Review: Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor


Developer: Monolith Productions

Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

Platforms: PS3, PS4 (reviewed version), xBox 360, xBox One, Windows

Release Date: Sept. 30, 2014

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor follows Talion, a ranger of Gondor. He was stationed at the Black Gate of Mordor until Sauron’s armies recaptured the entire region just before the start of the game. Talion’s biggest problem though is that he’s dead, and that he’s not particularly happy about it.

Talion was sacrificed by the Black Hand of Sauron in an effort to call forth a long-dead elf. This elf, now a wraith, merges with Talion. This stops Talion from dying (over and over again, though the orcs keep trying) and gives him some fun new powers, but it also prevents him from leaving Mordor. The best part is that this doesn’t count a spoiler since it all technically happened before the game’s story began.

Talion and his new elf-wraith friend then set out for seek revenge on the Black Hand. That’s also where the story ends. While the path isn’t perhaps as straight as Talion might have liked, the plot never ventures from the quest for revenge.

Being a Gondorian ranger trapped in Mordor is about as friendly as it sounds. There are orcs (actually Uruks, which are a type of orc) everywhere, and almost no friendly faces to be found. There are no towns to rest in, or shops to buy gear. Talion is truly on his own for most of the game’s story.

Mordor itself is a large expansive area, complete with strongholds, camps, ancient ruins, grassy plains, jagged rocks and hills. It is both beautiful and desolate.

The story fits in between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The only character from any of the movies that makes an appearance is Gollum, but we know from The Lord of the Rings that Gollum went to Mordor during that time.

One thing that Monolith needs to be given a lot of credit for is that they put a lot of work into making the game fit within the lore of Middle Earth. If you’re worried about a new story being added to J.R.R Tolkien’s world, you can relax a little. Fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings will be comfortable with how this story fits into history of Middle Earth.

Shadow of Mordor’s combat often pits Talion against multiple foes, with new ones arriving and joining in the battle all the time. Actually winning a fight and being the last one standing can take quite a while. Trust me, you’ll spend the bulk of your time playing this game in combat.

Luckily, the combat is fun and intuitive. Block, attack and dodge are all mapped to different buttons, so executing the right move at the right time is simple and straightforward.

The setup lends itself to button mashing, but that’s a quick way to get Talion killed. There is a rhythm to combat, and mashing away means Talion won’t be ready to block when he needs to.

Mordor forces you to become good at this style of combat fairly quickly. Being surrounded by 20+ enemies, plus the fact that Talion can only take a few hits before falling in battle, means that there isn’t room for many mistakes.

And that leads to Shadow of Mordor often being frustrating to play, especially early in the game. Talion dies a lot. There’s no other way to put it. It gets better as more powers are unlocked, but the game never becomes easy.

Oddly, despite that description, Shadow of Mordor is more of a stealth game than a brawler. With so many Orcs roaming the countryside, there’s just no way to kill them all. Monolith does a good job of weaving together stealth and combat elements into a fun hybrid.

Perhaps the best way to explain this is a description of how I completed one mission midway through the game:

There is an Orc captain that needs killed, and he is in a stronghold. I snipe an archer with my bow and climb up to his perch to gain entry. Once inside, the real works begins.

I make my way around the edges of the camp branding as many Orcs as I can find that are alone, especially any archers that might give me problems later. Branding them makes them my servants, so they’ll help me when I eventually need it.

Apparently I made too much noise, because a large group of Orcs start coming my way. I climb up the roofs and sneak across an overhead cable to a nice quiet corner to get back to work.

From there I spot a group of six Orcs that look like they’re on patrol. I switch to wraith mode and, sure enough, my target is right in the middle of that group. I tag the captain so I can track him, and then get back to work prepping for my assault.

The Captain is wandering around the central area of the stronghold, which means than if I just attack I’ll be overwhelmed by massive numbers. I’m going to need a way to keep most of the Orcs busy.

I move quickly to an area near the back of stronghold where there are a bunch of barrels of grog. I sneak up and add some poison and then quickly leave the area. The poison will cause the Orcs who drink it to begin fighting amongst themselves, but I don’t wait to watch it work. The effect is too temporary to do that.

I then jump up a wall and across another cable in the direction of my target. Once overhead, I leap down on top of one of his bodyguards and perform a brutal kill. This causes most of the Orcs in the area to flee leaving me with just those that were traveling with the captain to worry about.

After jumping back to create room, I enter wraith mode and use my focus power to slow time so I can fire 5 quick arrows, killing 2 of the 4 remaining guards. I have to exit wraith mode to block an attack, but the enemy’s numbers have now been reduced to a point where I can work.

Before attacking again, I activate the orcs that I branded earlier, presumably causing them to attack other orcs near them and creating multiple diversions in various parts of the stronghold.

Within a few moments, the other two guards are down, and the Captain is almost dead when I hear a horn blowing the distance. That horn is the alarm. I have to hurry or I’m going to get overwhelmed.

I grab the captain and interrogate him (a wraith ability), which also destroys his mind and kills him. I quickly grab the rune he drops, just as 2 other captains descend upon me with about 40 other orcs behind them. It’s time to run.

I climb up the nearest wall and across a cable and head for the exit. The Orcs give chase, but I’m faster and the archers on my path out of the stronghold are all my slaves.

Once out of the stronghold, I scamper up a cliff and enter stealth mode. I’m safe, or at least as safe as is possible inside Mordor. It’s time to go find some herbs to heal up. There’s more Captains that need hunted down.

These are moments when Shadow of Mordor truly shines. It is a smart game that forces the player to be smart as well. Had I not taken the time to occupy the other orcs in the stronghold in that mission, I almost certainly wouldn’t have been successful.

There also isn’t any hand-holding on these missions, other than in a few tutorial-type missions early in the game. The gamer is free to find their own path to completing their objective. And as the saying goes: “There’s more than one way to decapitate an orc.”

Shadow of Mordor forces you to plan, react and adapt on the fly, and it gives you all the tools that you need to do so. Most importantly, none of this ever feels tedious.

The gameplay is clearly inspired by Assassin’s Creed. Talion’s character movements, the game’s stealth elements and wall climbing will all feel very familiar if you’ve any spent time hunting Templars in your gaming past.

The thing is, everything about Mordor just works better. Talion bounds over obstacles, runs across rope bridges, and leaps up walls without feeling like he’s always trying to catch his balance. There also aren’t any of the weird jump angle issues and sloppy controls that plague the AC franchise.

Perhaps it is computing power of the current generation of hardware, but throughout playing this game, I kept thinking to myself: “This is what Assassins Creed hopes to become.” And I say that as a major fan of Ubisoft’s hyper-successful franchise.

The place where Shadow of Mordor really stands out above other games is in the much-hyped nemesis system. Sauron’s collection of captains aren’t stagnant targets. Kill one, and another will eventually rise up through the ranks and take his place.

Each orc captain has their own strengths and weakness, as well as their own personality. If one kills Talion, they’ll be sure to taunt him about it the next time their paths cross.

Branding these captain allows the gamer to begin to manipulate this system, with all sorts of possible outcomes. There is something innately fun about branding all the a warchief’s bodyguards, and then watching them turn on their master when the time is right.

Unfortunately, Shadow of Mordor is a bit rough around the edges at times. The lack of other things to do in the world other than fight orcs is probably the biggest of these. There’s no crafting system, no caragor races, no game elements to break up things up and provide a diversion from the game’s combat.

The nemesis system also unravels a bit at the end of the game. Once the brand ability is unlocked, the makeup of Sauron’s army becomes less important. The personality of each of the individual captains fades into the background.

Also, despite the amazing open-word nature of the game play, the story is a straight line. There are no twists and turns in the plot. Every plot point simply pushes Talion to his next battle.

These are all minor complaints though for what is ultimately a very good experience. Monolith was extremely ambitious in their game design, and they were able to pull it all together in a way that exceeded my already-high expectations.

I think it is safe to say that Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is going to be the first entry in a great new gaming franchise.


+ Gets the lore right

+ True open world experience

+ Rewards creative thinking

+Fun, intuitive combat

– Frustrating difficulty early on.

– Lack of things to do that don’t involve combat

– Story falls apart near the end