Sometimes a game just clicks early on. As a huge fan of the universe this game is set in, I was already biased in favor of what I hoped would be an engaging plot and richly detailed world. Turns out the story was only decent and the game itself gets to shine through with engaging combat, an open world to explore and outstanding presentation values.
The tale begins in action-packed fashion, with our protagonist Talion having been the victim to a brutal attack. The game deftly blends basic tutorials into the narrative to help introduce concepts such as combat and sneaking while flashing back to the things that will motivate our protagonist over the next few dozen hours. In truth, the storyline itself can be completed much more quickly than this, but bypassing all of the side exploration is doing you a disservice because there is so much to take in.
Our hero finds himself 'banished from death' - not quite dead, but also not quite alone as the wraith of an ancient elvish man helps provide advice and narrative while he himself trying to remember his forgotten past. The blend of these two characters plays through in the combat, where Talion is the experienced swordsman that sees the world with his physical eyes. However, the ability to shift into wraith form allows for archery as well as enhanced vision. Lost are the detailed physical surroundings of the environment, but gained is the ability to hone in on magical artifacts, healing herbs and most importantly - enemies.
Enemies are a common theme. This is a dark land, filled with hostile creatures that often fight among themselves - but also will rally to fight against you. This is in many ways the most fascinating part of the world that Monolith Productions has crafted here, because it feels like there are several systems taking place at any one time. Uruks make up the majority of the army found in Shadow of Mordor, and they are the closest thing to an organized entity. They have strongholds, they communicate with one another if they see movement or spot a downed body and they can light flares or blow on horns to call for help if you give them the chance. The latter is the most difficult, as it can bring hordes of enemies down upon you.
There are some flaws to this system, as it seems like when someone calls out that they found a body, more Uruks would come to investigate, but generally they do not. I often found myself taking advantage of the questionable AI here, hiding in tall grass and ambushing someone on patrol, and then using my ability to lure another Uruk to the location. He would note the body near the tall grass, call out about it, but no one would come so I would lunge out of the weeds and strike him down. Lather, rinse and repeat, this Assassin's Creed like stealth tactic is how I spent a good deal of my time.
In many ways, Talion handles like a character from Assassin's Creed. The stealth portions are perhaps not as intricate - there are no friendly people milling about to mingle with to throw of pursuers, but line of sight and kills from above combine with Talion's ability to scale just about anything in the environment to create a familiar feeling to fans of the Assassin's Creed titles.
Still, the enemies are often fascinating. After a few of the primary missions have been completed, Captains will start to perform actions around the map such as fighting one another for supremacy or battling a wild beast to prove themselves. Should they succeed, that Captain will gain a point of power. This is important because Captains litter the map and when they see you, they will call you out and a battle will ensue. Generally fighting them one-on-one was pretty easy. A series of combos and a few powerful ground and combo execution moves will greatly weaken if not outright kill your opponents. There are a few who made life interesting, such as one opponent that was immune to stealth and sword attacks, forcing me to pick him off with ranged strikes. Another dealt massive damage in melee unless I was mounted on a caragor (more on those in a moment), which he was afraid of. This turned said Captain into a clumsy, scampering fool who was no longer hitting me as he tried to run away.
Each of these Captains (many of whom have amusing names) is generated with a list of strengths and weaknesses. If one is in the vicinity of you when you die (or worse yet kills you), like the events above, they get promoted. These promotions make them stronger and upgrade their appearance (usually in the form of more fearsome armor). Should this Captain encounter you again later, they will usually taunt you in some fashion about your earlier defeat while questioning how it is you can still be alive in the first place. These encounters never really got old for me. One Captain I thought I had slain came back and talked about the scar I left on his face. Another fled when I set fire to him, and his minions kept me from chasing him down. When we encountered one another later, he was talking about how he would stay clear of flames this time. It is a creative system that gives some additional weight to victory and defeat and gives the feeling of a living ecosystem in place among the Uruk army.
Speaking of ecosystems, this touches on some of the other fascinating intricacies found within the world here. Uruk often have human slaves, and helping the slaves can unlock other quests. Slaves will often try to escape, forcing the Uruks out of their usual patterns of patrolling or supervising. Caragors are cat-like beasts that roam the game, and many of the Uruks are rightfully afraid of the powerful animals. They are very hard to kill in melee, with only ranged hunting Uruks capable of handling them. Should a caragor arrive in a pack of two or three? They can tear the Uruks up. It is interesting to be sneaking into a small fortress or encampment only to suddenly realize that there is a caragor nearby. As soon as the Uruks detect it, some will panic, some will engage, but it again adds to the sense that this world is a continually evolving thing. Caragors are certainly a challenge, but they can later be dominated and ridden, as can other creatures later in the game. It is just one of the many ways that Shadow of Mordor lets people play the game in a style that suits them.
Aside from mounting beasts or preforming stealth kills, the ranged combat features a sort of slow motion effect that uses 'focus'. Once focus is consumed, it takes some time to regenerate and everything while in wraith mode still occurs in real time. Still, it comes in very handy when you are trying to take that perfect headshot on an Uruk or need to slow combat for just a moment to detonate a nearby fire pit with a magical arrow.
Melee combat will feel familiar to fans of the Batman Arkham games. Much like the stealth seems to draw inspiration from Assassins' Creed, Shadow of Mordor's combo-centric combat (complete with finishing moves and crazy acrobatics) is fun, but also incredibly brutal. Heads are decapitated, throats and faces are stabbed and enemies are brutalized (there is actually an attack called that). Most of the time it is for gory, satisfying effect, but there are times when these overkill moments can send some or all of the other nearby enemies scampering off for fear of their lives. Combat is brutal, but satisfying. Later in the game some new wrinkles fall into place, such as the option to command Uraks to fight on your behalf.
All of these different systems, when combined with beautiful visuals, excellent music and solid voice work come together to create one of the few experiences that feels 'next generation' so far. I will be curious to see how the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions of this title hold up, because it sure seems like there is a lot going on at any given time here, and it has to be taxing the systems. For example, I did notice just a hint of chugging during some of the bigger matches when I had a commanded Uruk joining the fray. Will the last generation consoles hold up? It will be interesting to see, but here on the PlayStation 4 the experience is an excellent one.
If I have an overwhelming disappointment, it is the overall story. There are plenty of great references out there for fans of Tolkien's work (though a few plot elements that seem a bit off as well, depending on how well-versed you are with the books), so it is disappointing that the story itself really was not all that great in my opinion. In truth, this could have been a great game regardless of whether it was set in Middle-earth or some other generic fantasy world. It is great to see anything related to Lord of the Rings, but as far as the story goes, it feels like it does not make as much use of the license as it could have.
However, this is not the most approachable game in the world. Aside from the adult, violent nature of the content, the sometimes incredibly overwhelming odds faced in combat when Talion starts off underpowered can make for a tough learning curve. My first time playing the game, I bit it several times in the first few hours. Watching the Uruk who killed you get a promotion and become stronger as a result also makes you hang your head just a bit - because your failure just made things more difficult going forward. However, I had to restart my gaming session (more on that below) the next night, and I was far better after that. I did not realize how much better I had gotten at the game, but like Dark Souls I just learned how to play better, dying only once over the next ten or so hours the following day.
Another hiccup worth mentioning is that my save data became corrupted after my initial play session. I put about four and a half hours in. Shadow of Mordor is saving constantly. I cannot help but wonder if perhaps I chose a poor time to quit my game (there is no manual save. If I could do manual saves, I would no doubt have had a backup or two to reference later as I am one of those people who creates about a half dozen save files whenever I am playing an RPG). When I booted the game, I got some odd error of numbers and letters (I like to refer to it as alphabet soup), and then when the game fired up it acted as though I was playing for the first time ever (prompting me with the gamma/brightness slider and then not presenting a continue option). I had uploaded a copy of my save to cloud space as well, but it too was unusable when I brought it down. It never happened again afterward, but looking the problem up on Steam, I see a good number of people complaining about this issue. I think it is great that Shadows of Mordor autosaves a lot, but I cannot help but think that this might make for some conflicting actions when someone quits and that a manual save option might have averted this issue.
I have read quite a few comments on other sites saying: fun to play, good mechanics, but weak story? So it's basically Destiny for fantasy fans? Not sure where that notion comes from. I suppose because of the hype, the excellent presentation and yes - both games play extremely well, but Destiny is a game I can put down easily enough after a couple of hours. Shadow of Mordor sucked up a dozen hours in my first two days and I wanted to play more. Odds are I will be tonight in fact.
Review by Nick