In 2014, Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor seemed to come out of nowhere to become one of the genuine surprises of the year. There were hardly high expectations for what many had written off as another unremarkable movie tie-in.
As it turns out, developers Monolith were quietly making a cracker of a third-person action game — a genre that was once brimming with quality but is now less than blessed with quality new releases.
Shadow of Mordor reminded us just how much fun can be had with a third person action adventure game. And now, with its sequel, Middle Earth: Shadow of War imminent, what better time to analyze what, exactly, makes this fledgling franchise so damn entertaining.
This ain’t your daddy’s Lord Of The Rings
Shadow of Mordor released some thirteen years since The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring hit big screens worldwide. Yes, those movies will be remembered as classics for the ages, but they’re hardly a fixture in today’s cultural zeitgeist, and the so-so Hobbit movies didn’t do much to improve the situation. It’s fair to say the gaming public was hardly crying out for a new game set in Middle Earth.
Monolith didn’t seem to think about that. They never appeared to be worried at any point that their target audience may simply not want another Lord of the Rings adaptation. They set about creating a game set in Tolkien’s universe, just as many studios have over the years. But the difference here is that they did so on their terms.
That’s not to say they went completely off-piste: Monolith consulted with representatives from Warner Bros’ movie division, as well as Peter Jackson himself and the people at Weta Workshop (the digital effects gurus behind the Lord of the Rings series’ visual magic) to get the look and feel of their version of Middle Earth just right.
But once this solid groundwork had been laid, Monolith didn’t shy away from blazing their trail. In a way that has never really been done before with this property, Shadow of Mordor takes liberties with the source material, sometimes subtly, sometimes not so. Even the core concept of the game’s story pushes the limits of Tolkien’s typically reserved fiction. Here, a captain of Gondor is brought back from the brink of death by the soul of a long-dead elf lord to fight his way through the hordes of Mordor using his newly-acquired wraith powers, with the ultimate goal of exacting revenge on the lackeys who murdered his family. Think it sounds a little fan fiction-y? Me too.
And that’s ok.
I’m an admirer of the movie universe, and it's down to earth, gritty aesthetic and lack of flashy magic effects. But at this point, that’s been done. Overdone, in fact. Shadow of Mordor plays with your perceptions of what should be included in a Lord of the Rings game, and as a result is full of fun and surprises. Yes, there are times when it gets a little far-fetched (Gollum crops up a remarkable amount), but it’s always in service of creating an enjoyable game. I’m done being precious about the Lord of the Rings franchise, and Shadow of Mordor is proof that I’m right. Because when you stop being uptight about when and how Elves, Uruks, and all those guys are used, good things can happen.
Seriously satisfying combat
Not since the Batman Arkham games have we been presented with combat that feels this satisfying. That’s appropriate because Monolith has cited Rocksteady’s series as a major influence in Shadow of Mordor’s stealth and combat mechanics.
There’s a definite attempt to make the combat flow here, and it feels outstanding when you become accomplished at it. It’s counter-heavy, just like the Arkham games, and, despite looking incredibly cool, the animation never gets in the way of executing a perfectly timed move.
There’s a perfect level of depth to the fighting mechanics, with combos and more technique-laden moves possible, but never feels overwhelming to the player. This is not a Dark Souls-esque fighter where patience, timing, and strictly adhered-to tactics are key: neither is it a Bayonetta type brawler where elaborate combo-based combat is key to the experience. Shadow of Mordor isn’t interested in making you feel like you’re only playing well if you’re achieving the best possible outcome in every combat encounter. In fact, some of the best and most characterful moments in the game come from when conflict doesn’t go to plan.
And the award for the best new gameplay mechanic goes to…
Shadow of Mordor is pretty unanimously loved by those who play it, especially if you have an affinity for the genre or the setting. But of course, there are always those who disagree. There is one thing everyone that plays Shadow of Mordor agrees on, though: the Nemesis System is nothing short of a triumph, a system that’s incredibly elaborate on a technical level, but somehow manages to be intuitively understandable to all types of players.
This clever mechanic simulates the machinations of orc society, in particular for the protagonist. So, if you find yourself slain by, say, a lowly archer, that orc’s standing will likely be improved, and they’ll be promoted up the hierarchy as a result. The next time you encounter him, he might even be a mighty war boss. Alternatively, he might get himself eaten by a warg. Because that sort of thing can happen too. Likewise, if you defeat an enemy orc by putting an arrow through this eye, it's likely that fellow will turn up later, with an eye patch and a seething grudge.
These encounters happen throughout the game and improve the experience by making you feel connected to your adversaries in a way that’s impossible in other games. Here, the enmity your nemesis shows do feel personal, because it is personal. Shadow of Mordor also tries hard to make each battle interesting, and it works, partly because combat is already a satisfying endeavor, but mainly each of these orcs has a particular personality of their own. And there’s nothing quite like getting one over on your bitter enemy.
Are you looking forward to jumping back into Middle Earth for Shadow of War? What’s your best nemesis encounter? Let us know in the comments!
Andy is a freelance writer for Game With Your Brain. You can follow him on Twitter.