Note: Before discussing Shadow of Mordor, I should make mention of the controversy that arose before the game’s September 30th release date. As revealed by prominent YouTube personalities such as John Bain (TotalBiscuit), he and other reviewers were approached by the publisher and offered pre-release copies in exchange for signing a contract which would require them to deliver positive reviews, ignoring any problems with the game. If the critics did not adhere to the stipulations, their videos could be flagged as copyright infringement. Once the news was out, Warner Bros. was rightly ridiculed for their shady behavior, prompting several studios to amend their pre-release review policies in response. What’s amazing is not just how Warner Bros. tried to strong-arm critics into hyping their game, but that they thought they could do so without being exposed. Ever since Jeff Gerstmann was fired from Gamespot after the Kane & Lynch debacle, the gaming community is more skeptical than ever of corrupt business deals from developers and publishers, and they will respond when they see something wrong.

It could be argued that J.R.R. Tolkien invented the modern concept of high fantasy. His epic tales of Middle Earth set the template for the majority of fantasy works that followed with many authors trying to recreate the scale of his grand conflict between the forces of good and the dark armies of Sauron. The Lord of the Rings has gained fans with each decade, and with its growing popularity the novels were regularly adapted into other forms of media. The 1970s animated versions of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings by Rankin/Bass and Ralph Bakshi (respectively) were flawed yet have gone on to become cult hits. Peter Jackson’s live action Lord of the Rings trilogy was by far the most successful reworking of the saga, winning numerous awards for its amazing depiction of Tolkien’s world. But with every popular franchise there are always people who want to capitalize on it without treating the material with the respect it deserves. Such is the case with Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, developed by Monolith Productions and published by Warner Bros. Entertainment, a blatantly soulless cash-in that exists simply to earn a profit for its creators rather than providing an entertaining experience for its audience.

 

After more than 2000 years, the armies of Sauron have returned to Middle Earth. Led by three of the Dark Lord’s Black Captains they struck the Black Gate on the outskirts of Mordor. Taken by surprise, the Rangers of Gondor were overpowered by a legion of Uruks. One of these soldiers, Talion fought against the onslaught in an effort to get his family to safety. His efforts were in vain as they were captured by The Black Hand before they could escape. Talion could only watch in horror as his wife and son were slaughtered in front of him before he himself fell to the blade. But his murder was not the end. Awakening in a strange limbo he was greeted by the spirit of an Elf calling himself Celebrimbor.  The wraith informs the Ranger that both are victims of a curse cast by the Black Hand which banished them from death. The only way to pass over is to kill the one responsible for their plight. United in a desire for vengeance, Celebrimbor possesses Talion, allowing him to return to the mortal world. Ten years have passed since his murder, and in that time Mordor has become a desolate wasteland, Sauron’s minions subjecting its people to constant grief and suffering. Talion’s chances of success seem impossible, but as a Gravewalker, he has no fear of dying and therefore nothing holding him back as he sets out to avenge the death of his family.

 

Shadow of Mordor’s biggest narrative shortcoming is its failure to expand on Tolkien’s lore. There was a great opportunity to explore Middle Earth during the period between the events of The Hobbit and The Fellowship of The Ring. Instead of simply following the exploits of the Baggins clan, players could have seen how the various races of the world interact and the conflicts that rise because of their differing philosophies. To put more weight behind the game’s storyline, Monolith could have presented brief interactive sections over the course of the decade Sauron’s influence spread, how his powers turned Mordor into a land of shadows and death, how its people were subjugated into slavery.

 

Instead, the game presents yet another tale of a bitter man seeking vengeance for his murdered family. It follows the generic template for all revenge stories: someone close to the protagonist is brutally killed, the protagonist goes on a bloody rampage against those responsible and anyone connected to them, eventually he (and it’s almost always a male) has an introspective moments where he wonders if he’s become as much of a monster as his targets, and there’s a final confrontation against the villain ultimately responsible for his pain. It adds nothing new to the formula and was unable to get me invested in Talion’s plight. There isn’t even a sense of closure as the game ends with Talion refusing to pass over to the afterlife, vowing to stay in Mordor and continue the fight against Sauron. Really though, the only reason he chooses to remain in the mortal world is to set up a sequel hook.

 

The game’s version of Mordor is absolutely lifeless. There’s never a tangible sense of the struggles people endured under the Dark Lord’s rule because there are only a handful of NPCs that you can interact with to further the campaign. Nothing shows the damage done by Sauron’s minions aside from ruined fortresses and endless amounts of human slaves being tormented by Uruks. On that note, Uruks and humans are practically the only races encountered throughout the entire game. You only meet one Dwarf and one Elf, and I doubt the Elf counts since he’s already dead. There are a few attempts to make the setting feel organic like Caragors occasionally attacking wandering Uruks but it’s not enough.

 

World building is only accomplished by finding collectible artifacts which reveal the memories of those who held them. This isn’t necessarily a bad way to provide more information about a game’s setting; the audio logs in the Bioshock games and Memory Items in Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon did an excellent job of informing the player about events that happened before the central story. But these items enriched the already well-developed plots, they did not serve as a substitute for plot. Like Destiny and Remember Me, Shadow of Mordor relies on telling rather than showing, further distancing players from the experience.

 

Earlier I mentioned that Shadow of Mordor was an attempt to cash-in on the popularity of the Lord of the Rings franchise. The most damning evidence for this is seen in the various references to the films and novels which aren’t there to make the world feel more like the Middle Earth Tolkien envisioned, but to cynically appeal to fans of the series. Gollum/Smeagol appears in some missions hinting at a deeper link to Celebrimbor, though he ended up contributing nothing significant to the game overall, suggesting that his inclusion was simply for fan service rather than to help drive the story. Queen Marwen is under the influence of a spell cast by Saurman, yet never once is the White Wizard encountered and the curse is broken in a cutscene. Further cementing my suspicion that the game was primarily driven my marketing are the various references to other Lord of the Rings media. Some mission titles are named after chapters from the books and popular lines of dialogue such as “They Shall Not Pass” and “A Knife in the Dark.” One of the possible achievements is even called “Fly, You Fools.” Normally I would consider these simple Easter Eggs, but they strike me more as pandering; simply including these references for memetic value because the developers thought it would increase sales among fans.

 

Talion is without a doubt one of the dullest, most wooden characters I’ve ever seen in a video game. Just as his personal story is a hackneyed revenge tale, he’s the hackneyed gritty, battle-scarred hero whose only two emotional states are detached stoicism or blind rage. At one point Talion is supposed to be developing feelings for Lithariel, yet he never displays any signs of affection or warmth and the subplot is all but dropped. Later on a rescue mission Celebrimbor warns him not to give into his emotions, which I found laughable considering he had yet to show any true feelings. I don’t know if Troy Baker simply put such little effort into this role on his own or if he was instructed to be as lifeless as possible.

 

Players are supposed to feel sympathy for Talion because his family was murdered before his eyes, but it’s difficult to form a connection because of the small presence they have. Before their deaths they only appear in tutorial sections; his son Dirhael is used to teach combat mechanics while his wife Ioreth serves to teach stealth mechanics as you sneak up on her to deliver a kiss. After that, we learn nothing more about their pasts except for barely intelligible whispers during loading screens. During the battle against the Tower, Talion hallucinates hearing his wife and son mocking him from beyond the grave as a trick to weaken his resolve. But because we knew practically nothing about Ioreth or Dirhael and how Talion interacted with them, there’s no impact to their words.

 

Celebrimbor, rather than serving as a contrast to Talion’s lifeless demeanor, is just as flat as the human he’s bonded to.  Again I’m left to wonder if Alastair Duncan was phoning in his performance. It’s a shame because there was considerable potential for this character. Celebrimbor is revealed as the one responsible for forging the Rings of Power. He was manipulated by Sauron into thinking his actions would serve a greater good. The writers could have crafted a story around the moral dilemmas he faced as he tried to stay sane in a world being ravaged by war, his quest for redemption after learning of the horror he played a part in bringing to Middle Earth. But again, any opportunity to make one of the main characters remotely interesting was ignored. His personal story is practically an exact parallel to Talion’s; his family was murdered by Sauron, so he refused to pass into the afterlife until he found an opportunity for revenge, using Talion as his tool. Essentially Talion and Celebrimbor’s roles could be switched with hardly any difference because they’re the same banal character.

 

There’s hardly anything to say about the supporting NPCs as most of them also appear to be devoid of emotion and contribute little to the plot aside from one or two missions. Hirgon, another soldier at the Black Gate fled after the siege and found love among the Outcasts. Though he has some history with Talion, we don’t see any evidence that they had a friendship in the past. Lithariel is said to be a capable warrior but she never has any opportunities to show her prowess in battle. The most development she gets is when she’s teased as a possible new love interest for Talion, then ultimately forgotten about. The Black Captains have no real motivation for their deeds other than they’re evil for the sake of being evil. What upsets me is that talented actors were hired to voice these characters: John DiMaggio, Nolan North, Abigail Marlowe, even Jennifer Hale acted as the narrator during the introduction. Yet their skills were squandered as they were given little to say and their performances were flat. It’s like an episode of The Simpsons where a prominent actor or media personality appears in an episode just to deliver one or two lines – they add nothing to the story, they’re just in it for name recognition to draw in an audience.

 

Only two characters managed to make an impression. Ratbag the Uruk was very reminiscent of Starscream from Transformers. A cowardly opportunist, he covertly helps Talion defeat other high-ranking Uruks so that he may rise in notoriety. His interactions with other soldiers who looked down on him provided for several humorous moments. Sadly, he’s killed before he can reach his desired position. Torvin the Dwarf appears rather one-note at first; a boisterous hunter whose desire for adventure outweighed common sense. As the missions he was involved in progressed, though, it was revealed that his reckless attitude was driven by grief and his own desire for justice against a creature that harmed him in the past. Torvin demonstrated that a character motivated by vengeance can have a vivid personality, so why this wasn’t applied to the others is beyond me.

 

Shadow of Mordor is an open-world action game with stealth elements in the vein of Assassin’s Creed. While I’ve never played any entries from that franchise, I have seen Let’s Play footage from several titles and am aware of the elements Shadow of Mordor borrowed. Forge Towers, like Viewpoints, provide more information about the surrounding area by marking the locations for missions and collectibles on the map along with providing fast-travel points. Wraith Vision is another form of Eagle Vision used to identify key targets and objects of interest. Using wraith powers also serves as this game’s method of seeing through walls or slowing down time for ranged attacks. These superficial aspects work well, though they don’t add anything new; they simply exist because they’re features common to the open-world genre. Other concepts borrowed from Assassin’s Creed aren’t executed as successfully.

 

Stealth mechanics are incredibly simplistic. Players can instantly kill most low-level Uruks, as well as some higher-ranking enemies, if they successfully take them by surprise. Usually this is accomplished by either slowly sneaking up behind them, leaping down from a high vantage point, stabbing them from a ledge you were hanging to the underside of, or throwing a rock to lure them to an isolated area. Icons will appear above enemies’ heads to indicate how aware they are of your presence like in Metal Gear Solid. That’s about as deep as the system gets. There’s no opportunity for more intricate stealth maneuvers like extinguishing torches to plunge a stronghold into darkness, leaving enemies blind while you pick them off with the aid of Wraith Vision, or blending into a crowd of slaves so you can either approach Uruks without raising suspicion or evade pursuing forces. Furthermore, some of the features don’t even work as they’re supposed to. Talion should be able to ambush enemies by hiding in tall grass or brush and remaining perfectly still, yet every time I attempted this I was detected long before the monsters had gotten close, even though I was completely obscured by the grass.

 

As an open-world game, Shadow of Mordor demonstrates incredibly lazy design. Sandbox games are supposed to offer a wide variety of activities to amuse players and offer potential benefits (stat upgrades, useful items, achievements, etc.) Practically every mission in Shadow of Mordor, both for the main storyline and side missions, boils down to the same premise; “Go to this location and kill something.” It doesn’t matter if the objective is to slay one of Sauron’s generals, free slaves, or improve the efficacy of a weapon – the quests are just about killing enemies. The rewards and experience gained vary depending on the mission type, but the tedium and monotony you endure while obtaining them don’t make them feel worthwhile. Vendetta missions are probably the most pointless, as they task you with killing Generals that killed other players on the network. Is there any weight, any satisfaction, in avenging the death of someone you’ve never met and who never took part in your journey?

 

Travelling through Mordor can also be a pain due to several control issues. On the Playstation 4 version, or at least my copy, I ran into a number of problems, the most significant being the climbing controls. There were many times when I was trying to reach a higher ledge, either to get a better vantage point or escape enemies, when Talion would either fail to leap up or drop down and reveal himself to the Uruks, forcing me to run and hide once again. When hugging a wall I would frequently get stuck to it, or if trying to crouch behind a smaller piece of rubble I’d end up vaulting over it instead. These annoyances extended to combat as well. Sometimes when I was ready to execute a finishing move the game wouldn’t register the button prompt, cancelling the attack and leaving me vulnerable. Occasionally he would perform a flourish after striking which made him move away from his target, wasting the chain and any special attack I’d been preparing.

 

On the subject of the combat system it was also ripped from another existing franchise (the Arkham series) and implemented poorly here. Fights are supposed to follow a rhythm based around attacking, dodging and countering at the right time. But I found Talion’s movements to be stiff, which frequently threw off the pacing and caused me to miss several opportunities for a counter or chain. After delivering a killing blow, a slow-motion cutscene would play depicting the unlucky Uruk’s bloody demise, which disrupts the flow of battle. While this did occur in the Arkham games, it was only after Batman had defeated the last enemy in a group, not after every individual takedown. Here it serves no purpose other than to drag out fights.” Most annoyingly, when Talion’s presence is revealed the game will frequently spawn more enemies, sometimes up to 20 or 30 at a time, to overwhelm him. This is not how you make combat challenging; this is a frustrating cop-out that overwhelms players to the point of frustration and again needlessly prolongs the battles. Making these scenarios worse is the inability to stay locked onto a target, so I was regularly leaping from the enemy I wanted to eliminate first to a lesser threat. And this may be a personal gripe, but why can’t Talion use a shield to defend himself when certain Uruks can?

 

Battling common enemies in the overworld can become a pain, but the fights against Sauron’s elite Black Captains are a complete joke. When they first appear during the siege of the Black Gate they’re established as ruthless killers, men who can stand before waves of soldiers and emerge victorious. Once confronted on the field, though, they fall with very little effort. The Hammer acts just like lesser Generals by relying on summoned troops to aid him. The Tower presents slightly more of a challenge since he can only be defeated by stealth drains and is invisible in normal vision, necessitating the Wraith Mode to locate him. Additionally he can create multiple copies of himself, so players who don’t pay attention to their surroundings can fall victim to a sneak attack as well. Most disappointing is the last fight against The Black Hand, who serves as a vessel for Sauron’s power. What should be an epic struggle against both the Dark Lord of Middle Earth and the Captain responsible for killing Talion’s family is resolved through quick time events. It’s one of the most pathetic final boss fights I’ve ever seen in a game; it doesn’t even qualify as a true fight.

 

Fortunately, there are some good aspects to combat. Talion has unlimited stamina so he’ll never tire out when fighting or retreating. Several upgrades and abilities that can be acquired over the course of the game provide opportunities for kills that don’t require close-up combat. The most beneficial are elf-shot arrows that cause explosions when fired into a grog barrel or open flame, poisoning grog, which will not only kill some Uruks but also cause the survivors to turn on one another, and draining the life force from enemies to replenish elf-shot and focus time. The wildlife of Mordor can also be used to your advantage; breaking a Morgai Fly next or freeing a Caragor from its cage will send most enemies running in fear. After entering Nurn the Brand power is unlocked, allowing Talion to place enemies under his control. It opens the possibility for new strategies such as calling them to fight by your side during intense battles, or sending them as moles to infiltrate a General’s ranks. With effective manipulation, you can help them rise to a higher position or use them to lure out other Captains, Generals, even Warchiefs to take control of stronger foes. Building an army of your former enemies is useful while competing the central campaign missions, but Branded minions ultimately prove useless in the assault on Sauron’s Generals as they can be killed incredibly easily.

 

For all of Shadow of Mordor’s myriad problems, one area where it excels is its much touted Nemesis enemy AI system. Each game will randomly assign several Uruks to high-level positions in Sauron’s army, each their own name, personality, strengths and weaknesses. To gain an advantage against them, some lower ranking soldiers can be interrogated to learn the locations of the Nemeses as well as their abilities to best formulate a plan for defeating them. If you should fall in battle to one of these powerful monsters, their strength level and ranking will increase. Similarly, dying to a common enemy will result in the foe that dealt the fatal attack receiving his own name and rank. When you die in battle or choose to advance time, the Nemeses will advance in rank, ensuring the next encounter will prove more of a challenge. Some may even fight one another to grow in power.

 

The most impressive feature of the Nemesis system is that these enemies will actually learn from past fights. If they should kill Talion or escape a fight, there’s a possibility their tactics will change. A Captain formerly weak to stealth or ranged attacks may be immune to them when faced a second time. They’ll even remember previous fights. One General I attempted to kill by siccing a Caragor on managed to get away before I could finish him off. When I confronted him again, he mocked me for not having a beast to hide behind.

 

I quickly learned that simply defeating a Nemesis in combat isn’t a guarantee that they’re dead. After my first battle with an Uruk Captain named “Norsko the Funny One” in which I won, he returned three times at various points in the game to seek revenge, displaying new injuries and wounds with each successive appearance. The only true sign that a Nemesis won’t come back is if you manage to decapitate them with a final attack. While I do have problems with the game extending its already dull storyline with interminable combat, it actually is useful to seek out as many Nemeses as possible to collect Runes, items which can be equipped to Talion’s weapons to improve their efficacy and provide stat boosts. It’s crucial to seek out Runes that restore health after killing an enemy as there’s no other way to replenish your life in combat other than seeking out herbs, which leaves you temporarily defenseless.

 

The Nemesis system is a significant leap forward in programming enemy AI, but it’s ultimately wasted in a horrible game. It would have been better suited to a tactical RPG or turn-based strategy game where enemies can adapt to your maneuvers not only between campaigns, but during them as well. And in the end, tracking down these elite monsters is ultimately futile. Despite being told that killing Nemeses will “weaken Sauron’s power”, no matter how many you defeat, more will eventually take their place.

 

Visuals are standard quality for this console generation. The color palette relies heavily on dark shades and muted tones to fit its “gritty” environment, though it mostly makes everything appear dull and unappealing. Adding to that problem are landscapes which are virtually identical from one end of the map to the other. Udun is a barren rocky waste while Nurn is just constant grassland along a coastline. There are hardly any unique features to distinguish one region from another. The only area where it seems serious effort was shown would be the execution animations. When a character is killed in a cutscene there is almost always significant blood spilled and bodily mutilation. It’s a bit hard to watch at first, especially during the introduction when Talion’s family is murdered, but after seeing similar death scenes dozens of times over and over again, it loses any impact. The gore is simply present to make the game seem “edgy” and “mature” without actually discussing mature themes. There’s nothing to say about the sound design; it’s a standard dark fantasy orchestration with booming drums and ominous horns.

 

My opinion is in the minority as Shadow of Mordor has received considerable praise from other critics. While I disagree with them, I can’t fault them for liking it, but at the same time I can’t understand why they enjoyed it. Shadow of Mordor is a horrible game. Monolith had an opportunity to deliver their own interpretation of Middle Earth and squandered it for an overdone story about a wronged man using violence to seek closure, a theme that I imagine Tolkien would have vehemently rejected. The few impressive gameplay features cannot compensate for an overall experience that rushes its halfhearted story to the conclusion as quickly as possible while dragging out sections between campaigns with overwhelming fights. I can understand why Warner Bros. was so eager to bribe YouTube reviewers in exchange for positive reviews; they clearly had little faith in the game, and the end result shows why. I wouldn’t be surprised if after some time passes, critics who rated  Shadow of Mordor so highly will revisit it and see the flaws are more egregious.

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