Middle-earth: Shadow Of Mordor, Review - Games Weekly

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Monday, October 27, 2014

Middle-earth: Shadow Of Mordor, Review

You'd have to have passed out of all knowledge for 2,500 years OK, seven not to find Warner’s Tolkien tie in reminiscent of a certain Ubisoft franchise. Rugged ranger Talion is a wrist blade away from an acceptance letter to  Assassin’s Creed ’s titular guild, bounding across rooftops and clambering up outcrops with all the ease of Ezio, Altaïr and the Kenways, if not their fluid animation. Despite this, Monolith’s attempt to tap into the open world stealth genre handles the business of assassination much better than any game with ‘Assassin’ in its title.

Atop the foundations of the familiar freerunning lies the Nemesis system. Across Mordor, the armies of Sauron are beginning to muster, personified by the orc leaders you’ll find randomly dotted about the maps. A linear story threads around your overarching objectives, which in the first of the two areas is to take on five Warchiefs, a task that requires creative thinking.

Open the Sauron’s Army menu screen and you’ll see a web of interrelationships spread out. The minions of the Dark Lord don’t always mix well, and you’re able to exploit these quarrelsome connections to play havoc. Mugdûsh The Sneak, for example, may want to execute Bolg The Tiny in a bid for power or to keep his own followers in line. Talion can upset his plans by showing up at Bolg’s beheading, and either stealthily set him free, or use the distraction to give Mugdûsh a thrashing.

In short, you become the fulcrum for Mordor’s hierarchical manoeuvring, but you’ll have to know your enemy to prevail. Orcs are only visible as silhouettes in your Sauron’s Army web until you’ve been out into the world to gather intel by capturing and interrogating their comparatively fragile subordinates. Orc leaders, meanwhile, remain frozen in status and power until you taste bitter defeat and respawn. (As the unwilling beneficiary of a wraith curse, Talion is unable to die per se, instead finding himself regenerated at a nearby tower after the passing of time with each rout.) Your actions or, in some cases, inaction during each ‘life’ will cause cascading shifts in authority. If you leave a certain Uruk to carry on his recruitment, feasting or trial by ordeal events unchecked, he’ll continue to ascend the ranks until you do something about it. The result is a palpable sense that you are at the centre of this world shaping events, and hearing enemies share stories of your deeds around a campfire is all the more satisfying for setting your own objectives.

As powerful as the Nemesis system is, the many options available when you clash with orc chiefs are what drive home the assassin fantasy. Suppose there’s a powerful Warchief who has killed you multiple times in open combat. To face him head on again would just risk further death and likely buff him ahead of future encounters. You need to mix up your approach.
You become the fulcrum for Mordor’s hierarchical manoeuvring, but you'll have to know your enemy to prevail
Stealth and intrigue should be your starting points, the latter entailing familiar instances of hiding in foliage, hanging from ledges and pressing up against walls to taunt nearby enemies before you slip a dagger into their ribs. It’s invigorated, however, by the addition of inspired wraith abilities. Elf-arrow ranged attacks, for instance, allow you to instantly teleport to distant foes, lending a Marvel superhero sensibility to proceedings. With each named orc also boasting a selection of strengths and weaknesses, learned by clamping your palm onto the face of a minion, you can start to figure out how to hit them where it hurts. Next time you fight that Warchief, you’ll know you’re better off with fire attacks, avoiding ranged combat altogether or riding into battle atop one of Mordor’s monstrous mounts, depending on what your target is invulnerable to or what he fears most. And while instigating power struggles between orcs can also chip away at the problem, in the latter half of the game Talion unlocks the capacity to brand and command foes, forcing them to incite riots, betray their leaders or murder their fellow officers. The choice of approach is yours.

If it comes to drawing your sword, however, another influence becomes clear: the Arkham games. Talion’s sword-swinging skills feel neither as smooth nor as flowing as the Dark Knight’s moveset, while screen filling hordes can make quick work of your health bar and obscure much of the action. The latter at least works in Shadow’s favour, ensuring its stealth isn’t undermined by Talion being a combat juggernaut.

It’s competent enough, but the lure remains the ability to inform your approach to the more difficult scenarios of the late game through imaginative play, rather than walking the line of mission flow charts that usually leads you to your target in less open ended stealth games. When you eventually best a Warchief, using knowledge you have gathered and assets you have cultivated, the sense of achievement is profound.

It’s a shame, then, that the terrain you wander through as you do all this is so visually substandard. Textures are murky, and not just in a deliberately oppressive manner. Neither of the two maps has any particularly memorable locations that you’ll take with you from the 20-hour story. Also, while the orcs themselves look fantastic, with the procedurally generated models capturing tiny little affectations (a collector of ears wears his hoard around his neck, for example), Talion and his fellow humans are as wooden as Gerry Anderson puppets.

But when you’re blade deep into a darkly violent adventure of your own making, you’ll be inclined to forgive these visual missteps. That goes double for fans of the source material who, after so many mediocre titles that have undercut the franchise at large, finally have a videogame worth fighting for.


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