Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor Review

Screenshot of Gollum in Shadow of Mordor
Gollum makes an appearance in Shadow of Mordor

  • Reviewed by: Mark Goninon
  • Developer: Monolith Productions
  • Publisher: WB Games
  • Release Date: 1 Oct 2014
  • Time played: 19 hours

What is it

Monolith Productions is an American game development studio situated in Seattle and founded back in 1994. They're well known for critically acclaimed First-Person Shooters such as 2000's No One Lives Forever, 2001's Alien versus Predator 2, 2003's Tron 2.0 (a game I actually finished and have fond memories of) and 2005's F.E.A.R..

In 2014, instead of delivering an FPS like Monolith would've done during the 2000s, they instead released an open-world action-adventure in a similar vein to Assassin's Creed or the Batman: Arkham series but set in J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" universe called Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. In Shadow of Mordor you play the role of a Gondorian captain serving at the Black Gate of Mordor called Talion. The Black Gate is invaded by Sauron's forces and Talion's wife and son are killed; you're only saved from death after being possessed by the wraith of an amnesiac Elf Lord called Celebrimbor. Both Talion and Celebrimbor decide to go on a quest through Mordor where Talion can seek vengeance against those who murdered his family and Celebrimbor can remember more of his past.

The game was a critical and commercial success and the PC version holds a Metascore of 84 and a Steam Rating of "Very Positive" based on 91% of 39,407 Steam User Reviews being rated positive.

How I got it

I'm not quite sure how I got Shadow of Mordor but I believe I received it as a present for my birthday or Christmas since I have a physical copy of the game! Anyway, it's been sitting on my Pile of Shame for a while and I really want to make sure I've played all my games that are on DVDs before I get to the stage where my PC no longer has an optical drive (as this is the case for many modern PCs already).

Another reason I wanted to play Shadow of Mordor is that I've heard good things about the game from a friend and despite being more of a fan of sci-fi instead of fantasy, I did enjoy Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit" films so it was about time I finally got around to playing this.

Screenshot of an artifact in Shadow of Mordor
Retrieving artifacts gives you insights on what life is really like in Mordor

What I like:

The Lord of the Rings

Having the game based on the rich lore of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" helps elevate the game from being simply an Assassin's Creed or Batman: Arkham clone to an engrossing experience: you'll learn more about Celebrimbor's importance to "The Lord of the Rings" universe, the kingdom of Mordor and its inhabitants and you even get to meet Gollum (voiced by Liam O'Brien).

Finding out about Mordor is not only achieved through cutscenes and main storyline missions but by discovering artifacts which ties in with events from the books and movies. For example, one scroll you find chronicles an Orc talking about their defeat at the Battle of the Five Armies and how the Humans, Dwarves and Elves were rescued by "damned giant Eagles to slaughter thousands... in what we should all be calling the battle to unfairly gang up on the Orcs". Those giant Eagles are a bit of a deus ex machina aren't they?

Wraith companion

Companions on adventure games can sometimes amplify the enjoyment you get out of them (take Joey from Beneath a Steel Sky as an example). In Shadow of Mordor you're possessed by a Wraith which is actually a clever way of having a companion in the game without actually having one. The banter between Talion and Celebrimbor also reminds me of similar relationships in "Star Trek" between Humans and Vulcans, such as Kirk and Spock, Janeway and Tuvok or Archer and T'Pol (well, Vulcans are basically Space Elves, right?).

Uruk culture

You get to learn a lot about Orc or Uruk culture in this game, at least more than the main books (I've never read "The Silmarillion") or the films (if you can even consider the barbaric power struggles amongst the Orc hierarchy as "culture"). You even get to ally with an Orc with the unfortunate name of Ratbag for a while.

Epic Conclusion

Boss fights aren't too difficult at the end of the game thanks to your army of branded Elite Warchiefs but it's still pretty epic nonetheless. Most major loose ends are tied up by the end of the game but the ending sets the game up for the 2017 sequel Shadow of War.

Warchiefs have theme music

When taking on Warchiefs they actually have their own theme songs during their entry cutscenes (a bit like WWE wrestlers do when they enter the ring)! They're not really much to listen to since they're basically just Orcs chanting the Warchief's name but it's still pretty cool.

It's like Assassin's Creed IV

Sadly, I don't have the time or patience for open world action-adventures, which means I haven't really played many of them. One that sticks in recent memory though is Assassin's Creed IV which I think this game bears many similarities too. I've heard that a better game to make analogies with is one of the Batman: Arkham games but I've only got AC IV to rely on and a lot of the best gameplay elements of AC IV are present in this game such as rewarding stealth and patience, and the ability to use Eagle Wraith Vision to highlight targets and points of interest. There are even alarm bells in the game that the Orcs can use to call reinforcements (nooooo - alarm bells! They were the bane of my existence in AC IV).

Intel system

I like the intel system in this game that tells what the strengths and weaknesses are for each captain because if you take the time to read them up, it can make your life a whole lot easier: for example, I managed to kill one captain using a single long-range headshot (since he was susceptible to them) and I killed another with a stealthy takedown. In both cases, this meant I didn't have to waste time fighting their minions or engaging them in a lengthy duel. Games that reward those who recover intelligence to give themselves an edge are okay in my books.

Last Chance

One neat future in this game is that there is a Last Chance system where when you're down to zero hit points, you're able to recover by completing a Quick-Time Event (QTE) challenge. You're usually able to do this a couple of times (depending on which enemy you're up against) before you "die" for good and when I say "die for good" it just means you respawning after some in-game time has elapsed. So you generally have to be seriously underprepared for a battle (or if you're like me, uncoordinated) in order to trigger the Last Chance mechanic twice.

Cool abilities

The game has a whole bunch of cool abilities that you can unlock that just makes every battle you have with the Orcs seem that more epic. Some abilities are incredibly useful such as Shadow Strike which is quite handy as it allows you to teleport out of harm's way (it reminds me of the Barbarian's ability to leap in Diablo II)!

Steam Achievements and Trading Cards

The game has 74 Steam Achievements you can earn and 8 Steam Trading Cards to collect.

Screenshot of a cutscene featuring Sauron in Shadow of Mordor
Cutscenes are pretty but sometimes they are choppy

What I dislike:

Framerate drops during cutscenes

Despite the game having been released in 2014, I'm getting framerate issues with the cutscenes which is a shame.

Failure is a pretty big setback

I did mention before that dying in this game doesn't actually result in your death and only results in some in-game time passing before you respawn again. However, each time you are defeated by an Uruk captain they level up and become stronger. They also might get promoted and if they become the bodyguard of a Warchief, that can make your life that more difficult. Dying basically punishes you by creating more grind as in order to defeat the Uruks that have gained power through your defeat you'll find yourself completing side quests to ensure you've got all the skills and tools at your disposal.

Activating archery mode

Did I mention how annoying it is that right click activates archery mode but is also used for countering sword attacks? I often get these two mixed up and it still happens to me every so often.

You have to be really cunning in the late game

There is a bit of a difficulty spike towards the end of the game since the Warchiefs have more strengths and far fewer weaknesses. For example, I eventually encountered an Elite Warchief that was invulnerable to almost everything except explosions and he often went around with a huge number of followers. As I kept failing to brand him (i.e. mind control him to join my army) his bodyguards became tougher and tougher each time I was defeated. I then realised the only way to even have a chance at getting close to the Elite Warchief was to deal with the bodyguards first. It was only when I had lost all hope that I discovered there was a special type of mission you could initiate if you happened to brand all the bodyguards and then ordered them to assassinate their Warchief. This actually makes things considerably easier as not only do you have the bodyguards on your side but it occurs in a secluded place away from any of the Warchief's followers.

The satisfaction I got from finally figuring this out was immense but I came very close to ragequitting.

Score – 8/10 (Recommended)

It's like a Batman: Arkham or Assassin's Creed game set in Middle-Earth, which isn't necessarily a bad thing and it's probably the reason I got into this open world action-adventure more than its competitors. This is a highly recommended game for "The Lord of the Rings" fans which prefer the use of stealth and cunning in order to overcome their foes. There are a few minor technical and design issues but they don't detract from what is probably the best The Lord of the Rings game in recent times.

Is the game worth $28.95 AUD?: Yes. Although the game is quite old now, it's still a AAA title that looks pretty decent despite its age. If you're able to get the game on sale (like it was just recently at 50% off) it's a bargain.

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[ LINK: Shadow of Mordor Official Website ]