Let’s get this out-of-the-way, if you’re looking for an elevator pitch of The Shadow of Mordor, you can’t really go wrong with telling your friends that it’s Assassin’s Creed meets Arkham Asylum meets the appendices of Tolkien’s greatest work. If that interests you, you’re going to have a good time here.
The open world is, as mentioned, basically Assassin’s Creed. You’re parkouring all over the place, scaling towers like it’s child’s play. That part of the game feels great and comes with the same polish we’ve come to expect from the Creed games. However, the selling point is not the movement. If you’re playing this game, chances are you’re here for the combat.
Arkham Asylum-style combat is almost always excellent, which is why so many games steal it. Mordor’s moment-to-moment combat is essentially the same, but there are a few changes that make it unique. First of all, you can slow down combat and use those precious few seconds to let loose a few arrows into the closest Uruk’s face. This becomes a lifesaver as you move through the game and come across new Uruk types that differ from your standard fodder. Defenders, in particular, are a prime target for your trusty bow, as they aren’t countered by the same button as everything else and generally serve to throw you off your flow of combat.
Another thing Mordor does to differentiate itself is to throw a host of various abilities at you that change how you fight. For instance, early on you learn the Wraith Stun, which allows you to stun an enemy and knock it out of combat for a few seconds. You can also vault enemies to get behind them and deal extra damage. It’s smart additions like these that make Mordor’s combat interesting throughout.
Speaking of new abilities, the game does a remarkably good job of providing you with a slow drip of new things to do, right up until the final moments. This means you’re consistently being greeted with new types of missions and gameplay options throughout the 20-hour campaign. One would think that, with the numerous side quests, you’d run into some duplicate mission types fairly early. However, even the side quests are varied and interesting, making this a game that is easy to 100%.
You’ll want to do those side quests too. Specifically, I would recommend everyone finish all of the weapon-based missions. These constantly introduce you to new ways of dealing with enemies and you might just supplement your preferred fighting style after seeing the many options in front of you. The collectibles missions aren’t something you must complete, but the hunting missions are a fun little diversion to take part in while you run to your next storyline mission.
If the game has any weakness, it’s the main story. Interestingly, this is less a function of the story-telling being bad and more that the emergent stories produced by the Nemesis systems are so much better. It’s much more effective to let a player learn to hate or care about a character through gameplay than it is in exposition, and in Mordor, that works against the tale crafted by the developers. You can tell me that The Tower is a bad dude, but I haven’t interacted with him and thus, to me, Zunn Meathooks is the real antagonist of this story.
Now that we’re talking about the Nemesis system, I should say that this is the reason to play the game. It’s an absolutely fascinating new development and one studios are sure to copy going forward. Essentially, you’re shown a tree of Uruk captains and war chiefs and then let loose. Later in the story, you can actually dominate a Uruk and bring him under your command, but it’s how interactions with the captains and war chiefs play out that is the interesting thing here.
You see, you and I will have different Uruks on our tree. That’s because Uruks rise in power when they kill you. So if a random berserker chops your head off in a melee of 30 Uruks, then he becomes a captain. Later on, he might engage in a Beast Hunt or a Duel and gain standing among his fellow Uruks. Over time, that lowly Uruk might become a war chief and rule the Uruks from his throne of skulls.
This is what next-gen should be about. Shiny graphics are great, but thinking of new ways for us to interact with our medium are much more interesting. This is something that later games will build upon and could become a major staple of game design in the next few years. Developments like this change the gaming landscape forever and make titles like Shadows of Mordor a must-play. Think of the possibilities for this engine. Do we get a Bully 2 where you’re trying to climb the Nemesis system to become the most popular kid at school? Or what about a sports version of this where you build your rival through a system similar to what exists in Mordor? It’s an exciting time to be in gaming because titles like Mordor show that next-gen is finally here
Score: 9.5/10. Mordor is my early game of the year. The main story has problems and the combat can drag toward the end. However, the Nemesis system is great and the game has found a near-perfect trickle of upgrades to give you new and interesting options up until the very end. A must-play and a great reason to own a next-gen console.