So Shadow of Mordor wasn’t a Middle-Earth themed homage to another open world series after all.
There’s a single moment that makes every Peter Jackson Middle-Earth movie worthwhile for me, that moment is at the end of Fellowship of the Ring where Aragorn steps out to face an Uruk-Hai warband singlehandedly. He draws his sword, snarls and wades in at a glorious slow motion pace.
My favourite single scene in all those films and Shadow of Mordor lets me be just like Aragorn in that scene, every single time I play it. The Rangers of Middle-Earth play small, but significant parts and this game shows just how brutally skilled they were, encouraging a mixture of play styles and delivering satisfaction by the bucket.
Taking the envelope of Tolkien’s worlds, then pushing it to see how far it can go is a familiar theme and Shadow of Mordor is no different. The story follows Talion a Ranger of the North, who, after a swift enough introduction finds himself undead and on a mission of revenge in the land of Mordor, where shadows lie.
Shadow of Mordor sets out its stall early, the introductory sequence delivers the basics of combat and lays out a clear emotional drive for protagonist Talion. Trapped between life and death he befriends a mysterious spirit and together they set out on a visceral quest for revenge. The tone is suitably Tolkien and the developers have given some respect to the universe, while the territory may be familiar the use of a different point in time gives the player a comfortable world to fit into. Much like War in the North where the story was happily co-existing far away from those pesky Lords of the Rings.
Once the introduction is done Talion finds himself in an ever expanding area of Mordor set around the Black Gate. An open world set-up that is both familiar and comfortable, the map is sectioned into areas with select collectibles and side mission activities. Most of them have a Forge Tower, where a ruin will grow into a ghostly version of its former glory, climb and unlock the tower in an area and more stuff becomes available. It’s familiar. Graphically the main scenery doesn’t get much beyond functional, but look beyond those ruins and tents to see the mountain ranges that surround you. It’s not often you can stand at the edge of a cliff top and see that HD scenery isn’t just a filler, those hills and valleys may be off-limits, but they are clearly modelled with the same finesse as the rest of the map. Then there is the weather, moody and atmospheric, once the rain or hail sets it the depth of the world takes another leap. Raindrops splash in puddles around your feet, hail bounces, scaling a rain slicked cliff face I often just stop to marvel at the effect.
Talion is an athletic fellow, he may look like somebody carrying a bit of weight, but he can scale, traverse and leap faithfully with the best of them. Best off all he doesn’t need a haystack to land in from a high level leap, he switches to his spirit form in flight and then back again for an Iron Man landing. Rangers are pretty amazing anyway, this undead spirit combo Ranger is nigh on unstoppable. Which leads us to combat.
Mordor is a brutal place populated with base creatures, Orcs, Uruks and all manner of things that go bump in the night. Getting into a fight is easy, there are never any shortage of volunteers and the combat system is nearly faultless. Taking a leaf from the Batman free flow combat Talion can parry, riposte and attack off the bat. This alone gives you the arsenal to beat off and slaughter Orc upon Orc. Of course combat brings experience and experience is spent upgrading him with new skills, powers and abilities. It really isn’t long before Talion is draining the energy from enemies, loosing magical arrows mid combat and separating heads from bodies with a long list of finishing moves. The combat is bloody, very adult and really quite magnificent. It’s all too easy to get embroiled in another skirmish, because the satisfaction of slaughtering evil creatures outweighs the need to go to bed on time. It’s not all frontal attacks either, there are stealth finishers and beasts that can be ridden to add some beef to your attack, equally satisfying if you have a number of them under your control, especially when they like eating Orcs just as much as you like slicing Orcs.
And they’re not just cannon fodder, there is a a grand illusion in place here and one that should find its way into many games going forward. The enemy have personality, they have traits and needs. The army of Sauron is rife with in-fighting and politics and while you are hacking away at the foul creatures you are affecting that ecosystem. Then you get swamped and die, what happens next turns into quite something. That Orc or Uruk that finished you off gets promoted and upgraded and becomes your Nemesis, a creature you will meet again in side missions or straight out combat. They will learn from their mistakes, their appearance will be modified to match the damage you have dealt them. You will build a unique history together, along with every other significant Orc on the battlefield. The Nemesis system is too big to discuss in depth, but its a clever trick that makes the experience feel much more personal.
As a pre-requisite for open world games Mordor has a host of side missions, these come and go quite dynamically along with the chance to go and avenge someone on your friends list if they have fallen to a particular Orc. Which is nice. While the outcome for side missions is generally the same a lot of thought has gone into the setup and structure of them. Likewise there are weapon specific challenges, hunter challenges and collectible challenges all of which are worth the effort to ensure Talion is well and truly upgraded.
Overall, Shadow of Mordor always looked like it would be good, but the proof in this pudding shows it is a damn sight more than good. Unlike other recent launches Talion has keep under the radar and exploded from stealth with a title so packed with content that we didn’t really know about. With a photo mode to play with and some good looking DLC on the way this game is going to be keeping people busy for a while.
No excuse me, I’m off to walk slowly into Mordor, where shadows lie.