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Does 'Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor' live up to the hype?

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Middle Earth Shadow Of Mordor 4

While plenty of The Lord of the Rings games have been released, few have taken so much mind-share of the industry as Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor has—and the game hasn’t even come out yet. The game promises an interesting spin on the third-person action genre, which has recently been dominated by games like the Batman: Arkham series—which is published by the same company as Mordor, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.

Mordor comes from Monolith Studios, however, who are no strangers to J.R.R. Tolkien’s world. The studio has aimed to make a game fun enough for both die-hard Tolkien fans and players who may have only gotten around to Peter Jackson’s film adaptations.

So is Mordor a good, or even great, game? EW‘s Aaron Morales and I, who have both played a sizable chunk of the game, shared our thoughts on the journey so far. While neither of us has finished the game, we’ve made enough progress to discuss what makes this trip into Middle-earth so special.

Jonathon Dornbush: So Aaron, Shadow of Mordor is finally upon us. I have to say, so far, the game has been an absolute delight. There’s nothing incredibly surprising about how it plays, but it feels so satisfying and the game is so well structured that it gets a lot of mileage out of relatively well-worn territory and a few new great ideas.

The big revelation—at least the game hopes—is the Nemesis system, which I very much want to hear your thoughts on, but I think it would be best to start with some general thoughts. What’s struck you about Mordor so far?

I’ve been completely absorbed by it. It’s become de facto for action games in this style to have plenty of collectibles and side missions scattered throughout the world, but rarely do I feel as strong a compulsion to collect and complete them as I have with Mordor. I think part of that is due to the game’s confinement to a certain number of interesting areas that at the same time feel large yet manageable.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve given up trying to collect things or complete missions in Assassin’s Creed, but traversing around even just the first area of Mordor clicked. The Uruk camps, dilapidated buildings and rocky landscape all feel lived in, not like it was constructed for a game. I really have to credit the level design that, even though half of the game’s story missions take place in that first area, I continued to enjoy exploring the landscape throughout my time there.

But there’s plenty of ground to cover (no terrible pun intended), so how have you taken to the game?

Aaron Morales: The buzz on this game has been growing steadily since E3, with people saying that it could do for the Lord of the Rings what Arkham Asylum did for Batman, which is to say finally deliver a game worthy of its pedigree. And I think it absolutely is the first great LotR game. But let’s get this out of the way—Mordor owes a lot to the Arkham series. They’re both published by WB Games, and it seems that developer Monolith lifted Batman’s combat mechanics wholesale. This isn’t a bad thing, as Arkham features the best fisticuffs in the business, and I’ve often wished other games would just copy the satisfying combat. Fortunately, they’ve added their own spin on things so it doesn’t just feel like Batman: Mordor City. Also, Batman would never decapitate hundreds of Uruks because of his strict moral code or whatever.

It’s funny you mention Assassin’s Creed, Jonathon, because I feel like Mordor is the best Assassin’s Creed game ever made. Protagonist Talion even looks like he could fit into the Assassin/Templar universe. He’s certainly every bit as nimble and agile as Ezio and the gang, and climbing tall towers to unlock new areas on the map is familiar ground. But the combination of stealth and combat is better executed here than in any of the countless AC games, so the forthcoming Assassin’s Creed: Unity has some serious competition.

But enough about its similarities to other games. What really makes Mordor shine is its Nemesis system. I can’t get over how interesting it is. The game procedurally generates Uruk captains and warchiefs with unique strengths and weaknesses (and some pretty hilarious names such as Pûgrish Blood Licker). They even have special chants that accompany their entrance, like some kind of WWE superstar. And they engage in their own power struggles as they clamor to ascend to the top of Sauron’s army.

The system is a bit daunting at first, but it quickly becomes incredibly addictive as you begin to manipulate things to your own end. And when you die in combat at the hands of one of them, it really rubs it in your face. You see that particular Uruk get promoted for felling you, and he’s then marked as revenge target. I don’t know about you, Jonathon, but I found it impossible not to immediately return to that area and seek bloody vengeance.

JD: Mordor certainly wears its inspiration on its sleeve, but I think that’s OK. Talion’s sword and Celebrimbor’s wraith powers feel different enough from Batman’s utility belt to provide a unique experience. And there’s a streamlined ease to Mordor‘s traversal that the Creed games lack, but I may have a bit more fondness for their free running than you. Mordor takes the best of both worlds, though, and smartly tweaks them where necessary.

But when it comes to that thirst for revenge, I definitely know the feeling, Aaron. The Nemesis system isn’t as revelatory as some expectations may have set, but it’s a tremendous improvement on the traditional “just kill everyone” mentality of similar games. I was happily surprised to see a random Uruk I had branded as my own soldier to ascend to the rank of captain after I had taken another out. An unknown enemy from a battle can become a mortal foe or a much needed ally, and the system is a blast to toy around with. It’s difficult to imagine a game like this without it going forward.

Being able to use enemies for intel, kill them to create a power vacuum, or branding them and making them (unwilling) allies is a joy. I’ve enjoyed every decision of how to handle each Uruk as much as the last. Mordor also wisely eases players into the system, holding back the branding aspect until the game’s second area, which was unexpected but a smart choice. Just as you might be growing tired of only slaying Salagar the Strangler or Ragulman the Raven, the option to keep enemies alive completely changes the dynamic.

Branded enemies can be pitted against others, creating power struggles that allow Talion to control the dominance of each territory. I think there’s room to grow here, but there’s a brilliant introduction to a system that really opens up the game’s world. It was immensely satisfying to know, for example, as I challenged a warchief, that his bodyguard captains were set to turn on him under my command.

My one gripe is that these struggles of power really haven’t affected the game’s story in a major way. Obviously I need to complete it, but the system has been more about affecting my view of the game than the game itself. On the note of the game’s narrative, it feels of apiece with the other on-screen Lord of the Rings stories. I appreciate how its main story seems to have two branching narratives, one of discovering Celebrimbor’s past and the other of Talion’s revenge mission. Each has had surprisingly light moments, which, in a world full of such hideous monsters and danger lurking over every cliffside, are a welcome diversion.

It’s mostly thanks to the supporting cast of characters, but the humorous touch never detracts from the gravity of Talion’s quest. There’s a bit holding me back from full emotional investment—perhaps it’s just a lack of knowledge of the intricacies of Tolkien’s world—but I think the work being done with Talion and Celebrimbor sets up an engaging enough story to keep me going.

So speaking of that tale, has the game’s world grabbed you? I don’t know your level of Rings fandom, but have the story missions and characters made the journey a memorable one for you, or are you more content to roam each area like a mad king, bending every Uruk in your path to your will?

AM: I don’t know Sméagol from Smaug (I had to Google that), and I’ve always been a bit bored by the Rings, so the narrative told through cutscenes and voiceover isn’t nearly as interesting to me as the one created by the Nemesis system. You’re right that they don’t directly affect the plot of the game, but I think they do something more unique: allow you to create your own stories.

Though early in the game you will likely just kill every captain you meet, later on there are many instances where you’ll be so hilariously outnumbered that you have no choice but to retreat. I had one particularly memorable encounter in a stronghold where I was trying to take out Pûgrish Blood Licker, who would only come out if I set off the alarms. Well, triggering the alarms means that dozens of orcs come after you, including Pûgrish and his bodyguards. As I start fighting, I suddenly realize there are six captains hanging out here, each introducing himself by stabbing me, as “Pûgrish! Pûgrish! Pûgrish!” chants ominously in the background. Realizing I had no chance at victory, I decided to regroup and come back later with a different plan of attack.

First thing I did was seek out intel on who was there to figure out their weaknesses. Two of them are scared of Caragors? Then I’ll come back riding one of the ugly beasts. Another is afraid of fire? I better upgrade my bow so I can shoot fire arrows. Armed with a plan of attack, I returned to the stronghold where the Uruk taunts were quickly silenced by my arsenal. It’s this kind of dynamic, emergent gameplay that makes the game so exciting to me. I’ve put 19 hours in and it says I’m 63% complete with the game, though I only have three story missions left. Sure, I’m curious to see where the story goes, but if the game keeps generating Uruks for me to take out, I’m in no rush to get to it.

JD: I think you’ve really captured the magic of the system—how it allows the player to create their own version of Talion. Is he this benevolent fighter who spares his opponents or one who slaughters every foe in his path? Mordor lets the player decide, and while those decisions have not affected the narrative so far, the system allows, like it has for you, for numerous mini-stories to be created while playing through the game.

We’ll have to save final thoughts for after we’ve beaten the game, but already I can say this is one of my favorite experiences of the year. Monolith has crafted something that isn’t shattering the status quo, but it’s reshaping it in a way that feels familiar yet fresh. And I hope it encourages developers making similar games to think outside the mold that’s been established over the last few years.

I’m in a similar position to you when it comes to completing the game—about 60 percent of the way through with every intention of bumping that number up to 100 percent. Few games in any given year drive me to want to complete every mission big and small, scour every corner of their maps until I’ve discovered everything. Mordor is certainly one of them.

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