18 Oct 2014

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor - Review

Greetings fellow gamers and welcome to my latest Video Game Review! Today I wanted to bring Monolith's latest work to your attention, and its' name is Shadow of Mordor. Ranking as one of the most popular and well received games so far on the next-generation consoles, Shadow of Mordor provides players with an open-world experience that mixes elements of Batman: Arkham and Assassins Creed, among others, for perhaps the best video-game adaption of Tolkiens' Middle-Earth yet. I hope you enjoy this review!



Shadow of Mordor (Playstation 4)


Gameplay

There is something to be said about a game that absolutely nails its fundamental gameplay mechanics, especially when it is an all-new series, yet Shadow of Mordor does this with all the aplomb we know Monolith are capable of. Not only is every element of the gameplay executed almost perfectly, but there are so many different play-styles and options available to the player to further diversify and cater the experience towards their personal advantage that Shadow of Mordor remains an immensely entertaining experience even through repeat runs of the main game. This is mostly centered on the excellent combat system in place, functioning much like an evolution on the classic Batman Arkham combo mechanics. Each press of the "Square" button will send Talion into an attack against the closet enemy you target by orienting the left thumb-stick, while each press of the "Triangle" button will instead counter an enemy attack. These two key cornerstones of the combat system are as simple and accessible in concept as they are challenging in motion; much like the Arkham series, these button presses chain together based on timing and skill rather than rewarding straight button mashing.

As a veteran of the Dark Knights' many video game outings from Rocksteady Studios, I was able to master these mechanics instantly in Shadow of Mordor as they function virtually identically, with a few tweaks that I feel are strong improvements. For one, you are no longer "bound" to an action; in the Arkham games, if you elected to attack by pressing "Square" then there would be no opportunity to break the attack mid-animation. In Shadow of Mordor, this constraint is entirely removed and thus you can break any attack animation by pressing the "Triangle" button to counter an opponents' strike at any time provided you do it at the correct moment. This rewards fluid reactions more than the prediction-reliant Arkham combat system, though aside from these key cornerstones the game feels very much like a natural evolution of that series. You can chain throw daggers with the tap of a button mid-combo much like Batarangs, though there is a proper grab system with numerous quick-fire options for you to help influence a fight. The ability to slow down time through a "Focus" system is tied purely to your ranged attacks, keeping it out of what is a purely speed-based melee combat system; ranged attacks feel like the perfect complement to your melee attacks by allowing you to immobilize fleeing opponents or slay them instantly with a head-shot, all in rapid succession.

Progression feels even more important with some incredible upgrades on offer such as the ability to set opponents on fire or "teleport" to far-away enemies, while the rune system pairs up with the ability points to give you awesome diversity in customizing the strengths of Talion to your liking. Whereas in the Arkham games it feels a bit more like you simply have a greater arsenal of tools and skills to use to your advantage, by the end of Shadow of Mordor you will truly feel like an avatar of death - especially as you chain that aforementioned teleport skill with execution attacks and wipe out a dozen Uruks before they even have time to react. The powers of the Wraith add so much depth to your encounters, especially once you unlock the ability to "brand" Uruks roughly halfway through the game. This particular skill allows you to take over the minds of weakened Uruks - even the most venerable Captains or Warchiefs! - and turn them against their fellow Uruks either immediately or at any time that you wish. There are various missions throughout the latter half of the game that encourage you to set up an ambush by "branding" numerous Uruk archers in an area without raising alerting any other Uruks of your actions. By merely pressing "Up" on the D-Pad you can call any Uruks you have mind-slaved to your service, forcing them to begin the assault on those Uruks that have not been branded. The way this interacts with Shadow of Mordor's highly touted Nemesis System is awesome to behold as you can literally take over a lowly Captain, ensure they succeed in raising up through the ranks of Sauron's Army, and then help them to slay a Warchief and take their mantle for themselves - bringing all of their followers under your control. The way you can influence all the many randomly-generated Uruks and side-quests in the game as a result of the Nemesis System whether through blunt assassinations or covert "branding" to sway results to your liking provides you with a staggering wealth of options for progression.

On top of all of this, there is a fully realized stealth element to the game; parkour here is as easy and simple as in the Assassins' Creed franchise and the inspiration is clear here as one only needs to hold down the "Cross" button to climb and dash throughout Mordor. While travelling across Mordor can be done through sprinting and utilizing parkour maneuvers, there are alternate forms of movement; these include taming wild Caragos (Wargs) and Graugs (Trolls) through quick-time-events that function similarly to "branding", while there is also a fast-travel system that allows you to instantly spawn at a certain location on the map. You can run around the land stealthily assassinating and picking off Uruks to weaken the total fighting strength of a horde, eliminating sentries so that you can perform the mission-mandated objectives without fear of being detected. Unlike Assassins Creed where any semblance of stealth is cannibalised by being restricted to terrible eavesdropping missions, Shadow of Mordor allows you to infiltrate huge strongholds teeming with Uruks and deal with the occupants as you will; slaying them, or "branding" them for future use if you need bodies to intervene as you escape. It helps that the enemy AI in this game is actually quite intelligent with Uruks quickly noticing if a patrol is missing or an Uruk hasn't responded to their hails, making for a perceptive force that can often be very difficult to elude fully.

That all of this can be done in regular gameplay outside of all the various missions is simply astonishing and saw me spending so much time exploring Mordor for ways to capitalize on the many unique abilities of Talion and his wraith counter-part. Truly, there is yet to be a next-generation game that absolutely nails its combat, stealth and other elements quite like Shadow of Mordor does, especially once you throw in the innovative Nemesis AI. The only blip on an otherwise perfect segment of the game is that it lacks traditional boss fights, with Captains and Warchiefs obviously being the main draw with their randomly determined abilities and exponential growth in power based on your successes or failures. There are two encounters that come close to fitting the "boss fight" bill but are generally quite standard and not very difficult once you work out their attack pattern, quite unlike the Nemesis-driven clashes with Captains and Warchiefs. The final "boss battle" - if it even qualifies as that - amounts purely to a quick-time-event that is curiously out of place with the rest of the game; quick-time-events only really exist in Shadow of Mordor for "last chance" scenarios and taming the various monsters in the land. To say it was hugely dissatisfying would be an understatement, but let that not detract from all that Shadow of Mordor gets right throughout the rest of its 20+ hour experience.

The difficulty of the game will largely depend on how quickly you master its deep combat system and various stealth mechanics, with battles against dozens of Uruks being entirely possible at any given point - especially if you attack a stronghold and fail to stop the sentries from sounding an alarm. The Nemesis System provides an incentive to progress opponents as the more powerful Uruk Captains and Warchiefs will drop stronger runes to customize your sword, bow and dagger with. However, the counter-balance here is that this can lead to some truly terrifying and seemingly unstoppable enemies that are capable of slaying you in a single hit and even tracing your movements no matter where you hide, removing the element of stealth completely. Learning the strengths and weaknesses of these individual Uruks is a fun exercise as well, giving you crucial information to plan your encounters with them; some Uruks are immune to all kinds of ranged or stealth attacks, while others can be instantly slain by them, for example. Causing fear among Uruks is part and parcel with your skills as a swordsman, as each enemy slain increases the chance of any nearby Uruks to flee the scene - that this also applies to the "named" Uruks generated by the Nemesis System offers some very interesting clashes. The goal of the Nemesis System is to make sure each of these fights feels different, and having one Uruk be afraid of fire while another might fear the bestial Caragors helps to sell that promise. There is so much depth to the gameplay in Shadow of Mordor that I could rant and rave about it for ages, but unlike Watch Dogs where all its numerous options couldn't get over the stale mission design and repetitive gameplay, Shadow of Mordor's Nemesis System and fully realized stealth elements give you so many tools to deal with the thousands of Uruks to be encountered throughout Mordor and ensure no battle ever truly feels the same.
10/10


Visuals

While not the most impressive game on a technical level when you compare it to something like inFamous: Second Son or Ryse: Son of Rome, Shadow of Mordor is nonetheless a great looking game with some intense detail everywhere throughout the world. Not only is the engine capable of rendering incredibly large areas filled to the brim with all manner of flora and fauna, but the texture work and level of detail is hugely impressive. The main enemies in the game - the Uruks - are all wonderfully detailed and the numerous close-ups to the named "Captains" gives you the clearest look at how phenomenal they are; while some character models are repeated each of them is packed with character, from distinct armour, skull patterns, fur or hair, uniquely designed weapons and so on. The Uruks, Caragors and Graugs form the majority of your opponents in this game and each of them looks fantastic, and even despite often having upwards of twenty enemies on screen at once it is quite easy to distinguish each foe from another with their own unique visual touches.

The engine rarely if ever lags, with the only slow-down I ever experienced coming when I had over twenty "branded" Uruks fighting for me - seemingly this wasn't due to actual visual constraints but more related to the processing of each individual AI as opposed to the enemy Uruks. The game features weather effects and a full day to night system, even if the transitions are often determined more by missions than by patience; the rain effects look nice and give a nice sheen to the world, especially at night. There is a clear visual distinction between "branded" enemies and those still opposed to your cause, displaying an intriguing blue glow. Disappointingly, however, the player characters' actual model is surprisingly less detailed than his Uruk opponents, particularly the Captains - nowhere is this more apparent than in the "clashes" where Talion and a Captain or Warchief "meet" and the latter taunts the former. Some distracting visual glitches such as problematic collision detection aren't hugely detrimental to the overall visual experience, particularly when you start paying attention to the perfect cloth physics of Talion's cape or the gleam of the sun set against the melancholy lands of Mordor as dozens of Uruks swarm to your location. The game is a looker and is one of the first to really make full use of the capabilities of next-generation consoles, even if it isn't quite as stunning as a few games I could think of - what really impresses here is that this is a fully realized open-world game with some awesome texture work and detail.
8/10


Audio

The quality of the sound design in Shadow of Mordor is nothing short of astounding and reverberates throughout the entire game. As Talion climbs a "Forge Tower", the faint echo of the ancient elf smith Celebrimbor's hammer rings aloud; when you execute an Uruk in a particular fashion, their death throes and gushing blood will be matched by the cutting swing of your blade. You can hear the distant roar of a colossal Graug as easily as you can make out the low, bloodthirsty growl of a wolf-like Caragor. As Uruks march in formation with the distant clapping of their footsteps audible to an extent based on their proximity and numbers, you can make out the grunts and scowls of the individuals making up the greater whole. As you walk in the "Wraith World" at the press of a button, all other noise is drowned out by an eerie emptiness broken only by the speech of nearby Uruks, unaware of the horror that awaits them. The various strongholds and camps populated by dozens of Uruks are given life by the ambiance, especially in the various sea-side areas found late in the game.

The voice acting in this game is fantastic throughout with each unique Uruk Captain or Warchief having their own mostly distinct lines, each of which is spoken in a manner and tone as befits the scions of the Dark Lord Sauron. The sinister, pathetic nature of Gollum is conveyed expertly in a performance fitting of Andy Serkis' iconic role in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies, while the rest of the cast is spot on as Wraith and Ranger do glorious battle in the name of vengeance. This is a voice cast featuring such huge names as Nolan North playing the brooding Black Hand of Sauron, while primary protagonist Talion is voiced by Troy Baker of The Last of Us fame, and the quality shows throughout the game - even if North is woefully under-used, unfortunately. One thing of particular note here is the ambient dialogue; Uruks converse among themselves of both yours and notable Captains' exploits naturally in a manner not dissimilar to the citizens of Skyrim in the Elder Scrolls V. This all lends great weight and realism to a game world brimming with new places to explore and Uruks to kill or dominate, though the music does a fantastic job of setting the scene. While none of the now iconic movie themes return in this seemingly non-canon story, Shadow of the Mordor nonetheless features a grim soundtrack echoing the dark, mature nature of the plot; this is a depressing game, and nowhere is the darkness more expertly conveyed than with the various tracks on display. If there is one aspect of all the various video game and move adaptions of Tolkien's opus that is always done absolutely right, it is the audio, and Shadow of Mordor is a perfect example of this.
10/10


Functionality

As you would expect of any open world game outside of something as seemingly clean as Watch Dogs, Shadow of Mordor is mostly functional to an adequate degree but has a few kinks and issues to get through. In my roughly twenty-five hours with the game, I experienced numerous visual glitches mostly in regards to collision detection or wonky camera angles in Warchief introduction cutaways. On two occasions my player character was caught in mid-air with nothing under or around to support him, defying the laws of gravity in the process and being unable to move unless I switched to the wraith vision mode. Sometimes my button presses would fail to register during combat where a counter or attack would not happen despite me pressing the corresponding button, though this was incredibly rare. The AI could also sometimes be just a tad wonky with Uruks failing to notice me as I clearly approached them in plain sight during the daytime, though mostly these were all minor issues that were more of an annoyance rather than a real deterrent to my enjoyment of the game. As any major game release should be, Shadow of Mordor is mostly functional and works pretty well compared to a few open world games I could mention (Skyrim, Fallout: New Vegas) pre-patch and those few issues really don't detract too much at all from the gameplay. 
8/10


Value

From my personal experience with the game, Shadow of Mordor should last your average gamer a good 10-15 hours with not too much repetition if they focus mostly on the primary story missions. The storyline missions are quite diverse with perhaps the only real let-down being the lack of true boss fights unless you count the "Great White Graug" and one of the three Black Captains, though otherwise they should keep you entertained throughout and provide a decent if dissatisfying ending. Where the game truly shines though is in the side content, especially in the completely random nature of the heavily promoted Nemesis AI System. While actual collectibles are sensibly spread out throughout the games' two large areas with a mix of intriguing artifacts and differing herbs, the story-determined (as in non-random) side missions provide plenty of unique challenges for the player to hone their skills with blade, bow and dagger. The Nemesis System is the real star of the show though, providing the player with endless side content generated at a moments' notice by simply advancing time in the game. These do get somewhat repetitive with them all mostly boiling down to "different ways to interrupt this Captain's progress" whether by killing them or forcing them to flee, though the fact that each Uruk Captain or Warchief is a unique individual and the missions can be completed by using so many different methods makes it a fun and constantly entertaining system. The second half of the game in particular gives you so much diversity with the different mission types and ways to influence the Nemesis System by "mind-controlling" the various Uruk Captains. If you want to complete the main story, story-determined side missions and Nemesis System events then you should get a good twenty to thirty hours out of Shadow of Mordor, while repeating the game through to see how wildly different the randomly-generated Uruks are should give you a lot of worthwhile replay value.
9/10


Final Score

The final score for Shadow of Mordor is a 45/50, or a 90/100, or a 9/10. This is definitely one of the best games of 2014 and its mainstream popularity and outstanding success are easily justified, providing great gameplay mixed with a truly next-gen feature in the Nemesis System. The quality of the release is exemplified by the amazing soundtrack and voice-work, while the great visuals supplement a long and varied journey mixing combat and stealth. The game performs well and plays as smoothly as you would expect given that it shares Assassins Creed and the Batman Arkham series as its inspirations, though it does have a few minor flaws such as a disappointing end to the story and some bothersome glitches. Shadow of Mordor is an excellent start to what will likely continue to be a series and I feel that the Lord of the Rings universe couldn't be in better hands for a video-game adaption, even if this is almost assuredly a non-canon story.

The scoring system explained earlier is divided into 10 rating based on a game's score out of 100 (or 10). This is the key used for each of these 10 ratings.

1 - Horrible, do not purchase.
2 - Pathetic, nothing to really recommend it.
3 - Awful, one or two good things.
4 - Sub-par, a few redeeming qualities.
5 - Mediocre, not terrible but not good.
6 - Average, thoroughly ok and nothing else.
7 - Good, some issues but mostly recommendable.
8 - Great, a high quality purchase.
9 - Fantastic, recommended for all.
10 - Perfect, does everything right.


Thank you all for reading my latest video game review! I thoroughly enjoyed Shadow of Mordor and think it is the best example yet of a next-generation open world game, mixing great gameplay with a fantastic innovation in the form of the Nemesis System. It was a fun and challenging twenty-five hours spent in a mostly unspoiled Mordor, shedding the blood of countless Uruks, and I am eager to go through and do it all over again! If you have any feedback for this review or want to share you own thoughts on Shadow of Mordor, feel free to leave a comment below! Thanks again and have a nice day!

4 comments:

  1. Good write up, my only (extremely minor) gripe is that Caragors and Graugs aren't Wargs and Trolls, much as they seem it (even though it would have made much more sense for them to be).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. They pretty much are Wargs and Trolls, the only logical reason for the game not to feature Wargs and Trolls but have near like-for-like imitations is licensing issues which, judging that the title is "Middle Earth" and not "The Lord of the Rings" I am guessing is the case. I've read the Silmarillion and never once saw any mention of Caragors or Graugs.

      Thanks for the feedback though!

      Delete
  2. middle earth shadow of mordor compressed blackbox direct link for pc download

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  3. Great review man! I really liked this game!!
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