The Lord of the Rings is a very tough sell when it comes to video games, because it doesn’t really have the best track record, perhaps the reason this game has chosen to go with “Middle-Earth” instead.  It’s difficult to create a great game when the amount of lore one can use is severely limited, as is the case here.  The franchise has a split IP (the books and films each require separate licenses) and the Tolkien Estate keeps The Silmarillion and all other expanded tales under lock and key, since EA let their license expire.  But Shadow of Mordor manages to tread very lightly on the actual lore of the franchise and still give us an excellent experience within Tolkien’s world.  It’s definitely a world worth exploring, containing a number of different ways to interact with the environment and combat that actually gives defeat a heavier impact than simply restarting at a checkpoint.

The tale of the ranger Talion begins with a grisly execution, where we find our protagonist has been slain.  Or rather, not, as his body becomes host to an Elven spirit that keeps him attached to the living world, so that he can exact his revenge upon the orcs of Mordor.  Yes, we’re slightly muddying the Lord of the Rings canon.   The game takes place between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and does a fairly good job of using just enough lore to keep things interesting and entertaining.  The main story does start out a bit bland, though, with most missions being little more than a way to unlock new abilities.  Still, you’ll appreciate any chance to interact with the few NPCs that aren’t trying to kill you.  They tend to have much more personality than the Gravewalker.

And for someone who walks over graves, he’s chosen the best place to do it.  Most of the game takes place in the northern part of Mordor known as Udun, where the Black Gate stands.  The land is arid, desolate, and filled with ruins of ancient civilizations.  There is a new area introduced in the second half of the game, but it’s largely the same, simply with more grass and trees, and a view of the sea instead of the mountains.  Plenty of people have accused Shadow of Mordor from borrowing from Assassin’s Creed, and the similarities are there when climbing towers or hiding in bushes, but you won’t find vastly populated marketplaces where you can leap from rooftop to rooftop or hide in a crowd to escape your pursuers.  Most of Mordor is simply empty, open space, so you get a few crumbling towers, and the crowds you find are all out to sever your head.

Combat gets chaotic when everyone wants to join in.  Can you spot the ranger?

Combat gets chaotic when everyone wants to join in. Can you spot the ranger?

You won’t have to worry that much, though.  Most of the enemies are simple grunts and if you’re at all familiar with the Batman: Arkham series, you’ll feel right at home.  The button scheme is so similar, you might know what to do without even reading the tutorials.  You have the standard attack, vault, counter, and stun, along with batar…throwing daggers and pretty much the same two-button combat maneuvers.  But there are even a few tricks in the environment to get out of bad situations – exploding grog, fly nests that terrify the orcs, hanging meat which attracts hungry beasts.  Eventually, you’ll even learn to control the orcs to fight for you, as well as the beasts you find in the world. It might be a copy for the most part, but that doesn’t make it bad by any means.  Combat is smooth, and despite all of your upgrades, you can still find yourself overwhelmed at the higher levels when facing off against more than one elite captain at the same time.

One aspect that truly makes the game stand out from its influences is the Nemesis system.  Every standard grunt has a chance of landing the killing blow on Talion, and when that happens, they gain notoriety among their kind.  They’re promoted to a captain (or higher), given a new suit of armor, and gain a number of different skills.  Each captain is unique – some will be immune to your stealth attacks, others have regenerating health, others can summon supporters.  But at the same time, many will come with weaknesses such as a fear of flies or a vulnerability to ranged attacks. It becomes essential to learn about each captain before confronting them.  And if you kill them?  They might just come back.  The only way to truly kill one of these orcs is to cut off its head.  Fail to do that, and he may just come back even stronger than before.  Just as the name implies, they become a true nemesis.

Of course the orcs aren’t the only ones to level up.  Talion can use earned XP to unlock new abilities, or spend Mirian (the currency you can gather in Mordor) to purchase upgrades.  Your weapons can become more powerful as well.  By killing a captain or higher-ranked uruk, you can retrieve a rune.  Each of your weapons (sword, bow, and dagger) has a number of rune slots and attaching various runes can dramatically alter the way you play.  Attaching runes to grant you health in combat can make sure you stay alive in a frenzied battle.  Runes granting focus and elf-shot can allow you to stay back and pick off orcs from a distance.  There are a wide variety of upgrades out there to suit nearly every play style.

Dropping in on a captain and interrupting his fireside chat.

Dropping in on a captain and interrupting his fireside chat.

Before Shadow of Mordor came out, there was a lot of concern that it was simply copying off of other successful games.  Several of the mechanics are very familiar, but the game does quite a bit to make itself stand on its own. The Nemesis System makes each fight more interesting because you know there are consequences to your death.  And there are a number of things to do away from the main missions – there are side-quests from hunting challenges to prisoner rescue missions, and even the collectibles offer more than the standard “Pick up marker #37” drudgery common to open-world games.  Though the story may not be the best, you can spend any number of hours simply exploring the world.  There’s plenty available for the player to do, whether you want to go riding a troll (graug) from one side of the map to the other in a mad feeding frenzy, or try forging the legend of your bow, or bending every orc in the land to your will only to kill them with the press of a button.  Oh, and there’s a photo mode, so that’s a nice bonus.


4/4 Pops: Essential.  The rarest of things, something that everyone calling themselves a game enthusiast should pick up and try once, regardless of preferred genres or themes.

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