Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor (PS4) Review

I know this blog has been mostly film reviews so far, but I recently acquired a PS4 and thought “why not review games as well”. You can read my review of Destiny here.

It’s no secret to most people that know me that I am a serious Tolkien nerd – I did my dissertation on adaptation between the books and films of Lord of the Rings, I continue to hope for the best in the slightly “meh” Hobbit film trilogy, and know too much about the lore, characters and history of Middle-earth. Suffice to say, Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor was always going to be a game I was interested in, and when I heard about a new gaming technology used in the game (and then bought a PS4, which can run the technology), I knew it would be one of the first few games I’d end up buying.

Set in Mordor between The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, the game sees you play as Talion, a beefcake Gondorian ranger guarding the Black Gate, whose family is slaughtered alongside him by Hellraiser-style henchmen of Sauron (the Ringwraiths were busy). Killing him proves to be a mistake, as the wraith of Celebrimbor, a significant elf in Middle-earth history, appears and decides to get his own back on Sauron by resurrecting Talion, and the two form a symbiotic, undead superwraith that marauds around Mordor killing Orcs for fun.

This inventing of a story between more well-known events is clever and extremely non-canon, which other Tolkien nerds might cry about. I like this approach because it offers a new story and the opportunity to imagine it might tie into the universe, and explanations are given for how it would fit in as well. The main story flags at times, and isn’t the best, but that’s largely down to the fact that the main thrust of the game is so addictive and fun.

Shadow of Mordor has been referred to as Assassin’s Creed: Mordor – the way the game world is set up (climb towers to open up the map) and the way Talion climbs things are identical to that series; stealth also plays a big part in some missions. However, it also features a hefty dose of the combat from the Arkham Batman games, insofar as you are constantly chaining combos together while also blocking other attacks. Talion doesn’t technically die, but his “deaths” in battle have consequences thanks to the main draw of the game…

Even for Middle-earth fanatics, the best part of this game is the new Nemesis system, the technology I referred to earlier. With the new generation of consoles, much more computer memory is available, and gamemakers Monolith tailor-made this system for the Orcs, taking full advantage of the expanded memory. Each Orc is trying to get promoted, and there are grunts, captains and warchiefs (in order from low to high). Any grunt can be promoted, particularly if they kill Talion. This means that killing Orcs and not being killed by Orcs gains importance, and every captain and warchief has both a name and a nickname (eg. Grug the Grogdrinker), giving them each personalities.

This has a great effect on the way you play the game and view your enemies – too often in games you just kill, kill and kill to get to the end of a level. Here, in the open-world parts between missions, you can kill the captains and warchiefs, and at a later stage of the game even control Orcs who will do your bidding. These “branded” Orcs can thus, under your control, rise to warchief, giving you a lot of power and the ability to destroy other Orc warchiefs and captains on a whim.

You do “die” a lot more than you think you will, especially at the beginning of the game, and the Orcs that kill you and get promoted remember how they killed you. Oftentimes, they might run away from a battle – as might you – and they will always remember, either lying about their cowardice or mocking yours. Additionally, some even survive what you thought was certain death, and return to gain revenge (with hilarious bandages and surgery scars). And most entertainingly of all, each Orc looks different – variations on Orc ugliness abound – and their sneering, Cockney-accented (by way of the US) taunts are comedy gold.

Middle-earth Shadow of Mordor crack downloadThis all culminates in giving the gamer a personal and often highly enjoyable reason to kill Orcs that keep getting the better of them, and I think the system is remarkable – particularly as it can really infuriate you to be fighting one captain as the one who you thought you’d killed earlier turns up and tries to kill you as well while taunting you about your inability to kill them the first time. It gets you riled up, and killing these bastards (you swear a lot) always feels good!

I loved this feature, and while the main story was interesting to me, it’s not the best thing about the game by a long shot. And of course, you’re killing Orcs, not humans – these are monstrous, hilarious creatures that you really enjoy tormenting, and even with collectable quests, monster hunts, weapon challenges and slave-freeing side missions, this is what I keep coming back to the game for.

Graphically, again you can tell you’re playing a next-generation game. The surroundings and visuals are remarkable, as are the cinematics, and the gore on display is spectacular. The PS4’s image-sharing function was already a good addition, but Shadow of Mordor added a post-release camera option (activated by pressing down the left analogue stick), and my word do you enjoy being able to image some of the more hilarious Orc slaughter.

There are issues with the game – the story, as I said, is interesting to me because I’m interested in Middle-earth, but it’s flimsy. The voice-acting is good for the main characters, but nearly every character (even Orcs) sound suspiciously like Americans doing English accents – one beast in the game is called a caragor, and unintentional humour is created by setting these upon Orcs, who then shout “it’s a caragor” or “look at the size of that caragor” with such a mangled Amerenglish accent that it continuously amuses. The repetitive nature of many missions does begin to grind on you after the fourth or fifth time you start one, and on the PS4, the controller’s speaker plays awful little memories from Talion’s life, which are infuriating and annoying during loading times (I don’t care about your son climbing steps as a baby, nor do I want to hear your wife singing through my controller for the tenth time).

However, I highly recommend this game – mainly for the Nemesis system, but also for the rarity of being a good game set in Middle-earth (there have been some stinkers) and the constant entertainment value of killing taunting, Cockney Orcs. It’s good fun – and surely that’s what a game should be!

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