Adam enters Mordor to thwart the advance of Sauron's army of Orcs, all while being possessed by an old Elven Wraith. Check out how he got on.
I've been having a monumental amount of fun in Mordor lately. It wouldn't normally look like your usual kind of destination where fun is to be had, what with all the dank surroundings, deadly wildlife, and Orc locals. But put it into the context of Monolith Production's Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, and you won't want to leave.
So, what is Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor? Well, it's a third person action RPG set in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings universe. Specifically the story is set between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and it pulls from the lore Tolkien created, whilst telling its own original story.
Players take on the role of Talion, a ranger of Gondor who is guarding the Black Gate of Mordor. The gate is immediately overrun by Orcs at the start of the game and Talion is killed, along with his wife and son. A pretty grim beginning, but it's far from the end for Talion as he's resurrected with the abilities of a wraith that now inhabits his body.
This wraith has a bout of amnesia, so Talion aids him in discovering who he is as he finds relics of the Elf's past dotted about Mordor, whilst the elf helps Talion seek vengeance upon his killers. The wraith's abilities are really useful in and out of combat, allowing you to slow down time whilst aiming with the bow, shift to 'wraith vision' in order to locate collectibles or certain Orcs, and even 'brand' Orcs to shift them under your control later in the game.
Branding Orcs using your wraith abilties allows you to interrogate them for intel about the tougher captains and warchiefs, meaning you'll discover more about their strengths to avoid, and weaknesses to exploit.
If you've ever played an Assassin's Creed game, a Batman Arkham game, or even both, you'll notice that the combat borrows heavily from them. Encounters with large groups of enemies are common later on, but the well-constructed combat mechanics lend a flow and style that will make you feel like an unstoppable force as you decapitate, and later on, explode the heads of Orcs. But, don't be fooled early on into thinking you can take out multiple enemies, particularly if you've played either an Assassin's Creed or Arkham game. You'd be wise to avoid taking on larger groups of Orcs head on in the initial missions, as you'll be quickly overwhelmed. Until you earn greater abilities and assign runes of power to your weapons, you'd best play it smart with stealth kills where possible.
Watching Orcs go from confident warriors to quivering wrecks attempting to flee, as you easily do away with their brethren, is satisfying.
The stealth mechanics are simple but effective. You can sneakily move through bushes and scale walls, slitting the throats of unsuspecting Orcs as you jump down from above, or distract behind walls and quietly dispatch them as they investigate the noise.
Runes of power can be earned by killing higher-ranking Orcs, with better runes rewarded for exploiting an Orc's weaknesses when killing them. So, if there's a captain that's weakness is stealth kills and you perform one upon him, you'll get a better rune than if you just hacked at him with your sword.
The game's world is a fair size, and split into two main areas, both then segregated into mutliple regions with their own forge towers to climb which reveal collectibles and weapon challenges offering Mirian and XP rewards. Mirian is the game's currency, it allows you to purchase upgrades for your weapons, unlocking more slots for runes, increasing your health, and more.
As you gain XP you'll be able to use skill points to unlock new abilities. For example you could unlock a skill that allows for combat finisher moves at a lower combo count, or one that will let you instantly mount a huge troll-like Graug or four-legged beast called a Caragor. The skills span both Talion's ranger abilities, and the wraith's abilities, which can be called upon during combat to mix up your combos to great effect.
Right, let's talk about the Nemesis system then, it's the game's big 'hook', so what's it all about? The Nemesis system was sold to us as a unique game feature which would tailor the story to our own playthrough, randomly generating Orc enemies with their own personalities, strengths, and weaknesses. But did the promise of such an attractive and dynamic system come through on release? Yes, yes it did, and it's a much more exciting and fun element to experience than it is to read or hear about. To put it simply, each time you play you'll be battling a random group of Orcs, who all have the potential to rise through the ranks of the Orc army in Mordor. If they score a kill on you as a lowly grunt, that will pretty much guarantee them a place as a captain, if there's no competition for that rank, and they'll increase in power, becoming a much tougher opponent in the process.
To best give you an example of how it all works, and how my Nemesis experience played out initially, I'll have to tell you a story. This is the tale of Ogbur the Orc.
Gollum is just as shifty in Shadow of Mordor as he is in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
Early on in the game you're a formiddable fighter, you can take on two, maybe even three Orcs and a time and come out on top. However, should you become overwhelmed by more than that, and even come up against a much tougher captain, you'll soon find yourself struggling. That's exactly what happened to me. I was cleaving my way through small bands of Orcs with ease, and when coming up against a captain early on I got cocky. He had a handful of Orcs aiding him, but I didn't see it as too much of a challenge, so I barrelled into the fray, quickly becoming overwhelmed and struggling to capitalise on the captain's weaknesses to finish him off. Inevitably my health was gradually being whittled down until I met my first 'last chance' moment - an instance where you have to complete a quick-time event in order to avoid being killed. I completed it, I avoided death, but was swiftly skewered through the back by a crossbow bolt, finishing me off. As I died, the camera shifted to my killer, a lowly grunt of an Orc, now know as Ogbur The Stinger. Ogbur was promoted to captain for slaying me, and he earned himself a place at the top of my kill list.
When you die in the game you're not taken back to an earlier checkpoint, or saved game. Time moves forward, the power struggles within the Orc army shift back and forth, with Orcs vying for power and fighting amongst themselves. You can capitalise on these power struggles, interrupting executions, fights, and more to ensure the orc you want to win does indeed win. This plays an important role later in the game when you gain the ability to brand Orcs and keep them under your control. You can give them orders to kill other Orcs, or become the bodyguard of a warchief to double-cross him later on and help you defeat him.
When I respawned atop one of the forge towers I immediately checked the Nemesis System menu, and marked Ogbur The Stinger as my target, heading straight for his location to cut short his victory celebrations.
I died. He killed me again. Fairly quickly too. But not before he goaded me. He had not only gained in rank, but also in power. Increasing his strengths, and lowering his weaknesses. Killing me again shifted time forward once more, increasing his power further and also seeing him rise through the ranks.
Once I respawned I knew I'd kill him, but I'd just have to gain in power myself and try to be smarter about how I was going to end his smugness.
I continued playing the game's main missions, progressing through the story, which I feel fits fairly well inside the whole Tolkien universe of Middle-earth. There are one or two memorable characters, but Sauron's captains in particular felt like they could have used more development, and the final encounters with them didn't feel challenging enough, making the captains feel less foreboding than you would expect them to be.
Gollum makes an appearance, guiding you through parts of the story, but he is such a well-known character he didn't really require any kind of intro, unlike the rest of the new cast.
Ratbag is one of the more memorable characters in the game.
As I ventured through many more missions, gaining new skills, and increasing my repertoire of combat moves, I felt it was almost time to hunt down Ogbur again. But not before killing a few more orcs. On my way to kill the orcs I'd spotted, cutting my way through smaller groups, I met a familiar face. It was Ogbur The Stinger. He heckled me from afar as the camera cut to his ugly mug. I didn't feel I was fully ready to take him on, but I thought I may as well show him my new moves since we last met.
The fight took less time than I thought - I was ready for running away if things got too heavy - but I promptly removed Ogbur's head from his green-skinned body (he was weak to combat finishers), and a great feeling of accomplishment washed over me. This is one of the great aspect to Shadow of Mordor, the uniqueness when playing, the way the Nemesis system really does let you forge your own tale, but you never truly feel in control of it as it throws curve balls at you. It's brilliant. And the random instance of Ogbur turning up out of the blue when i wasn't fully ready added to the tension of my own tale.
Throughout my entire playthrough of the game I had many instances of death, vengeance, and being taunted by Orcs who'd previously ended my life. But each instance never played out exactly the same way. The diversity is quite vast, and it's only after many hours of playing I first heard an Orc say something I'd heard before. You will eventually hear repeats of taunts, or terrified screams as you exploit a captain's weakness each time you encounter a captain or warchief. These sequences, whilst short, can get a little tiresome after a while, and can take away from the flow of combat once their initial novelty has worn off.
The progression through the game can be taxing at times, but in a good way. You'll feel your own inferiority early on if you go rushing in, like I did. Instead of heading straight at mission after mission, it encourages you to explore, seek more power and abilities for your character by interrupting Orc power struggles and ultimately executing captains, and then face the next mission when you feel ready.
As I mentioned earlier, you'll be able to bring Orcs under your control. This can be fun in and of itself, allowing you to fill the entire Orc captain ranks with your minions, if you wish. But it'll take you quite some time to do. It's great fun watching your low-ranking captain make his way up to warchief, with a little influence from your blade, of course.
Once you're done with the story there's always the collectibles and weapon challenges to complete. But there is another challenge mode - the Trials of War. This mode is included as part of the Season Pass currently and is separate from the main campaign. It tasks you with completing certain challenges within a time limit, adding your score to a leaderboard. It's a welcome test to see exactly how efficient you are at dispatching Orcs.
The addition of a photo mode in Shadow of Mordor last week made me extremely happy, especially after my time with Forza Horizon 2's similar mode. As someone who's dabbled in real-life photography this is a feature I love getting to grips with. Sure, screenshots on PC are simple enough to take the introduction of capture cards or in-built functionality to do the same on consoles is certainly welcome. But a fully-featured specific mode offers up something quite different to a standard screenshot. I have messed about with the photo feature in Mordor, and it's great. It allows you to pause gameplay at any moment to move about in a wide arc around Talion, adjusting multiple settings such as depth of field, filters, and more. The only problem I encountered was the fact I was playing the Xbox One version of the game, and as that console doesn't have a screenshot function right now, I couldn't save the photo scenes I'd created. But, nonetheless, it's still a great feature and I'm looking forward to being able to use it fully once the Xbox One gets an update.
So is Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor worth playing? Definitely! Is it setting any kind of new standard? In terms of it's Nemesis system, I hope so. I hope other developers will look at it an try to use something similar in their games. The combat in Mordor may be heavily influenced by other titles, but it definitely makes its own mark on it here, actually improving on the other games' versions in places. The story isn't going to make you rush to play through it again, but the amount of diversity and unique encounters you'll get from the Nemesis System is more than enough to keep you coming back. Quite simply put, Middle-earth Shadow of Mordor is a revelation, a pure power fantasy, and I'll be playing it for quite some time.
Score - 8/10