Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is about as shameless as any game could possibly be. Taking bits and pieces from other, more established games, and then adding in a well-known franchise seems initially like an exercise in absolute arrogance; one that would be doomed to fail.
However and here’s the important bit: for this game, it works so very well. Adding in as well a dynamic and engaging gameplay system of its own invention, plus an interesting use of its brand, and we have not only one of the best licensed games of the last few years, but also one of the most outright fun games of 2014.
Firstly, in terms of how SoM interacts with the Lord of the Rings source material that it’s based on, I know that it’s been making a lot of people unhappy with some of the liberties it’s taken, but personally, I think it’s done about as good a job as could be expected. Something that works well in the medium of a book will not always by default work well in another medium, and if you need to change something to make it fun in a game, I would always be more supportive of doing so. It doesn’t take anything away from what you might have enjoyed in the original work if people do this. Plus, in many ways, despite being heavily influence by the famous film series of recent years, it’s actually more loyal to the source material in some ways than those films were. The entire game is set in Mordor, which in the films was a black, destroyed wasteland surrounding a volcano, but in SoM, the area is split between the harsher area closest to the Black Gate, and the lusher, green area surrounding the areas which are inundated by the fertile volcanic ash. This is a point that nearly all of the Tolkien-adapted material has failed to grasp up until this point.
Speaking of the setting, you might think that Mordor would be boring, but as mentioned, great care has been taken in exploring it to its limits. The ruined, more war torn areas have the ruins of ancient cities juxtaposed with the scrabbling Orc structures that have been placed atop them, and in many ways, this gets across the both the feeling of history, and the feeling that this is the place in which the orcs actually live, fight, die and otherwise act out according to their design. As for the environment, there are multiple species of plants, which serve a gameplay mechanic in being used for healing, and various appropriate varieties of animals. Appropriate landmarks are in place so that once you are familiar with the open world map, you are rarely turned around or lost, and overall, it serves its purpose as being a very good-looking and detailed environment to explore.
As for the story, it’s set in the 60 years that take place between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and you play as Talion, a ranger of Gondor atop the Black Gate. Talion is the only survivor of his army when the forces of Sauron rise up and strike unexpectedly, and he has to watch his wife and son be murdered in front of his eyes. This sets up a very basic, well-worn premise, but one which serves the purpose here. Talion is not inspired by any sort of higher moral motivation; he simply wants revenge for what has happened to him and his loved ones. He is aided by an ancient Elvish wraith, who bonds with him, granting him supernatural powers, provided that he helps the Wraith discover the secrets of his own past.
To be honest, the story is functional, but not the best part of the game. Finding out who the wraith was interested me, but that was mostly because I avoided all of the promotional material that simply outright stated who he was. Otherwise, Talion simply continues along his path, finding who was responsible, winning, and interacting with a couple of famous Lord of the Rings characters along the way.
The strength of the game comes from its open world, which is true for many such games in this genre, but this one manages to be a bit different. There is a system in place, called the Nemesis system, which manages your relationships with named enemies. Named enemies include Captains, and above them Warchiefs, and there is a constant power-play going on between the orcs as they jostle for rank and position in this hierarchy. You can influence this by engaging in these power plays, which take the form of various kinds of events, in which you can either ensure one captain wins, neither achieve their goals, or whether or not you want to kill one or both of them. Every named enemy has its own set of strengths and weaknesses, which you either find out by testing them, or by obtaining intel before engaging them. If you fight a named enemy and he does not die, either by running away, or by you running away, you will meet him sometime later in the game, he will comment on his feelings towards you, and he will bear the evidence of your last encounter. For instance, if you burn a captain, and then find him later, his face will be covered in burn scars. If a random unnamed orc kills you, the fame from being the one to defeat you will propel him into being a captain, and you can either watch his growth, or hunt him down at a later stage to get revenge. If you are playing online, an orc that killed someone on your friends list may appear in your game for you to sort out on their behalf.
This is also affected by the abilities you gain in game. You get the chance to send orcs out to pass on a death threat against their captain, making him more paranoid but increasing the possible loot you may earn from his death. Much later in the game, you get the ability to brand enemies with magic, placing them under your control, as sleeper agents. As can be imagined, all this gives a huge range of possible encounters, and makes your relationship with certain enemies all the more involved. A lot of fun comes from seeking out challenges that you make yourself. For instance, one of my favourites was guiding an orc who killed me all the way up the chain, killing all his rivals for him, until he became a warchief, and then surrounding him with 5 bodyguards that he didn’t know were under my control. Then when I went to face him, he stared out at me all boldly, mentioning the times he killed me, before I activated my sleeper agents, and he was killed by his own “loyal men” from behind. On his own, he was too tough, but I exploited the mechanics and felt more satisfied as a result. I even got two achievements for that sequence of events.
Actual combat and movement is itself very serviceable. You fight using a free-flow chain system very similar to the Batman: Arkham series; where combos are accumulated before being used for special attacks and you also have a bow which can be used with limited arrows for sniping potential at range. Lastly, you have a dagger, which can be used while sneaking around for silent kills. There are a range of options in combat, and the constant movements of enemies and the different new powers you get rarely make it boring, and also give you a range of different ways to approach a situation. Moving around in the world is most similar to Assassin’s Creed games: your character is very athletic and can climb up over buildings and leap around and sneak around ledges with the greatest of ease. Aside from main missions, the open world is filled with quite interesting collectables and rather good challenge missions that test out your skills with such gameplay mechanics.
As for criticisms of the game, there is a couple. Sometimes, the Nemesis system bugs out and you fight someone you clearly remember cutting the head off. Apparently Orcish medicine is just that good. Also, the Rune system for enhancing your weapons is rather unnecessary in its current form and could use an overhaul. Lastly, by the end of the game, you feel very overpowered, and many of the more challenging moments for me happened in the first half of the game.
However, I still firmly believe in the merits of this game, and I have had a very good time making my own adventures in this (rarely used) section of Middle Earth. Despite its use of mechanics that other series pioneered, it uses them in its own way, and shows its own love of the franchise and of video games in general. Shadow of Mordor is a fine game with hours of potential fun to be had in it.