Monolith’s Middle-Earth epic has been on our shelves for a week now, and hasn’t left my CD-drive since release day, with good reason. Talion’s tale of revenge is one that no gamer can afford to pass up on.
Shadow of Mordor touts numerous elements that not only show the capabilities of the Next Generation of consoles, but also why it’s a strong contender for Game of the Year.
The narrative follows that of Talion, the captain of the garrison of the Black Gate (which isn’t all that black) whose family is butchered and finds him banished from death and bound to a wraith thanks to the sorcery of the Black Hand of Sauron. They are driven by the need for revenge on The Black Hand and ultimately, the release of death. Talion’s quest takes him from the ashes of Udun to the Sea of Nurnen in the belly of Mordor. We are dropped in a grey spot of Mordor’s history, the cusp of Sauron’s return to the land of shadow. The story does not exploit or conflict with Tolkien’s writings. Much like the Jackson adaptations of Tolkien’s books, the game is respectful in its handling of the lore of Middle-Earth and doesn’t step on any toes. Subtle hints to the Silmarillion are dropped throughout. References to the Two Trees of Valinor and characters like Feanor are tastefully thrown in to delight enthusiasts of the history.
The graphics will capture your eye almost immediately. The cinematics are beyond astounding, showing off the capabilities of the newest gen (and elvish good looks). Every detail from Talion’s beard hairs to the deformities of an Uruk’s face is beautifully and crisply detailed. The black blood of Uruks and thunderous rains that drench Talion can easily be overlooked but aspects such as these make the game feel like a painting in motion.
The game is presented in a unique art design with some queues from The Weta artists of The LotR films, but is ultimately a fresh take on the aesthetics of Middle-Earth. Showing us the likes of the rangers of Gondor 50 years before Faramir leads them, along with the vestiges of what can only be Numenorean stonework throughout the land of shadow. The Uruks are fully realised and designed down to the hilt. It is a true testament to the designers that one can admire the beastly Uruks. It is well crafted enough to be fresh, but still familiar for any fans of Middle-Earth.
Slicing and severing of Uruks’s is endlessly satisfying. The combat is fluid and without blemish. Any fans of the Arkham series will feel at home with lightning paced battles and well-timed parries and executions as you find yourself surrounded by brutal Uruks. Talion’s skills in stealth and archery are just as entertaining as you leap from ruins to brutalize uruks or set campfires ablaze with a well placed arrow.
Igniting a horde of Uruks or swiftly shoving your dagger through their neck to the horror of other uruks never loses its appeal.
Throughout the countless battles with Uruks, the captains and war chiefs will challenge you, and there is no shortage of them. Sauron’s forces eventually replenish their captains as lesser Uruks struggle for power and status. Each of these captains are diverse and unique, with specific strengths, weaknesses and fears that will require more than just running in blind with your blade to defeat. Their personalities range from brutish and loud to the weedy and even a few silent maniacal ones. And they’ll all have a brief chat with you before trying to take your head. This is where the Nemesis system shines. If you’ve fought or fallen to an Uruk captain before, he’ll have learned from your previous encounters and become more powerful and determined to see you die. Uruks can eventually become impervious to your ranged and stealth attacks the tougher they become, keeping your duels fresh and challenging. These traits can work to your favour. Once defeated, a captain can be dominated with the help of your wraith companion, bending them to your will, letting you command them to assassinate war chiefs, or to incite riots against other captains in the hierarchy. Your actions will ripple through the Uruk society, murmurs of The Gravewalker can be heard as you creep through Uruk camps and some even hesitate to lift their blades against you.
Your reputation as The Gravewalker will ever expand the more side-quests you complete. Each of them is specific to your three weapons, your Blade, your Dagger and your bow, as you forge each of their legends in the land of shadow. I must say this is one of the most enjoyable and rewarding aspects of the game, you are challenged to slay Uruks in limited ways with your particular weapon. Through these you unlock upgrades and test your skills in dispatching Uruks. If you complete enough of these, your wraith companion will engrave the legend of your exploits upon your weapon in Elvish.
There are dozens of artefacts littered about Mordor if you wish to put your treasure hunting skills to the test. Forgotten items like broken baskets and medallions hold memories you can unlock which give a glimpse of life in Mordor and trigger brief conversations between Talion and the Wraith. Players can cover every acre of Mordor recovering the Ithildin, unlocking something that no player should pass up on.
The game features a small cast of characters from a Sassy Dwarf to a fierce warrior princess and a gangly creature who murmurs curses on a certain “Baggins”. The Voice-Acting cast boasts icons such as Troy Baker, Claudia Black, Joe Dimaggio and Nolan North, all of which deliver exceptional performances. Unfortunately, these characters go as quickly as they came. After a few missions each, Talion moves on with his quest. It’s a shame that such great characters are left behind, it makes sense that Talion would distance himself from the living in his quest for revenge. That doesn’t stop me from missing a certain Dwarf’s sarcasm and tattoos.
I admire this game for being accessible to all fans of the mythology Tolkien crafted and even to those unfamiliar. At its heart, it is a tale of revenge and you don’t have to know the Silmarillion cover-to-cover to appreciate it. There are facets of the game that will only register with those familiar with the lore, but Shadow of Mordor will captivate both enthusiasts and novices alike, a trait to be lauded.
Suspense and anticipation weave through the game, building anticipation to Talion’s confrontation with The Black Hand of Sauron as you cripple his minions and dominate his armies. But this ending is caught by the pitfall of many AAA games nowadays, handholding. Instead of a hate-fuelled fight atop the Black Gate where it all began, we are left to sit back and merely watch things play out before three Quick-Time-Events pop up and the game is over before you can process most of what happened.
There is a silver lining to this ashen cloud that looms over the ending; it is open ended. There is vast story-telling potential from where we leave Talion and hopefully this story can continue deeper into Middle-Earth.
An ending that rings as hollow as this one is disappointing, especially considering that Talion’s sole aim was revenge upon the Black Hand. Ultimately, we are left with far more questions than answers, and Talion is no closer to revenge than he was when his family was felled before him.
There are more than enough reasons for you to pick up the game and see for yourself why it’ll be up there for Game of the Year in the coming months.
Gripping story, diverse characters and a host of polished and well realised aspects. 8/10
Shadow of Mordor is currently available on PS4, Xbox One and PC, and will be available on PS3 and Xbox 360 November 21st.