“Assassin’s Creed in the Lord of the Rings universe
” might be the simplest way to regale the Shadow of Mordor experience, but that would seriously undermine the unique nature of the game’s more important component -- its enemies.
I’ve thrown around words like “ambitious” and “lofty” in discussion of the game since seeing it first-hand at E3, and I stand by these buzz bites because after a huge amount of review time with the game, Shadow of Mordor presents one of the most compelling enemy AI experiences ever developed in this scale. It’s not perfect, and could have done with a bit more polish, but the surface and depth value is far more rewarding than worrying about (some) animations, visual pop-ups and a touchy combat system. The truth is, Shadow of Mordor is the sort of forward-thinking design push this space needs, and even though it does borrow heavily from games like Batman and Assassin’s Creed, it does so with a sense of belonging and cohesion, while leaving its own stamp.
Starting at the beginning, Shadow of Mordor’s intro is a powerful one indeed. You’re presented with a pseudo cinematic narrative setup of the main character’s responsibility as both a ranger and a family man. There are interactive elements here that work as something of a combat tutorial, but movement, by and large, is very different to how it will be when you’re out in the game-world proper. Still, it’s up-close-and-personal nature makes for a solid call-to-action moment when all’s said and done, and your ties to Talion, the game’s hero, are immediately strong as a result.
While it all happens in the first 10-minutes, I won’t spoil it for you save to say the torturous event binds Talion with the Wraith spirit of Celebrimbor -- an Elvish smith who forged the ring of power. Both characters suffered impactful fates, a common bond that ties their desire for revenge together, thus allowing them to continue to walk in the world of men, and in and out of the Wraith realm. That’s a fancy way of saying you have an ability not too dissimilar to Eagle Vision in Assassin’s Creed, however, here it actually makes more sense. You’re able to see towers of the past (and unlock them, in maintaining that familiarity theme), see through walls to tag enemies, but most importantly, to draw your Elvish bow -- a weapon and ability that has a strong place in how you play the game.
Outside of the enemy AI factor, which I’ll get to shortly, Shadow of Mordor also carries with it a unique weapon and weapon crafting component. Rather than building new weapons though, crafting comes in the form of runes and rune spots on all three of your weapons -- the aforementioned bow, your sword and a dagger. You purchase new rune spots on your weapons through the accrual of the game’s currency for general completion of missions, though it’s not hard and fast, making earning it pretty challenging. Runes are then rewarded for the deaths of Captains -- the first tier of Uruk military hierarchy. Depending on the Captain, you will unlock specific runes to specific weapons, regardless though, how you apply runes to your weapons is entirely your decision, and each run has a specific stat and buff. This means you can forge the properties of your weapons based on how you prefer to play through different combinations of runes, and they only get stronger as you progress through the game.
But so too, does the enemy. One of the more unique concepts in Shadow of Mordor is that your own death isn’t a hard-fail scenario. If you die, you don’t reset the whole game to a checkpoint, rather the game-world continues to move through time, dynamically shifting both your own reputation and the reputation of the Uruk who felled you. This ties heavily into the Uruk armies, bound by four Warchiefs who each have their own bodyguards. Under these bodyguards are the game’s captains I’ve already mentioned. Any grunt Uruk you face out in the craggy plains of Mordor can, in fact, rise to power based on his own personality traits (assigned randomly), and on how he handles their own internal struggles. The Uruk will fight amongst themselves in a sort of AI digital meta-game that plays on in the background and is something you can trigger at any point in time to advance. Each Captain, Bodyguard and Warchief also comes with a series of strengths and weaknesses designed to allow you to plan for confrontation. For example, one might be scared of fire which allows you to exploit that in your favour so he’s weakened, however, he might have a strong allegiance to his bodyguards, which will make him enraged whenever you attack them.
The actual physical side of combat could be best described as a true mixture between Assassin’s Creed and Batman, with a greater lean towards the Dark Knight’s system (making it better than Assassin’s Creed, in my opinion). You have the ability to Counter attack as well as Vault, Grab and generally stab/slice at the enemy. You also have a combo multiplier like Batman, and you can trigger special abilities from longer combo chains. These are also the same as Batman in terms of their button placement but hey, if it ain’t broke and not fully used in the gaming world properly yet, why not capitalise? I’ve definitely found that timing is less targeted here and so more forgiving as a result (making it more difficult to accidentally break a combo multiplier for spamming the wrong button). It also feels a little looser. The further you get into the game, the more complex it can become and you do face varying enemy-types, which should keep most players away from button-mashing, but on the whole it’s definitely not as polished as Batman.
What’s interesting about the combination of the two paragraphs above, is the personality dynamism that spins as a result of your combat actions. You might fight a captain and put an arrow through his eye, only he might still best you, raising his reputation. The next time you see him though, he’ll have an armour plate over the eye you pierced and he’ll even raise the conflict and wound with you, proclaiming a heavy desire for revenge. Each Uruk’s vocal lines are vast, too. You can often even listen in on regular grunt conversations to learn how any one of the Captains is being seen amongst the groups, and use that to your advantage. There’s even a narrative sub-plot based around helping one of the weaker Uruks rise in the ranks so that he can help you achieve your goals from up on high, but I’ll leave that tasty bit of story for you to experience yourself (it's also a tutorial of sorts that teaches you how to plant traitors).
Another strong facet to the game is its mission diversity. You’re also not forced to stay on the main story path and can go off on your own very early on. There’s a lot to do in this barren place, including searching for ancient artefacts to help your ghostly partner uncover the truth to his past. And while the game itself isn’t pulled directly from any of Tolkien's literature, how the writing team has managed to tie in varying plot-points, characters and locations is incredibly well done, considering the nature of videogames. In fact the story on the whole is very well paced and played out, with an extra nod going to each of the voice-actors who bring a level of gravitas to their roles I wasn’t actually expecting. Despite the Tolkien universe being gamified here, it feels like it fits in with the celebrated lore, and I applaud the team for their efforts in this part.
There’s planned post-release content to maintain your position in the land of Mordor as a bane to the Orcs, but the retail package here is a robust one anyway, and you’ll find a host of things to keep you occupied beyond shaping your relationships with the Uruk. You can capture and ride Caragor, hunt local wildlife and fauna, rescue and free human slaves, take on whole Uruk strongholds, poison drinking barrels, gain intel through mind-reading, partake in weapon-specific side-missions to help build the reputation of yourself and your weapons and so much more.
It’s a game that could really have done with a bit more time in the cooker as far as some polish is concerned -- animations and movement are a bit rough around the edges, and some parts of the environment tend to load in slowly, but they’re far from detracting. It’s the sum of its ambitious components, and its compelling story that creates a fantastic new IP for Warner Bros., and maintains that publisher’s ability to allow more creative and unique freedom from their studios to foster. And even with that level of polish I’d have liked to see, it’s difficult to think of any reason you shouldn’t play this, because I can’t. It’s a compelling experience unlike anything else out in the market, despite borrowing heavily from a couple of other big guns. Thoroughly recommend.