When I first heard about Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor I dismissed it as being another one of those mediocre video game adaptations of The Lord of the Rings movies. I am glad that the game shattered that unjust expectation and proved itself to be an impressive title in its own right. Shadow or Mordor is an open-world game set in J.R.R. Tolkien’s fictional world of Middle-earth, specifically, the realm of Mordor. The fact that the game is open-world really got me excited because it has always been a dream of mine (and I am sure of many others) to freely explore Tolkien’s world in a video game. I believe Shadow of Mordor is the first game based on Tolkien’s works to actually do this; the unfortunate part about it is that it only lets you explore Mordor instead of the other realms of Middle-earth. Regardless, Mordor itself serves well enough as the game world and it’s always bustling with plenty of activity.
Shadow of Mordor is an open world RPG that is set in between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The protagonist is a ranger from Gondor named Talion who guards a place known as the Black Gate. One day, as he is spending some quality time with his son and wife, Sauron (the central evil entity of Middle-earth) sends his forces to assault the Black Gate, killing all in their path. Talion and his family are killed during the attack by a hooded figure called The Black Hand of Sauron, but his death is halted by a Wraith named Celebrimbor who possesses Talion’s body to break a curse cast on him by Sauron. Talion then finds himself in the middle of Mordor and proceeds to traverse its dangerous terrain to uncover answers and exact revenge on those who killed his family. I didn’t find the main storyline to be all that interesting which is a shame seeing that a lot of stories set in Middle-earth always manage to draw my attention. I found myself more captivated by Shadow of Mordor’s open-world environment as well as its nonlinear approach to storytelling. You can ignore the story missions to focus on side missions and collectibles that reveal more information about the lore of Middle-earth which is something I’m always fascinated by. This is pretty much what I did during my playthrough of the game. Mordor is absolutely stunning to look at for being the homeland for a bunch of bloodthirsty Uruks (essentially Orcs). As I wandered around Mordor I was amazed by the attention to detail that the developers put into it which signified to me that they created a faithful representation of Mordor that is consistent with the original source material.
The NPCs in Shadow of Mordor have an unscripted nature to them and they are always doing different things. For example, you may see Uruks fighting with other monsters or wandering the plains of Mordor in huge hunting parties. As with any other open-world game, Shadow of Mordor utilizes a fast travel system by means of Forge Towers that can be accessed at certain points on the map. Although I am grateful that Shadow of Mordor has a fast travel system, the Forge Towers are too spaced out from each other forcing you to run across vast distances to reach missions. When traveling around Mordor there will always be plenty of Uruks to massacre. Killing Uruks increases a blue ability meter which will grant you an ability point once full. The ability point can then be used to purchase abilities for Talion like new attacks. Moreover, completing side missions and obtaining collectibles awards you with Mirian (the currency of Shadow of Mordor) which can then be used to purchase buffs to Talion’s health and arrow shots. Tracking down and killing Uruk captains is the biggest highlight of the game for me. Killing these captains awards you with random Runes that can be equipped to upgrade Talion’s weapons and Power that can be used to unlock new ability tiers. Hunting down Uruk captains may sound like a basic game objective, but it is actually one the game’s core features and it is far from basic. The whole cycle is a tracking system that keeps tabs on captains in Sauron’s army. Any generic Uruk can become a captain by fulfilling a certain criteria or by harboring some kind of special motivation. If an Uruk kills you or survives a scuffle with you, odds are he will become a powerful captain that you will have to hunt down later on. Captains essentially function as mini-bosses and each one has their own individual strengths and weaknesses. I like this system because it is very nuanced; every captain will react and respond to player actions which will affect their difficulty. Furthermore, you can identify and exploit the weaknesses of captains by gathering intel on them from lesser Uruks, written reports, and slaves you free.
Shadow of Mordor’s gamplay for the most part is very well done. A central aspect of it is switching between Talion and Celebrimbor. Talion performs the bulk of basic actions like fighting and traveling while Celebrimbor can be used to enter the Wraith world which lets him see things that Talion can not. Another thing Celebrimbor can do is detect enemies by highlighting them with blue outlines akin to what Agent 47 does in the new Hitman game to observe NPC movements. Celebrimbor also uses a bow to take down targets from a distance which is essential when dealing with hordes of Uruks. The one aspect of combat that I liked the least was the sword fighting. I found it to be boring even with the upgrades I got for my weapons and abilities. What is worse is that you have to button mash a lot when dealing with Uruk packs which wore my thumb out very quickly. Thankfully you do not have to rely on your sword in Shadow of Mordor because its gameplay is nonlinear just like its storytelling where you can choose to approach situations in a variety of ways just like in Bioshock. Talion can use the brute force of his sword to slice down swaths of Uruks or he can take them out from afar with a bow by switching to Celebrimbor. My favorite approach is stealth because it allows me to scale towers and cliffs to get the jump on Uruks with the dagger before they have chance to overwhelm me. I also liked that you can use objects in the environment to do the fighting for you so you are not wasting time with weaker orcs when focusing on a captain.
Shadow of Mordor does have a good deal of problems that can really ruin your experience depending on you tastes. For one, the game is very slow and difficult to get into. At the start of the game, gameplay feels very generic, but once you begin to level up Talion it quickly amps up and becomes exhilarating. I disliked that there is very little breathing room to fully explore Mordor; it seem like every five minutes I was hiding in tall grass to avoid an Uruk patrol just so I can pick up a little collectible. Controlling Talion can be a bit wonky at times too as I found myself getting killed a couple of times simply because he would not climb a wall or run to escape from danger. Overall, if you want an open-world game set in Middle-earth with tons of things to explore and do then this is the perfect game for you. On the other hand, if you do not care for the Tolkien mythos or open-world action games then you can easily skip out on this one with no regrets.