Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor (PC, Linux, Mac, XBox One, XBox 360, PS3, PS4, and Select Toaster Ovens)

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Barad-Dur wasn’t built in a day. Sauron’s rise to power was actually a slow crawl and Mordor was not always the blasted hellscape depicted in the novels or movies. No denizen of Middle-Earth would have called it lush but it was recovering from the battle between the Alliance of Men and Elves and the Orcs of Sauron. You play as Tallion, a Ranger posted in a settlement around The Black Gate, making sure that all is quiet in Mordor. But Sauron’s power is growing quietly in the dark places where men dare not look. The Black Gate is attacked by an army of orcs and the settlement is raze,  Tallion and his family are killed, and things generally go to hell. Made the vessel of an ancient wraith and restored to a mockery of life –by one of Sauron’s agents no less– Tallion now has the power to take revenge and fight Sauron’s orcs and destroy his generals. Meanwhile the wraith has forgotten who it was in life and must scour Mordor for pieces of his past.

History

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor was developed by Monolith Productions creators of the Condemned series and, one of my personal favorites, Septerra Core: Legacy of the Creator. Monolith wanted to create a game in which in-game death had consequences, non-player characters would respond to the player’s actions, and to create unique orcs that the player would recognize. This all eventually became the Nemesis System which truly makes the game stand out.

From a narrative standpoint, Monolith wanted to show what occurred in the gap between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, something that does not see much exposure in media.

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor was released on September 30th, 2014. It’s competition was Hyrule Warriors (WiiU), Stronghold Crusader II (PC), and Borderlands: The Pre-sequel (PC, PS3, XBox 360).

Experiences

I was always a pretty big fantasy nerd and in Elementary School my father suggested that I read the Hobbit. I was probably a little too young for it, I had a hard time visualizing the characters and events but I did understand the story. Even though I was a little in the dark I knew that I wanted more Middle-Earth. It was a good time for a blossoming Lord of the Rings fan, Peter Jackson was making his movies, new editions of the books were hitting store shelves, and even non-nerds were getting excited about it. There have been LoTR games being made since the days of the Commodore 64 and it took a long time for designers to really get things right. Shadow of Mordor is definitely a step in the right direction.

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This is no fabrication. Shadows of Mordor was the name of the C 64 text adventure Lord of the Rings game. Everything old is new again.

Gameplay

As a Gondorian ranger Tallion is a master of stealth, blade, and bow. Fortified by the power of the wraith he’s  a true force to be reckoned with. Possessing powers of ghost vision, insight into hearts of his enemies (the ability to see their strengths and weaknesses), summoning a ghost bow, control the minds of lesser beings — I ask myself frequently why Sauron thought it was a good idea to put a ghost in Tallion’s head– , and allowing him to endure death. But should Tallion die the orc that killed him will be celebrated as a great fighter and promoted to a command position. Tallion’s Ranger training will be put to the test now that it’s him vs. the legions of Sauron.

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I mean lesser in terms of brain power, not size :D.

Most of the game takes place around the Sea of Nurn and the Black Gate. Here orcs go about their business, enslaving local humans, trying to kill each other, having grog drinking contests, trying to kill you, and marshaling their forces for the coming war. The game is mostly about interrupting these activities and delaying the war machine by whatever means are available to you. Orcs having a grog contest? Poison the grog and see what happens. Free local slaves and they’ll feed you information about the commanders and even assist you in battle when they can.

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And there are a lot of commanders to mow through.

The Gush

The Nemesis System is the big pull for the game, it shows, and it paid off. Every commander has strengths, weakness, abilities, a primary concern, and personality. Some of these traits can create an enemy that is truly difficult to face except under special circumstances. On top of all this, you can fight Commanders that have defeated your friends for bragging rights. They’re not all just mindless mooks, there are some who stand out and will kick your ass. Hunting these guys isn’t just a task, it’s a genuine pleasure.

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The game rewards you with extra experience for using the commander’s weakness. INCENTIVE!

It’s something quite small but whenever Tallion encounters an orc commander the soundtrack fades away and is instead replaced with what sounds like every orc in all of Mordor chanting the commander’s name. It really pumps you up to fight this guy and simultaneously let’s you know that this guy is serious business and will murder your face. The chant resumes when Tallion is about to be killed by a commander, just so you remember the name of the bastard who killed you should you fall.

This might be the best Assassin’s Creed game that I’ve ever played. You’ve probably heard it a million times before but it bears repeating that this game is basically the free running and faffing about mechanics that are integral to the Assassin experience… but with orcs. And as the ancient Gygaxian philosophers once said Orcs are greater than Templar or something.

The Kvetch

Shadow of Mordor feels like Christmas morning in which your Father got you Legos, your mother got you tinker toys, your grandfather got you Lincoln Logs, and your Aunt got you megablocks. Each on their own is amazing and incredibly fun to play with but even though you could play with them together they don’t exactly fit. They don’t have the cohesion that they could. You can control these orcs and pit them against each other but there’s no end to that means. You have to do it for a few story missions but there’s nothing you can really do with it in the normal game.

Sometimes when you kill a commander they return with a chunk of metal holding them together. I named one of these guys Chucklenuts because all he would do was laugh when we clashed. The first time he came back I was almost honored and pleased to see Chucklenuts, so glad was I the opportunity to kill him twice. It started to get really old around the fourth time.

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Yeah, he’ll just walk that off.

I gotta put my canon scrutinizing glasses as far up my nose as I can and complain about the Uruk-Hai. Orcs have been around in Middle-Earth ever since Elves got twisted and deformed. The Uruk-Hai are basically super orcs created by the wizard Saruman in order to better conquer Middle-Earth. They’re more bigger, stronger, and more disciplined — good on you Saruman… buuuuuuuuuut I’m pretty sure that at this part in the canon of Middle-Earth that the Uruk-Hai hadn’t be created yet. It’s a pretty minor quibble but I am curious why the decision was made.

I’m very curious why the game omits the Wargs and Trolls, replacing them with Caragors and Graugs respectively. I’m genuinely curious if these are canon creatures or if Monolith couldn’t get the rights to the original creatures or something.

Oh yeah… I still don’t know why Sauron put a wraith in Tallion. I dunno, maybe his agent did it on their own but… then… why did Sauron’s minion do it? I’m so confused.

The Verdict

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor goes for $49.99 on Steam, and I don’t mean to downplay the game because it’s very fun and enjoyable, but I just don’t think it lives up to its price tag. If you’re a fan of Middle Earth and have a strong desire to kill some orcs and get some revenge then I’d recommend picking up this title on sale for $30.

Next Week: Max Payne 2

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