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Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor Review

In many ways, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, reminds me a lot of Batman: Arkham Asylum. Not just because it borrows the Dark Knight’s fluid, counter-heavy combat style, but because both games take a franchise that had previously had little success in videogames and show everyone exactly how it should be done. The fact that it’s taken this long to see an open-world action game set in Tolkien’s universe is surprising, but Shadow of Mordor is definitely worth the wait.

Taking place between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the game sees you playing as Talion, a ranger stationed on the Black Wall when his wife and son are killed in front of him. He joins them in death shortly after, but his eternal rest is short-lived when he merges with the wraith of Elf Lord Celebrimbor (Tolkien superfans will know him as the maker of the Rings of Power), bringing Talion back to life and beginning his quest for vengeance.

It’s a pretty interesting premise if you’re a fan of Middle-earth, but it’s let down by a slightly disjointed series of opening cutscenes. Once you’re past that, though, Shadow of Mordor really comes into its own. You’re thrown straight into the open world and given free rein to explore however you like; whether that involves hunting spiders, assassinating uruks, or - if you start the way I did - getting stomped on by a troll.

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Freedom is what makes Shadow of Mordor so great, and at the core of this freedom is the unique nemesis system which generates a hierarchy of orc captains to populate the world. At any time you can stumble into a pair of orcs dueling for power, or a vicious group of captains who'll kill you quickly unless you have the good sense to run away, and what happens during these encounters will affect the hierarchy. If one captain is killed then another will take his place, or if the war chief runs away scared then he'll just suffer a demotion.

On top of this, some orcs will act as bodyguards for those higher up on the food chain, and before taking on any of the captains it’s important to gather intel on them by interrogating enemies and looking for evidence. Doing so will reveal the orc’s strengths and weaknesses which can be deviously exploited. For example, in an early mission you come across an orc who, to overcompensate for his fear of caragors (massive, tiger-like creatures that Talion can use as a mount), insisted on keeping several of the beasts as pets. Of course, I released them from their cages and they mauled their captor to death.

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This is just one of the many ways in which you can exploit Shadow of Mordor’s world to your own sadistic will. Each enemy encounter can be approached in several ways; you can pick off enemies from afar with your bow, skulk around in the shadows taking out orcs with your dagger, go on the offensive with your sword, or any combination of the three. Personally, I preferred the stealthy approach, while occasionally opting for the less discreet (but oh-so-satisfying) environmental kills such as dropping a nest of flesh-eating flies on my target.

You can also utilise other elements of the world to get your kill, such as poisoning the wine barrel at a feast. Between the dynamic nemesis system and varied gameplay, the possibilities really begin to stack up, and that’s without even considering the ways you can manipulate war chiefs to your will as you start to gain more powers. The sheer amount of emergence that’s possible in the game makes it feel like your experience is completely unique. It makes titles like Assassin’s Creed feel incredibly limited by comparison.

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As well as having their own strengths and weaknesses, every orc captain has their own unique look and personality. Each one I came up against was so distinctive that at times it was hard to believe they weren’t hand-crafted by a designer. Once you meet one of these chiefs in battle, the camera zooms in and they spout some insult at you that will vary depending on their personality. Some will even mention previous times you’ve fought each other. It really helps to make the world feel alive.

It says a lot about the nemesis system that so far this review has been almost exclusively covering the feature, but it’s not the only great thing about the game. The gameplay, on the whole, is incredibly polished; from the brutal Arkham Asylum-esque combat, to the satisfying bow-and-arrow mechanic, to the responsive movement and climbing mechanics, everything works exactly how you’d want it to.

Shadow of Mordor succeeds on the presentation front, too; running on the PS4, the game looks great. Talion’s cape swishes realistically in the breeze, character animation is smooth and there are some great-looking vistas. My only complaint - and it’s a small one - is that Talion is possibly the most generic-looking hero I’ve seen to date. He’s so plain it’s almost distracting.

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On the story side of things, Shadow of Mordor doesn’t do anything particularly new - by now the whole ”quest for vengeance” storyline has been done to death, and there are a few references to the movies that feel a bit ham-fisted. Still, in-game cutscenes are nicely animated, voice-acting is great, and I must admit I enjoyed seeing Gollum for the short time he appears in the game.

Every aspect of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor feels like it was designed to be the ultimate power trip. At the same time, thanks to nemesis, your actions have very direct and visible consequences on the world you inhabit. It's this combination that makes Shadow of Mordor not only an excellent game, but one which sets the standard for all open-world titles to come.

9.00/10 9

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor (Reviewed on PlayStation 4)

Excellent. Look out for this one.

Every aspect of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor feels like it was designed to be the ultimate power trip. At the same time, thanks to nemesis, your actions have very direct and visible consequences on the world you inhabit. It's this combination that makes Shadow of Mordor not only an excellent game, but one which sets the standard for all open-world titles to come.

This game was supplied by the publisher or relevant PR company for the purposes of review
Matt Girdler

Matt Girdler

Staff Writer

When he's not hunched over a computer programming, Matt can be found hunched over a computer playing and writing about video games.

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