Review by horror_spooky
The best Assassin's Creed game in years!
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is clearly ripped off of two different games. Primarily, it feels like an Assassin's Creed game with a Lord of the Rings skin, however it also borrows quite heavily from the Batman: Arkham games. There was even a point where the game was accused of directly lifting code from Assassin's Creed II. Whatever the case may be, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is like what I dreamed for the Assassin's Creed series after the stellar second entry. With that particular series releasing disappointment after disappointment year after year, it's refreshing to play something like Shadow of Mordor, which honestly feels like what Assassin's Creed III should've been. Shadow of Mordor is the best Assassin's Creed game in years, and here's why.
The exploration is almost exactly like Assassin's Creed. Players scale buildings, free run, and climb to the top of towers in order to unlock more areas of the map. Collectibles and side missions appear freely on the map for players to pursue at their leisure. The main storyline of missions is kept short and sweet as to not stretch out the narrative beyond its means and so that not many gameplay mechanics are recycled. The replayability comes in the form of exploring everything else that the game has to offer, which is quite substantial.
The story itself is not all that interesting, but the characters that inhabit the story are great. The main character is Talion, a man that is slain in the opening scenes and then brought back to life by the Wraith, an elven ghost that gives Talion extra abilities as they both have a common goal: drive back the dark forces of Sauron, lift the curse upon them, and then be with their loved ones on the "other side".
The actual plot of the game is fairly weak. The events just seem to come and go without much resonating emotionally with me personally. The finale packs one hell of a punch, and though it will likely confuse or irritate longtime Tolkien fans, it definitely leaves a lot of potential for a sequel down the road. However, like I said, the characters within that story are all very well-written.
Among the characters players encounter throughout the game is Gollum, the most famous creature from the franchise, and his role in the game is interesting, though I am not going to expand far beyond that as to avoid spoilers. There is a hilarious dwarf that Talion befriends that teaches him the intricacies of hunting and taming wild beasts, and the villains are terrifying in design and are also incredibly interesting beings.
The actual land of Mordor is split up into two regions. However, the open world feels kind of empty. There are no villages to visit or anything like that. The entire place is overrun with Uruks, and usually the only humans to see are slaves. A more populated open world would have been nice, but at least it's pretty look at and it's not like there's not a ton of stuff to do here regardless.
Besides the main story missions, players are free to partake in various challenges, hunt down collectibles that reveal more about the Wraith, and also influence the Nemesis system. The game utilizes a special system that the developers call "Nemesis", which manages the hierarchy of Uruks in the game. Their position in Sauron's army can be directly influenced by players in a wide variety of manner.
Take for example a low-ranking Uruk. Let's say that Talion bumps into this enemy when he is low on health and winds up dead. It is very likely that this Uruk will then get promoted and rise through the ranks. However, they can't just rise through the ranks without getting rid of the Uruk that is in the spot they want, and so there are often power struggles that erupt between the Uruks. All of this in-fighting can be taken advantage of in order to push the balance of power in a direction that is beneficial for Talion.
The Nemesis system itself becomes intrusive when it is introduced in the main story missions, but screwing around with it at your own pace makes it a lot more interesting and fun. It's not quite as insanely impressive as it looked in pre-release videos, but it's still a neat feature that has a ton of potential. With just a few tweaks, this Nemesis system could be a game changer moving forward, and I wouldn't be surprised if more open world games adopted similar system. It's cool how the AI remembers their encounters with Talion and being able to influence the political standing of the various Uruks is an incredibly cool feature.
Earlier I said that the game borrows from the Batman: Arkham games quite heavily, and this is true, especially when it comes to the combat. The combat is more or less exactly the same as the combat that is seen in those games. Hell, the animations in the combat are even very similar, except the combat in Middle-earth is much more violent and graphic. The combat is well-designed, even if it is derivative, and it results in a lot of exciting battles.
The Wraith gives Talion added abilities that make combat and exploration even more interesting. There's
a ton of different ways for players to tackle each battle and mission because of all of these moving parts. Finding the way that you want to play and then mastering those aspects of the gameplay is thrilling.
Stealth is a major part of the game as well, and the stealth conventions here work tremendously, except for some fairly weak enemy AI that is a little too easy to hide from. Regardless, the stealth kills are absolutely brutal and satisfying, but you don't just have to kill enemies. Players can also take control of their minds or use enemies to gain intel on other Uruks in the army. Many of the Uruks have their own distinct personalities, strengths, and weaknesses to learn and take advantage of as well.
The upgrade system is split up into two ideas. First of all, there is currency earned by completing side missions and the like, though the currency, Mirin, can only be spent on upgrading Talion and can't be used to purchase anything else, which is a bit weird. Anyway, the Mirin is used to purchase the typical upgrades like giving Talion more health and the like, but it's also used for purchasing more rune slots for one of Talion's three primary weapons.
Talion uses a sword, a bow, and a dagger throughout the course of the game. The sword is used for direct hand-to-hand combat, the bow is used for ranged attacks, and the dagger is used for stealth kills. These weapons become gradually more powerful as the game goes on thanks to runes. Runes are collected by defeating high-ranking Uruks, and they are categorized by rarity. The runes have their own level and they all have their own features as well, so finding the runes that best match your play style is part of the game.
The other half of the upgrade system deals with abilities. By earning XP and by engaging with the Nemesis system, players unlock ability points that can be used to purchase awesome new abilities for both the Ranger and Wraith sides of Talion. Unlike a lot of games that have a few throwaway abilities, I found every single ability in Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor to be awesome. Each time I spent an ability point, I felt as though Talion became significantly more efficient in all facets of gameplay. There are few games with a progression system that is this satisfying.
The game is not the best-looking game I've played on Xbox One, and this is probably due to its nature as a cross-gen game, but it is still gorgeous. The weather effects in particular are stunning, the animation is near-perfect, and there is only very rarely ever any slowdown. Some character models look a bit unimpressive, but the Uruks are terrifyingly designed and will send chills down your spine.
Speaking of the voice acting, the rest of the cast does a brilliant job as well. Their great voice acting work is complemented by a resounding score that perfectly captures the tone of the franchise.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is somewhat short for a game in the genre, but that's fine. A lot of open world games stuff themselves with meaningless filler, whereas Shadow of Mordor realizes that less is more. The story is kept short and sweet and isn't filled with a ton of terrible eavesdrop missions like some other games in the genre like to use, and there's plenty to do outside the story as well. The open world itself could've stood to be more interesting and more populated, but even there is just plenty of content to explore and master. Most importantly, exploring this side content is actually a lot of fun and very rewarding.
I sincerely hope that Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is the beginning of a new gaming franchise. The series is loaded with potential, and it is not often that a first outing from a new IP is this well-made. The developers at Monolith have impressed me in the past, but Shadow of Mordor may be their greatest work to date. Flesh out the open world a little bit more, write a better story, and then up the visuals to match eighth generation standards and I am predicting that the sequel will be even better. As it stands, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is very likely the best game ever made based on the Lord of the Rings franchise. Tolkien would be proud.
Product Release: Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor (US, 09/30/14)
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