With the recent release of LEGO The Lord of the Rings, as well as the upcoming third and final theatrical installment of The Hobbit saga, the canon of the Middle-earth universe has proven itself as stable ground for fantastic, engaging adventures. However, delving into the works highlighting the expanded universe has proven itself to be shaky ground at best. Is Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor a noteworthy title to add alongside a much-beloved franchise?
Amidst the deep lore of J.R.R. Tolkien’s two legendary works, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, players partake in an expansive journey with Talion, a Ranger of The Black Gate, whose job includes guarding Gondor and keeping watch over the insidious Mordor. Uruks, various captains of the orcs, ambush The Black Gate, killing Talion and his family. Resurrected by a Wraith, Talion’s main goal in the land of Mordor is to seek revenge.
Players may feel confused by this plot in the beginning, but they need not worry; the game does not expect anyone to have extensive background knowledge of the Rings universe in order to play the game effectively. Those who enjoy the series will find great satisfaction in exploring the massive map, reading the deep history and noting all the other nods to Tolkien’s work sprinkled within the game. The only real disconnections are within threads of the opening plot. Nearly every aspect of the game, from the buildings to the flowers, has a profound story tied to it. For those who are not as tuned in with the universe, other aspects can surely keep them interested in the game.
The story of murderous revenge demands continuous combat, all of which is done in an acrobatic, free-flowing form reminiscent of Warner Brothers’ other notable video game franchise, the Batman: Arkham series. Enemies can be attacked head-on for a gory fight or be removed quickly by stealth options similar to the Assassin’s Creed series. Direct combat is nothing short of a marvelous beauty. An extremely responsive and intuitive fighting system has been put in place, and is one of the best being used in RPGs today.
Upon killing enemies, Talion can level up to gain ability points to purchase various perks on a tree of combat upgrades (akin to Skyrim). With a simple and quick combat system that yields many upgrade points, players can find themselves addicted to killing enemies to further improve Talion for his next big battle.
The core goal within the game is targeting all the captains with information provided by those interrogated, then picking them off one by one. Once targeted, Captains show up on the map, alongside an image and a rank to show how difficult they will be to kill.
Gameplay style affects players’ skill level as well. If a player falls to a particular orc, then that AI gains levels of power after the fight and may even move up ranks. In any subsequent battles, it taunts Talion with its previous victory and will be tougher to kill. Later within the game, Talion will be able to mind-control orcs, which can be used to pit them against their brethren or their captain, and move them up the ranks. Players can also choose to interrupt hunts or duels between orcs if desired.
When not in combat or doing missions, Talion can explore the beautiful environment of Mordor before its time of desolation; everything from the lush landscape and weapons, to the enemies, are crafted with exquisite detail. Climbing buildings and traversing areas within the game is a breeze, thanks to mechanics borrowed from Assassin’s Creed.
This is a nice escape from the campaign story, which is not without fault and has numerous lackluster moments. Deep lore prevents Shadow of Mordor from being devoid of story, but narrative does not fall within the highlights of this game. The emphasis is put on combat, which is where the game truly shines.
From innovative manipulation and detail of each enemy and their ranks to the flawless fighting style of Talion, this intriguing and engaging gameplay lands Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor a spot on the notable title list within the Tolkien universe.
Our Take: 3/5