The works of JRR Tolkien have seen numerous adaptations across multiple mediums over the years, but none more so than games and more often than not, these have been a blundering Unexpected Journey, rather than a triumphal Return of the King.
Monolith’s first adventure in Middle-earth, Guardians of Middle-earth, was less than stellar, but the developer has rediscovered its mojo. Shadow of Mordor is an excellent game, one worthy of standing alongside such classics as Shogo, Alien vs Predator 2, and the No One Lives Forever series.
Shadow of Mordor is set between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The game opens with the death of protagonist Talion, a Gondorian Ranger stationed at the Black Gate. After being attacked by Sauron’s forces and bearing witness to the ritual sacrifice of his family, Talion's soul is joined with the spirit of an elvish wraith who grants him extraordinary powers, and apparent immortality. Driven by a desire for revenge, and by a coupling to his mysterious incorporeal companion, Talion ventures in to Mordor.
The fairly basic set-up is elevated immensely by some superb performances. Talion’s mission for revenge never feels forced, and the slow revelation of his elven companion's identity and past is genuinely engaging. Even the addition of Gollum fits neatly within the narrative, and gives Shadow of Mordor a solid link to the film adaptations without forcing it and smacking players like they were a fish on a rock.
Voice acting across the board is impressive. Orc and uruk captains throughout the game get noteworthy attention. Each feels unique and has his own distinct personality, and considering the huge number of them that’s an impressive feat.
Tolkien purists will no doubt take issue with the lore portrayed in the game but it works well and fits in perfectly with Peter Jackson’s interpretation of Tolkien’s works.
Much has been made of the lineage of the combat and navigation mechanics used in Shadow of Mordor, and Talion did at first appear to be Assassin's Creed's Ezio by way of Arkham Asylum's Bruce Wayne, but it only takes a few moments of play to learn that Shadow of Mordor refines these systems and creates something superior to the originals.
Free running and climbing is clearly inspired by Assassin's Creed, but it feels tighter and has more weight and momentum. The addition of some superhuman wraith abilities also mixes things up, and helps the navigation system to be distinguishable from others. Similarly, the combat emulates the core of what makes the Arkham games so fun, but it adds more depth, responsiveness and visceral flair. The lineage is very clear, but Monolith stands on the shoulders of greats, and it’s hard to argue with that choice.
Exploring the land of Mordor is where the game really shows its quality, and is highly recommended. Collectables, upgrades, side quests, weapon upgrade quests, artefacts, and hunting missions are littered throughout the world. They're a completionist's dream, adding more flavour and some interesting rewards.
Talion has multiple upgrade paths available to him. Not only can he upgrade his martial skills, and his ranged and stealth based wraith abilities, he also can modify each of three weapons with runes, which alter their effects when used. Coupled with unlockable skills and combat moves, Shadow of Mordor provides more depth in combat alone than practically any game on the market, and it's all in service of the wholesale slaughter of orcs.
Everything in Shadow of Mordor is in orbit around its central mechanic, the Nemesis system. As orcs and uruk increase in power they can be promoted to captains. Captains are unique minibosses that can be found throughout the world, and each has his own agenda. They will fight among themselves to gain power, or bribe and bully other orcs into paying them fealty. All of this can be tracked in game using the Sauron’s Army screen, which shows all known captains and warchiefs, their conflicts, levels, and any intel Talion may have gathered about them in-game.
Where the system really shines is how these captains interact with Talion. A grunt will automatically be promoted to captain status should he defeat Talion in combat. This will allow him to gain new skills and strengths. He will also remember Talion when they meet again. Each defeat at the hand of a captain increases their power.
Every captain will remember and remark on their previous encounters with Talion, be it victory, defeat, or if they fled. All of it adds another dimension to their personality and further individualises them. What's truly remarkable is how organic it all feels. Each and every encounter seems fresh and completely unique. With Nemesis, Monolith has what might fairly be considered the best emergent videogame system ever made.
The PC port garnered much attention due to some steep system requirements. For the most part these are overstated. A medium- to high-spec gaming rig will handle the game exceptionally well in 1080p-1440p with most if not all bells and whistles checked. While a cutting edge PC might be required to ensure more than 60 frames per second with ultra textures and maximum settings, solid performance can be found on a decent system touting 3GB of VRAM. Having said that, the actual difference in visual fidelity between high and ultra textures is virtually undetectable rendering the 6GB VRAM debate moot as they can be turned off with no perceptible loss of quality.
The core story in Shadow of Mordor could feasibly be hurried through in a dozen or so hours, but the constantly evolving and escalating conflict within the Nemesis system and the huge number of side quests can easily double or triple that. In any case, the joy in Shadow of Mordor is not measured in hours played, but in the accumulated swords of defeated orc captains. Shadow of Mordor is a triumph, and even a slightly flat ending and some repetition cannot diminish the overall quality of the game.