Why not simply walk into Mordor?
Genuine inspiration seems to be an increasingly unique commodity in modern gaming as we know it in its current form. It is teetering on impossible to not immediately draw parallels to other hallmark franchises that are responsible for creating the vast array of different gameplay nuances and mechanics we so happily take for granted today. Although at its core Shadow of Mordor borrows heavily from industry veterans such as Assassins Creed and the Batman Arkham series, what makes this achievement so truly invigorating and remarkable comes in the form of the Nemesis system. Not only does it manage to transform what would normally be a mundane series of scripted events into a free form purely player dictated wonderland (Albeit a severely violent one, sorry kids), but more specifically succeeds in morphing the game world into a constantly evolving, ever changing and unpredictable living organism rather than a mere sandbox to serve as a conduit for storytelling.
Players will delve straight into the role of Talion, Ranger of Gondor and defender of the Black Gate, as he carries out his duties to keep watch over Mordor. It does not take the narrative long to materialize however as chaos and darkness swiftly descends upon our hero, resulting in a series of events that sees he and his family brutally murdered at the hands of Sauron’s Black Captains, and Talion consequently being infused with the supernatural powers of the wraith. It is certainly an interesting and entertaining premise to behold as the world of men and the wraith world collide in a matter not depicted in previous games and covered to very minimal extent in the movies. These opening sequences more importantly however help pave the pathway to Talion’s revenge as he embarks on an epic journey to exact justice on Sauron’s forces.
Revenge and violence often go hand in hand and Shadow of Mordor is certainly no exception. The dark and gritty overtone so heavily evoked by Middle Earth as we know it is superbly weaved into every aspect of gameplay. The result is an astoundingly satisfying and ridiculously fluid combat platform that borrows the ease of traversal of Assassins Creed, and couples it with the combat blueprint of the Arkham series with heavy refinements to both, resulting in an unprecedented level of cohesion so impressive it just plain puts the competition to shame. What makes combat in Shadow of Mordor just pure exhilaration however is the level of depth and variety it so effectively offers. By completing a healthy variety of both story and side related feats, Talion can earn ability points and currency which can then be spent to augment both he and the wraith’s combat finesse whether it be in the form of a simple health upgrade, or something deliciously more sinister such as combat executions. The same can be said for Talion’s arsenal as defeating powerful enemies will yield powerful runes which will empower your weapons once equipped.
“an unprecedented level of cohesion so impressive it just plain puts the competition to shame.”
Which brings me to the most impressive piece of the puzzle and the singular most impressive tech achievement I’ve seen in quite some time, the Nemesis system. Freedom of choice and flexibility of this degree in such a well crafted setting narrative is incredibly potent. It’s been a great deal of time since a title has so successfully instilled a profound sense of power and control in the player. Being able to not only single handedly decimate Sauron’s forces, but to do it on your own terms, your own way, is incredibly gratifying. The living breathing organism that is the Nemesis system is the closest thing you will ever get to playing god. Perhaps instead of hunting down a Warchief you would prefer to hunt down his two bodyguards and turn them against him to exact a bitter betrayal. Or maybe you would prefer to hunt down and locate loose tongued orcs to extract valuable information regarding your foes strengths and weaknesses using your interrogate ability. Regardless of your chosen play style, methods and other nuances this is the ultimate haven for experimentation.
One of the biggest downsides to having a sandbox environment is a disconnect is very easily formed between the narrative and the rest of the experience. Mindlessly trudging between side mission to side mission, point A to point B, leads to a complete lack of immersion and the narrative suffers as a result and it is in this regard to that this system really shines. The game environment is ever changing and completely unpredictable a simple stray off path to pick a rogue herb can turn into all out war with 3 different orc captains each completely unique in appearance, intentions, and personality. And believe me these particular monstrosities take Talion’s actions very personal. Upon encountering one such enemy a brief cutscene will play in which the creature will exchange dialogue with our hero completely dependent on Talion’s previous interactions with the beast. For example during one particular escapade though an uruk encampment I had the ingenious idea of firing an exploding arrow into a campfire causing a large scale explosion engulfing the surrounding captain and bodyguards. I rushed in and began to take out the trash only to realize that this particular captain was terrified of fire causing him to immediately flee. Upon my next encounter with this godless creation however not only had his appearance transformed to reflect his gruesome new injury, but he also swore to exact revenge on Talion for causing him the disfigurement. Personal and unique encounters such as these are common occurrence in Shadow of Mordor and not only serve to epitomize player freedom but also provide a great reason to come back again and again.
Lazy ports can be somewhat of a common occurrence for PC games as of late so it was with a grand sense of relief that I was able to jump straight in and utilize all the horsepower the platform is capable of. Don’t get me wrong this is a fabulous looking title on all platforms sporting sharp and crisp visuals, impressive lighting and stable performance. Playing this title on a high end PC however proved to be a true delight coming with all the trimmings an enthusiast could hope for including an unlocked frame rate support for high end resolutions such as glorious 4k, and an array of numerous quality settings to be tweaked to your heart’s content. Optimization was truly impressive also with the game benching well on both modern as well as dated tech ensuring everyone from casual to enthusiast can garner the best possible experience from their hardware.
Although I followed the development of this title with great anticipation for a great deal of time up until its release, I still expected it to be flawed in many ways as have so many others in recent memory. I find myself here trying to pick faults with what is pretty damn close to a perfect game. I mean sure sometimes the menus can be a tiny bit cumbersome to navigate, and it would have been nice if the earlier stages of the relationship with the wraith were a bit better explained, but these are such trivial knit picks. At the end of the day Shadow of Mordor is nothing short of an instant classic that deserves to be part of the library of any gamer in 2014 regardless of platform. Whether or not you enjoyed the Lord of the Rings movies, books, or the mythology in general, you would be incredibly foolish not to indulge in the sheer brilliance that is big sleeper hit of 2014, Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor.
A timeless classic that should be stapled as nothing less than a genuine contender for GOTY.