Capsule Review: Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

An open-world action adventure with an emphasis on stealth. It’s set in the world of The Lord of the Rings, taking place before The Fellowship of the Ring and after The Hobbit. The player takes the role of Talion, a ranger stationed at the Black Gate of Mordor. His family is killed by Sauron’s troops and he teams up with an elven wraith to seek revenge.

The gameplay is framed by a standard open world with scattered collectibles, side missions, and towers to climb to fill in your map. Most of the action consists of sneaking around orcs and killing them in a wide variety of ways. Even at the very start of the game you have a substantial number of options for dealing with enemies, and they only increase in both count and effectiveness as the game goes on. The beginning of the game does a poor job teaching the player to use all the tools in their arsenal, which can make for a frustrating first couple of hours, but once the player has come to understand what they’re capable of and when to use of their abilities it’s quite satisfying to read a situation, devise a plan, and execute it. Unfortunately, the huge number of things you can do means that several buttons are overloaded and the game isn’t always as smart as it should be about understanding which context-sensitive action you mean to perform. This isn’t often a problem but it has caused me to fail a mission or two.

The game’s main draw (apart from the setting, for Tolkien fans) is the “Nemesis” system - individual orcs are tracked and ones that perform notable actions such as defeating the player character in combat are promoted to captains in Sauron’s army. Captains have strengths and weaknesses that can be learned and exploited, and they also wander the map with their own agenda and engage in power struggles against each other. If you don’t keep a careful eye on your surroundings, captains can easily stumble onto you while you’re in the middle of a mission or a carefully-planned attack, requiring some quick improvisation to prevent things from going off the rails. Later in the game, the player gains the ability to mind-control orcs and can use this to infiltrate and take over portions of Sauron’s army, taking part in their orcs’ power struggles to ensure they rise in the enemy ranks.

It’s a very interesting system to play with, but a few things about the game hamper the available enjoyment. For one, the pacing becomes quite rushed - once the game has introduced all its mechanics it’s essentially over except for some very anti-climactic boss fights. Second, the story that frames your actions is weak and fragmented, with characters being introduced and built up and then suddenly dismissed or even killed before having any actual impact on the plot. It’s also very much at odds with the actual morals and themes of The Lord of the Rings, in which it would never work to use the tools of your enemy to gain power and get revenge.

Still, the game can be a lot of fun when it just points you at a situation with a goal like killing or branding a particular orc and lets you decide how to use the tools at your disposal to get it done, so it’s good that it spends a lot of its time doing just that. If the sequel manages its pacing, story, and player-training better, it could be an absolute blast.

I Stopped Playing When: I finished the main story. I felt no particular desire to return to the game’s world, so I didn’t bother with the DLC campaigns.

Docprof's Rating:

Three Stars: Good. I liked the game enough to finish it (or just play it a bunch, for games that don't end). I recommend it to most genre fans.

You can get it or learn more here.