The craft of its construction, the reverent attention to Tolkien canon, and the brutal pleasure of killing an army’s worth of Uruks make Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor the first must-play of the fall release season.
There’s a scene in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy where Frodo is captured in Mordor, the dark land where the evil Sauron is massing his forces to make war on Middle-earth. Frodo is dragged back to a fortress, where his repulsive captors go through his belongings and discover a shirt of mithril, a rare and valuable piece of armor.
A diminutive orc, and a towering Uruk, have trouble deciding what ought to be done with the loot. Soon a riot breaks out between all the orcs and Uruks in the fortress, who kill one another in a storm of untrammeled hatred. And this scene, in a spiritual sense, is one half of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor.
To call the background of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth “dense” would be to do his work a tremendous disservice. Behind The Hobbit, and The Lord of The Rings trilogy, is a sprawling history of kings and battles and an entire Age’s worth of events. Some of this is gleaned from within the aforementioned books themselves. Most of the material hails from another book called The Silmarillion.
Pieced together from all five books is the story of the Rings, which, from a certain point of view, are the true protagonists in Tolkien’s work. These magic rings bestowed power upon their owners that led to their corruption. Eventually they became controlled by Sauron through the One Ring he created to rule them all. The story of the Rings and their creation is the other half of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor.
The two halves are bound together by an original fiction about Talion, a ranger of the kingdom of Gondor. Talion holds a post on the Black Gate which separates the realm of men and hobbits and elves from Mordor, the historical seat of evil in Middle-earth. When Sauron returns to power, one of his first acts is to wipe out the rangers of the Black Gate, and their families. Talion, his wife, and son, are killed by Sauron’s elite guard in a blood sacrifice to raise an elven lord of Ages past.
That elven lord is Celebrimbor, the forger of the Rings of power, who also lost his family to the machinations of Sauron. The ranger and the elf-lord are bound together in tragedy, and between Talion’s skill with bow, blade, and stealth, and Celebrimbor’s powerful magic, the two characters set out to take their vengeance by dismantling Sauron’s growing army of Uruk, a high form of orc that towers over men.
The story of Talion, Celebrimbor, and the Rings is told mostly through high-quality cutscenes. The script is well written. The voice acting is superlative. Even the occasional cheesy line is delivered in a manner that fails to draw the viewer out of the scene. And this is the aspect of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor about which I have the least to say, lest I spoil anything more than I have to.
Bonding Talion and Celebrimbor together is a clever tool both to give the ranger his magic, and also to address the question of how death functions in the game, because you’re going to die—a lot. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor requires forethought and stealth as you infiltrate Uruk fortresses and target the captains and warchiefs of Sauron’s growing army, in an attempt to dismantle its power structure and thus weaken the entire force.
Talion becomes known as the Gravewalker by the Uruks, because Talion cannot truly be killed. He is a wraith, able to slip into the shadowed, other-realm you see Frodo slip into, in the Lord of the Rings films, whenever he slips the One Ring onto his finger. When Talion is in that other realm, surrounded by whipping clouds of ethereal smoke, he changes into the glowing, spectral form of Celebrimbor. At that point he can use his power to see the locations of all the Uruk and creatures around him for an appreciable distance, as well as hidden collectibles and herbs used to regenerate health.
Perhaps most importantly, when Talion is in his wraith form, he can see all the various distractions available to either isolate his targets or confuse their bodyguards. This tactical game within Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is what will get you killed, over and over again, if you don’t play smart. Should you hack open a cage, and let loose a caragor beast that will tear into the nearby Uruk or send them running—or at the very least make them drop their guards for a moment?
Maybe you should poison the Uruk’s grog, or use your arrows to shoot down a huge nest of insects and use the resultant swarm as cover. Or you could just try to deal with the situation the old-fashioned way via bow and blade, shooting down the archers in high positions and sneaking up behind Uruks on the ground and slitting their throats, ascending towers to attack from above and sliding between buildings to remain unseen for as long as possible.
When you do get caught—and you will get caught—choosing to stand and fight makes Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor feel less like Assassin’s Creed and more like Batman: Arkham Asylum. A fluid combat system enables Talion to parry, dodge, stun, and slice his way through huge crowds, wielding a blade that glows blue (like Frodo’s blade, Sting, in the films) and slices through Uruk necks with ease. These scenes of desperate and heroic combat feel as though they were torn straight out of the Peter Jackson films.
Just as Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is split into two, complementary halves, the moment-to-moment gameplay is also broken down into a pair of distinct systems. The third-person stealth/action game I just described, and a Machiavellian power struggle that Talion can manipulate, by way of weakening Sauron’s army at the command level.
The Nemesis system describes the web of relationships between Uruk Captains and their Warchiefs. These named Uruk each have their strengths and weaknesses Talion can use to his advantage to successfully take them down. Attempts to kill either a Captain or a Warchief with brute force, i.e. trying to slice through a whole fortress of Uruk, all of whom are trying to kill you, will most likely end in failure.
Talion gains intel on his targets through interrogations. Using the power of Celebrimbor’s magic, Talion can reach into an Uruk’s mind and rip out the identities of the high-ranking Uruk, the information Talion needs to kill them, and their relationships to one another in the hierarchy. This social structure is represented on a screen that shows the ranking Uruk like pieces on a chessboard.
If you want to kill a Warchief, you’re well-advised to kill all of his bodyguards first. Maybe you want to first tackle the Captains who are vulnerable to one-strike stealth kills, or who can be dispatched with a single arrow to the head. As Talion gains experience, learns new combat techniques and magics, and applies Runes to his sword, bow, and dagger to increase their power, Talion’s options grow exponentially in terms of all the different ways he can take down a Captain or Warchief.
The Nemesis system keeps power relationships fluid within Sauron’s army, both to Talion’s benefit and detriment. If you cut through the ranks without dying, the Uruk power structure weakens. Every time Talion is killed, however, the Uruk who made the kill increases in power, which makes him more difficult to dispatch. This shuffling in the ranks inspires the Uruks to assassinate and murder each other, which will make some of Talion’s targets even more powerful, as well as changing the social structure Talion needs to dismantle.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor takes place between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. At this point in the fiction Gollum is lurking in Mordor and seeking the One Ring stolen from him by Bilbo Baggins. Talion and Celebrimbor encounter Gollum throughout the story, and you would swear that Andy Serkis himself, who portrayed Gollum in the Peter Jackson films, had reprised the role for Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor.
Gollum is actually portrayed by Liam O’Brien, a voice actor who has a deep resume of roles in film, anime, and video games. The craft of his performance is representative of the craft that defines Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor both visually and aurally.
Shadow of Mordor is available on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, but if you have the option of playing it on the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One, buy a next-gen version. I can’t imagine that the graphics on the previous-gen versions are going to stand up to what I experienced on the PlayStation 4.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor may take place in a land that is, for the most part, blackened and bleak, but there are also portions of the game that take place in lush grasslands overlooking the sea, with generous draw distances in both cases. When combined with the fidelity of the visuals, they give you a sense of the epic spaces that define the Lord of the Rings universe.
The sound design in the fight scenes perfectly supports the experience. You can hear the slickness of Talion’s blades and feel the crunch as they hit bone just as much as you feel the sensation in the rumbling of your controller. The PlayStation 4 version makes deft use of the speaker built into the DualShock 4 controller. It whispers a language that sounds like it came from the mouth of a Nazgul Ringwraith when Talion distracts an Uruk to set him up for the kill. It produces the sound of ringing metal as Talion delivers a killing blow and projects the rustling of leaves as Talion takes cover in foliage.
Then there’s the ambient dialogue. You can listen to the Uruk talk with one another about the Gravewalker moving through their ranks like a ghost and slaughtering their Captains. Or hearing them boast about their feats in combat and torturing their human slaves. The writing in Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is consistently well-acted by the cast in a way I haven’t experienced in many games as of late.
Lord of the Rings fans want to play Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor at some point, because it adds to the fiction in a meaningful way. However, I did wonder whether the game could have stood more on its own, rather than drawing so strongly upon the tale of Celebrimbor and the forging of the Rings, and without dragging Gollum into the narrative.
I wondered if developer Monolith lacked confidence in their storytelling abilities, or whether they had some sort of requirements from Warner Brothers in order to use the Lord of the Rings license, when I reflected on how bluntly Shadow of Mordor tries to define itself as a legit entry in the fiction. This is Middle-earth, after all, an epic universe for which there must be room for stories that don’t tie directly into the main plotlines. And this particular story takes place in Mordor, prior to it becoming the ashen wasteland that we see in the Lord of the Rings films. There had to be room for a story about Mordor’s transformation that could stand entirely on its own.
The reliance on stealth in Shadow of Mordor will probably be a turn-off for some, and there’s no variable difficulty level they can set. The developers say the game changes its difficulty to reflect how many times the player dies. It never felt that way to me, not early on in the game before Talion has the plethora of abilities he develops as he accrues experience. And then when the game felt easier, I couldn’t tell whether it was because Shadow of Mordor had reacted to all my deaths and made itself easier, or whether the power of my new combat techniques were responsible for how much more tenable playing the game was.
I have to lay part of that on my being terrible at stealth games—I prefer to bludgeon my way through the enemy—and also on the fact that new abilities are tied to completion of story missions. I chose to explore the open world much sooner than I probably ought to have. But that makes me wonder why exploring the open world so early was even an option. Had I not been playing this for review, I might have abandoned the game in frustration several hours in, for lack of wanting to beat my head against the wall any longer.
The agility to ascend rock walls, and climb ladders, and leap from fortress rafters is essential to Talion not getting killed, especially when an alarm is set off in an Uruk fortress and he has to get the hell out of dodge. I often felt like I was fighting the controls. “Get on the damned ladder!” I’d find myself yelling as I felt the Uruks bearing down on me. Even when I’d leveled Talion up into a deep selection of powers and abilities, I could still get killed when I couldn’t make Talion do what I thought he ought to have been doing, based on the buttons I was pressing.
These criticisms, however, would occur momentarily and then quickly fade as I got back into the stealth/action game at the core of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. I felt increasingly like a badass as I progressed, darkly enjoying all the fallen bodies on the map of the Uruk power structure, which marked my kills. Plus there’s collecting all the relics and elven sigils, whose positions are thankfully made clear on the map, and which provide additional narrative content. And I never collect things in video games anymore, because I can’t deal with the tedium. In Shadow of Mordor, however, the effort was worth it.
It’s always a pleasure when a game is a no-brainer to recommend. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor fits into that category. It is dense with content, will envelop you within its world, and is worth every second of your attention it demands.
Disclosure: Our PlayStation 4 review copy of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor was provided courtesy of Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.
Screengrab by Dennis Scimeca