I love Monolith. I've loved them since way back when they made Blood. They have always made solid games with interesting twists, such as F.E.A.R. and first-person slow-mo, and Condemned: Criminal Origins with its melee and crime investigation focus. They did it again with Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor.
Shadow of Mordor is a third-person action game that plays like a combination of Assassin's Creed and Batman: Arkham Asylum. In the Assassin's Creed vein, there is a lot of climbing on buildings, sneaking around, stabbing orcs, interrogating informants, and finding collectibles. Shadow of Mordor does all of these better than Assassin's Creed has in the past. The climbing feels better and it's more obvious where you can and cannot climb. The stealth makes more sense, as breaking line of sight gives a ghostly outline to show where you were last spotted. This makes following enemies seem less omniscient and not unlimited in numbers, while still presenting overwhelming amounts of enemies. The informants are also better done in Shadow of Mordor. Taking a page from the Arkham games, information on your particular target can be gained by grabbing a particular orc, instead of tediously following NPCs, or (even worse) innately somehow knowing everything about your enemy from the start. This last one is something Assassin's Creed has botched badly in the last couple games.
Taking pages from Arkham, the combat in Mordor is very much influenced by those games, with the same attack, counter, evade, and stun face buttons. It's a well-done imitation, and I found that my skills learned from the Arkham games translated perfectly to Mordor. Also taking a page from Arkham's books, the collectibles include bits of Middle-earth lore which makes them something that (as a Middle-earth fan) I want to collect, rather than just boxes to check to completionists.
What Mordor does that neither of those games do is introduce the nemesis system. You see, true to Middle-earth lore, Uruk-hai lead the orcs and they are nasty. They're mean, they fight each other, and power is the rule of law. In the game, there are around 20 Uruk captains. They all have unique names. They all have a unique mix of strengths, weaknesses, fears, and hatreds. For example, a particular captain might be invulnerable to stealth attacks, weak against fire, afraid of Caragoar (large four-legged beast), and a hatred of losing. This would mean that stealth is useless against him, and he will regenerate his health if you take his health down but not out, but fire will do more damage, and he'll lose all of his strengths and hatreds if he sees a Caragoar.
Controlling the 20 something Uruk captains are five warchiefs, with more power and unique attributes themselves. They also have bodyguards, which are Uruk captains. Taking on a warchief without accounting for their bodyguards is a good way to find yourself fighting a lot of powerful Uruk. But you don't know any of these attributes or command hierarchy from the start. You don't even know these Uruk's names. You have to collect intel to learn these things. You can go into these fights blind, but it's much easier when you know what to expect and who might show up. Later in the game, you can exploit the command hierarchy by turning bodyguards against their warchief, or turning warchiefs and captains against each other.
Reading this, none of it might sound particularly compelling, but it is so well done that it makes the entire game. The named Uruk must have thousands of lines of dialog because repeat encounters result in them bringing up things that I had done to them in the past. Where Assassin's Creed forced me to collect intel just to put me in the same sneak, murder, run away cycle, Mordor made intel optional, and made the unique Uruk attributes a way of forcing me to be creative with my approach. The nemesis system created stories in Mordor that few games can replicate even with crafted encounters. I've written up a great example of one of these stories involving Orthog the Crafty at my blog.
Despite all of these strengths, Mordor isn't perfect. In fact, where it is lacking is in the crafted story. You play as Talion, and, right from the start, your wife and son are fridged and you're killed by a minion of Sauron. However, you learn that Talion can't die because he's possessed by a wraith. The wraith doesn't know who he is, but his power keeps Talion from dying in his quest for revenge. The story isn't particularly bad in itself, but it suffers from too much fan service. You run into a handful of antagonists modeled accurately from their characters in the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy who seem to just pop up for no good reason. Or at least, not good enough reasons. It's a bummer, because I loved all of the collectibles and their stories and found them much more interesting than dragging out movie characters for the apparent purpose of saying "HEY THIS GAME IS LIKE THOSE MOVIES! REMEMBER THOSE?" It's the movie poster cover art on the latest print of a classic novel. Tacky and unnecessary. The game itself stands alone great without the ham-fisted cameos.
The game ends weakly, and leaves the doors wide swinging open for the sequel, and I personally cannot wait. Maybe they'll get the story right next time, but if they don't, I'll hope to make my own, better stories with an improved nemesis system. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is one of those rare games where the gameplay mechanics create better, more interesting stories than what was written for it, and I hope that we see more of the nemesis system in these type of open world action games in the future.
Baseline Assessment: 8/10
Bonuses: +1 the nemesis system is absolutely awesome
Penalties: -1 weak story
Nerd Coefficient: 8/10 (Well worth your time and attention)
POSTED BY: brian, sci-fi/fantasy/video game dork and contributor since 2014
Reference: Monolith Productions. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor [Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, 2014]