Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor review for PS4, Xbox One, PC

Platform: PS4
Also On: Xbox One, PC
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive
Developer: Monolith Productions
Medium: Blu-ray
Players: 1
Online: Leaderboards

The Lord of the Rings franchise hasn?t always had the best of the luck when it comes to video games. There?s been a couple of fun titles over the past few years, most notably the LEGO Hobbit game and The Lord of the Rings: The War in the North. But a unique, truly great experience in the universe that Tolkien built? I can?t think of one in the past decade or so. I think, however, you?ll find that Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor fills that gap nicely. Here you have a robust, open-world experience that doesn?t trample on the existing lore, borrowing heavily from mechanics found in other video game franchises while also building upon those ideas in interesting ways. I found myself constantly surprised by the quality of Shadow of Mordor, and I suspect you will too.

Without going into spoilers, the basics of Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor?s story is this: You play the role of a Ranger of Gondor named Talion, who has had his soul binded to the wraith form of the elf Celebrimbor. That name should be familiar to Tolkien fans, as Celebrimbor was responsible for crafting the Rings of Power, tricked into doing so by the Dark Lord Sauron. How and why these two are stuck together, and how their respective tales play out, I?ll leave to you to discover. But the overall story, and especially the voice-acting, are handled well here. To the point that I even found the opening tutorial enjoyable, in that it weaves smartly through the narrative, catching you up to speed on both story and how the game plays.

Middle-earth Shadow of Mordor_TalionCloseUpDue to his special bond with Celebrimbor, Talion possesses skills above those of a normal Ranger. He can run, jump, and use three weapons: bow, dagger, and sword. However, he can also fall from great heights, scramble quickly up walls and ledges, unleash ghost-like daggers and arrows, and deliver a flurry of critical strikes to dazed foes. As you play through Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor,  you?ll gain access to a variety of both human and wraith skills, earned by killing Orcs, Uruks and other creatures, or by completing the variety of missions and side-activities available. By the time you see the final credits, you?ll become a orc-slaughtering wrecking ball, able to take on large numbers of foes all at once. Or, if you prefer, you can stick to the shadows, controlling Orcs, executing enemies, or terrorizing them through explosive environmental hazards.

The biggest thing that stands out about Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor?s gameplay is that you can tackle a large number of objectives in a variety of ways. A lot of missions and side-quests will task you with taking out a certain number of marked foes. Sometimes bonus objectives that grant additional experience will serve as a guideline on how to accomplish your task, but your method of dispatching enemies is largely up to you. There are even named Captain and Warchief Orcs and Uruk-hai, that come complete with unique weaknesses, strengths and immunities. Certain Orcs will also contain useful information about their masters, which you can gleam by catching and interrogating them.

Middle-earth Shadow of Mordor_UrukBrandingFor instance, I took on a mission that meant I needed to draw out and execute a Warchief within his stronghold. A stronghold is essentially filled with enemies, and if spotted, an Orc or Uruk-hai will run to sound an alarm, which will in turn swarm you with enemies. Starting from the outskirts of the stronghold I took down archers on the perimeter, either from afar with my bow, or by crawling up the sides of towers, drawing them to a ledge, and tossing them over. From there I was tasked with releasing all the Caragors in captivity, wild beasts that run rampant when near other living things. I shot open the locked doors to the Caragor cages, and the beasts instantly started to attack their Orc captors within the Stronghold. This drew out the Warchief, a well-armored Uruk-hai, and his two bodyguards, both powerful Orcs.

From here I needed to exploit the weaknesses of the Warchief, which I had learned previously by interrogating an Orc at a randomly populated camp outside of the stronghold. I learned that the Warchief was invulnerable to ranged attacks, meaning I would need to get down and dirty at some point. However, he had a fear of fire, and thankfully I had spotted some explosive barrels around the camp before releasing the Caragor. I remained up high, watching as the Warchief and his bodyguards moved further in, and then sprung my trap as they came close to the barrels. With a single arrow striking said barrels, the ground around them became engulfed in flames, catching all three on fire. The bodyguards shrugged off most of the damage, but the Warchief freaked out, and started to make a run for it. This in turn separated the Warchief from his bodyguards just long enough for me to jump down and engage him in one-on-one combat in order to finish the mission.

MiddleearthShadowofMordor_Screenshot_TalionMelee1You?ll run into scenarios like the one above constantly. Combat never feels old or stale, as the weaknesses, strengths, and immunities of powerful foes is often different from one Orc to the next. Stealth is fun and swift, and while not as realistic as something like Metal Gear Solid, it?s also never frustrating or tiresome to engage in. Rushing headfirst into a crowd of Orcs can also be viable, but will provide a stiff challenge due to certain physical traits or abilities possessed by Orcs and Uruk-hai in the latter half of the game. Either way, you?ll be able to find a combination of combat skills that fits your playstyle, and you?ll often find yourself distracted from the main storyline as you attempt to wipe out powerful foes, or pit them against each other.

Also, the scope of Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is quite large. You?ll have access to two maps, both of which cover a lot of ground within Mordor. There are a number of waypoints to unlock, which grant you fast travel options. There are optional hunting and gathering objectives to gain experience, along with side-quests that focus on all three of Talion?s weapons. There are other optional activities, like freeing human slaves, or hunting down relics that expand upon the lore. Essentially, Shadow of Mordor provides a sizeable number of optional activities that compares nicely to other open-world titles. It?s clear that it borrows liberally from Assassin?s Creed and the Batman: Arkham series, but it certainly doesn?t drop the ball with those borrowed elements. I felt like it took the best of both worlds, mashed them together, and dressed it up smartly within the Lord of the Rings universe.

MiddleearthShadowofMordor_Screenshot_TalionMelee2If I have any complaint, it?s that Talion can sometimes get tangled up on the environment when running and climbing, often in unexpected ways. Sometimes movement doesn?t feel as fluid as it should, especially when scaling a wall and trying to move horizontally across it. There?s also a handful of objects that he inexplicably can?t climb, which can be aggravating when you?re trying to escape a horde of pissed off Uruk-hai. It doesn?t take away from the experience much, but for me it?s the one mechanic that I?d like to see improved upon, or at least smoothed out, in what I assume will be an inevitable sequel.

All in all, I really enjoyed Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor. While the game had always been on my radar, I still find myself pretty surprised with how fantastic it ended up being. It provides an open-world experience that?s easily on-par with the best in the genre, while providing some of the most fun I?ve had with a combat system since Batman: Arkham Asylum. It really does a great job of blending a number of mechanics seamlessly, and again pays a suitable level of respect to the lore and universe that it plays in. I?d highly suggest checking out Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor when it hits store shelves on September 30th.

Grade: A-