At the most basic level, this is just another game cut from the Assassin’s Creed mould. An open-world action game where you assassinate people. But in every way, it builds upon those familiar ideas and surpasses it with diverse, polished gameplay and a deeper, richer world to interact with. It is the first game I’ve played that’s felt actually next-gen, that’s using good foundations whilst pushing them in an interesting way.
You play as Talion, a Wraith-possessed Ranger ‘living’ in limbo, who seeks revenge for the execution of his family and a way to finally rest in peace. The story you’ll experience comes in two-fold. There’s the linear revenge plot which sees you taking down the elite members of Sauron’s forces primarily through main missions and cut scenes and is perfectly enjoyable to experience. Even the barest understanding of the Lord of the Rings series will make it enjoyable, but if you don’t have any, the main plot can largely be ignored. Alongside it, and more importantly, is the emergent narrative, where you chose how to wage single-handed, bloody war on an Orc army from the inside, and the stories that come from doing so. Typically, games that have tried to merge these ideas fail. Here, they blend surprisingly well, as both feel equally impactful on each other. The emergent story is especially well executed since it’s addictive. You’ll always have a new, personalised Orc enemy on the horizon that you can take down how and when you want, the freedom is exciting. It’s fuelled by the ‘Nemesis system’, which builds a unique, Orc faction around your actions, with foes you can take down yourself or coerce them into fighting each other. It has so much more depth than I thought possible, where you’ll build your own stories that only you can experience.
My favourite memory so far of my emergent story is of my battles with Zog, the Proud. When I met him he didn’t even have his own name, just simply another grunt spear-thrower, just the usual fodder I was use to cutting through. But by chance, whilst getting battered to near-death by his Orc captain, Zog delivered the final killing blow. In typical games, this would just result in a ‘go back to your last checkpoint and try again’ situation, but it’s more than that. Here your death affects the world of Mordor and the factions within it. Taking fame from killing me, Zog was promoted to become captain, increasing his strength, acquiring a posse of bodyguards and even an Orc rival as his ambitious to become a Warchief began. My little Zog was growing up. But I was too pissed off to care, because this little prick was taking so much credit for a glancing blow that, instead of doing what I was before, I instantly planned my revenge against him. Whilst Zog was duelling his new rival, trying to get more prestige among the Orcs (climbing further up the corporate ladder, the shill), I scurried up a nearby tower before jumping and placing my dagger into his eye socket. Zog, the Orc I’d help become my number one enemy, was gone. All the other Orcs in the area fled, including his rival captain, who promised he’d hunt me down another time. He did indeed keep his promise, but he’s like Zog now. And all this happened naturally, no scripted scenarios, all occurring at the behest of my actions and what the world threw at me. Broadly speaking, that’s Shadow of Mordor, a world where anything (if it involves killing and brainwashing) could happen, where you’ll make memories with rivals and it’ll keep on coming. 20 hours in and it’s still fun to deal with these situations as they unfold. It’s honestly hard to put down, since I keep thinking ‘just one more captain’ but it’s never just one more.
Despite these unique systems, you can’t get away from the fact that the gameplay is simply a mix of the Assassin’s Creed and Arkham series, with a sprinkle of Tomb Raider. That mix is still good, still comfortable to understand but tough to master. It’s honestly still one of the best combat styles I’ve ever played with. You’ll wield the same equipment throughout the game, a slashing sword, a stabby dagger and a ghost bow. However, they are very customisable, using runes gained from defeating high-ranked Orcs, they can change the way you to approach battles, allowing an extra tactile layer. Want to be rewarded for chaining combos? Go ahead, place a rune. Want to scare enemies away by blowing up their friends head with a special arrow? Well, you can. It’s up to you.
Though not revolutionary in some core mechanics, the well-designed depths to Shadow of Mordor makes it an exciting and addictive game to delve time into. The ‘Nemesis system’ shows off the great ways more powerful consoles can add to gaming apart from some shinier graphics. Everything about the game is about player actions, even if that amounts to little more than killing, it’s the most enjoyable and unique way to go about it I’ve seen in years. It’s incredibly moreish, a great time sink and an open world that still feels as if it’s always moving .
But don’t take my word for gospel, have a look at Dan’s video review here for someone else’s take on Shadow of Mordor: