Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor review – Master of Puppets

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PC/ PS3/PS4 (reviewed)/Xbox 360/Xbox One

Death is an interesting prospect in Shadow of Mordor. The game begins with its protagonist, a ranger named Talion, watching as his family are murdered by the lieutenants of the evil Lord Sauron and then he dies. Sort of. Talion’s fate has been entwined with that of a mysterious wraith and he’s cursed to walk the world of Middle-earth until he can visit revenge upon his killers and learn more about the enigmatic phantom to whom he is bound.

This is how the game begins and, while it serves its purpose, the narrative isn’t particularly noteworthy. It’s a fairly typical revenge story that exists primarily as a hook to hang a game on.  Fortunately, that game is very, very good.

The core mechanics will be instantly familiar to any fans of the Assassin’s Creed or Batman: Arkham franchises. Talion can scale walls and towers with ease and the environment is a joy to explore; especially when sneaking up on an enemy.  The combat is fast and fluid; building up a huge and varied combination of moves is immensely satisfying and unleashing a killer finisher at the perfect moment feels fantastic. Even better, environmental hazards – like exploding kegs of grog and vicious caged beasts – can be used to create chaos in orc strongholds.

It's not you're day really, is it mate?

It’s not you’re day really, is it mate?

Eventually, Talion gains the ability to ‘brand’ enemies and make them fight for him. This allows the player to orchestrate Machiavellian assassination plots on powerful orc leaders by exploiting the Nemesis system; the game’s most compelling mechanic.

Each new game generates a plethora of enemies with names, hates, fears, ambitions, strengths, and weaknesses all trying to climb their way up the blood-spattered ladder from grunt to captain to warchief. These enemies roam the open-world map competing with each other through various types of power struggles. They hold feasts, execute rivals, and participate in deadly duels to build their strength and prestige amongst their fellow orcs. Those that emerge victorious gain new strengths and lose weaknesses making them considerably more formidable in battle. What’s more, they remember their encounters with the player and learn from them.

Orc power struggles allow the player to pull the strings from behind the scenes.

Orc power struggles allow the player to pull the strings from behind the scenes.

In Shadow of Mordor, death doesn’t always stick and, much like the player, many of the game’s enemies will keep coming back for more. Talion might be able to creep up on Lamlug Skull Bow once, but next time that strategy probably won’t work. He’ll have learned his lesson from their first encounter and will be on the lookout for sneaky rangers. Eventually, the physical scars of your battles will start to show too. If Lamlug gets run through with a sword, he’ll have scars, if he’s set on fire, he’ll have burns. In my game, poor old Lamlug took so much punishment that he eventually turned up with a bag on his head.

It isn't all barren wasteland; some parts of Mordor are strikingly verdant.

It isn’t all barren wasteland; some parts of Mordor are strikingly verdant.

While the plot isn’t particularly exciting, Shadow of Mordor is an exceptional open-world game that gives the player a vast set of tools for murdering a slew of unique enemies and gives them the freedom to deal with them in any way they see fit; manipulating power politics from the shadows and pulling the strings on a hit from behind the scenes is especially satisfying. With so many ways to go about it, it’s never been so much fun to hunt some orc.

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