Once more into Mordor we travel, into a cursed land where all that draws breath seeks to be the harbinger of your death. Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor (SOM) is the best Lord of the Rings inspired game yet and something that should have been done years ago. But I’m glad it happened now at the forefront of gaming technology. This magnificent action-RPG is brought to you by Monolith Productions and Warner Brother’s Interactive (Batman: Arkham Games) and is a brilliant title in every way you look at it. It is beautiful, addictive, potently immersive and ultimately a game that was more than a privilege to play.
The story of SOM takes place between J.R.R. Tolkien’s books, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. You play as Talion, a ranger of Gondor who was responsible for protecting the Black Gate of Mordor. You perish in a battle against the Dark Lord Sauron’s army, but then you are raised from the dead to find that your family has been murdered by the same evil. With a brooding hate in your heart, and a ghostly companion that provides you with wraith-like abilities, you march through Udun back to the black gate of Mordor as an army of one, hungry to exact your revenge.
From the moment SOM begins you enter a narrative that is beyond captivating. You are immersed in a beautifully rich and alive world filled with interesting and memorable characters, some of them your allies, most of them not. Even the freak of an ex-hobbit Gollum will play his devious part.
You will be taken through multiple story telling genres from full-blown action to light-hearted humour. It keeps true to the Lord of the Rings recipe, which will give fans of the film trilogy an extra boost of satisfaction.
SOM is a visual masterpiece. The graphics are sharply rendered and the world around you feels extremely realistic, providing an entrancing gaming experience. Mordor and its surrounding plains are not yet a desolate land of ash, fire and stone, but rather a beautiful wilderness.
The Udun world provides a massive gaming area where everything around you feels alive. There are ruins of ancient buildings littered all across the map, giving you a sense of history. Everywhere you go there are Uruk patrolling roads, talking politics around camp fires or defending themselves against the vicious wild life of Udun. Within moments this virtual reality will draw you in making you forget that you’re playing a game.
The cinematic aspect of SOM is also a brilliantly executed. Cut-scenes are masterfully directed and the dialogue is far from stale or boring. You will either be on the edge of your seat as events unfold or sitting back and enjoying the more cheerful and humoristic bits. The movement of the characters seem so realistically choreographed that there will be moments where you will be fooled in thinking that you’re watching a real life movie.
And as if the game wasn’t already beautiful enough, there is also an Ultra-HD texture pack you can add-on to the game, raising its level of beauty into an orgasmic visual gaming experience. Unfortunately, to run the game at full graphics with the texture pack it is recommended that you have a graphics card that has at least 6GB of memory.
SOM combines two polar opposites of violent gaming, head on combat and stealth tactics, into a single brilliant blood stained package. It blatantly draws influence from two titles that are at the top of their genres, the pound-a-group-of-a-billion-into-blood-pulp fighting mechanics of the Batman Arkham games and the commit-genocide-without-anybody-even-lifting-their-gaze sneakiness of the Assassin’s Creed games. Except instead of Batman’s fists you have an enchanted long sword and instead of a tiny assassin’s hidden blade you have a half-broken broad sword. Even though it isn’t exactly what I would call an act of integrity or originality I can’t help but admit that SOM is on par with, if not better than, these two monolithic titles.
You are able to perform a plethora of visually pleasing combos, easily striking down foes left and right. And together with the even more visually pleasing counters it results in you being a master of both offensive and defensive tactics. Your combos also charge up your wraith abilities that you gain from your ghostly companion. Once you reach a certain hit streak your sword will start to glow blue. Once this happens you can perform one of your wraith abilities, which you either unlock via your abilities screen or through story progression.
Whenever you see a large group of Uruk it is not fear you will feel but an excitement that seeps deep into your bones. Uruk blood will be spilled in gallons as you charge straight into the horde, stunning your enemies as you leap over them with Olympic class acrobatics and casually slaughtering their ugly mugged brethren with deadly precision strikes.
But even though most Uruk are no match for your fearless ranger, Mordor presents a variety of other challenging dangers for him to face. There are some larger Uruk that are equipped with shields and spears. Their attacks can’t be countered, only dodged, and their shields can take quite a lashing before they are destroyed. The easiest way to defeat them are leaping over them and taking their head off with a clean slice.
Mordor also has a its animal inhabitants which are rather tenacious bastards when first encountered, such as Caragors (pitbulls on steroids) and Graugs (giants crossbred with pitbulls on steroids). Caragors are fast, can’t be countered (unless the ability is unlocked) and usually run in packs. Graugs roam on their own, but make a pack of Caragors seem like a litter of affectionate puppies. They are aggressive, massive in size and can take you out in one blow.
But even thought these creatures are worthy opponents they can fortunately be turned into allies, once again thanks to your Wraith abilities. This is done by gaining higher ground than them and leaping on their backs by pressing Left Ctrl. Once you have mounted the beast, a short cut-scene will start playing where you will have limited time to move your cursor into a circle and press the designated button to take control of your new steed. This is an addition of the game I absolutely loved. Being able to ride one of these beasts in the open world of Mordor and destroying anything that faintly tries to oppose me is probably one of the most satisfying gaming experiences I had in a long time.
The Uruk Hierarchy
Uruk might be a disorganised group of brutes but under the leadership of Sauron they are structured in strict hierarchy. You have your foot soldiers (the grunts) that you will regularly encounter on your journey through Mordor. Then there are Captains and War Chiefs.
In total, there are twenty Captains. Whenever a foot soldier kills you, he gains the rank of Captain. If a Captain kills you his power level increases, which in turns increases his damage and health. Each Captain is assigned a power level, strengths and weaknesses and has a specific weapon such a sword, a spear or a crossbow.
Many Captains have the “Vault Breaker” ability that means you will not be able to leap over them. These ones are especially challenging if they sport a shield too. But many will have weaknesses such as being killed instantly by either a fully charged headshot from your bow or a stealth finisher.
The five War Chiefs are a step up on the hierarchy. They are considerably stronger than Captain in both damage and strengths. They also usually have a troop of foot soldiers surrounding them and many a time there will be one if not two Captains nearby. To defeat them will take some tactics and serious countering. And finally to finish them off you will have to execute a button prompt much in the same way as when mounting a Caragor.
As the story progresses more villains will be revealed in the hierarchy, such as Black Captains and Sauron’s inner circle. The Uruk Hierarchy is a remarkably fun system that lends a tactical tone to the game and gives SOM incredible depth.
SOM puts a healthy dose of character customisation at your disposal. Unfortunately you can’t change the appearance of Talion or acquire new weapons. Customisation is focused on developing your character’s strength and abilities.
In the game you earn XP for killing enemies and completing missions, among other things. This XP earns you ability points. Ability points are used to unlock standard combat skills and wraith abilities, which will come handy in the game and can also provide you with some epic cinematic scenes during combat.
Then there is Mirian (abbreviated to “M” in-game) which you earn by completing side missions and bonus objectives, and gathering collectibles. Mirian is a virtual currency and it is spent towards upgrading your health and weapons or unlocking rune slots on your sword.
Runes are gained by killing Captains or War Chiefs, which will then drop the rune for you to collect. Each weapon you have (Sword, Dagger and Bow) has rune slots. Here you equip runes that buff up your weapon by adding enhancements such as “15% chance to recover +5 health on any kill.” And if there are any runes you might not see as useless you can exchange them for Mirian.
Verdict: Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is not only one of the best games I’ve played in 2014 so far but easily became one of my favourite games of I’ve ever played. Its masterful combination of interactive participation and captivating storytelling makes for a fulfilling and rewarding gaming experience. It borrows influences from other games and employs them even better while bringing its own unique features to the table that I’m sure other games will borrow from very soon. I was so drawn into this world that I poured countless hours into without being bored for a single second. If J.R.R. Tolkien was still alive (and was a video gamer) he would surely be proud.
Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor was reviewed on Nokia N-Gage