J.R.R. Tolkien never liked the idea of his books making the transition to the world of screen. You would hope then, that Peter Jackson’s trilogy would have dissuaded him from this line of thinking. It breathed life in to an already well-loved set of books and fascinatingly detailed world through the entirely different medium of film. Unfortunately Christopher Tolkien, J.R.R.’s son, has apparently stated his disapproval of Jackson’s conversion of his father’s books stating “They gutted the book, making an action film for 15 to 25-year-olds.” Tolkien’s estate also took issue with profits made from the films involving an $80 million legal battle. It looks like we won’t be seeing any more of the great professor’s world on the big screen for at least a while yet. And so here we are, despite the criticism and legal battles, experiencing one of the inevitable conversions of Tolkien’s work to an interactive medium from the success of Jackson’s films. Many have come before of course, some successful, some not so much. And as a licence, there are always the usual suspicions of cash-in opportunities, conjuring the image of greedy-faced publishers, rubbing their hands with glee at the thought of well-meaning folk dumping £29.99 in to their bottomless purses to experience permanently hitting X on their controllers in the most mind numbing way, yet perfectly content as the whole affair is wrapped around their beloved world. And yet there are always exceptions; Dune II, Goldeneye, and the recent Alien: Isolation to name but a few.
Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor then did not escape my own initial suspicions, but watching the in-game footage prior to playing did give me a lot of hope. I’m pleased to say I wasn’t disappointed either. Shadow of Mordor pits you, Talion, as a Ranger of Gondor, trapped between the lands of the living and dead after you and your family are brutally murdered at the hands of the dark lord Sauron’s orcs and a particularly ruthlessly creepy and nasty figure, known as The Hammer of Sauron. Talion, having been brought in to the world of wraiths, and imbued with other-worldly powers, now must hunt those who murdered him and his family.
Mechanically it owes a lot to Assassin’s Creed and Rocksteady’s Batman games, that much is blindingly obvious, but this isn’t a bad thing. Navigating the landscape owes much to the parkour style of AC, the slick animation system sees Talion vaulting and climbing on almost every surface like a high-fantasy version of Altair or Ezio. Its open world system and map dotted with main and side quests makes it feel even more like Ubisoft’s famous assassin series. There’s even a ‘leap of faith’ move when jumping from high places. Talion’s swashbuckling antics while fighting the Uruks and Orcs of Mordor are also epic to say the least. The action expertly straddles the line between being able to easily create grand moments of action, dispatching multiple minions of Sauron’s horde in a fast and slick method by using simple moves, while still adding just enough nuanced difficulty and variety in to the control to make you feel like a deft hand rather than a simple button masher. None of it feels like a cheap rip-off though, the game feels so well to control that any plagiarism is forgiven.
The fight scenes feel dynamic and cathartic, and they manage to recapture the power and style of combat expressed in the films. There is a point near the end of the Fellowship of the Ring film, where Aragorn, after telling Frodo to flee, calmly faces an entire army of marauding Uruk Hai. He draws his sword, grimaces, and then proceeds to maim, decapitate and basically kick orc-ass in the most badass way imaginable, all with the style and grace of an expert swordsman who makes the slaying of orcs look like art. It’s like watching a ballet, except a lot more brutal, with rolling heads and black orc blood. It’s exhilarating, and watching it at the time was the kind of thing I really wanted to experience in a Lord of the Rings game. This, Shadow of Mordor then, has finally managed to achieve that for me. Talion’s sword swings with brutal purpose on the bodies of orc and beast alike. Fights in Shadow of Mordor are often fought against packs of orcs, making the fight scenes more epic, but even when Talion is attacked from behind you have a short window of time in which to perform a block. Talion then blocks with style while retaining the momentum of the fight scene. Successive blocks and attacks will trigger the abilities such as executions, which are punctuating visceral moments of catharsis.
The nemesis system however, is probably Shadow of Mordor’s most interesting feature. Mordor’s orcs are organised in to a military hierarchy. If you kill an orc captain, another will eventually take his place, however if you are killed by an orc, he can be promoted to captain and every time he kills you , he gains more power, making him more difficult to defeat in future. The satisfaction of finally killing an orc captain that has been a thorn in your side is cathartic to say the least. Each orc captain has certain strengths and weaknesses, and these are applied at random to new orc captains. It gives the orcs personality and new emergent ways to defeat each one. It also offers the game much in the way of replay value as the methods you use to put orc captains in the ground can be different each time. I could probably spend hours just running around the world picking a scrap with any orc that comes across my path, and it’s enormous fun just doing that. By playing the main campaign however, you get to experience some of the deeper aspects of the game.
I’ve currently reached the second major area of the game, The Sea of Nurn, after spending a lot of time roaming the dark landscape of Udun, the starting area, for orc captains and warchiefs, discovering relics, and getting involved in the side-mission power struggles. All of these were a lot of fun and in addition helped me unlock new abilities and upgrades for my weapons that provided me with a deeper combat system. But there came a time when I finally felt I should now move on through the main game.
The Sea of Nurn – in comparison to Udun – is much more lush, green, and bathed in golden sunlight, which is a welcome change; yet it is still just as dangerous. I’ve been charged with dominating an orc captain – an ability I recently learned and used it to free some slaves from an orc outpost. Dominating orcs allows you to bend them to your will, allowing you to call upon them to fight for you at your command. Their glowing white eyes indicate an almost holy, psychological trance once dominated.
I approach a set of ruins atop a grassy mound where the orc captain dwells. He’s surrounded by other orcs and I really need to take them out first before I deal with the captain. Dominating a captain requires me to wear his health down first (he can’t be instantly dominated through a surprise stealth hit, like other enemies) before grabbing him and administering the mind control, which could be easily interrupted by an angry mob. I sprint towards the base of the hill, hoping to avoid any orcs on the edge from spotting my approach and vault up the vertical edge. I cling to the top ledge, watching in silence as the orcs roam. They have captured slaves here. It would be tempting to rush in and free the slaves, if only for some kind of unrewarded glory, (the xp bonus on freeing slaves is pretty low) but I know that doing so might jeopardise my chances of dominating the captain and I need to methodically take out the rest of those orcs first. I stealthily ‘ledge kill’ one of the orcs by attracting his attention while still clinging to the cliff edge. As he nears the edge I plunge my knife into his belly and fling him over the side. Unfortunately a couple of the other orcs notice his little tumble and come to investigate. They are a little more alert than usual, the little yellow markers above their heads are growing to indicate that they’re closer to sniffing me out. The yellow markers turn to growing red ones and I know now that I’m really in trouble, these orcs are a little more savvy than usual. Suddenly, before I know it, their red markers are full; they’ve spotted me and have started calling the other orcs around for help. I leap down the precipice and sprint around the hill trying to shake them off. It works and I think of my next move.
There is a guard tower on the other side of the hill which can be used as a vantage point. Activating the wraith mode, (a ghostly reconnaissance ability which allows me to see through walls and identify high value targets) I notice an archer in the tower. I scale the wall, hanging just under the window and check his position with wraith mode again. He has his back to me. I sneak on to the platform, creep up behind him and slam my dagger through his skull (with the utmost of stealth of course) and turn to survey the scene from the tower. Looking down I can see that most of the orcs are crowded around a campfire. Shooting an arrow in to that campfire will cause an explosion that will deal massive collateral damage. The other orcs will be alerted of course, but they won’t know where the attack came from and will eventually go about their business after a time, cold and detached to the plight of their dead brethren. One of the great aspects of Shadow of Mordor is that it provides a plausible reason for its various archetypal gameplay mechanics that may otherwise seem unnecessary and break the suspension of disbelief. Talion can respawn after dying because, technically, he was never alive to begin with, he is a ghost. Orcs will call off a search after a short time even when their dead brethren lie strewn around them because they are orcs, they have no sense of compassion. These simple facts helps to sustain the plausibility of the stealth system and the manner in which orcs will be, and cease to be, alerted to your presence.
I loose an arrow which causes a huge explosion, instantly killing a few of the orcs while the rest writhe on the ground covered in flames and eventually lie lifeless nearby. The remaining orcs are alerted and start scouring the area, they never think to look up at the tower though, well at least not yet. I ready my bow again, preparing to snipe some of the remaining orcs from high. Keeping the bow drawn not only increases its stopping power but also drains ‘focus’ for a short time, slowing time and allowing me to gain those all-important head shots in quick succession. The first arrow pierces straight through the eye of a fat, lumbering orc. I ready the second. Time is still slowing due to my active focus but the orcs are fast becoming aware of my location. The second hurtles through the air and straight through an orc’s skull, knocking him backwards to the ground. A third arrow misses the head of an orc and slams instead in to his chest, staggering him for a moment; the fourth finishes the job. My slow-time focus mode is diminished now and the orcs, alerted now to my location, start throwing axes and daggers up at the tower. I sprint towards the back of the tower and scale a little way down the wall, edging around it to hide from the roaming orcs. They eventually give up their search and I climb higher on to the tower this time. I manage to dispatch a few more of them with my bow while remaining hidden and now only two remain: the captain and a nasty looking uruk. I decide to kill this one up close and clamber down the tower. I silently move among the ruins until he’s within striking distance. While his back is turned I creep up by behind him and administer a fatal blow.
The captain, alone and vulnerable, prowls the area sniffing me out. I press up against the wall behind him and leap out. Our swords lock as he pulls his rotten face towards mine. I can almost smell his reeking breath as he issues threats and insults before we duke it out. He lunges at me and I block quickly, lashing out instantly with a counter attack. I get a few hits in but take a step back before he regains his composure. Despite his lack of threat I want to be careful with this one, if I lose this fight I will most likely have to challenge him all over again, and he’ll be even more powerful next time around. He comes at me again, and again I block, swiping at him and landing hits. He staggers back this time, stunned. Stunned enemies can normally be executed, but with more powerful orcs like captains, it will simply take off a large chunk of his health. I have plenty of time as there is nobody else around and so I smugly saunter towards him, grab his head and plunge my dagger in to his ribs. His eyes widen and he doubles-up violently, feeling the sting of the blade.
All weapons in Shadow of Mordor – the bow, dagger, and sword – are able to equip up to five runes which imbue them with various properties. These runes are collected from the corpses of fallen captains and warchiefs and are randomly assigned a special property and levelled quality. One of the runes on my dagger does extra damage to captains when using the execute ability and so after using it on this captain, his health falls considerably. His health is now low enough for me to attempt to dominate his mind so I lunge forward and – grabbing his head in my ghost-like wraith form – send white hot flashes through his brain. The process is quick and the orc captain is finally under my control, forced to do my bidding. As the current bodyguard of a warchief I would normally have one of three options at this point to deal with this orc. I could either send him to betray his own master at my command, assassinate another orc captain, or challenge the bodyguard of another warchief so that I may more easily take him down. For the purposes of the mission though I am tasked with having him challenge another warchief’s bodyguard. Eventually I will help him take down the warchief’s bodyguard and by doing so, he will succeed him. I’ll then help him build an army of followers and eventually betray his new master.
Shadow of Mordor’s mechanics then, in particular the nemesis system, offers broad, systemic gameplay in an open-world environment. While obvious, open-world titles such as the Grand Theft Auto series offer the potential for emergent narrative and action, they differ from Shadow of Mordor in that those experiences often come in short bursts and, most importantly, often have no real permanent effect on the world through free-roaming gameplay. Shadow of Mordor’s power structure of your enemies is permanently altered and diversified according to the success or failure of your actions. This is clearly its strong point, and what sets it apart from other games of its ilk. But, as discussed earlier, its combat is also a very good example of how to do third-person action very well.
Shadow of Mordor is not without its faults. Controlling Talion in the world is, for the most part, a comfortable affair. He will scale walls with ease and can be directed over and around obstacles with not too much trouble. There are the odd moments however, when Talion will not always quite perform in the way you would like him to. Case in point: in trying to sneak up behind an orc archer on a tower to stealthily cut his throat, I instead accidentally switched targets at the last minute and leapt down to plant my knife firmly in the face of an orc… watched by about twenty other orcs… who then proceeded to alert everyone else in Mordor… To be fair though, that kind of thing happened partly due to my own ineptitude with the controller.
Its environments, that are clearly designed for the purpose of vaulting and parkour-esque antics, can start to break the suspension of disbelief when you realise that it is made up of a lot of block-like sections. By the time you reach the second major area – The Sea of Nurn – the layout and geography of the land seems more obviously set up to cater to Talion’s acrobatics than to instil any sense of place. It would have been nice, for example, for the Sea of Nurn to include more rolling hills and deep forested areas while retaining the possibilities of stealth. It is still, however, a beautiful game whose environment is well set up for its purpose, and these whines are really just minor niggles trying to find fault in what is, for the most part, a thoroughly engaging experience.
Shadow of Mordor then has a lot to offer even those mildly interested in it – but who may have otherwise been on the fence as to whether to take the plunge. Certainly if you’re a Lord of the Rings fan you should check it out. There is lore there that will be familiar to both fans of the books and films, along with extra content, unique to the game, added with a certain amount of artistic licence. Even if you’re just an Assassin’s Creed or Batman: Arkham fan it’s worth delving in to. Don’t judge it too harshly on the way it borrows their mechanics though, as it recreates them rather well, those moments of seamless, cathartic action will soon become precious to you.