Sometimes there are games that you just can’t pry yourself away from and sometimes there are games that you wish you’d encouraged yourself to stay away from. Having not yet encountered the former since I bought my PS4 some months ago, I was eager for my new machine to deliver me a title that, just like many of my beloved PS3 games had done, not only stole my attention but kept it for hours on end. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor became for me that attention demanding experience, one that despite its flaws, had overshadowing positives that made it both a very enjoyable gaming encounter and a highly immersive one too.
In Middle-earth players take on the role of Talion, a Gondorian Ranger who protects and serves the Black Gate that keeps watch over Mordor. During the opening cut scenes, you are shown a clip of the Black Gate being breached by Sauron’s Uruk army, who, led by the Black Captains, capture Talion and his wife Loreth and son Dirhael. The Black Hand, the leader of the three captains, then proceeds to slain Loreth and Dirhael before killing Talion. However, Talion is resurrected by an unknown Wraith who merges with him, sharing with Talion his wraith abilities and saving the ranger from death. A curse to both men, Talion, known as the Gravewalker by his enemies after his resurrection, is as a result bound to Mordor, seeking revenge for his murdered family, while in the process learning the identity of the Wraith and the connection they have between them.
A tale with a premise reminiscent of so many other games, before Middle-earth was handed to me I managed stay away from spoilers about the plot, managing to avoid hearing anything about it like the plague. As such when certain things were unfolded to me throughout the story, such as the identity of the unknown Wraith paired with Talion, I was pleasantly surprised by the revelations but still overall the story wasn’t one of the best I’ve seen. Relatively short, I found this to be one of the weaker points of Shadow of Mordor, with the more prevalent feeling of mediocrity switching over to disappointment during the closing minutes. I don’t want to give away any spoilers but the ending of Middle-earth was for me far too abrupt, although it did leave open certain possibilities, which was interesting.
What I felt the story did have however, was excellent supporting characters. Each with their own stories and distinct personalities, these additions made me feel as if I wasn’t the only person with struggles in Mordor. My favourite of these supporting roles was Ratbag, a snivelling and honourless Uruk who I used as a spy and who also had a great wit about him. I additionally enjoyed the Dwarf Torvin’s time on screen, his humour and jovial demeanour clashing perfectly with Talion’s more serious nature. A great supporting cast, I found the voice work from everyone involved, including the main characters, to be very good, giving the story both some comedic and severe tones. As for the connection I felt with my main protagonist, I did very much enjoy my time with Talion and his wraith spirit but I didn’t feel a very strong connection with him, especially not compared to ones I’ve had with other characters in the past, such as Joel or Drake.
The presentation of the world of Mordor itself was something I found to be very well executed, not to mention lifelike. From the growls and roars of the world’s roaming beasts, such as the four legged Caragors and giant troll like Graugs, to gangs of Uruk’s having their own conversations, I felt that Mordor was a living, breathing place that wasn’t just my home but home to so many others. I especially liked that things would be taking place around me while I was going about my business, such as Uruk’s fighting off Graug’s or slaves going about their work. However, with only two maps, Udun and Sea of Nurnen, the world did feel, although realistic, very samey, with Udun being particularly aesthetically bland due to its bleak and dull appearance. Aside to the looks of a game are the sounds that come through it, and Middle-earth got this spot on, with both the music and other noises being of a very fitting nature. Playing this on the PS4 also meant I was privy to some excellent work with the controller’s speaker, the noises coming from it creating even more of a great gaming atmosphere.
As much as presentation, looks and sound are important in a game, it’s the actual gameplay itself that really makes them exciting to play and Middle-earth was one of the most fun experiences I’ve had this year. An action/adventure game with RPG elements, Shadow of Mordor gives players the chance to roam the world as they please, doing what they like within the confines of the game. Abundant with side quests and things to find, after the main story missions, of which there are 20, are over there’s still an awful lot that can be done. From side quests to finding artefacts to doing hunting challenges, there’s plenty keeping you coming back for more here and while admittedly, most side quests are made up of you killing Uruk’s, it’s the way that these missions are presented that keeps you from falling fell to a repetition induced boredom.
What Middle-earth also does is provide you with a great deal of distractions, and while you can fast travel to areas thus avoiding the abundance of starting markers telling you to do this or that instead of your set out goal, this means first finding and reforging an areas Forge Tower. Much like the Viewpoints of Assassin’s Creed, unlocking these gives you access to that area of the map, showing you where items are hidden and unlocking missions in the area. Like the map itself, this is a very familiar feature but it’s one that works very well. What did annoy me however, was that after I’d failed a mission I couldn’t just restart, instead I had to travel all the way back to the marker. It was very grating and this aspect of being made to travel all the way back, often felt like salt in my already frustrated wounds.
One of the greatest aspects of the gameplay I found was the way Talion moved, both in terms of combat and in general. Combining the free-running/climbing aspects of the Assassin’s Creed games, with the quick, button combinations and counter-attack moves of Rocksteady’s Batman, with a few God of War style quick-time combat events, Middle-earth’s combat system also has a range of previously seen features within its walls. A bag of already used tricks, some may accuse Monolith of stealing others ideas but the fact is that the combination of these aspects not only gel together nicely but is hugely fun to play.
Something that Middle-earth does do differently however, is essentially give players the use of two characters but within one virtual body. Whether it be the close, sword-fighting techniques of Talion or the long ranged attacks of his wraith counterpart’s bow and arrow, both have two very different and useful fighting styles that can be switched between, simply by pressing a button. A very fluid transition between the two, this is something that can be said about the gameplay in general.
During the free-roaming portions of the game, players can make Talion climb the highest buildings, jump from ledge to ledge and sprint around the terrain with just one click of X and while it isn’t 100% nuisance free, 90% of the time the ranger will go where you want him to go. The basic controls are also the same when a player checks Talion in to the Wraith’s world using L1, which is a place of hazy descent, blocking out the terrain and giving you access to his powers. The differences then do not lie in the basic movement controls but in what the two ‘men’ can do. For example, Talion can use his sword to fight groups in close combat, which is where he can administer finishing combat moves and execute his foes. He can also use his dagger to sneak up on enemies from behind and finish them off, plus he can throw his daggers at nearby enemies.
Talion is also capable of doing something called ‘Brutalize,’ a move that gives the recipient a very nasty death, scaring away some of the more timid nearby Uruk goons as a result. When Talion switches into the wraith world, he can slow down time, and use his bow and arrow to shoot enemies or nearby things that can do them damage, such as hitting a fire to cause an explosion. He can also teleport to a nearby enemy, see enemies through walls, track footprints and drain enemies. The latter move comes very much in handy as the drain gives you extra shots to use for your bow.
Being both Talion and the wraith spirit was for me a great experience. As one body but essentially two characters, I felt as if I had the best of both worlds. It meant that I could plan attacks better, such as when I saw a large group of enemies, I could pick some off before facing them, thus giving ground Talion more of a fighting chance. Giving combat as a whole a great sense of variety, for me the combat really was one of the best parts about Shadow of Mordor, especially its brutality.
Capturing the essence of the violence of the world of Mordor, Middle-earth didn’t shy away from the fact that things would have most likely been very bloody in this fictional time, giving players a much more adult-like depiction of the place than I ever expected it too. I also liked that the game wasn’t particularly easy. Combat was often not as simple as hitting a few enemies, with the latter stages often giving you battles against 20-30 Uruks at time. A thought-provoking challenge, the game’s combat system provided both the fun and the mental stimulation for me, with equally fun moments coming from watching my plans come together or me jumping in head first and shouting “off with their heads!” at the TV screen.
What I also liked about having two characters in one was the upgrade system. Bringing the RPG flavour, the upgrade system in Middle-earth is split between Ranger and Wraith, with points coming from XP and tiers being unlocked via your Power points (how to get them can be found below). Here you can decide to greatly upgrade one over the other or you can split the upgrades. I chose to split them, giving both my guys a good chance of being as good as one another, essentially creating an equal team. Included in these upgrades are Vault Stun and Poison on the Ranger side, while the Wraith side includes Caragor Hunter and Graug Hunter, both of which give you permission to ride the beasts and use them for dealing death or simply getting around.
Via the upgrades you can also upgrade your Attributes, which can be done by getting enough Middle-earth coin, Mirian. This can be found by doing challenges, finding artefacts and side missions and with this you can increase things such as Talion’s maximum health or increasing his focus, i.e. reducing the depletion rate of your slowed down time. It’s a very good system and one that brings encourages you to do the games side quests. There’s also a Weapons & Runes feature, where you can give your weapons runes that you earn, thereby giving them things such as reduced melee damage to Talion and the gaining of health with the use of certain kills. For each weapon, the sword, the bow and the dagger, five runes can be equip and the best runes to pick up are of the Epic nature. Where can you get Epic runes? Well they can be gotten by killing Warchief’s, which brings us onto our final and best part of the game: the Nemesis system.
Encompassing many things, it all revolves around Sauron’s Army. Made up of Uruk’s, there are four tiers to their hierarchy: the low level Grunts, followed by the Captains, the Elite and Veteran Captains, who also act as bodyguards for the Warchiefs, and the Warchiefs themselves. On the Middle-earth menu, there is a tab called Sauron’s Army and here players will see a full run down of the Uruk’s in power, Grunts not included, what level they are at and their rating of power. How the latter one works is like this: each member of the hierarchy has a number next to their name and the higher the number, the harder the opponent will be. If a Captain for example has a rating of 15 Power Points, if Talion kills said Captain, he will receive the points, which are needed in order to unlock the tiers of the upgrade skill tree. However, Talion is not the only one who wishes to lay hands on the Uruk’s, as they have their own battles inside the hierarchy.
Revealed through Battle Reports, throughout the game these will pop up and share the outcome of a change in Sauron’s Army. This can be anything from Uruk’s killing each other in Power Struggle events to a story mission objective resulting in the death or fleeing or a Uruk, with someone either taking or keeping their place. The aforementioned Power Struggle events are also events that Talion can lay privy too, and thus intervene if you so wish, with events such as Ambushes and Executions being left alone, joined in with or stopped. This means perhaps killing two Captains at a time when they’re weak or bending the results so that the weaker Captain gains points for winning, the winners power points will increase, rather than the stronger one, resulting in an easier fight for you later on. Another gem in the thought-provoking locker, this feature once again proves Middle-earth to be much more than the brutal, murder fest than it first seems, which is honestly not what I was expecting but something I enjoyed immensely about it.
Another thing the Sauron’s Army tab also shows are the Strengths and Weaknesses of the ranked members of the army. However, these aren’t just given to you, you must find them out for yourself. Done through the interrogation of Worms, i.e. Uruk’s with information, the saving and talking to of Slaves or through simply coming across documents on your travels, players can choose whose strengths and weaknesses they will find out, with one Uruk being able to be chosen at one given time. Also, if you enter the wraith world and use your powers of interrogation to see into a Captains or Warchiefs mind, they will be able to tell you the strengths and weaknesses of their fellow comrades. Having this feature was something I found to be most useful, as I could look at how to take someone down before actually starting the mission.
What I found most exciting about the whole thing was actually watching the aforementioned Battle Reports and seeing the battles that the army was having, often regardless of my actions. This added another aspect to the fully functioning world feel, one that wasn’t twisted to my actions, but one that had actions and consequences of its own. It’s something I never seen executed so brilliantly in a game before, which is a rare considering that most things have been tried and tested nowadays in video games.
If you do fancy getting in on the Uruk killing action be warned, because if you do kill a ranked member of the army and don’t chop off their heads, they could come back to haunt you. Employing a rather neat system of remembrance, Uruk’s you face in battle can be faced again, even if you or they are killed, and they will remember you, which can often be heard through their speeches of palpable hate towards you when you do meet. I had one Uruk, a fellow with rather yellow teeth and some serious anger issues, pop up at least five times with his revenge plans and each time I just wanted to cry and the kill him harder. I know that’s not possible but that’s how I felt, which for a video game to do, to create such a powerful feeling of anger towards an NPC, is a sign of very good work indeed.
You can also go on Vendetta mission to avenge a fallen solider (information on who can become your soldiers can be found below) and you can issue Death Threats to Uruk’s who’ve wronged you (or just for the crack), which can be done by taking control of another Uruk’s mind, however be aware that only Captains can convey Warchiefs threats, not Grunts. Issuing Death Threats though, does give the threatened Uruk more power points and more bodies around them but it also increases the chances of them dropping those Epic Runes.
For me though the most exciting part of Middle-earth came later on when I’d unlocked the best power there is in the game: Brand. Brand is a wraith power that allows you to control the Uruks, and you can also do this during battle once you’ve unlocked Combat Drain or in the shadows via the unlocking of Stealth Drain. The levels you can control know no bounds, with the whole of Sauron’s Army being up for grabs and you can control as many as you want in each area. When near an area of Uruks you command, you can press UP and they shall come and battle with you in that area, while pressing down when you have the Dismiss ability does something a little more solemn: it kills them all.
A brilliant and innovative system, the Brand power is one that really puts you and Talion in a real place of power. Now you can control the army, creating power struggles among them, rising bottom feeders to high rollers, commanding bodyguards to betray the ones they protect or simply you can use them to attempt a kill, and soften your opponent up knowing they’ll die or you can Brand a Captain, Warchief or low level Grunt simply just to make killing them easier. It’s a wonderful addition, one that sounds good on paper and feels even better in the actual flesh. Having heard about this before the game, the idea intrigued me but after actually spending some time with it, seeing the idea in action just made me want to clap at the screen.
I have never played a LoTR game, I’m a little late to the whole Mordor party, so I can’t comment if it’s one of the best in the franchises long list of video game attempts but it is certainly one of the best games of not just the year or on the PS4, but in gaming in general. It has some flaws yes, and some already seen aspects but it also has some truly innovative ones and it’s just amazingly fun to play. If you’re not a LoTR fan, don’t let that put you off buying this game, as it also has a great amount of explanation embedded in its Appendices, one that you can chose to ignore or not. Also with the recent addition of the Photo Mode, you can make Talion look like he’s in a shoot for the popular Mordor magazine, GRAVEWALKERS 4 LYF. Seriously though, if you want an immersive experience, one that’s brutally wonderful then pick this up and become one of the walking but truly badass dead.
Original article first appeared on the BagoGames site on 20/11/14