Lord of the Rings games have traditionally been a bit short on living up to their novel and film counterparts, so I had little hope before last week that Shadow of Mordor would do otherwise. Perhaps it’s the lack of that Lord Of the Rings moniker, but Warner Bros latest game has somehow given the eye of Sauron the slip and proved to be a real surprise.
Set between The Hobbit and the LOTR trilogy, Shadow of Mordor tells the story of a Ranger, Talion, who has had everything taken from him by the Dark Lord’s army, including both his family and his life. It’s a great premise that frees itself of the shackles that have bound other games to the storyline of Tolkien’s texts and gives it the freedom it needs to focus on a new story and new characters.
Finding himself resurrected and paired with the spirit of an Elvish Wraith, it’s up to Talion to seek vengeance against those that killed his family and, eventually, the Dark Lord himself beyond the black gates.
Orcs, Uruks and Caragors are your main foes, but far from cardboard cutouts. The game ensures that foes you meet in battle are, at the least, remembered and if you fail to kill them, rise up the ranks to become captains and wait for you on the battlefield with their new found strengths. The story pits you against them but also with them, or at least with one particular lowly Orc with big ideas who is often as much a hindrance as a help. It also includes a much more familiar figure, due to the seemingly set-in-stone rule that every piece of Lord of the Rings media must include Andy Serkis at some point. Yes, Gollum is here, too, and not just for fan service, but as an integral part of the story.
Story is only one part, though, My first surprise came when I hit the first mission. It’s as if the development team at Monolith Productions had studied the Assassin’s Creed games and realised exactly which bits worked and which didn’t because Shadow of Mordor feels like the ultimate Assassin’s Creed game. The borrowing doesn’t stop there, as they’ve seemingly taken cues from Batman when it comes to fist fights, too. It’s certainly no bad thing, either and I take my hat off to Monolith for daring to create something that not only takes Tolkien’s franchise to heart, but also provides one of the best gaming experiences so far this year.
Switching between Talion and the Wraith, Celebrimbor, is not just a case of using a bow or a sword. The Wraith has powers that will provide the player with stealth and the ability to see objects that will help guide or heal, plus a second sight to find enemies behind buildings. There’s nothing more satisfying than creeping on to a ledge above an orc and dropping down for the kill, or shooting a bow at a Caragor’s cage and watch as it decimates a field of orcs in a rampaging attack.
Captains and War Chiefs need more skill to defeat. They have specific weaknesses only found by prising information from captured orcs and Uruks in battle. The story helps to guide you towards the ranks of these War Chiefs, but it’s open enough that you can tackle them in your own way, too.
Shadow of Mordor manages to find the perfect balance of open world and mission-based gaming, with areas opened up by capturing towers, allowing you to fast travel to side or main missions across the large map. You can, of course, take the scenic route, slaying more foes along the way, but death is just a missed button press away and it’s back to the tower to start your journey again.
Fans of Middle Earth and even those who just want to play one of this year’s best games need look no further. Shadow of Mordor succeeds where others have failed and even manages to one-up other franchises at the same time.