Shadow of Mordor makes such a fantastic first impression, it’s nearly enough to gloss over the parts that let it down. The game’s tutorial works well as an introduction to the world, characters, and mechanics. The open world segments are great; you can feel the Arkham games’ influence on the setup of the world. Assassin’s Creed style mechanics are also present. The meat of this game is essentially a mixture of those two franchises. The Arkham combat adds a lot to the mix, while Assassin’s Creed style platforming and more gore than either all make this a standout game of 2014. And that should be enough of a recommendation for any fans of those series. But read on, and find out why you might not want to stick a “Game of the Year” badge on the box just yet.
Shadow of Mordor is not without its flaws. There are lots of great features it brings to the table. But there are a couple of glaring flaws that go a long way to spoiling the goodwill it gained with the strength of its initial showing. Problems with repetitiveness and the ending both rear their heads before you’re done with Talion and the Wraith’s journey, and if you aren’t a fan of the type of combat this game (or the Arkham games) have to offer, then there is not much in the game for you. Such a large part of the game focuses on combat with Uruks, that if you don’t like it, you won’t find enough else going on in this open world game to keep you interested. In Arkham or Assassin’s Creed, you might find enjoyment in other elements, like the platforming, or the puzzle solving, or finding the myriad collectibles, but in Shadow of Mordor, there’s no challenge in these things.
To continue the nitpicking, the structured parts of the game, being episodes of story delivered to you via cutscene and “follow the NPC” sections of gameplay (they might as well be cutscenes, you can take your hands off the controls and you will still follow whoever the “designated exposition giver”) or missions you can pick to do yourself from starting points on the overworld map, both have an odd habit of making you go to one spot on the map, then teleporting you somewhere else for the real mission. It’s not a big issue, but it does start to annoy once you get to the later parts of the game.
The reason it starts to grate is that you run out of new things to do. Once you get halfway through the game, and unlock the branding ability, you have all the tools you need to finish the game from there. The game makes you jump through some other story missions, including an odd side chain featuring a dwarf treasure hunter, but they don’t add to the gameplay or mechanics in any meaningful way. The designers were brilliantly observant to have realised they needed to lock the branding ability away, but once you get it, the nemesis system, one of the game’s key strengths, takes on a whole new appearance and functionality, leaving you wondering why it wasn’t there to begin with. Which leads to the question, why did they needlessly string the game out?
Because otherwise, you’d have very little to do. This game does combat excellently. Taking lots of inspiration from the Arkham combat system, but adding enough twists to keep it fresh and interesting to players who’re experienced in the flowing combat of that series. Shadow of Mordor does a damn fine job of making the core of its gameplay extremely enjoyable. Which makes it such a shame that the other areas, like collectibles and puzzles, have received so little attention in return. You turn up, pick the item up and then listen to some more background exposition that’s not really tied to the main game, just a nice little audiolog to make the world seem populated by things other than mooks for you to kill. And they didn’t even get the listening part right. At least in something like Bioshock, you can listen to the audiologs while you carry on playing. Shadow of Mordor demands your full attention for its inconsequential lore splurge, as closing the screen stops the memory from playing. Again, it’s not a big problem, but it’s another little thing that adds up to Shadow of Mordor‘s detriment.
At this point, you may be wondering what the big deal is? Why are any of these things enough to make Shadow of Mordor such a disappointment? And I know, they aren’t much. But the ending of this game has to shoulder a large part of the blame for why I place this game behind games like Arkham City or Assassin’s Creed 4 and not among them. Arkham City’s fight against Clayface is superb. Assassin’s Creed 4’s last section is a solid inspection of your platforming abilities. Shadow of Mordor‘s final boss? “Stealth drain this dude you met at the start of the game then had little to no interaction with for the rest”. It’s a joke. And not a well told one at that. And this is being generous. Technically, the last boss dies on your blade in a quick time event. For an entire game that’s built around the strength of its combat system, that is a pitiful, foolish way to end the game. And nigh on inexcusable. It says mountains for the good points of the game that it still leaves me wanting more after how poor an ending it truly is.
So let’s talk about those redeeming features, shall we? Like I said, the combat is top-notch. The Arkham series has always had brilliant combat, and to find another Warner Brothers game aping its style is no surprise. Finding a game that betters it? That’s a rare thing. Even Arkham Origins managed to mess with the formula and screw it up, so improvement is genuinely an astounding achievement. And Monolith have managed it. With tweaks to your capabilities and a last chance mechanism that suits the heroic fantasy that they’re engaging you with, you feel vulnerable when you’re stretching yourself, and powerful when you’re getting it right. Occasionally you might end up being too powerful, but the game doesn’t really have an upper limit on the challenge it can offer. Once you find a particular combination of traits from the nemesis system that you’re current combat style can’t deal with, you will come back again and again looking for a way to defeat that foe.
And that brings us to another real strength of the game. The Nemesis system. A way to use player death inside the game, rather than spitting you out and saying “do it again, stupid”. When you die, you aren’t slapped in the face with a Game Over screen. You get sent back to a Forge Tower (these function like the towers in Assassin’s Creed, unlocking fast travel and more missions on the overworld) and any ongoing enemy missions get played out, with results affecting the Uruk captains, killing off those that lose duels or ambushes while those that survive gain power and rank. Not only that, but when a generic Uruk kills you, it gets and becomes a revenge target. The game tracks how many times an enemy has killed you, and they will react differently to you when next they meet you. You can track their progress as well, even using the branding system to make them your follower and then work to move them up, through the ranks.
It works so well, I want to see it implemented in other games. Imagine Assassin’s Creed where you can extort enemy Templars and have them work for you within the organisation, bringing it to its knees from within. Imagine a Grand Theft Auto game where any time you don’t finish off an enemy, they skulk away and begin plotting their revenge. Imagine a Batman game where you can face off against unique opponents who develop unique ticks and traits depending on how YOU behave towards them. I know that Batman’s foes are just as big a selling point as he is, but they killed the Joker off, so clearly Rocksteady aren’t too worried about retention of players via the enemies you face off against.
And finally, the music. So many of my memories of The Lord of the Rings films are linked to that wonderful, emotive score, that I was apprehensive about how Shadow of Mordor would approach this. Luckily, my fear was misplaced, and they have done a fine job in this department. It’s not the same as the music was in the LotR trilogy, and it didn’t need to be. Shadow of Mordor is its own game, with its own direction and aims. Taking notes from the music in the trilogy but making alterations and including some more modern sounds, the score fits the game very well indeed.
In conclusion, I would recommend Shadow of Mordor. It’s a fantastic concept, with bags of potential that falls at the final hurdle through some poor design choices and a lack of incentive to explore. Both enough to damn lesser games twice over. That it still comes through as a solidly enjoyable game is to its credit, but I don’t think it has enough about it to call it a game of the year contender.