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Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor (Xbox One) Review

Middle-Earth comes back to gamers in a game that captures the feel of the movies while telling a brand new story.

Talion and the wraith meet that lovable scamp, Gollum

Developed by Monolith Productions and produced by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, Shadow of Mordor tells the story of Talion, a ranger of Gondor assigned to guard the Black Gate, as he tries to solve the mystery behind why he is not dead after he and his family were murdered by the Blackhand of Sauron.  Talion’s story is set in Middle-earth, and explores the areas around the Black Gate, which is of course the entrance to Mordor. Although it tells a new story, Shadow of Mordor (SoM) is heavily entrenched in The Lord of the Rings mythos created by J.R.R. Tolkien. The tale takes place between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy’s and Talion will interact will several familiar characters as he hunts down the Blackhand for what he did to his family.

Essentially, Talion’s job was to protect the good people of Gondor from anything that comes from Mordor. This was a relatively easy task… until the return of Sauron. The Uruks of Mordor have started to recruit for the battle over Middle Earth you see, and things are heating up. Talion is enjoying a nice day on the wall until a force of Uruks invade destroying his home and his family.

The first battle would be at the Black Gate as Sauron unleashed his more powerful Uruks, Blackhand, The Hammer and someone else. To get to these special Uruks, Talion is going to have to battle his way through hordes and hordes of the orc-like creatures, so as you might figure, combat makes up the first part of SoM. Past that initial section, the game is broken down into three parts: combat, the Nemesis system, and exploration. Each part is then broken down into three more parts and, while the Nemesis System is amazing, the strongest part of SoM is the combat.

Branding is one of the wraith’s abilities

Fighting in the land of Mordor is broken into three different types of combat; close combat, ranged combat, and stealth combat. Talion is a ranger and so he is a skilled fighter. The combat is a lot like Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham series actually; one button for strikes, one button for dodging and one button for counters. While the system is a little more forgiving than Rocksteady’s, combat that is performed in a timely fashion (not button mashing) will result in higher combos and added damage.

During the course of SoM, Talion will be able to upgrade his abilities in each of these areas and add new moves and finishers. Combat in the beginning of SoM was difficult and a small group of Uruks would surely be my demise. But as I gained new abilities and techniques, I was able to battle large groups of them with ease. Combat never becomes too easy though, and there is always the threat of an Uruk captain, or even just a lucky grunt, that is looking to kill Talion and move up the ranks. The Nemesis System makes this possible, as Uruks rise and fall through the ranks of greater Uruk hierarchy.

The Nemesis System is a game changer and really takes SoM into a new realm of gaming. Never before have NPCs (Non-Playable Characters) been given the power the Uruks have in SoM. Each Uruk has a name and a set of strengths and weaknesses. Let me state this again, every single Uruk in the game has a chance to become a captain and even a War Chief. Oh, and although Talion can be killed, he always comes back to life.

In the time it takes for Talion to come back to the land of the living by way of the wraith that’s possessing him (who’s origin I will leave murky since it’ll most definitely spoil the story), Uruks will battle each other independently as they climb the ladder to becoming a War Chief. Uruk captains also will gain upgrades throughout the adventure as they recruit other Uruks and battle the creatures of Mordor. Never before have I cared about Flimflog the Archer, until he kills me with a well-placed arrow.  Now Flimflog is going to become an Uruk Captain as well as talk crap next time Talion battles him.

Exploration is the last part of SoM and, unfortunately, it’s also the weakest part of the game. The land surrounding the Blackgate is not much unlike any other area in any other game. Aside from the giant statute of Sauron on the Blackgate, there is nothing else that stands out as a visually striking. The lands are pitted with crumbled buildings and Uruk strongholds. Traversing is done on foot, by Caragoer (a type of large, dog-like beast) or by fast travelling between Towers, once they are unlocked.

The combat is sublime in SoR, with the wraith’s powers adding new possibilities

Players are tasked with Survival and Hunting challenges along the way as well, which are optional. To complete the Survival challenges, players must find certain herbs littered throughout the land. These herbs do little else than heal Talion. I can’t help but think that it’s really a missed opportunity there, as the herbs could have also given a brief buff, but alas all the herbs do is heal.

The Hunting challenges require Talion to hunt down creatures. As with the Survival challenges, the only benefit is a few XP points and an achievement. Exploration is by far the weakest part of the game and does little to reward players for fully exploring the lands of surrounding Mordor. And that’s a shame because there is so much lore and so many possibilities that could have been explored.

Final Thoughts

SoM received a lot of press leading up to its release. The Nemesis System and the fact that it is a stand-alone story set in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy universe garnered a lot of interests. I think Monolith has basically delivered on its promises of developing an innovative game that is also fun to play. Actually, my only real beef with this game is that it ended!

I had a blast travelling across the land hunting down Uruks for my orc army (did I mention that you can make a puppet army to mess things up for Sauron?) and the combat is done so incredibly well that I never want to stop battling Uruks.

About Rick Brown

As a fearful proponent, I agree with out robot overlords on House Bill 10010101 - The Full Extermination of the Human Race. But until then, make sure to check out all my writings on video game stuff.

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