Generally, movie and book tie-in games are seen as quick cash grabs and simple shovelware for a studio to quickly capitalize upon. The Lord of the Rings has seen its fair share of these types of titles, but it’s also seen a couple gems. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor falls firmly into the gem category and is perhaps one of the best video games to date within the franchise. Developer Monolith Productions and publisher Warner Bros. delivered a spectacular game that combines elements of other popular titles, including the Assassin’s Creed series and the Batman: Arkham series.
SoM falls between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, following a ranger named Talion. He is stationed with his family at the Black Gates and is one of the first lines of defense against the resurgence of Sauron. None of this works as planned and he finds everything he knows destroyed and an ancient wraith bound to his soul. The two must work together to destroy Sauron’s army from within, using the powers and abilities of the wraith along with the ranger skills of Talion.
Taking place on two large overworld maps, the game is completely open for you to explore. Combining the open-world with the exploration and combat of the Assassin’s Creed and Batman series, I was hooked from the start. The game offers a huge level of freedom as well, letting you take the story at your own pace. I think I spent three days straight just hunting down orc captains for the sheer hell of it, doing my best to put a hurting on Sauron’s massive army. On top of the freedom, there are a number of collectible items and side-quests available to complete, granting extra experience and currency to upgrade Talion and his abilities.
These upgrades become crucial in defeating some of the tougher opponents in the game, as orcs will also gain experience and abilities over time. Because of this, some of the combat within the game can be extremely difficult without securing some skill upgrades for Talion. Another important piece to the game are rune upgrades used in outfitting Talion’s three weapons (sword, dagger, and bow) with better stats. Actively upgrading Talion’s arsenal is a must to stay one step ahead of the orc horde, especially when they become stronger over time thanks to the Nemesis System.
The biggest draw of the game, however, IS the new Nemesis System. It has been touted by Monolith as one of gaming’s next big things. And frankly, SoM’s Nemesis System was one of my favorite aspects of the game. It sets up the enemies you’ll be facing throughout the game, handling the orc hierarchy as time goes on. Orcs that manage to take you down end up advancing in rank, gaining a name and a reputation. Some may survive encounters with Talion, only to come back later with scars or new armor pieces. Orcs will remember Talion and have a smart remark about the previous meeting.
While some orcs quickly fell to my blade, others kept popping back up. Even some super resilient ones, like the orc I beheaded. These recurring pricks became some of my most hated enemies, popping up at the worst times to ruin whatever I was in the middle of. Our long running feuds fueled some fun fights, made intense by their sudden appearance. The fact that I could exploit their fears and hatred to my advantage only served to sweeten the deal, making the fights even more enjoyable. I would just prefer that when I stab an orc through the head and then chop said head off, that he stays dead rather than become some mythical creature of undeath.
Talion suffers from what I call “Assassin Syndrome,” meaning he conveniently forgets exactly how to climb and maneuver sometimes. It’s not game breaking, but there were a few times when it became frustrating. I also encountered a steep climb in difficulty in fighting some of the orc captains. Even ones at lower levels would suddenly be extremely hard to kill, only to continue coming back stronger and stronger until I couldn’t make a dent. It’s also not game breaking, but it did screw with some of the balance in the game during larger fights. I’d have a little trouble taking on five captains at once, but be OK until the one showed up that would proceed to kick my ass handily.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is an absolute blast to play. The gameplay builds off of the successes of Batman and Assassin’s Creed and weaves a story through the world of LotR that connects very well within the framework of the overall universe. It’s a title that I definitely recommend picking up since you’ll certainly enjoy it if you do.Note: Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor was reviewed on Xbox One. A physical copy of the game was purchased by SelectButton.