One cannot simply walk into… oh, my mistake, go right ahead.
Shadow of Mordor is a best-of from the last ten years of third-person open world games. There’s a combo and countering system almost straight from the Arkham series (Although with more decapitations). There’s a parkour system from Assassin’s Creed (but with more ghost-enhanced sprinting). There’s big enemies to take down by weakening first like in Crackdown (but with more orcs). Whenever a game tries to steal all the best bits from other games, it inevitably fails and struggles to latch on to what made those games great. Shadow of Mordor might not get everything right, but it does far better than most, and actually innovates in ways that feel meaningful. It all comes together into a game that’s flawed but a lot of fun to play.
The basic premise of the story is that you’re a ranger guarding the black gate to Mordor but during an attack the outpost is overrun and you and your family are killed. Thankfully you come back to life as a vengeful wraith alongside the spirit of an important dead elf and using the skills and power of the two combined you wreak havoc across Mordor, taking down those who wronged you and weakening Sauron’s forces. The game takes place between the Hobbit and Fellowship of the Ring so there’s a few familiar faces and I think lore fans of the Silmarillion would be happy with how they’ve handled nearly everything else. IF anything you get a bit of a better look at what Mordor’s actually like to live in and how the orcs live which is much more interesting than it sounds.
Unfortunately this is where one of the game’s biggest problems occurs. Mordor is simply not interesting. Fans have defended the game’s barren landscapes that look like a quarry and ruined buildings that scatter the landscape by saying that’s how Mordor is meant to be, but if that’s the case why bother setting a game there? It’s like playing in a giant gravel pit and despite a change in scenery for some of the game, the actual architecture never really alters. While Assassin’s Creed games gave you spectacular historical cities to play around in, Mordor is lifeless and uninteresting. There’s so few notable landmarks (and one mission actually has you destroying something that would have made a good one) that everywhere feels the same. Although like in Assassin’s Creed you open up areas by climbing up tall towers, there’s nothing to see from those towers, just more tents,ruins, fields, gravel and cliffs. Boring cliffs at that.
Thankfully what you do within this dull setting is much more interesting. The majority of your time playing will be spent hunting down orc leaders. There’s a clear hierachy of them that can be accessed at any point through the pause menu and it’s incredibly fluid. If you kill a leader, those lower down might fight to take his place, if one manages to kill you he might get promoted. Each of the orcs has their own set of statistics, immunities, weaknesses and even personalities. So you might decide you want to improve the chances of an entertaining but weak orc by taking out all of his superiors. Or to take out a tougher warchief you might want to assassinate all of his underlings first so they don’t run to protect him. Later on in the game you gain the ability to ‘brand’ orcs, bringing them under your control. It’s become almost an obsession for us to brand as many as possible, when we fought the last few warchiefs we could turn all of their bodyguards against them, leaving us with very little fighting to do. It’s a brilliant system and by far the most interesting thing about the game, leading to exciting and often hilarious stories that are entirely generated by your actions and a little bit of luck. If you beat a leader but don’t fully kill it, it’ll come back for vengeance at some point bearing the scars of your previous fights. That’s something you don’t often see in video games, but it makes perfect sense within this world.
The combat is brutal and entertaining; this is a good thing because there’s so much of it. You can stealth your way around and this can be rewarding too as you hop from rooftop to rooftop with a bow and arrow, causing chaos by headshotting guards or releasing wasps or carragors (big tiger dog things) or slitting their throats from bushes, but the stealth system is fairly basic and often this makes things too easy. It’s more fun to wade in with your sword and wraith abilities, building up combos and unleashing superpowers to decimate whole armies. Limbs will fly, you can blow orc’s heads up and by the end you can teleport around the battlefield and use no end of different attacks to deconstruct enemy compositions in an intelligent way. The animation is on par with the Batman games and the sword fighting feels immensely satisfying. You can ever ride some of the larger beasts into battle and mow down whole squads of orcs before encouraging your monster to eat them. There’s the odd QTE that seems out of place but overall the combat system is a lot of fun.
Graphically Shadow of Mordor is a fine looking game, but it’s unlikely to win any awards. As with many open games, occasionally the light will catch in just the right way to make everything look amazing and on consoles there’s a few photo mood so you can find these perfect shots at your own pace. Unfortunately due to the bland environments and lack of interesting features i’s never a striking game. The dark cave moments look a little washed out with very little atmosphere and there’s a surprisingly sparse amount of special effects. Something like a dynamic weather system or rolling fog would have been appropriate and immersive but as it is you’re always fighting on a wonderful sunny day in Mordor. The character models do deserve a special mention, they’re detailed and vary between orcs. The leaders especially have their own little quirks and we’re yet to see two that look the same. All of the models have a lot of detail in the faces and they end up outshining the environment and looking slightly out of place.
If you can find Shadow of Mordor for less than RRP, we’d say go for it. It’s a lot of fun to play, but it’s slightly too plain to be outstanding in any way. It might not be the game we were hoping for, but then neither was the first Assassin’s Creed. Bring on Shadow of Mordor 2.