It's a bad day in Middle Earth to be a husband and father. The Shadow of Mordor protagonist Talion watches on as his family is ritually slaughtered by the Black Hand of Sauron in an attempt to summon a powerful Elf Lord Wraith. Part of the summoning is a success as the wraith turns up and inhabits Talion’s body. This in turn prevents Talion from dying. Ever! Which is lucky for the player because it won't take you long before you're neck deep in orc and Uruk scum.
You receive a brief tutorial delivered through a short back story explaining that you're a Gondor Ranger Captain guarding the Black Gate. The mighty structure is attacked by Uruk forces, led by the Hammer of Sauron (Three Black Numenorean captains). Your family gets butchered, you get possessed by a wraith, and then it's business as usual as you smash orcs around the mud coated lands surrounding the Black Gate.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is published by Warner Brothers, who also published the highly popular Batman Arkham series, and developed by Monolith Productions, who, in 2012, released Guardians of Middle Earth. So it's unsurprising that the player finds themselves in a well-conceived map of Middle-Earth that has strong Batman Arkham game engine flavouring when it comes to combat and gameplay. Even the swagger of Talion seems infused with the typical Batman confidence. The other title that this obviously draws comparisons to is Assassin's Creed. You'll scale to the top of a tall ghost structure in each of the games regions. This act will unlock the local map and the missions for that area, you know, similar to Assassin's Creed, Far Cry, Watch Dogs, and surely a bunch of games still to come. You even unashamedly swan dive off the top if you want to. Oh, and there are zip wires around as well. Just saying.
The land is patrolled by, mostly, randomly generated groups of Uruk and orcs. They're in numbers enough to keep you cautious but not too overwhelming that it's futile to attack a patrol. Just be prepared to retreat if you bump into more than one Captain by mistake. It happens a lot!
Within 15 minutes of the first run through I was being torn apart by four Captains and twenty Uruks. I died, not really understanding how the game had let that happen. But it turns out that this is one of the game's strongest features. The open world encourages you to tread carefully, to make use of your wraith-like powers, to dominate a wounded orc’s mind - where you can find out strengths, weaknesses and locations of the more powerful orcs. Your objective is to kill your way up the ranks to the Warchiefs and beyond, until you eventually face the butcherer of your family.
As the Assassin's Creed series progressed combat was made increasingly simpler, until it was reduced to little more than a continuous single button press to attack your stream of foes. Shadow of Mordor's combat development goes somewhat the other way. Talion gets a real sense of progression which makes the player consider things carefully before rushing a patrol, and definitely an Uruk stronghold. There are environmental objects, player wraith abilities, ballistic skills, stealth abilities and a huge array of enemies to consider before any attack should be begun.
Enemies range from archers to spear throwers, shield wielding berserkers, Captains, beast-like Caragors, and so on. Each enemy type represents another tactical issue to consider, especially when a force is mixed up with a few of each. This further encourages the player to plan before an attack.
Have you found out that the Captain at the heart of the stronghold hates the savage rideable Caragor beasts? If so then maybe shooting open a Caragor cage, at the right time will send his men into confusion as they try to kill the beast. Meanwhile the Captain, who is normally impervious to archery attacks, is running scared and a sitting duck for your wraith bow. One of the skills you can acquire allows you to peg an orc's foot to the ground with a well placed shot of your elven arrows. After all, you want the Captain to run away from his guards but you don't want him to get away from you. Shadow of Mordor is full of this stuff, helping you weave your own play style into the game.
Some may say that an orc is just an orc, but Shadow of Mordor has a new AI manager called the Nemesis System to help bring some uniqueness to the fairly frequent boss fights you encounter. The Captains are dotted across the game map, moving and fighting amongst themselves. Time ticks by and the Captains gradually get stronger as they defeat other orc Captains or if they happen to kill you. This makes them much harder to beat when you do stumble upon them or decide to track them down.
The arrival of the Captain is satisfyingly marked by a brief cut scene and verbal exchange, so you know something serious is happening. The Nemesis system maintains a database of interactions you've had before with each of the Captains. So if you manage to push a Captain into a fire and burn him, but he eventually gets away from you, upon your next encounter he will mention how you will pay for the burns you caused him.
Similarly, if a Captain kills you then he will be overly confident and brag about how you cannot beat him. Speaking of which, when Talion loses all his energy the player gets a quick time event to avoid a death blow and, failing that, is transported instantly by the wraith within him to a nearby tower where you respawn. At that point all the internal orc fights are calculated and they gain strength accordingly.
There are some awkward moments in combat too though. As seems to be the norm in 3rd person, melee heavy games like this, the camera angle does not always help the free flow of combat and can leave the player facing a mountain side or slightly stuck on scenery, while you're being pummelled by a War-Chief and his goons. Your usual response to this is…run...run and hide in a bush, if you can get away in time.
As you have probably guessed, your stealth is often imperative to your survival and you learn to enjoy and plan around it. Taking out an enemy one at a time like some sort of ghost assassin is a lot of fun. Hmm maybe they will call the next one that, Assassin's Ghost. I better quickly go register that domain.
While the game story is pretty straightforward it's nice to see such high production levels with voice acting and music. You even get to meet certain iconic characters, voiced perfectly. But I won't spoil it by saying who, if you don't know already.
Tasks of various sorts are dotted all over the map and are easy to stumble upon. You might be saving prisoners or shooting wildlife. When you complete tasks you gain experience, which later turns into ability points that you use to unlock awesome extra skills. Like the aforementioned pin-an-orc-to-the-floor-with-an-arrow trick. You can also add powers to your 3 weapons which you gain from defeating different level Captains. Remember Captains get harder as they beat up other Captains or you. So I suppose if you want you can kind of farm them. Get them up to a suitable level and then go hunt them down, to earn yourself some nice weapon bonuses and XP.
Playing this on PC is a lot of fun but you will pick up a controller fast if you have one nearby. Mordor is quick to work out what control setup you want to use and you can switch freely between Mouse and Keyboard (customising mice buttons as you wish) and gamepad on-the-fly. This is just another small tell that shows that the game has been built with PC in mind, instead of a port after thought.
The PC graphics options are considerable as well, further supporting the idea that Shadow of Mordor was always intended as a PC title in its own rights. However, the system requirements were just overkill and could possibly scare people away from a title that doesn't need astronomical hardware to enjoy. Getting the game to run in Ultra is only possible for top end machines and yet I couldnt help but feel like the muddy environment of Mordor just didn't really need to be glistening from the power of a 6GB VRAM $700 graphics card. Turn a couple of settings down and Mordor still looked muddy and wet and the game was still lots of fun.
Shadow of Mordor is a fun action title that continues to sprinkle enjoyable tactical options in front of the player even in the later stages of the game. It keeps a combat heavy, tried and tested formula from becoming stagnant, while borrowing mechanics from a variety of game franchises it nevertheless comes from a gaming pedigree itself. Where Assassin's Creed and Batman are becoming repetitive, Middle Earth Shadow of Mordor has managed to create an open world action fantasy RPG that has new life, albeit, slightly undead.