Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor: A Quest for Vengeance, Where the Shadows Lie
Since its publication in 1954, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saga has earned its place as one of the most captivating and enduring works of fantasy literature, creating an incredibly rich, fully realized universe with its own history and mythology. Given the vast source material on hand, videogame adaptations of The Lord of the Rings have been a surprisingly hit-and-miss affair.
One Ring to Bring Them All...
With Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, Monolith Productions reverses that trend, crafting a game that does justice to Tolkien’s mythos both in its epic scale, and its minute attention to detail. In gameplay, design, and mission structure, Shadow of Mordor borrows liberally from successful franchises like the Assassin’s Creed series and Rocksteady’s Arkham games.
Nevertheless, Mordor reinvents and repurposes these familiar elements to create an experience that is (for the most) part faithful to the essence of Tolkien’s vision, while incorporating some intriguing new concepts of its own.
A New Adventure Begins
Rather than rehashing the by-now familiar events of the Lord of the Rings, Shadow of Mordor opts for a bolder route, presenting an entirely new tale built on the mythology of Middle-Earth.
Set between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the game puts players in the boots of Talion, a Gondorian Ranger who embarks on a mission of vengeance after his wife and son are ritually sacrificed by servants of the Dark Lord Sauron. Exiled from the lands of the living, Talion’s soul becomes bound to the wraith Celebrimbor, a legendary Elven blacksmith of the Second Age, with his own axe to grind against the would-be conqueror of Middle-Earth.
What begins as a fairly straightforward revenge narrative soon evolves into something much more ambitious, touching on themes like the hollow pursuit of vengeance and the corrupting influence of power. Unfortunately, these thematic elements never truly coalesce into a satisfying whole, leading to a conclusion that is muddled and underwhelming at best, and utterly mystifying at worst.
With Shadow of Mordor, the journey is ultimately more rewarding than the destination, though to the game’s credit, the ride is a thrilling one indeed. The land of Mordor makes for an atmospheric, masterfully crafted playground that was clearly a labor of love on the part of the developers. The gloomy, rain-swept plains and valleys of Mordor (not yet fully corrupted by Sauron’s influence) are both bleak and eerily beautiful. Whether wading through a boggy marsh or scaling the towers of an Uruk encampment, the game’s visuals are never less than breathtaking, serving as an eye-popping showcase for the power of next-generation technology.
The Land of Mordor is harsh, beautiful, and bleak.
An Uruk Never Forgets
Along with its breathtaking visuals, the game’s strongest selling-point is undoubtedly its experimental “Nemesis” system. This fascinating game mechanic revolves around the Uruks (not to be confused with the even lowlier Orcs, as Talion hastens to point out), the coarse, grubby denizens of Mordor resembling a cross between hobgoblins and horrifying rejects from Jim Henson’s Muppet factory. As Talion discovers, these pitiful creatures have a complex, constantly shifting hierarchy, achieving promotions in rank and power with each “death” they inflict upon him (you cannot really kill a man who is already dead, as the Uruks themselves are well aware).
Many Uruks, each with their own respective strengths, fears, and weaknesses, will resurface repeatedly throughout the game, recalling past encounters with Talion and the humiliation and injuries suffered at his hands.
"[Shadow of Mordor's] combat system is merciless, and brutally violent, exceeding anything in Peter Jackson's films and even the writings of Tolkien"
Like many ambitious attempts at innovation, the Nemesis system promises more on paper than it actually delivers. If nothing else, “Nemesis” succeeds in bringing the Uruks to life in all their vulgar glory, relieving the tedium of hacking through wave upon wave of generic grunts with your broadsword. This is something players will be doing quite a lot of in Shadow of Mordor, a game whose combat system is merciless, and brutally, almost numbingly violent, as Talion is given the ability to execute, terrify, and brutalize his enemies.
At times, the violence arguably exceeds anything in Peter Jackson’s films, and possibly even the writings of Tolkien himself. In spite of this (and perhaps due to its relatively short length), the game never really feels repetitive, with just enough mission variety to prevent it from becoming stale. The game is also generally flexible in providing players with multiple ways to tackle a given objective, whether through stealth or outright mayhem.
The combat in Shadow of Mordor is vicious and intense.
I Need You, and You Need Me
Aside from the undeniable appeal of exploring Middle-Earth, there is no doubt that Talion’s complex relationship with the Uruks is Shadow of Mordor’s main attraction.
These creatures are not only Talion’s mortal enemies, but at times his reluctant allies. Midway through the narrative, Talion acquires the ability to “brand” the Uruks, enslaving their minds and pitting them against each other for his own personal gain. This raises some disturbing ethical questions (by enslaving the Uruks, will Talion become no different than the enemies he seeks to destroy?) that the game only touches on superficially.
The ability to zombify and "dominate" the Uruks is the kind of development that should have dramatically altered the gameplay, but unfortunately winds up feeling pointless and underutilized, with little incentive to engage in Uruk power struggles apart from the few story missions that demand it.
In addition to the Nemesis system, Shadow of Mordor features a more conventional leveling-up system that allows players to upgrade Talion’s arsenal and abilities by completing various side-quests (i.e., liberating human slaves, assassinating powerful Uruk commanders, unlocking runes and artifacts that restore Celembrimbor’s memories, etc.). These side-missions are entirely optional, their main purpose being to pad out the length of the fleeting campaign. It’s doubtful that more than half of these upgrades will be acquired in a single play-through. Most of them aren’t all that necessary, given the game’s almost embarrassingly easy difficulty level (which does spike surprisingly at certain points, particularly during missions which demand stealth and completion of objectives within a limited timeframe).
The Uruk make excellent antagonists.
The narrative is also enlivened by an assortment of colorful side-characters, like the power-hungry yet strangely endearing Orc Ratbag, the warrior-princess Lithariel, and the jovial Torvin, a Dwarf hunter harboring a tragic past of his own. Some familiar faces also appear, most notably the schizophrenic cave-dweller Gollum, a Hobbit-like creature corrupted and desiccated by the One Ring.
These characters are infinitely more engaging than Talion, a prickly anti-hero whose head we never really get inside, and Celebrimbor, whose true motives are just as oblique. The game-world is also fleshed out by “appendices,” which provide intriguing back-story regarding the lore and mythology of Middle-Earth.
It’s hard not to miss iconic characters like Frodo, Aragon, Gandalf, and countless others who regrettably didn’t make the cut, but the “Appendice” seems to be Monolith’s way of compensating for their absence. The source material is just too complex and vast to cram into one game, and it’s probably to the developers’ credit that they didn’t try.
Torvin the Dwarf is one of Shadow of Mordor's most memorable heroes.
At The End of All Things
When the dust has settled, Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is an ambitious adventure with individual parts that are greater and more memorable than the whole. What we are given is a very good game that falls just short of greatness, marred by its bland protagonist, rushed narrative, and muddled, anti-climactic ending.
Monolith deserves the highest praise for trying something exciting and new, even if those attempts at innovation don’t always pay off. When Mordor does succeed, however, it is hard to imagine a more captivating, engaging, and reverent homage to Tolkien’s epic saga. In spite (or perhaps even because of) its faults, Shadow of Mordor has demonstrated what a Lord of the Rings game looks like done right. Monolith has laid the groundwork for future installments that will hopefully build on Mordor’s strengths, providing an even more satisfying excursion into the lands of Middle-Earth.