Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, One Ranger to rule: Review - Games Weekly

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Saturday, November 1, 2014

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, One Ranger to rule: Review

Traditionally, the prose of Tolkien doesn’t play nice with the world of games… Unless those digital Hobbits are being delivered in the form of stackable Danish bricks. It’s a trend which makes this rather spiffing open-world effort that rarest of breeds: a licensed game that not only isn’t a stinker, but also captures the spirit of Peter Jackson’s industry-changing trilogy. Well, at least the Uruk-hai-eviscerating parts.

At first glance, it’d be easy to pigeonhole Middle-earth: Shadow Of Mordor as a derivative cast-off. Monolith has lifted the parkour and sync towers of Assassin’s Creed and the fluid, combo-led fights of the Arkham series and spliced them into a world about as sexy as a picnic date in Bognor Regis. Not that the game’s take on the baking flats which lie beyond Sauron’s Black Gate aren’t faithful to the mythology, it’s just hard to turn what’s essentially a giant, simmering crater into sandbox eye candy.

Set at some point between The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings, Monolith’s adventure casts you as a gloomy (and freshly widowered) Ranger Of Gondor, very much in the Aragorn mould. Unlike Mr Mortensen’s dreamy warrior, Talion suffers from a slight case of ‘being a bit dead’; existing in a state between life and the Reaper’s grip after having his throat slit 20 minutes in. Yes, he’s less charismatic than Viggo’s toenail clippings, yet Mordor at least has the courage to tell a story
that’s mournful and mature.

But enough with moody plotting you stopped ’round these parts for Orc slaughter, and Mordor is happy to oblige. The core of the game’s appeal centres around the Nemesis system: a procedurally-generated feature where enemies react and evolve depending on your actions in battle. It’s a mechanic that’s a tad tricksy to describe, but one that enriches Talion’s world.

Say you stumble upon Uggu The Brander in combat God, I love their names. If Uggu should get lucky in battle and put you down, he’ll work his way up the ranks of Sauron’s Army, becoming a Warchief or Captain in Ivan Eyeball’s legion. Conversely, if you injure Uggu and send him fleeing with a nasty booboo, he’ll seek you out later, hungry for revenge and riddled with scars. An Orc never forgets… Unless you off him with a Bats-style finisher.

The Nemesis system feels truly organic, helping to create an open world that’s shaped by your actions. You eventually start seeing repeated templates, (there are a whole lot of Uruks looking for vengeance after being burned), but the illusion of true choice and consequence persists and it’s a thrill to see baddies moulded by your blade.

The actual swordplay that powers Mordor’s scuffles is a pointy pleasure. Fights may be heavily informed by Rocksteady’s work, but they still have a balletic grace of their own. It helps that buttery animations make the transition between blocking and swiping your weapon look hella smooth.

Squint a little harder, though (not too hard: some of those Orcs have super bad skin), and small problems start to surface. Character movement feels unrefined, with the game lacking proper analogue controls as Talion clunkily shifts from a swagger into a cumbersome sprint. Compared with AC or inFamous, simply getting from one map marker to the next can feel like a chore.

The story missions also let Uruk-hai Utd down somewhat. Placed next to the imagination shown by the Nemesis features, the core objectives can be painfully perfunctory. Gee whiz,you want me to collect nine different herbs, Mr Mordor? That’s a reasonable request of a dude capable of killing 14 goblins in 13 seconds.

Not that strong story missions are always required to make a game sing just look at Destiny. Such is the strength of the Nemesis tools, hunting down enemies and later brainwashing them to become sleeper agents makes this a constantly interesting sandbox.

Like any good Orc, Shadow Of Mordor is shabby around the edges. But buy into its esoteric charms and you'll make a foe you’ll be glad to call friend for 20+ hours.


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