Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Shadow of Mordor Review - One Game to Rule Them All

Score: 9.0 / 10
Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor
Xbox 360 - Xbox One - PS4 - PS3 - PC
Developer: Monolith Productions
Publisher:Warner Brothers Interactive
Release Date: September 30th, 2014

  • Nemesis system is a spectacular random generator that extends playability
  • Combat and platforming are easy to pick up
  • Satisfying kill cams for every captain defeated
  • Multitude of tools to manipulate the battlefield and approach
  • Slew of side content and missions 
  • Xbox 360 and PS3 versions lack the hardware to capture the experience
  • Platforming is not always as precise as it could be
  • End-game makes you absurdly powerful
  • Abrupt and lackluster final encounter

Initially, I met Shadow of Mordor with frustration. Multiple attempts at slaying a warchief were met with disappointment, death, and confusion on what I was doing wrong. I was constantly being swarmed, poisoned, and otherwise staggered to the point of uselessness. Only after taking a step back and truly finding a best method of attack did I realize that Shadow of Mordor is not your average hack and slash game. It is not a game that will allow you to simply lay out groups of orcs and move on to the next target like nothing happened. This was a game of strategy, adaptation, and planning that transitioned from "if" you can kill the majors of Mordor to "how" you can kill them.

 For the last time, you cannot call me Casper

Talion, a ranger captain, works within a Gondorian garrison at The Black Gate which is suddenly attacked by an Orc army led by an elite figure known as the Black Hand. They manage to capture Talion and his family, killing them before his eyes before killing Talion himself in order to combine with an ancient Elf being known as Celembrimbor. Instead, Celembrimbor merges himself with Talion, and both embark together to exact revenge and find out how to break the curse that binds them. The base story is laid out, but much of the backstory dealing with Celembrimbor and Talion's history are discovered in artifacts scattered throughout the game or told through the loading screen upon firing up the title. The story is carried forward with new characters, interaction with a few surprise characters from the franchise, and takes a few twists along the way. Any LotR game has a lot to live up to in terms of story, but the stellar performances and intriguing tie in to the franchise helps the story carry interest as you learn more and more about the Black Hand.

The nemesis system is the core of the gameplay experience, and provides a unique adventure for every player. Throughout your campaign, a slew of captains and warchiefs are scattered throughout the land of Mordor. Warchiefs are the ultimate goal, but to get to them you will need to defeat or control their bodyguards. These captains all have strengths and weaknesses that you can learn by gaining intel from various sources; some fear Caragors, but some are enraged and strengthened by them, making each encounter different than the last. Captains can be "dominated" and moved up to Warchief rank for your own benefit. If a captain escapes or survives, oftentimes you can run into them again and they will bear a scar/burn from their last encounter with you. This element keeps Shadow of Mordor from becoming predictable, as every captain and warchief will be a new challenge to tackle. If you die in battle, that captain will be promoted and remember you the next time you do battle; a subtle but satisfying touch to one of the most interesting game mechanics I have seen in a while.

 I found their weakness; hitting them with sharp things!

Shadow of Mordor feels like a love child of Batman: Arkham Asylum and Assassin's Creed in terms of gameplay. With most of the encounters you have the option to approach it stealthily or charge in sword swinging, but both options have a multitude of tools at your disposal. Let us use the example of approaching a captain. I can stealthily take out all archers from afar with a bow, dominate all of the archers in the area and let them fight for me, or poison their drinks and have them fight amongst themselves. A more combat centered approach would involve unleashing wild Caragor beasts from their cage, slashing away at Orcs, countering their attacks and instantly killing them by building up my combo meter. The possibilities are endless and I found myself switching up my approach each time. The battlefield soon becomes a playground with endless tools at your disposal to set off chaos within an encampment. You can still find yourself overwhelmed if the alarm is raised or multiple captains engage you, and I soon learned that running away is a viable option as health is a precious commodity in this game that is restored through herbs or rune perks.

Leveling Talion will unlock abilities for both his armaments and traversal. Talion can go from simply shooting from afar to teleporting instantly to a target, riding Caragors, and killing targets instantly after a few slashes of the sword. In every aspect of combat, stealth, and traversal you can prioritize your favorite approach and open up even more tools to gain the upper hand. Each of Talion's weapons can also equip runes that drop from captains, which can further your strength by assisting in regaining health, focus, or other benefits from enemy kills. With a multitude of customization available at your fingertips, there is no limit to what kind of warrior you could craft.

I can see into your mind...not a lot in here

The world is an open playground, and host to many side excursions. Collectibles are scattered throughout the world, and delve more into the history of the characters you encounter. Special challenges are available for each weapon, with such missions as killing a certain number of Orcs with just stealth within a time limit or using archery to headshot targets from afar. Hunting challenges to kill certain animal types, collecting endeavors for varying plants, or freeing slaves to help your cause are a few of the multitude of icons that will litter your screen. Each side missions is fairly quick, prompting multiple occasions where I chose to walk in lieu of fast travel, knocking out side missions along the way to help gain new abilities.

By the end of the game I went from hunted to hunter in Mordor. I could manipulate every Warchief, interrupt and control every power struggle as Orcs vied for the top spot, and even dominate an entire army to my will. I felt powerful...too powerful, as the Orcs that once frustrated me had become so easy to take on that it felt effortless. Additionally, the final boss that I waited so long to face was nothing more than a button prompt segment. Despite all of that, roaming the open world and spotting a captain to take down acted as a major lure, and I often I found myself throwing aside my primary mission to this new personal vendetta against a captain that was causing trouble for me. Shadow of Mordor is a game that after the credits roll, you feel like you merely scratched the surface of what this game could offer.

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