At first glance, I was a bit skeptical of Monolithic Productions’ Shadow of Mordor. Would it differentiate itself from other flashy action games and still manage to be fun? Could the developers inject totally new lore into J.R.R. Tolkien’s universe without butchering it? The answers, a bit to my surprise, are yes.
No, the Shadow of Mordor’s story isn’t on par with The Two Towers and the game doesn’t revolutionize the action RPG genre, but it’s innovative, feels fundamentally like Middle Earth and most of all, is incredibly fun to play.
The first thing that struck me about Shadow of Mordor, is how immensely satisfying it is to cleave an uruk’s head off its shoulders as Talion, the game’s protagonist. You get a whole lot of that sort of satisfaction when take on an entire roaring horde of Sauron’s minions with nothing but your swords and Celebrimbor—an elven wraith bound to your character’s body—at your side. Your enemies will fear you; Talion is basically Batman with magic and a sword.
The combat system is incredibly fast-paced, but feels intuitive and refined. Talion is remarkably responsive when you right click your mouse to parry an enemy’s attack and I never found myself getting frustrated with laggy, clunky response time on the game’s part.
Beyond that, fighting as Talion looks totally awesome. The game has a very cinematic quality to it and fight scenes will periodically enter slow motion so that you can look at uruks’ horrified expressions as you explode one of their comrade’s heads with Celebrimbor’s ghostly powers.
Shadow of Mordor also gives you with a lot of choice in how you approach combat. It features an expansive upgrade system that lets you improve your weapons and choose traits that impact how Talion and Celebrimbor fight. Depending on how you develop them, you can excel as a stealthy assassin or master of all-out sword-fighting.
The game isn’t all about mindless combat, though. The uruk warchiefs who make up the majority of the game’s harder enemies all have strengths and weaknesses that completely change how you should approach a fight with them. You will be punished for rushing in mindlessly with your sword drawn; the warchief that you’re attacking might be completely immune to that kind of attack.
To alleviate the potentially tedious process of trial and error with warchiefs’ weaknesses, you can interrogate their minions until they tell you all about their bosses’ deepest, darkest fears and vulnerabilities. One warchief might be completely immune to stealth attacks with a dagger, ranged attacks with a bow and even impervious to stabs of your sword, but if you attack him from atop a wild animal, he’ll run away in terror. The interrogation mechanic happens at the press of a couple of buttons, so it fits seamlessly into regular gameplay.
Later on, you can even “brand” interrogated enemies, possessing them and forcing them to do your bidding. This seems like a somewhat lackluster mechanic until you considering possessing a warchief’s most trusted bodyguards and turning them against him in a pivotal moment of your battle. If you win, one of your minions can even succeed the warchief, allowing you to twist uruk war politics to your will.
My biggest grievance with Shadow of Mordor lies in how short the game’s campaign is. You could probably beat it in a day if you didn’t spend a lot of time on sidequests. The game doesn’t suffer too much for it, due to how your ongoing conflict with the warchiefs takes the form of a sandbox game, with loose, unscripted objectives, but a lot of fun gameplay. For those looking for a lengthy, plot-driven game, though, Shadow of Mordor might disappoint. The writing isn’t amazing either, but it’s not bad for an action game.
Overall, Shadow of Mordor is definitely a worthwhile purchase if you’re looking for a visually incredible action game that challenges you to be creative in how you pick your battles.