way to the ground to attack the Orc, spoiling your stealth and maybe ruining your quest because you were detected as is happening to me right here.

Unfortunately the game does NOT let you split these functions up, so there’s no real way to avoid this other than to keep an eye on the bottom right corner of your screen to make sure your key command is actually doing what you think you’re telling it to do.

The second feature I had a problem with comes in the course of the main story quest. There are a few sections of the main story—too many sections, which last far too long—where you are walking beside a character who is explaining to you what you’re going to do next. You are not allowed to move ahead of them to your destination. If you try, you get a message that you’re “leaving the quest area.” And the characters walk SO DAMN SLOW. I hate it when games do this to me. If they want to regular how quickly I get the information they’re trying to present to me, then just use a cutscene! That way you don’t feed me the illusion of free will while simultaneously penalizing me if I want to move faster than a snail with poor command of its motor functions.

So that brings us to the game’s story. How is the story? How are these characters? On the whole, pretty good. Talion, the main character, is a fairly standard Action RPG protagonist: dark, stoic, motivated by the desire to avenge his family. This isn’t a new type of character, but it’s a new type of character IN the world of Tolkien, so that’s a saving grace. Again, if you’re not as big a Tolkien fan as I am, you might be a bit sick of characters like this.

There are many familiar throwbacks to the Lord of the Rings films in the game. There are moments reminiscent of moments in all three movies. Two of these moments come to mind that would probably not be 100% clear if you haven’t seen the films, so that’s something to consider. On the whole, though, things progress well, the voice acting is fantastic, and the graphics in the cutscenes are quite beautiful.

The game’s ending is atrocious. I will say that. Story-wise, it works. But it’s a boss fight, except it’s not really a boss fight, it’s a cutscene with “Press F to pay respects.” That’s not what you want after such an excellent story campaign that’s kept you gripped and entranced so far. Action RPGs often have a problem where the final boss is not the hardest boss in the game—where they’ve thought up a REALLY excellent boss halfway through, but couldn’t use them at the end because it didn’t work in the story. But in most Action RPGs, they at least try. This is more like Call of Duty games, which often end with you simply pressing one button after another to move your character through a predetermined sequence of events that result in the final boss’ death without any meaningful contribution on your part.

One reviewer I read made an interesting point about Shadow of Mordor, calling it an affront to Tolkien’s world. In Tolkien, he said, there are certain cardinal rules, themes we see over and over again. The power of the Enemy must not be used against the enemy. Might does not make right. Those who win are those who are virtuous, not those who strive for power. Shadow of Mordor violates all those themes, this reviewer said—and he was right. Did this bother me as a hardcore Tolkien fanatic? Not at all, and I’ll tell you why. Talion isn’t the good guy in Middle-earth. He’s the good guy in this game, but he’s not the hero of Tolkien’s world. He’s the blade in the dark, the agent who has to hide in the shadows and do dirty deeds while mighty warriors like Aragorn and brave adventurers like Frodo take the moral high ground and actually solve the world’s problems. Talion could never defeat Sauron—the game says as much, at some point. Instead, he’s a bulwark attempting to stem the tide until the forces of good can find the ultimate triumph. In that sense, Shadow of Mordor is in strong keeping with Tolkien’s core themes, and even more so when you consider a work like The Silmarillion and all the chicanery that took place in those pages.

So in the end, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. Good? Bad? Indifferent? In my own opinion, fantastic. Certainly the most fun I’ve had with a video game since I was a teenager. Excellent combat with a decent story to back it up, and a ton of additional mechanics that give the game life, meaning and a sense of reality without piling on a thousand little side games like many open world games try to do.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is my game of the year. While that might be because of my intense Tolkien fandom lending greater strength to the story, I’d defend that mechanically, at least, this game is on par with any other game this year, or indeed for many years in the past.

I’ve been Garrett Robinson. Thanks for watching, and I’ll see you in the next game.

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Garrett Robinson

Over 100,000 readers have read and loved Garrett's books, like the fantasy hits Nightblade and Midrealm. He's also a film festival favorite with movies like Unsaid, and a tech guru who posts lots of helpful how-tos for writers and filmmakers over at garrettbrobinson.com.

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