Tuesday, October 7, 2014

REVIEW - Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is an open-world action game with some light RPG elements, a bit of stealth, a ton of brawling and a dash of strategy.  It's the most ambitious game Monolith Productions (Blood, F.E.A.R.) have made in about a decade, and it's not bad.

You are Talion, a Gondorian Ranger of the Black Gate, and you watch your family get slaughtered by the Black Hand of Sauron – a nasty fellow – before your throat is cut.   Talion finds himself unable to die, as the murder of his family was a ritual designed to call forth the soul of a certain long-dead Elf lord.  That Elf’s wraithful soul, now chained to Talion’s undead flesh, tells him the only way the curse can be broken – the only way to truly die and see his family on the white shores beyond – is to find the Black Hand, destroy him, and break the curse.

Set though it may be in the nasty neighborhood Sam and Frodo stumbled through in The Lord of the Rings, Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor can trace its roots to a very different inspiration.

It’s Batman: Mordor Wastes, through and through.  At least, that’s what the game feels like, in the hand, as you strut up to a party of Uruk (Talion is incapable of simply walking) and coolly draw your longsword from its scabbard.  The Uruk will come at you, encircle you, and attack you one or two at a time, but that’s cool – if you’ve played the Batman: Arkham games, you’ll feel distressingly comfortable here.

In combat, every single button press is pulled directly from Batman’s playbook.  Triangle is counter, square is attack, X is dodge/vault and circle stuns.  Once you get deeper, it remains identical.  When a foe is on the ground, hold R2 and attack to dispatch them.  Tap triangle twice to counter two opponents at once, mash square after landing a stun for a series of rapid strikes, certain enemies cannot be countered, and must be vaulted to attack from behind.  Once you build your combo counter high enough, press triangle and circle together to instantly dispatch the enemy you’re jamming the analog stick at.

It even has Detective Mode, where you can track enemies and see through walls (by looking through the eyes of the wraith).  The game feels identical...  Right up until you earn the ability to grab an Uruk by the face mid-combo, burning them with the unstoppable will of the restless Elf soul that has bound itself to your mortal coil, and turn them to your cause.

Then things feel a bit different.

The look of abject terror on an Uruk's face when you dominate him is always kinda' priceless.

It’s in those places, where Shadow of Mordor separates itself from Batman (and, to a lesser extent, Assassin’s Creed), that it shines.  There’s a fantastic move called Shadow Strike in which you permit the wraith to take over, drawing its spectral bow on a distant foe – but instead of loosing an iridescent Elven arrow, you can tap X and instantly teleport to them, taking them by surprise and bashing them into the dirt.  It’s an attack, it’s an escape, it’s a direct answer to the (really impressive) psychological variety of the Uruk Captains.

Some of them are cowards – fleeing from the sight of Mordor’s beasts, from fire, or from the realization that you’ve rapidly depleted their health gauge – and it’s always very satisfying to climb the ramparts of a ruined garrison, spy your quarry as it dashes, panicked, through the Mordorian hills and wham!  Ain’t gettin’ away so easy, I’m afraid. Now (face grab!) submit to my fearsome will!

It feels really badass.  By the end of the game, I mean, you are a total badass, slaughtering armies.  At the beginning – for the first half, really – not so much.  The feeling is more... helpless and frustrated.

This one can be killed instantly by a stealth attack.
He's dead.

Some Uruk Captains are invulnerable to ranged damage – you can’t hurt them with your arrows – while others cannot be hurt by the sword or combat finishers.  Such a foe is, therefore, unkillable at the onset of the game when you only have two or three arrows at your disposal, and no way to reliably gain more in open combat.

I spent the first hour or two with Shadow of Mordor feeling like I was a bad gamer, who was repeatedly getting his ass handed to him by these jerkbag Uruks who just have to rub it in with smack talk every time they kill you, and then they get stronger for having beaten the crap out of you, earn better perks and move further up the Orc army food chain.  A lot of Orcs got a lot of promotions off me at the beginning of the game, simply because I didn’t have the tools at my disposal to answer their particular skill set.

Such vistas are few and far between.

It doesn’t help that Mordor is an ugly, uninspiring place.  Any successful open-world game builds itself as a series of striking set pieces that make up a coherent whole – in the best cases (Batman, Assassin’s Creed, Grand Theft Auto, Sleeping Dogs), those worlds are thick with character and charisma. They bleed inspiration and a sense of place - Monolith's Mordor does not.

Aside from a few locations that offer interesting opportunities for stealth and reconnaissance - two towering fortresses come to mind - there aren't many memorable locations or sights that I can recall.  The first of the game's two large areas is very brown and grey, the second is very green, and both are pretty forgettable.

It is here that Monolith drops the ball, and cannot keep up with the gold standard that Rocksteady Studios laid down with the Arkham titles - and a terrible strike against Shadow of Mordor.  They nailed the combat - the combat works fine (though it takes several hours to become truly satisfying), the navigation and locomotion work well (though running across maps isn't as fun as gliding), but when it comes to world building, they can't offer the richness a Lord of the Rings fan might desire.

The phrase The Lord of the Rings evokes something in those of us who read the books or saw Peter Jackson's films.  There's a grandness to it.  A sense of vast history and scale.  A sense of discovery and far-reaching adventure.  The phrase The Lord of the Rings brings to mind sweeping epics that guide us through warm taverns, dark forests, unimaginably beautiful Elven cities, cavernous Dwarven empires, bone-chilling mountaintops and the desolate wastes of Mordor.

Shadow of Mordor is one place.  One vibe.  It feels very much like a side-story.

It's kinda' like a Hobbit game in which you just chill out in the Shire.  In the same way the enchanted forest realm of the Elves would start to get a little stale if you just hung around there for fifteen gaming hours, Mordor - which is just emptiness with a few broken forts here and there - is a boring locale.  There's no sense of history here - no real sense of place - and nothing that evokes the grandeur of Tolkein's books or Jackson's films.

There's no personality, save for the Uruks themselves.  They have quite a bit.

The game's much-touted Nemesis system is what saves it from being a simple re-hash of Batman's combat, and you will hate the bastard Uruk who repeatedly made you look a fool in the game's first half.  You'll hunt him down, again and again, and he'll kill you, again and again, because you're not yet equipped to deal with the puzzle scenario that are his strengths and weaknesses.

When he runs into you, he'll remind you of the last time he killed you.  If you fought him but he ran away, he'll chastise you for leaving him alive or bring up the time you threw him into a fire pit - they remember - and while their stock phrases can occasionally feel somewhat canned, the massive differences between each Captain pays massive dividends for gameplay.

Where another game would have you mastering a half-dozen different enemy types (Mordor contains an analog for every Arkham enemy), here you will find a wealth of vastly different combinations of style and strengths, each demanding a subtly different tactic from the player.

It gives the game's systems - the combat, the stealth, the wraith abilities, the (very valuable) upgrades and how they all combine- very long legs, and guides the player to stretch them in unexpected ways. By the end of the game, when Talion has a vast arsenal of abilities (and significantly-impactful runes etched into his weapons), you are The Shadow of Mordor - an unstoppable, tactical hunter of the Dark Lord Sauron's forces.

That is where Shadow of Mordor finds itself.

It doesn't provide everything a Lord of the Rings fan could ask for - its world is dulled and shapeless, it lacks the grandeur of its source material, and the ending suggests the entire affair was nothing but the prequel for a much cooler adventure to come as downloadable content - but anyone who watched Viggo Mortensen tear through ranks of Uruk-Hai with a longsword and enjoyed the fantasy of beating the shit out of a bunch of savage war-monsters will find a lot of beautiful moments, here.

Moments of sitting in the rafters of a ruined fort, planning an attack on an Uruk captain who has a fear of bees, and how best to exploit that.  Moments of swaggering through tall grass towards a bunch of bloodthirsty Orcs who're pushing around a human slave, and drawing a long, beautiful blade from its sheath.

In those moments, Shadow of Mordor is the game it wants to be.


  1. Good review, as usual. This has been a game that I've been interested in playing, but not anytime soon. The fall season is busy enough as it is.

    1. Yeah it's a safe game to put on the when-it's-cheap list.