What do you get when you combine the fantastical, intriguing open world of Assassin’s Creed and the legendary J.R.R. Tolkien atmosphere? The answer should be obvious: Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor . You will climb tall buildings, sneak up on unsuspecting enemies, engage in pitched battles with multiple foes, and face down terrifying bosses. In other words, if you’ve always been a “Lord of the Rings” fan and you typically enjoy Ubisoft’s AC series, this is the game for you. From fluid, satisfying combat to great adventure and platforming mechanics, Middle-earth is well worth exploring.
One could argue that a somewhat unstable frame rate puts a damper on an otherwise impressive visual presentation. While it’s true the game isn’t quite as stable as I would’ve liked, there are many wonderfully appointed locales. These well-designed and engaging areas bring you deep inside an admittedly foreboding landscape, and you’re immersed from the get-go. Toss in some very pretty special effects and animations, and the result is a technically accomplished, wildly involving production. I would’ve liked to see some brighter, more charming locales, but such places aren’t overrun with the murderous Uruk-hai, now are they?
The gritty sound effects and sweeping soundtrack take center-stage during this adventure, as the terrifying grunts and growls of your foes contrast with the nicely selected orchestral score. Sauron’s demonic presence has brought darkness to a once-quaint land and you not only see this taint with every step, you hear it, too. The voice acting is excellent and despite not having Andy Serkis for Gollum, the developers found a worthy replacement in Liam O’Brien. In short, the production values, sans the iffy frame rate, are super high, and fans of Tolkien will appreciate the fantastic attention to detail.
The graphics and sound give the player a front-row seat for the end of the world. Well, it’s only the end if Sauron has his way, and you’re out to stop him. Blending the rhythmic combat and parkour platforming of an Assassin’s Creed with the deep, beautifully written “Middle-earth” folklore, Shadow of Mordor places you in the highly capable boots of a ranger named Talion. He’s quite literally a split-personality, as a bitter, angry wraith also calls Talion’s body home. However, it’s important to note that by all rights, Talion should be dead; this ghostly spirit keeps him alive. It’s an intriguing partnership that does indeed have an impact on the story and gameplay.
The designers don’t do enough with such a promising plot line, though, and there are missed opportunities with other characters as well. There’s just so much amazing description and imagination in all of Tolkien’s characters, and they feel somewhat thin and underwhelming in this quest. At the same time, the major characters get their just due: Talion is an interesting, conflicted character, for example, and Gollum is…well, Gollum. I’ve always found him to be an extraordinarily sad and disconcerting character, and his depiction in Middle-earth fits this mental image to a “T.”
As for control, Assassin’s Creed veterans will have no trouble adapting to the basic maneuvering. The Free Run in Ubisoft’s franchise relies on holding down a single button, and you do the same thing in Shadow of Mordor . This ties into the silky smooth animations, which only dip when that inconsistent frame rate stutters and sputters. I would like to clarify that although this is the second time I’ve mentioned the frame rate problem, it is not a deal-breaking flaw. A bigger issue results from a lack of fine-tuned movement, as what should be short, simple actions become overblown when the character misinterprets your command.
Yes, that’s another similarity to the Assassin’s Creed series, where timing, dexterity, and a light touch are required for precision maneuvering. Some may find this off-putting but once you get used to it, you’ll be zipping across the charred landscape with ease. Furthermore, it’s plenty easy enough to execute stealth kills, and the rhythmic nature of the combat rewards the timely and strategic. Just get into the flow of battle, block and parry, and stab when the timing’s right. However, don’t think you can sit in the middle of a swarming band of Uruk-Hai and emerged unscathed, simply by countering every attack.
The fighting system here is a bit more demanding than that. In fact, there are times when you’re so overmatched that you must simply beat a hasty retreat. This results in the player taking a more cautious approach when traversing the war-torn environment, and I appreciate the added strategy. It means my pulse rate rises when approaching a new area, which I know is overrun by the enemy. If I’m going to sneak around, I better be very careful, or I might find myself facing an oncoming charge of 20 or 30 snarling, bloodthirsty foes. Of course, these Orcs aren’t very bright, so it’s usually a better idea to sneak up on them, anyway.
To be clear, the AI isn’t that great. Even though Orcs are pretty stupid, there are times when they should’ve heard me or saw me, and I passed by undetected. That being said, it remains true that charging into a group of foes is hardly the best tactic, as the game always encourages you to first observe. Take your time, plan an attack, and execute with cold, brutal efficiency. That’s usually the best way to deal with the invading hordes, as they’ve only got strength in numbers. Their intelligence and leadership is mediocre at best, so the smart warrior takes advantage of that lacking. The smarter you are, the better off you’ll be when dealing with a Captain.
The arrival of the Captain is a dramatic one. This ill-intentioned chieftain promises your grisly demise and the first time you see him, he might be right. Each time you die and return, he’ll wonder what happened: Are you that ranger’s twin brother? How do you keep cheating death? You’d think it’d be more comical than anything else but it actually works. The sheer number of responses a Captain has at his disposal is incredible; it’ll be a while before you start hearing the same responses. On top of this, you can capture and interrogate enemies, which will give you the skinny on a Captain’s strengths and weaknesses.
As such, this is a well-established, robust adventure that makes you think. The Nemesis system is another big bonus, as your experiences won’t be identical to anyone else’s. The enemies are randomized, which means what you encounter in any given location won’t be exactly what anyone else encounters. Therefore, whether you’re gaining intel from your dominated foe or unleashing a fury of strikes on your hapless victims, it’ll always be fresh. Conceivably, this means that future play-throughs will feel very different, although you might not have time after finishing this campaign, which runs between 25 and 30 hours.
Another huge bonus is that you don’t learn every useful ability in the first few hours. During the second half of the adventure, you learn even more skills: Toward the end, you can command individual captains and assist them in battle, which gives the game a very interesting twist. Granted, there’s not much of a narrative associated with your travels or the Nemesis system, and you have to be content with reading a lot of the lore you find. Again, though, this is hardly anything new in the realm of open-world games. With the exception of some questionable AI and a plot actually worthy of Tolkien, this title has a huge amount going for it.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is a game that delivers the fantasy goods in spades. The ultra-anal Tolkien lovers might take issue with Talion and how the game is presented, and the AI and frame-rate issues are clear. That being said, this remains a wildly immersive, engaging adventure with an excellent combination of action and platforming elements. The Nemesis system, finding ways to take down fearsome enemy Captains, interrogating foes, and just exploring a world begging to be relieved of its dark oppression…it’s a heady experience, to be sure. If you thought you had written your holiday schedule in stone and Shadow of Mordor wasn’t included in those plans, it’s time to reassess.
The Good: Great world and sound design throughout. Challenging combat encourages caution and tact. Fluid animations and solid control. Nemesis system is a great, innovative addition. Stellar blend of stealth, action, platforming and adventure elements. Extremely fun and rewarding.
The Bad: AI is questionable. Precise maneuvering takes some practice. Not quite enough done with the plot and characters.
The Ugly: “Orcs are dumb but they can’t be this dumb.”