Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is a greater game than it has any right to be.
Ponder a moment on the premise: you play as Talion, whose wife and son are killed right in front of him before he is possessed, in a sense, by a wraith. As a result, he’s “banished from death” (as the game puts it) and gets a bunch of wraith powers. He proceeds to put his powers to use in terrorizing an open-world Mordor, killing a whole lot of orcs (or rather, uruks) along the way, seeking revenge and an end to his curse. The concept of the main character alone sounds like fanfiction. The marketing buzz I heard did nothing to ease my scepticism, and I avoided watching a single video of it until the week of release.
Then, after watching a video, it went immediately to the top of my list. Shadow Of Mordor is fascinating to see in action, and there are systems in place here that will likely be used by many games to come. That in itself seems funny to say, given that the game clearly rips elements from the Assassin’s Creed and Arkham Asylum series, but the touted Nemesis system is touted for good reason. A dynamically generated hierarchy of Uruks with their strengths, weaknesses, their constant power struggles in which you actively interfere, not to mention the situational dialogue that makes each and every one of these Uruks seem like an individual character… it seems Molyneaux-esque on the scale of grand promises, but the curious thing is that this system actually achieves its goal magnificently. The moment-to-moment gameplay in Mordor is second to none; I’ve never seen so many satisfying moments in an unscripted setting.
It’s when I turn to the actual script that I begin to wonder about Shadow of Mordor‘s connection to Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. Being relatively fond of the Lord of the Rings movies and a huge fan of the book of The Hobbit (and ONLY the book), but nonetheless ignorant of the grander lore, it seems to me that Mordor is ultimately limited by the setting. The story itself is passable at best, and at a couple of points I was tempted to do something I never do; skip the cutscenes. Still, it would have served its purpose as a vehicle for the gameplay had the last hours not been so fumbled.
To know, up front, that the ending does not deliver is to have an improved experience. The gameplay builds it up so magnificently that it becomes easy to get excited about where it’s all going. Having caught wind, however, that the ending was fairly disappointing, I set my expectations accordingly, had an incredibly fun time and shrugged the ending off.
Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor comes heartily recommended, albeit with one qualification: Don’t worry about the story, treat it like a purely open-world game and you’ll have on your hands the best open-world game on the market, Lord of The Rings fan or no.
By Jesse Young