The saying goes that if you want to steal from someone, you might as well steal from the best. While nobody could ever go as far as saying Shadow of Mordor steals, it certainly borrows the best elements of some of the most fun stealth games around and makes terrific use of them in one amazingly fun experience that is mandatory to just about anyone who owns a current-gen console or a PC strong enough to run it.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is set somewhere between J.R.R Tokien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and sees Talion, a fallen Gondorian captain that’s slain by a few of the dark lord Sauron’s evil minions only to be brought back to life by a mysterious elven spirit who offers him a chance for revenge and cool new powers to do so. The story flings about at a brisk pace throughout the twelve to fifteen hour campaign, delivering interesting looks at somewhat unexplored territory within any media other than Tolkien’s written fiction, like the forging of the rings of power and what Mordor’s really like when it isn’t at war. Still, it’s the stories you build during gameplay end up as highlights.
As Talion, you slowly take the fight to Sauron as you build up his suit of special powers by taking down increasingly stronger orcs within his army. Monolith’s use of what’s called the Nemesis system puts randomly built and named orcs in the latter on your way to defeating the army’s leaders. Each of these guys has their own strengths and weaknesses, which can be exploited to your benefit as you take them down. On the other hand, if you fail at killing them, they only grow stronger, ascending the ranks and gaining more followers. These power struggles prove to be Shadow of Mordor‘s ace, not only because they’re so incredibly varied and fun to partake in, but how well this new gameplay twist is exploited throughout the game.
Unlike the usual gimmick that’s thrown into a game and forgotten by the end, this Nemesis system is put to use from the beginning to the end of Mordor, to great effect. Putting down a particularly strong orc captain doesn’t guarantee his demise, making some of them returning foes a few times during the game, with the scars and, most surprisingly, memories of defeat to boot. The same goes for Uruks who managed to beat you — these fools love to brag about it, especially when you come back for seconds.
Still, not all captains are made for killing, and further along in the game, you’ll earn an ability that allows you to mark and control orcs to fight at your side, allowing you to scheme revolts within the armies without risking your own immortal neck. Most of the higher-ups have underlings who protect them if you choose to face them directly, but a smarter approach is to first control them and bend them to do your biding, which results in an unavoidably satisfying conclusion of having little to no orc blood in your hands and one of your own minions in power.
But if you prefer to dive in deep and make it a fight of your own, sword on shield, you can do so too. Mordor takes a lot from the excellent Arkham series’ trademark combo and counter heavy combat that grows the further you get in the upgrade system. There are no gadgets other than your starting dagger, sword, and bow, aside from the moves you get to perform the larger your combo gets, allowing you to execute foes instantly, for instance, or later on, firing an explosive ghostly arrow.
The fighting never grows stale, and thanks to yet another facet of the Nemesis system, you’re given even more combat options. Remember how each orc is unique, bearing their own strengths and weaknesses? Well, those come into play during face-to-face confrontations. In one case during my game, a tough campaign happened to be fearful of the caragors, the stronger version of the warg, lion-like brutes that roam the fields of Mordor. He happened to be standing right next to a cage that housed one of those creatures, which I happily opened and let lose, destroying any chances he would have of keeping his head attached to his body. This is only one of the many distinct scenarios within Shadow of Mordor, and much like the rest of the game, they’re all incredibly enjoyable to discover and execute.
And if you’re a stealth nut like me, Assassin’s Creed is another game that Middle-Earth borrows elements from. Throughout the land, you’ll find towers to unlock that serve as beacons and teleport nodes, just like Ubisoft’s juggernaut. You’re also given quite a few of the order’s abilities, like jumping off these down to the ground sans injuries, as well as climbing just about any surface in order to make an attack from higher ground, by either bow or the creed’s tiger stab pounce. While the stealth within Mordor has a lot to thank and credit to the Creed games, it’s to be lauded for how well it’s used. Unlike its inspiration, Shadow of Mordor does tiptoeing well and effortlessly, rewarding patience and skill, but also allowing you to fail, building an experience around your failure, instead of throwing you back at the start to try again. Obviously there are a few missions that demand stealth within their storyline guidelines, but even then, you’re given breathing room to improvise.
It goes without saying how beautiful the new generation of games are — Shadow of Mordor is no exception. The two game maps are lush and relatively big, each sporting its own color palette that complements the ruins and mayhem that make home within them. Characters also sport a distinct raggedy look to them, especially the Uruk-hai orcs, who are very visually varied and just plain nasty to look at, animating realistically during combat or when just milling about. This is one of those games that begs “just another go,” and trust me: you’ll be sucked in for hours if you let it.
You’re also given ample incentive to simply explore the land and take in special challenges that range from hunting to making smart use of your arsenal within bonus missions scattered out in the world, as well as a few collectibles that help complement the story and fiction within the game, highlighting the folk who live in Mordor and even giving some light to orc life, past the constant fighting and death.
It’s impressive how absurdly well Shadow of Mordor comes together in what’s very easily one of the best games within the Lord of the Rings franchise. Tolkien might be spinning in his grave at how violent it is at times, but the incredible use of new gameplay elements and interesting peeks at previously shadowy aspects of lore are reason enough to warrant just simply walking into Mordor.