Why are we talking about video games? (1) Because we can. (2) Because we’re building our Bitter Empire one murderous brick at a time. (3) Because maybe you need some extreme slayage opportunities in your leisure time/fantasy life.
There’s a point early on in the old Rankin-Bass animated version of The Hobbit where Gandalf is trying to recruit the titular Bilbo Baggins as the “burglar” for his troupe of refugee dwarfs. Bilbo, being the 1920s English countryside man that he is, is a bit repulsed by the idea of becoming a thief.
“What is this ‘burglar’ business?” he asks.
“If you prefer,” says Gandalf, “you could say ‘expert treasure hunter.’”
Shadow of Mordor is an expert treasure hunter. While taking many liberties with J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth license, the game also borrows heavily from Assassin’s Creed, the Batman: Arkham series, and even, yes, Dark Souls.
You’re dropped into the game as Talion, a character whose initial traits you have no control over. Talion is a ranger like The Lord of the Rings’ Aragorn, who lives and works guarding Mordor’s Black Gate. He is a fighter, but also a husband and father. The brief tutorial sequence pits you against your adolescent son as you supposedly teach him to fight (while in reality, the game is teaching you how to fight). Stealthiness is introduced in a sequence of you sneaking up on your busy wife, while carrying a flower to give to her, so that you can plant a kiss on her cheek. Awww.
This touching sequence is brief, but after this things take an unfortunate turn for the worse as you’re made to watch your family slaughtered in an occult ritual, which Talion is meant to die in as well. But you’re denied death thanks to being merged with the wraith of an ancient Elven lord, who will become your constant companion (and plot-driver) throughout the game.
And it is at this point you become the Middle Earth version of Charles Bronson in Death Wish.
The Black Hand of Sauron cut my family’s throats in front of me, and I am going to kill everything between me and him.
And this, primarily, is the game: butchering orcs in various cinematic fashions. A word to the parents out there: This game is absolutely not for kids. There are beheadings. Torture. Slavery. Talion’s “finishing moves” that are gradually unlocked as he cuts his way through Mordor’s orc army are slow-motion gorefests that reach a level only hinted at in Robert Rodriguez’ fever dreams.
Here again is where Shadow of Mordor burgles existing franchises: the combat is almost copy-pasted from the Arkham series of Batman games. This, it turns out, is generally a good thing. Directing Talion through combat, you’re treated to a ballet of swords and dismemberment. The animation quality is utterly fantastic, which is what made the Arkham games work and what’s ruined so many imitators. Every fight is cinematic, with Talion dancing between orcish blades, stabbing where he can, using Tai Chi-esque counters to attacks to redirect Uruk slashes, and then finishing off an enemy with a spectacularly bloody decapitation.
All of this makes for a perfectly competent romp through a Warner Brothers-licensed intellectual property of a blockbuster movie franchise. But Shadow of Mordor isn’t content with that. See, in order to avenge your family, you need to get to the Black Hand, right? And the Black Hand of Sauron is guarded by many levels of orc and Uruk military. The game represents this by actually modelling orc military culture – each captain is trying to gain power and rank, and they do this by holding feasts, competing in duels, executing traitors, and fighting you, the player. All of this happens organically, as part of a system, rather than as your stock-standard video-game-trying-to-be-a-movie guided funhouse tour.
You will run across these captains as you traverse the strip-mined hellscape of Mordor (which looks very good, especially on a high-powered PC) more or less randomly. Orc captains have names and unique traits, and they remember their encounters with you well. Still denied the comfort of death, Talion is cursed to be resurrected after every fatal fight. But the orc who killed you will remember the fight. And the captains you fight but who are able to escape remember, too, and bear visible scars from their battles with you. The orcs fight amongst themselves to achieve rank in the army, and as they gain rank and power, they become more difficult to kill.
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this “nemesis system” to the game world. The system creates characters based on your interactions with the world, and these procedurally generated characters become objects of real hate as they defeat you and gain power. You’re even given the ability to take vengeance missions to kill Uruks who have bested your friends, in a nod to Dark Souls. Shadow of Mordor gives video game enemies real agency, and this bell cannot be un-rung. It’s a new high water mark for video games, so expect to see many pale imitations of it in coming years.
If all this has come across as “YOU NEED TO BUY AND PLAY THIS GAME,” then good, because I think you should. But I do have some issues with Shadow of Mordor. There’s a rather glaring absence of women in the game (your wife spends a little time onscreen before being murdered). Mordor is recreated (more or less as the source material dictates) as a land entirely devoid of the feminine (maybe that’s why it’s such a shitty place to live). It’s weird to say this, but even the meathead opus Gears of War had more entry points for women.
There will surely be long and acrimonious discussion about Shadow of Mordor’s use of the Tolkien license. While there’s a lot of material for hardcore Tolkien scholars (references to the “Two Trees” and other nods to The Silmarillion), some of the Peter Jackson fan service feels a bit forced: Gollum makes an appearance and is well-realized thanks to an Andy Serkis soundalike, but his inclusion is a bit jarring.
While the combat is generally fun and engaging, it often feels as if you’re the director rather than the actor. A prompt appears over an enemy’s head when you need to hit the “counter” button, and you press it, and Talion gracefully performs the maneuver when he gets around to it.
These are, in the grand scheme of things, pretty minor quibbles. Shadow of Mordor is a solid game that is elevated by its innovation in enemy design. It’s a relatively small “open world,” but that world is crammed with things to do. Like J.R.R. Tolkien himself did, Shadow of Mordor “burgles” the great ideas around it and weaves them into something wondrous and amazing – a living, breathing world full of interesting people and cool stuff to do. Games built on big film licenses tend to be, at best, mediocre. Shadow of Mordor is a welcome triumph and the first truly “next gen” game I’ve played.
Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor
Available on PC, Playstation 4, and XBox One.
Developed by Monolith
Published by WB Games