'Shadow of Mordor' is one of the year's best games minus some missteps
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is great. It’s easily one of the year’s most impressive releases, establishing a new status quo for similar action titles moving forward. It’s not a perfect game, but it’s a tremendous first step for what is hopefully a new franchise that will elevate its competitors and bring new and old fans to J.R.R. Tolkien’s world.
Last week, Aaron Morales and I discussed our thoughts on a large portion of the game and it’s incredible Nemesis system. Having now completed the game’s story and played through a majority of the additional content, however, there’s still plenty left to contemplate about Talion and Celebrimbor’s journey.
Few games in a given year make me want to return to them the way Mordor has. Often, games in this style—open-world adventures with a main story and plenty of ancillary quests and challenges to populate that world—do only one thing right: They either execute the story well, telling an interesting tale that has players rushing from one story mission to another, or they create a suite of fun diversions that help you forget how ho-hum the story is. Mordor doesn’t forget about either, and so the game remains engaging whether protagonist Talion is learning about the history of his tagalong partner Celebrimbor or simply scouring the landscape for an herb to replenish health.
While the Nemesis system is the centerpiece of Mordor’s offerings, the game tells its story in intriguing enough fashion that, though it doesn’t quite stick the landing, it’s still a valiant effort that deserves recognition. The narrative evokes what made The Lord of the Rings so great without copying the best parts of that franchise wholesale.
Mordor sets up a simple revenge quest: Talion wants to kill those who slaughtered his wife, daughter, and even himself. (The wraith Celebrimbor revives the ranger and gives him the opportunity to do so, but the path to vengeance is by no means a simple one.) Mordor’s story is generally presented in two diverging paths that inform one another. They can be completed independently, but they’re both intrinsic to Talion and Celebrimbor’s story. The game geographically is divided into two major locations, with one story line in each focusing on the presences of the dark lord Sauron and his Uruk rule in each locale. The other traces the discovery of Celebrimbor’s past, as his memories have been erased, by way of scattered items in the world related to his history. The information is vital to understanding why Celebrimbor is so important to both Talion and Middle-earth at large.
Cameos from more well-known Middle-earth denizens provide some fan service, but Smeagol’s appearance, for example, never detracts from Talion and Celebrimbor’s individual-yet-united causes. What’s perhaps most astounding about each story is that there are genuinely funny moments peppered throughout the generally somber tales. Dealings with a Napoleon complex-plagued Uruk or a boisterous dwarf, and an appropriately lighthearted soundtrack that accompanies their appearances, add just a touch of humor and grounding to a lofty story. It’s a reminder that, despite the powerful forces of evil Talion faces during the story, there are still your average-Joe dwarves inhabiting Middle-earth.
But those dark forces loom large at every turn in both Mordor’s gameplay and story. Talion’s plight holds interest until very late in the game, when Mordor stumbles. (Few games actually conclude in satisfying ways, and even fewer in narratively coherent fashion. The Last of Us is one of the few recent examples, but even bastions of storytelling and atmosphere like BioShock and, depending on who you ask, the Mass Effect trilogy, can’t quite stick the landing. It’s an unfortunate but continuing problem that hopefully will be addressed in the next few years.) After the Nemesis system smartly reintroduces the relationships the player has built up throughout the game, the final two boss fights are with villains who could have used a little more time in the spotlight, and play like easy-bordering-on-annoyingly-simple diversions. The game throws out its tremendous ability to blend stealth and all-out combat, as well as the Nemesis system’s capabilities, to deliver an easy stealth mission and a quicktime event. These encounters also occur in new or redesigned locations, serving as a stark reminder that while the game’s locales are well crafted, there are still only two of them to explore.
The ending comes as even more of a disappointment because the game handles its enemies with such attention and detail. Mordor redefines how action games can approach the bad guys, but the finale is a sad reminder of how simply games have handled those relationships for decades. It doesn’t take away from the more than 15 hours of pure fun the game provided beforehand—and the several more I intend to spend completing the game’s side missions—but it’s a blight that showcases both how well the game’s villains can be handled and how badly some of the medium’s most famous foes have been treated.
Mordor is still one of my favorite games of the year. It may sound silly, but on a number of occasions while playing, I thought to myself about how much fun I was having. The story—and its strong cast—contributed heavily to that notion almost to the end, but the foundation of both the game and my enjoyment of it is the Nemesis system. This brilliant addition allows the player to make Talion their own and craft their own stories, even when actual customization options are relatively limited in the game. I developed (unwilling) friends, chased after enemies who eluded me skirmish after skirmish (Ghroush Foul-Spawn couldn’t escape me forever), and built connections to the ugliest yet most beautifully rendered orcs I’ve ever seen.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor has its failings, but they’re so minute in the face of everything the game does well, and how thrilling it is simply to play, that, in the glut of fall releases, Mordor may truly be the one game to rule them all.
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