I thought I’d start things off with a game that I’ve plugged 12 hours into recently, and it’s predecessor which took 30 hours of my time. I’ll start with the original game.
Middle Earth – Shadow of Mordor was released towards the end of 2014 and I picked it up early, being a huge Lord of the Rings fan, new games set in Middle Earth always makes me nostalgic for that first read, or the old RTS games I used to play when I was a teenager (The Battle for Middle Earth and it’s ilk).
Beware plot and game spoilers here people.
Shadow of Mordor starts off with a new hero, Talion, who is non-canonical to the original Tolkien works. Talion is a Ranger of Gondor serving at the Black Gate with his wife and child. The game sets in and out of cinematics and tutorial-like game play with orcs attacking Talion’s outpost. This is where you and your family are sacrificed by the Black Hand in a ritual intended to bring the great Elf Lord Celebrimbor’s wraith into himself. Instead, Celebrimbor instead merges with Talion and prevents his death.
Thus begins a ritual of revenge and devastation that you will reap across Mordor with the help of Celebrimbor and the increasing power you receive as he regains his memories. During game-play there are several flash-backs to information you’d only know if you are familiar with Tolkien’s posthumous publications such as the Silmarillion. You’ll come across Gollum throughout the game too, beyond that it’s all new characters beyond the name-drops.
The game play itself has a lot of things to remember, but they’re all added in over time so that just as you’ve got used to one thing, and it’s become part of your routine in combat, you get a new toy to play with. This does go some way to alleviating the repetitiveness that the game has. The game will put you into missions which involve a lot of “Go here, kill this” or “Collect this, then go here, then kill this”, the sort of filler quests you expect from World of Warcraft, but which can be acceptable when you’ve got enough decent end-game content or side-content to keep you satisfied and changing things up. I feel this is where Shadow of Mordor falls short in it’s expectations. The main plot quests are a consistent slog of going to one place, to kill a captain/warchief “for revenge” before moving on to repeat the cycle. It’s hard to invest much emotion in the story line as you’re pulled from one area of the map to another without gaining any real feeling for the mission beyond the knowledge that this is how you complete it, Talion as a character doesn’t help you really care about the death of his family, and just seems like an emotionless puppet doing as Celebrimbor tells him to. You get some respite in Torvin’s side quests, which are quite enjoyable and he’s a likable character, but there isn’t enough there to keep you entertained long-term.
The positives there are the combat, and the Nemesis system. The Nemesis system within the game takes actions that you’ve taken against the Uruk population, and remembers them. Fail to kill Oglob the Trickster, but you burned him before you died? He’ll remember that, be more powerful, and want revenge for his disfigurement. Die to a random non-entity grunt-Uruk? He’ll be promoted and remember having killed you. It adds an interesting twist to the game and makes fighting powerful captains a little more interesting in the knowledge that failure almost certainly means it will be harder next time and you will need to spend more time preparing for round 2.
The combat itself is very smooth, and will challenge you at first. Once you’ve worked your way through the plot you begin to get more and more advantages that eventually will make combat a lot easier. You will have to contend with different types of Orc, some with shields, some that you can’t just go toe-to-toe with, and pretty much every orc will have some kind of throwing weapon to hit you when you’re crowded by 30 enemies and they can’t get close enough. I feel like the developers realised they were making Talion too powerful, and thought to balance this they would just throw more and more at you in the interests of making it harder. They’re right, it is more challenging, but it’s usually easy enough to spam a set of keys until you’ve killed the cannon fodder, and then you can go after the big guys. Equally you can just run up a wall, hide out of sight for 10 seconds, then ‘Brutalize’ with a stealth attack and half your enemies will run in fear.
All in all, the game is good, but I’m not sure it deserves the critical acclaim that it received back in ’14. The game brought new things to the table, and then expanded on it with it’s second ‘act’, but I don’t think it did enough beyond that to keep a player engrossed and wanting to play more. I’ve got 30 hours in the game, but that is partly due to returning to it before the release of it’s sequel, Shadow of War, to remind myself of the game play, and on the second play through I didn’t bother to finish it. The replayability is low, and you’ll find yourself forcing your way through the last missions if you’re a completionist, and if you’re not – well – you might just give up.
I’m currently 12 hours into Shadow of War, and I’m spending more time picking up artifacts and completing side missions, will review when I’ve done more!