With the big-screen adaptations of The Lord of the Rings at the beginning of the noughties, a slew of Middle-Earth-based games appeared, across various platforms and genres; most oriented around some interpretation of an action-adventure title. The thing is that across all these titles, despite their various strengths, the perfect game never arrived and some things that should not have been forgotten were lost.
With the third and final segment of The Hobbit being delivered this December, the time is ripe for cashing in on the revived Tolkien hype, and in Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, Monolith have done exactly that, and with aplomb. This is the slickest, most accomplished video game rendition of Tolkien’s world to appear on console and delivers a joyous game experience on a number of levels.
The pitch is as follows: murdered ranger Talion becomes trapped between life and death after watching his son and wife murdered before his eyes. His soul becomes bound up with the wraith (spirit, ghost-type thing, don’t quote me) of an old Elf-lord, Celebrimbor, who has endured a similar fate, and the two set about dismantling the machinery of evil that Mordor has become as Sauron returns from banishment. The player takes control of Talion and must learn how to wield his new power, derived from his union with the elf-wraith, and turn it upon his enemies in his quest for vengeance. It takes the form of a split stealth/combat action adventure game and there’s certainly a lot to do.
Some possible objections to the game should probably be countered early on. There has been some disapproval from online communities about the rather striking similarities between the core gameplay elements of Shadow of Mordor and those of the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Whilst I will not be so flippant as to say the similarities are merely superficial, I will happily go as far as to say the similarities noted do not constitute theft. Any third-person, stealth-based action game with free climbing that has been, is or will ever be will always be vulnerable to attack on the basis of similarity to the AC games. Ubisoft simply brought that setup to the widest audience, and gameplay of such an ilk will always incite some reminiscence.
As a free-roaming, open-world title with a number of mission types spread across a number of zones, with side quests, upgrade quests and collectibles running alongside the main questline, the comparisons with AC could go on to infinitum, but more credit should be given to what Monolith have done here. This is not innovation in principle, but innovation in composition. The magnificent fun that Shadow of Mordor can be, and most often is, is born not of a single, particular spark of innovation, but of a series of familiar sparks, brought together to form a persistently entertaining fire, well capable of giving off the occasional explosion to keep players on their toes.
Another feature ‘borrowed’ from another title and stitched into the patchwork masterpiece is the bulk of the combat system, which at an essential level emulates the system from the Batman: Arkham games. It serves wonderfully to keep a sense of flow running through the combat and permits a constant and consistent sense of progression; by keeping things relatively simple in the combat, Monolith have allowed the player enough breathing room to appreciate the environment, the characters, the well-researched lore and, perhaps most-interestingly of all, the political hierarchy of Uruk society and the mesh of cogs and pistons beneath that keep it whirring, the brand spanking new and rather spiffy ‘Nemesis’ system.
Whilst the aspects of the game I’ve mentioned up until now come together to form a brilliant gaming experience, each of them is derivative. The various components gel well, but the game needs something to call its own, something to jettison itself into the upper echelons of gaming, those titles that will not just be played, but will be remembered. And that comes in the form of the Nemesis system, from which the game derives its soul. Even when avoiding the scripted narrative entirely, opting to explore and wreak havoc on Mordor’s Uruk population instead, a strong structure emerges from the shadows, a structure which lends meaning to what would otherwise be inconsequential, shapeless chaos.
With each foe having a story of their own that develops in direct relation to your own and those of the other ‘named’ foes, each as dynamic as the other, the problem of anonymity in enmity is swiftly dissolved. The character you play, Talion, has every right to thirst for the blood of every Uruk in Mordor, having watched his family die at the hands of their leaders, but for the player to become invested directly, not just through Talion, something a little more is necessary. This little bit more is given to us by the organic unravellings of the stories and relationships created within the Nemesis system.
Also intriguing is how the system generates inter-character relationships independently of the player, how a hierarchy establishes itself in such a fashion that it can be deliberately manipulated to deliver certain effects. Once ‘dominating’ an Uruk becomes an option around halfway through the game, the player can start to pull some Machiavellian tricks to bring down the house of cards, guiding their man on the inside towards positions of power from behind the scenes. Also contained within each foe’s profile are their motives, strengths and weaknesses, all of which can be exploited to meet Talion’s needs. The Nemesis system brings a lot to this game and the possibilities it spawns offer a wonderfully cerebral counterpoint to the less thoughtful gore-athon that the combat can become.
Visually, Monolith have served up a treat, with Mordor recreated in a slightly less harsh fashion than we’ve seen in previous games and the movies, largely because the setting of Shadow of Mordor predates The Lord of the Rings. It’s interesting to see familiar locales from the films re-imagined as part of a larger open world and the smooth, crisp environments offer the perfect backdrop to some great animation work catering for a decent, if not overwhelmingly large range of combat moves and finishers.
A further point of strength is the voice acting. Coupled with the mechanics of the Nemesis system, the voice acting of the Uruks really breathes life into them, filling them with personality, which in turn paints some colour on the rather barren landscape they populate. Light-hearted moments are not uncommon and this maintains the balance, preventing the constant death and revenge from becoming cloying. The voice work on Talion, given by Troy Baker (who voiced Joel in The Last of Us) channels Sean Bean’s Boromir from The Fellowship of the Ring, and together with Celebrimbor, forms part of a po-faced double act, united by suffering, that somehow remain likeable, despite being their bitterness. Backed up by a full orchestral score, the game really has some clout behind it on the audio front.
There’s some room for improvement in the upgrades system. Whilst the runes used for adding buffs to Talion’s weapons are a streamlined way of upgrading gear, allowing the shedding of a more traditional, unwieldy inventory, the skill tree could use a lot of work. Some skills are limited not only by power and ability points, gained via XP, but also by story progression. When the game is designed to be able to play the missions in any order, there should be nothing other than character capability deterring the player from attempting this. In my playthrough I felt unfairly punished for focussing on the side quests, possessing a high-levelled character, but having nowhere to spend my ability points until proceeding with the main questline. The skill tree also lacked any consequence, other than the sequence in which the skills were to be unlocked. A niggle, perhaps, but one that stood out.
In the same way that a mixologist makes a cocktail, Monolith have made this game, and deserve credit in much the same way. The guy mixing the cocktail hasn’t crafted each individual ingredient from scratch, but there’s still an art to the way he puts them together, and it’s the same story that should be used to defend the more derivative aspects of Shadow of Mordor. Just because we’ve seen certain features done before, it doesn’t mean we’ve seen them done better than here. Whatever the game has borrowed, it has refined, and the new things it’s brought to the table are equally as shiny, staying that way even amongst the caustic rot of Mordor’s barren wasteland.